Hi Meg – a friend of ours recommended your book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters many years ago. My husband read it and thought it was one of the best books he has read in a long time and one he re-reads periodically. On his high recommendation, I tried to read it but had to stop as it brought up too much resentment on what my father didn’t provide in my youth. I’m 45 now and still struggle in my relationship with him – and being a strong and loving partner to my husband. I’m staying focused on creating a “better” relationship with my father, but I get stuck sometimes. I know his childhood wasn’t easy, as he has made reference to abuse from his father. I try to stay focused on what he did provide and live in gratitude, but it’s hard. I know there are many people out there struggling with this. What insight could you offer that might help? Thank you for all you do.
Dear Feeling Resentment-
I wrote Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters to help fathers but I also wrote it to help grown women like you. Here’s why.
Every little girl is born with needs and desires that she wants her father to fill. Some fathers meet those needs, some do not and worse- others inflict emotional pain. The truth is, most fathers only meet some of their daughter’s needs because they are broken men. But for most girls, having a father meet most of the needs is good enough.
When a father like yours fails to meet your needs as a child, something happens to you inside. You hurt deeply. But there’s more. Because you are a child, you don’t know why you hurt. You simply feel terribly confused and sad.
When young children are in an emotionally unstable home, they swallow their feelings because there is no place to let them out. Then, they do something very unhealthy- they blame themselves for feeling hurt. Children are egocentric and while it doesn’t make logical sense that they would blame themselves for their pain, they do.
When a little child has lost something, she needs to grieve the loss. That means, if she feels neglected, abused, criticized or rejected by her father, she feels multiple losses and they are enormous. She has lost love, comfort, trust, a sense of value- you name it. Her heart and mind are wired to grieve each of those losses over time. But she can’t grieve the losses because there is no one to turn to. Beside this, she really doesn’t understand that she’s lost anything. All she knows is that she hurts. So what does she do? Bury her pain.
Now things get more complicated. Not only is she sad (depressed even) but she doesn’t want to blame her father for hurting her. She won’t blame him because she needs him- literally. She needs food, some security or whatever she gets from him in order to survive. And- she still holds out hope that he will change one day. He doesn’t and the pain continues.
Then she does something peculiar with her anger and sadness- she gets angry that she wanted her father to meet her needs. She can understand (as you do) that your father is a broken man, but below those feelings lays the anger that she had needs. Do you ever remember saying to yourself that you don’t need help from anyone because you can do everything on your own? Of course. Girls whose needs weren’t met learned that since their father didn’t meet their needs, they’ll scrap having needs altogether.
When a child is hurt and has nowhere to take the hurt, she simply turns the anger on herself. In a girl’s mind, her father isn’t to blame for failing her; she is to blame for having the needs in the first place. Her anger turns in on herself. This is what depression is- the self hates the self.
Your problem may be less about your father than about how you feel about your self. Perhaps you can’t forgive your father because if you do, then you must face the real pain- what you wanted but never got. Being angry with someone is a lot easier than feeling deep grief. I could be wrong, but I know this- once you reconcile that you are not to blame for the fact that your father hurt you AND that you weren’t wrong to want him to be good to you, you are on your way to wholeness.
My book drives you crazy for several reasons. It shows you what you didn’t get as a little girl. But the real hurt comes from the fact that it shows you what you wanted. When you see those and throw the book down, you probably feel disgusted. At your father? Probably not- it probably comes from anger you have toward yourself for wanting your father. Don’t be angry any longer. You are and were right to want those things all along- every daughter does.
Once you grieve the sadness of what you missed, learn to embrace and love the little girl who was good and right to want things from her father. Help her. He won’t. So let that go. Here’s the good news: the grown up in you can help the little girl you.