“Lead me to water,
Songs of my father;
Show me the rhythm,
Records in the kitchen.
I’ll get along,
playing my father’s songs.”
— Emily King
Once upon a time, I was a daddy’s girl.
I know this, because my memories of the years following my parents’ 1978 divorce include a sun-dappled montage of several summers spent riding atop my father’s shoulders; being sung the “good morning song” as he prepared me for daycare with his trademark hairstyle: two braids; and traipsing along behind him in his—and now my—favorite record store in Minneapolis. Most vividly, I remember craning my neck to look up adoringly at his towering frame, as we walked hand-in-hand on our semi-weekly jaunts to Dairy Queen.
Such were the summer adventures of a single dad and his young daughter—or at least, my dad, who I had all to myself for a few summers, before he’d remarry and expand our family. Collectively, we’ve made many more wonderful memories since; but those earliest years remind me, without a doubt, that I was once my daddy’s girl.
However, I would grow up to be my mother’s daughter.
Of the many ways in which I evoke my father, I’m certain he’d agree that I am, first and foremost, my mother’s reflection. I say this not only because of the countless times he’s claimed to catch me wearing her “scowl” (furrowed brow, deep in concentration or thought—our default expression), but the myriad ways I frustrate him with my stubbornness and passionate nature. These are qualities I share with my mother—qualities that when combined and contrasted with my father’s need for structure and control, I imagine made their marriage impossible.
Which was for the best, since my parents are not only radically different, but typically unapologetic about their ways. The irony is that I, the sole product of their union, have spent the better part of the past 41 years defending mine—being too passionate, too proud, too stubborn, too spontaneous, too revealing and unrealistic in my ambitions—for simply being too much, too much of the time. And since my mom and I are symbiotic enough to sometimes seem to speak our own made-up language, it’d be fair to say that my father has borne the brunt of much of that frustration…as I have his.
As a girl—now a woman—who has never had cause to question my father’s whereabouts or his love for me, I’ve never quite felt entitled to have “daddy issues.” In fact, of the three of my parents (including my stepmother), my father would be the one most aptly described as the “helicopter parent” of the bunch. In our decades together, he has proven to be both provider and steadfast (over) protector; best known for dispensing both often-unsolicited advice and a particularly pragmatic type of tough love, along with his humor and support.
But while having a dedicated daddy is a luxury many of my friends haven’t enjoyed, I’ve had to accept that it doesn’t make you immune to daddy issues. This is particularly true when your personalities reliably run counter to each other. My father and I are so different—in both temperament and logic—I’m sure he sometimes questions how I came from him, despite our strong resemblance. And while he is in many ways still my hero, occasionally swooping in to save the day, he is also still the only person who can provoke a full-fledged tantrum from a now 41-year-old me.
What is it about our parents and the power they so often wield, long past childhood? My father is not only the first man I ever loved, but the one whose approval I still most constantly seek—even while I steadfastly rebel against what I perceive to be his criticisms and expectations for my life. His is often the voice of self-doubt I hear in my head; which puts him at a significant disadvantage when contrasted with my mother’s seemingly constant cheerleading. And I often wonder: are they his expectations I am not meeting, or my own awareness that I am a riddle that continues to confound and concern him?
But if I continually question whether I have my father’s approval, I can’t help but wonder if he similarly questions whether he has mine. Indeed, it has taken me four decades to understand—and begrudgingly respect—that what I’ve so consistently read as (non-constructive) criticism and undue pressure is my father’s love. It is his purest and best form of love, and the only one he knows: trying to ensure that his baby girl will be okay in a world he may not always be here to protect her from.
And so, on this Father’s Day, I want to truly recognize my father. I want to recognize him not only for not being an absent father, but for being a challenging one. For providing a soft place to fall, even while demanding that I sew my own parachute (and often, pushing me out of the damned plane); for providing, but refusing to indiscriminately pamper his baby girl, or prepare me to be pampered by anyone else. For being present enough to be a voice in my head, even if it’s the one intent on tempering my innate impulsiveness with some semblance of caution.
It must be working, after all these years. Lately, I’ve been craving more of the structure and security my father has been so desperately trying to encourage in me these past four decades or so, both professionally and personally. Yes, I am still a rebel, intent on doing everything my way, and on my own terms. I likely always will be. But with age—and experience—I find myself mellowing in my approach, and seeking something I’ve never sought before: balance.
I think this is what is commonly known as “growing up.”
After a lifetime of living at either end of an ever-swinging pendulum, I’m suddenly finding the elusive magic in the middle, and meeting my father there, surprisingly—or maybe not so surprisingly—cheering me on. And for perhaps the first time, I am seeing him as not only my father, but as a man navigating his own life, ambitions and uncertainties; one of which has perhaps always been me.
So perhaps the greatest gift I can give him this year is to let him know that all of his words haven’t been in vain. He has not only been heard, but listened to.
My mother told me once that girls learn how to be women from our mothers, but we learn what it means to be a woman from our fathers. If this true, I am still as much my father’s daughter as my mother’s. I am still my daddy’s girl.