I learned pretty early on that my Dad believed that if he didn’t make me wish I had the power to evaporate at least once a week, this meant his fathering skills needed some sprucing up. My dad thought that “tough love”—roughly translated—meant “let ‘em squirm,” and boy was he an expert. My Dad is still an expert at tough love, but now that I’m all grown up I can finally appreciate it.
It doesn’t take much to make a teenager feel uncomfortable. But my Dad, who raised eight of them, made no attempts at delicacy towards our tender teenaged sensitivities—in fact—most of the time it seemed like he went out of his way to make us writhe.
The “tough love” was administered most every morning. Bleary eyed and hormonal, I would make my way to the kitchen hoping only to retrieve my cereal and avoid interaction with the world. Not a chance. My Dad was already standing at the bottom of the stairs or else had left whatever chore he was doing, arms outstretched to pull me into a bear hug. Hormonal teenage personal bubble—popped. No angsty or grouchy teenaged child was spared.
Then there was my Dad’s return from work at the end of the day. Our stubborn front door would bang open, with the front screen snapping behind him. My Dad would hang his coat in the front hall closet and place his briefcase in the corner of our living room. Then he would march into the kitchen with his huge playful grin, dip my mother, and kiss her. I can still hear the groans issued from the poor souls who had been caught unawares, those who had not made it out of the kitchen in time.
Worse still, my Dad regularly ignored my insecurities about my appearance—and discomfort with direct eye contact for that matter— and told me how beautiful I was. I would blush, mumble something about bias, and swiftly dart from the room.
But all these were mild discomforts compared to the intense, skin crawling experience of learning that it was time for the “sex talk.” My Mom, my Dad, and me—all alone at the end of our dining room table. Why couldn’t it just be my mom, woman to woman—hadn’t my Dad had enough? Wasn’t he just as eager to escape this conversation? He could easily have found an excuse to skip this chat, but that was not my Dad’s way. Why? Because sometimes love means you need to make someone squirm. He taught me that.
Turns out my Dad did his homework. Research indicates that the quality of a woman’s relationship with her father can have an even greater impact on some areas of her life than her relationship with her mother.
Linda Nielsen—a professor and author who has written and researched about father-daughter relationships for more than 40 years—has reported that a woman’s father greatly impacts her social, sexual, and romantic relationships with men. Nielsen claims that women look to their fathers to feel lovable, for a sense of self worth. That is an incredible responsibility that requires talking to your daughter about these things, as well as setting an example—no matter how uncomfortable.
The truth is, it wasn’t long before my Dad’s bear hugs became an important assurance that this day—no matter how crummy—would turn out okay. Soon, the way my Dad swooped my mother off her feet, made me wish that one day a man would do the same to me. And—while I never enjoyed it at the time—I began to have the clarity to look back on that sex talk and other unsolicited relationship talks—which in my mind were either taboo or reserved for girls only— and see that my Dad did it because he loved me. My Dad was not going to let a little thing like discomfort stand between me and happiness, between me and love.
Photo by Andrea Rose