The Glorification of the Paternal
What about fathers and daughters? We seem more able to get our teeth into other family dynamics. Stories of fathers and sons, mothers and sons, and mothers and daughters all seem to reveal themselves more vividly. I have worked with many fathers of daughters and many daughters in my counseling practice over the years. Having raised two daughters myself, I am especially interested in the topic of fathering daughters.
Let’s look more closely at the ways fathers have explained their parenting of daughters. Most of the fathers I worked with were residing in the home with their partners and daughters. Here are some responses I received when questioning men about their relationship with their daughters. “Well, since my wife is female, I just think she knows more about parenting our daughter.” This was a very common response and when it received further examination, it became obvious that these dads were afraid of feeling inadequate or even failing. When the fathers got honest, they admitted that deference to the mother was a lot about hoping to feel less burdened by parental responsibilities.
Another popular reaction was, “I work a lot and do my best making sure everyone in the family gets their needs met. I don’t get to spend much time with the girls.” Here, the dads find comfort locking into the role of provider, doing what is most comfortable. The sanctuary of the role probably mitigates the likelihood of failing at fathering daughters. Again, like the first explanation, parental responsibilities are toned down.
Here is a third response, not quite as common as the other two. “I don’t really know what to say. I mean, I never really had female friends nor sisters. I just had a series of girlfriends,” they explain, often accompanied by a forced chuckle. Our initial consideration of this explanation focuses on the lack of female relationships. However, when we deepen the inquiry, it becomes obvious that the fathers are concerned about somehow sexualizing their daughters since sex has been a major way of relating to the opposite gender.
It became important to address this fear of sexualizing daughters. The dads I worked with were not aware of how natural it is for fathers to feel sexually attracted to their maturing daughters. Once they got over the shock of this realization, we discussed their responsibility regarding their attraction. Foremost, I encourage fathers to hold their attraction shamelessly. If they shame themselves, they begin physically and/or emotionally distancing, which does not help daughters feel good about themselves.
Secondly, I remind them that they might be projecting shame onto the daughter, then sending non-verbal glances and facial gestures as well as shaming utterances to the daughter. A female client recalled descending the stairs on her way to the high school prom, at which point she asked her father how she looked, hoping to receive a compliment. Her father responded, “You look like a slut.”
Another female client remembered her father saying, “Don’t ever sit on my lap again”.
My third recommendation is to employ the kind of boundary that allows for the expression of warmth and care and prohibits covert or overt sexual advances. Covert conveyances include lewd glances and facial gestures. Overt sexual approaches suggest some form of erotic contact including passionate kissing, petting and genital contact. Boundaries that allow for affection and prevent sexual contact are especially important as daughters approach puberty, as they explore their cross-gender identity. It’s natural that daughters become somewhat seductive during this period and critical that fathers do not read the seduction as a call to be sexual.
We have identified at least three ways that fathers emotionally distance from their daughters. Fathers fear feeling inadequate or failing at fathering daughters. They don’t want to feel burdened by parental responsibility, and they fear sexualizing their daughters.
Deciding that there is something wrong with themselves and aggrandizing fathers is the most natural way daughters cope with emotionally absent fathers. They maintain paternal loyalty while betraying themselves. By diminishing themselves and projecting favorable qualities to the father, daughters are doing what makes them feel most safe when facing paternal absence. When daughters decide they are not enough to account for the inaccessibility of the father, they create two beliefs that allegedly make them feel safe. First, they maintain their loyalty to the father which in a magical way suggests they are being good daughters who do not deserve being abandoned. Secondly, if the father’s absence is allegedly due to the daughter being undeserving, then she supposedly maintains some control over the relationship with her father, since she could possibly improve.
A projection is a process of displacing or attributing one’s own feelings and beliefs to another person. These feelings and beliefs can be positive or negative. If the original glorified projection onto the father is not addressed, girls become women who project paternal glorification to lovers, teachers, coaches, bosses, mentors, and gurus. They can continue to account for any success or competency they possess as a reflection of the good graces of some benevolent male. This pattern of a woman’s self-degradation accompanied by the aggrandizement of some male can persist throughout life. Interrupting it typically calls for therapeutic support.
The therapeutic process is aimed at reclaiming and restoring the girl’s lovability and competency while creating a non-idyllic profile of the father’s humanity. As the father’s glorification peals away, a woman might feel she is betraying her father. A critical reminder is that she is merely betraying the inflated version of her father. She is simply claiming personal power due to her and honoring both her father’s strengths and shortcomings.
In some cases, a woman’s mother was either abusive or neglectful for a variety of reasons. This often results in the father being perceived as the only possible candidate for performing as a caring and supportive parent, which can lead to an elevation of the father’s character. Under the circumstances, the father’s importance allegedly mitigates the loss of a trusted maternal figure. The girl runs the same risk of projecting to any male who appears to be reassuring and concerned. The magic attributed to the absent father is easily projected to another male. When this happens, life is viewed as more manageable due to his guidance. The world might even be seen as safer. The energy driving the original projection continues in the hope of delivering the same favorable outcomes.
