In September 1979, my father spoke a single sentence that changed my life. I had graduated from Mt. Holyoke College earlier in the year and had been rejected from several medical schools, so I was living at home pondering Plan B. One evening, on my way upstairs, I overheard my father talking to a friend on the phone. This was unusual, for my father was not a very social man and a phone conversation with a friend was noteworthy. I stopped outside the door of his study, which was slightly ajar, and listened.
“Yes,” he was saying. “They really do grow up fast, don’t they? I’m excited to tell you that my daughter, Meg, will be starting medical school next fall. She’s not quite sure where, though.”
My head went hot. I thought I was going to pass out. What was he saying? Medical school? I’d just received a handful of rejections. I’ll be going to medical school next fall? How can he say that? What does he know that I don’t?
His words alone didn’t change the course of my life. His tone, his inflection, and his confidence had an amazing impact as well. My father believed something about me that I couldn’t believe myself. Not only did he believe it, but he, a doctor himself, put his reputation on the line in front of his friend.
As I backed away from the door, my heart rate doubled. I felt thrilled and excited, because my father’s confidence gave me hope. Going to medical school had been my dream since I was a young teenager. And sure enough, in fall 1980, I started medical school, just as my father had said. He called me routinely and asked specifics about my classes. Was I understanding gross anatomy? Was I spending enough time on histology? Did I need slides to look at just for fun? It didn’t matter what my response was; he packaged them up and sent them to my apartment so that I would have something interesting to do on Friday nights, which, of course, were study nights.
Don’t misunderstand. My father was not a man who needed to live his life through his children. As a matter of fact, many times he discouraged me from going into medicine because he quite accurately predicted the disaster and misery of managed care medicine. I wanted to go. Did I want to because I wanted to please him? Not really. I didn’t need to do that. I wanted to go because I really wanted to be like his friend — an orthopedic surgeon. This man let me come into the operating room and watch surgery for hours at a time. That was the coolest thing I had ever seen, and I wanted to be able to do it.
What my father gave me was confidence. Since I revered him as a giant in the medical field and a giant in our home, I knew that what he believed was right. It didn’t matter what he said, I still believed he was right.
And he gave me a belief in myself. He communicated to me, I don’t remember exactly how, that I could do anything I wanted to do. There weren’t many women in his medical school class, he said, but boy were they good. They were good, and I could be too.
My father always made sure that I knew that he loved me. He was an eccentric man, quiet, antisocial, and extremely smart. He published medical papers in different languages and kidded that only peculiar people became pathologists like himself. But he loved me. I was his daughter and that was a very important thing to be. Did he tell me often? No. He didn’t talk much. So how did I know? I knew because I heard him worry about me to my mother. I watched him cry when my brother and I left home for college. He came to many of my athletic events but missed many more. But that didn’t matter. I knew that he thought I was terrific at sports. (In fact he believed me to be much better than I really was, but I didn’t want to square him away on that one.) I knew he loved me because he made our entire family go on vacations together. Most of the time I hated going, particularly when I was a teen, but he made me go anyway. He knew something I didn’t. He knew that we needed time to be together. In the same camp. In the same dining room. On the same hiking trails or in the same canoes.
My dad protected me fiercely, to the point where I was almost too embarrassed to date anyone. He was a hunter and he let my boyfriends know that. They saw the moose head on the wall as they entered our house and my dad made sure that they knew who put that head up there. He thought he was being funny; I thought he was embarrassing me. But he protected me, not from predatory boys or monsters, but from myself. I was young and too trusting of people and he knew that long before I did.
My father wasn’t a good talker, and many times he didn’t listen well, either. He was sometimes distracted and aloof. We used to jog together when I was in medical school, and he would ask me the same questions repeatedly while we ran. He never heard the answers — he was always, always thinking of something else. I didn’t care. I just repeated myself.
My mother listened to our problems much better than my father did, but I knew who I would ask for help if my life or health were ever threatened — my dad. He was tough, he was serious, he intensely loved his family, and the most important job he held, in his mind, was to make sure that his family was cared for. We were, in fact, very well cared for.
My father is elderly now and these days I spend more time caring for him than he for me. But I know the ropes because he showed me quite well. We no longer jog together. His scoliosis causes him to shuffle along, his spine resembling a capital C, and he still repeats questions to me, no longer because he’s thinking of other things, but because his memory is sliding. He has a few remaining wisps of white hair, but his eccentricity, his antisocial bent, and his love for me remain the same. He is a good man.
Most of you out there are good men as well, but you are good men who have been derided by a culture that does not care for you, that, in terms of the family, has ridiculed your authority, denied your importance, and tried to fill you with confusion about your role. But I can tell you that fathers change lives, as my father changed mine. You are natural leaders, and your family looks to you for qualities that only fathers have. You were made a man for a reason, and your daughter is looking to you for guidance that she cannot get from her mother.
What you say in a sentence, communicate with a smile, or do with regard to family rules has infinite importance for your daughter.
I want you to see yourself through her eyes. And I don’t want this just for her sake, but for yours, because if you could see yourself as she sees you, even for ten minutes, your life would never be the same. When you are a child, your parents are the center of your world. If your mother is happy, your day is good. If your father is stressed, your stomach is knotted all day long at school.
Your daughter’s world is smaller than yours, not just physically, but emotionally as well. It is more fragile and tender because her character is being kneaded as bread dough on a cutting board. Every day she awakens, your hands pick her up and plop her back down on the board to begin the massage. How you knead, every single day, will change who she is.
You and I have baked and we are crusty. Life has hurt us, been gracious to us, and has almost killed us. But we have survived, not because our parents continue to love us but because we have come to need someone — a friend, a spouse, or a child — to continue to care about us. Because a person who cares about us exists, we can get up in the morning.
Your daughter gets up in the morning because you exist. You were here first and she came into being because of you. The epicenter of her tiny world is you. Friends, family members, teachers, professors, or coaches will influence her to varying degrees, but they won’t knead her character. You will. Because you are her dad.
Dads, you are far more powerful than you think you are. My goal in writing this book is to show you how to use your power to improve your life with your daughter, and by doing so to make your life remarkably richer, more rewarding, and more beneficial to those you love. The concepts presented in the following pages are profoundly simple. But we all know how difficult it is to implement simple truths. We know that we should love better. Or be more patient. Or be more courageous, or diligent, or faithful. But can we?
In part, it’s a matter of perspective. Loving your daughter better might seem complicated to you, but it’s very simple to her. Being a hero to your daughter sounds daunting, but actually it can be quite easy. Protecting her and teaching her about God, sex, and humility doesn’t require a degree in psychology. It just means being a dad.
I have not chosen attributes of fathers to discuss randomly. I have watched and listened to your daughters for many years and have heard what they say about you. I have talked to countless fathers. I have treated daughters and counseled families. I have read psychiatry texts, research papers, psychology journals, religious studies, and pediatric journals. Doing this has been my job. But I will tell you that no research paper, no textbook diagnosis, no instructions can begin to change a young girl’s life as dramatically as even a handful of interactions with her father. Nothing.
From your daughter’s perspective, it is never too late to strengthen her relationship with you. So be bold. Your daughter wants your guidance and support; she wants and needs a strong bond with you. And, as all successful fathers know, you need a strong bond with her. This book will show how to strengthen that bond, or rebuild it, and use it to shape your daughter’s life — and yours — for the better.