When a father leaves a hole in his daughter’s heart

This is from my monthly column that runs in The Oregonian, Feb. 21, 2013.

“You will be the most important man in her life forever. When she is 25, she will mentally size her boyfriend or husband up against you. When she is 35, the number of children she has will be affected by her life with you. The clothes she wears will reflect something about you. Even when she is 75, how she faces her future will depend on some distant memory of time you spent together. Be it good or painful, the hours and years you spend with her—or don’t spend with her—change who she is.”
Meg Meeker, MD,  Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters

I spent a year listening to the extraordinary stories of ordinary women from around the world, looking for what they could teach ordinary men like me about fatherhood. Over hundreds of hours of conversation, laughter and tears, I was moved by how profoundly fathers shape their daughters, for better and for worse.
In the course of our intimate conversations I witnessed an abundance of “father hunger.” We’ve all seen it in our own lives, our classrooms, our neighborhoods. It’s what happens when a father leaves a hole in his daughter’s heart. It’s not just abusive fathers who leave this hole. More insidious forms of damage are left by a father’s abandonment, detachment, and ambivalence that never sound the alarm bells of protective services, yet leave their lasting psychological imprint, deep below the surface of a daughter’s conscious mind.

In “Were You Born to Cheat?” writer Danielle Pergament shares how her father’s emotional abandonment shaped her sexualized trajectory.

“During the winter before my wedding,” she writes, “I was on assignment in Sicily, where I met Diego, a photojournalist with black hair, a scruffy beard, and warm brown eyes that could liquefy concrete. He was my guide in Palermo, driving me around the city on his motorcycle. On my last day, as we stood in a bombed-out cathedral—him talking about World War II, me trying to focus on his words—he started inching closer. Another inch. Then a fraction more, and he was in my personal space. The slightest gesture from me would have been an invitation. I froze. I was madly in love with my fiancé, so what the hell was I doing?

“The desire to cheat is hardly a new emotion for me. In fact, I can fairly say that if you’ve dated me, there’s a pretty good chance I was unfaithful. (I’m really sorry!) You might even call me a natural-born cheater—and I think I get it from my father.

“Henry Pergament was a businessman, entrepreneur and chemistry genius. By the time I was born, he’d raised several fortunes and had two families and half a dozen children in and out of wedlock. I have memories from my childhood that I wish I didn’t: One night when I was about 10, I was at dinner with my sister, my father and his friend Mike. I overheard my dad say, ‘What have I been up to? What men are up to when they’re not with their wives.’

“Daily life in my family found my sisters, my mother and me running around the house like it was a disrupted anthill, my father somewhere off-screen. He worked hard and was often in absentia. But as I started to understand the adult world in increments, I wondered: Was he with another woman when he could be home teaching me to take a picture/drive a stick shift/make potato pancakes?…

“I take after my father in many ways—I got his dark eyes, his hot temper, his taste for burned toast. And I understand why he cheated: There wasn’t enough love in the world to make up for what he’d missed as a child. I just wish I wasn’t doomed to repeat it.”

The world is full of Danielle Pergaments, daughters left behind literally or emotionally by their fathers. They apply their makeup and masks of composure as they walk into adolescence and adulthood, unconsciously seeking to fill their craving for closeness and affection.

They try to fill this emptiness with all kinds of diversions and addictions—fantasy relationships, sex, drugs, food, shopping, alcohol, fame. They pour these transient pleasures into the top of their hearts, only to see them flow through the hole at the bottom as the intoxication wears off from the binge or tryst. This emotional cotton candy looks enticing, tastes sweet, and dissolves in one’s mouth. Yet its seduction is almost endless; lives are ruined chasing its illusive fix. Our desire to feel desired is that deeply ingrained.

This pursuit of fool’s gold can last a lifetime for those who don’t awaken to its insatiable nature. When a hole gets seared into a daughter’s heart, it’s burned from the inside; it can only be healed from the inside, too, not from some pain reliever “out there.” That healing is hard work. I know that.

I will never forget seeing three young African children years ago, adopted by American parents. The children had almost starved to death earlier in their childhoods. When food was within their reach after coming to the U.S., they still stuffed it into their mouths as if their lives depended upon it. In fact their lives did depend upon it, once. Hunger was literally programmed into their psychological wiring.

Father hunger is the same for a daughter. If she grows up starved for attention and affection, she will stuff herself with the best available substitute to soothe the craving. The longing is that powerful, that consuming. A daughter’s heart aches forever when her father burns a hole in it.

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2 Responses to When a father leaves a hole in his daughter’s heart

  1. Karen I. Westphalen says:

    I’ve just tried to find Danielle Pergament’s book on amazon.com and there’s no listing. I’d like to read it – where can I get a copy? Thanks!

    • Kevin says:

      Hello Karen, and sorry for the delayed response. Danielle hasn’t written a book that I’m aware of; it was a magazine article. I think you should be able to find it on Google…

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