To strengthen her capacity to save herself rather than rely upon the benevolence and prowess of a mentor or teacher, she will need to learn to deconstruct hierarchy. Any projection of paternal aggrandizement will entail a hierarchal profile, postering the male somewhere above. I recommend an honest inquiry regarding her attachment to hierarchy, guided by several poignant questions, How has my attachment to hierarchy served me? What do I fear about stepping out of hierarchy? What can I employ for support rather than a hierarchal structure? Do the boundaries implicit in hierarchy protect me from real intimacy?
It might also be helpful to understand the distinction between hierarchal support and peer support. The former locates the power of giving support to one person. The latter distributes power to the self, and trusted friends and colleagues. This more egalitarian approach will likely be more informal, and mutually supportive, making it more intimate.
What About the Recipients of Glorified Paternal Projections?
The recipients of a glorified paternal projection may not be doing anyone any favors, including themselves. Most obvious, they are colluding with the disempowerment of the student. This runs contrary to anyone up to the business of genuine eldering. More subtle and possibly more seductive is the impact of owning and living with the projection. Taking on such a projection can put a man in an adversarial relationship with his own humanity. In the presence of adoring eyes, it can become very easy to deny personal limits and shortcomings, which can place self-care in jeopardy. As a recipient of the student’s homage, the teacher is ready to have an enthusiastic relationship with answers allegedly adding to his mastery. When this occurs, curiosity easily loses its allure, with the teacher slipping into the comfort of contrived certainty.
When an inquiry sacrifices questions as holding a favored position, a relationship with the archetype of the Fool has likely been forfeited. It is the Fool who knows how to live with a robust relationship with the unknown and with ambiguity. An inquiry becomes more collaborative when induced with questions. Only the Fool has an uncensored connection with the unknown, the first step on the path to wisdom. I’m comforted by a teacher telling fool stories depicting his own buffoonery.
As the student’s dependency is encouraged, the teacher’s need for the student’s admiration builds with several unfortunate consequences. The first is a more tenacious need to control the student, so she doesn’t take her glorified projection elsewhere. Secondly, the teacher is now more invested in the student’s devotion to him, rather than what it truly means to serve the student. This exterior referencing of his worth runs the risk of undermining the teacher’s power to hold his own essential worth.
I don’t want to end this work without acknowledging the fathers befuddled by what it means to authentically show up for their daughters. We, fathers need to be aware of what we can offer to our daughters. Our emotional involvement in the lives of our daughters reminds them that they are worth it. That is a huge message! It impacts how daughters see themselves, including body image. It can enrich a daughter’s expectations regarding being treated by males in general. It also contributes to our daughters feeling more confident with a wide range of natural abilities. We can gather with other men getting honest about holding love, authority, and joy as we father our daughters. We can learn to accept the mystery of fathering, especially fathering daughters, allowing for the unfolding paternal apprenticeship.
It is worth noting that deconstructing the glorified paternal projection does not preclude having a mentor. The difference is that in a genuine mentor relationship, the protegee is clear that she is giving the mentor a certain degree of power for her to be properly served. Secondly, she is willing to work with her fear that life will be unmanageable if she’s not attached to someone allegedly larger than her. Diminishing the potency of this fear can occur if she is mindful that its origin was due to a compensation of inflated characteristics to the father to due maternal inaccessibility. Also helpful is remaining cognizant of the mentor’s humanity which includes shortcomings. Rightful ownership of her power happens as she accepts responsibility to refine what she learns from her mentor. This refinement happens as her beliefs, intuition, and imagination bring the mentor’s teachings to a deeper place within her, now emblematic of her vision and longing.
A healthy mentor relationship can easily slip into something a bit messier, with projections launched into the airways. There are just too many contributing variables, including each person’s broken heart, the desire to be seen and chosen, a longing to have a dream being deemed as worthy, as well as one’s gifts judged to be exemplary offerings for the world.
I like thinking that the mentor is the one most responsible for keeping the relationship honest and truly in the service of the mentee. However, if the mentee is an adult, she can obviously contribute to the discussion of keeping the relationship in service of her empowerment. Here are some questions that can help guide that process. After the mentee responds favorably to the teacher’s charisma, does he reference her back to herself, her needs, curiosities, and values? Is there an opportunity for discussion about the role of projections in the relationship? Does the mentor encourage the mentee to explore other perspectives besides the one he provides? Does the mentor stay with open-ended questions, creating more room for the unfolding ethos of the mentee? Do the mentor and mentee remain clear about what they want from one another? Can they give themselves and one another permission to shamelessly stumble in the creation of their relationship? Is there clarity about when the mentor relationship needs to close?
Lastly, I want to acknowledge a daughter who genuinely experienced a father who was quite present, encouraging, and supportive. Curious enough, that daughter also runs the risk of generating an idyllic version of her paternal experience. However, rather than an inflated projection onto other males, these men may simply be viewed as inadequate, not measuring up to the wonderful father. Again, a daughter’s loyalty defines her vision of her dad and of other men. And there’s the daughter who is quite clear about her father’s shortcomings. She may run the risk of inflating the darker side of her father and projecting it to other men. Ultimately, there is a significant psychological task facing a daughter regardless of her paternal experience.