“Just walk away,” William Gates recalls, is what his high school coach and surrogate father advised him. Walk away from the challenges and responsibilities of impending fatherhood.
That path of least resistance for Gates must have had its appeal. At 17, he was an NBA caliber point guard at basketball powerhouse St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Ill., and a cornerstone of the acclaimed 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams.”
Unlike millions of other fathers, Gates had no desire to walk away from his pregnant girlfriend and soon-to-be-born daughter. He finished high school, shunned his coach’s advice, then took his girlfriend and baby daughter to Marquette University, where he had been offered a basketball scholarship.
Black, white, rich, poor; dads the world over just walk away in startling numbers. I’ll never forget my conversation about 25 years ago with a Portland business owner who spoke almost boastfully about having something more important to do—run a business—than raise his kids. “I let my wife do that,” he said with a smirk.
When a man walks away from his daughter, he robs her of so much. Among the many gifts a father can give his daughter is masculine energy. It’s absorbed in huge doses when available during a child’s formative years.
The psychologist Carl Jung developed the concepts of masculine and feminine energy; it’s not as gender-laden as it may sound. It’s similar to the concepts of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy, with hard and soft forces working together in a natural dance.
Yang or masculine energy is the fierce side of nature: a wave crashing, a hurricane, a lion roaring, lightning, a forest fire. Taekwondo is a yang martial art; tai chi by contrast is yin. It yields to and redirects opposing forces. Snow falling is yin. So are flowers blooming, a kitten purring, a warm breeze.
Every daughter, and son, is born with inherent masculine and feminine energy. Unfortunately, most of us don’t fully develop both aspects of ourselves. The more masculine energy a daughter develops, the more successful and effective she’ll be navigating a world in which women increasingly play leading roles.
As a woman a daughter who can extend easily from feminine to masculine has a wider behavioral repertoire, a natural advantage in the world. For one, she is far less likely to get mowed over, by men or other women for that matter. Women without access to their masculine energy are as imbalanced as men without access to their feminine energy. Both are certainly more limited as executives and managers.
The actress and director Angelina Jolie is both intensely feminine and comfortably masculine. Her alpha energy jumps out in her direction of the Bosnian war film, “In the Land of Blood and Honey.” Her power is on display in her portrayal of Mariane Pearl, wife of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, whose capture and beheading by supporters of Omar Sheikh was brought to the screen in “A Mighty Heart.”
I saw that elasticity in many of the women I interviewed for my book, from the professional runner Kara Goucher to the Portland writer Cheryl Coupé.
Cheryl’s father is a well-known scientist who spent his career at Bell Labs and Intel. As she was growing up, her dad took her to professional conferences. Cheryl grew up in the company of smart, accomplished men. That was her tribe, her normal; she was entirely confident in the presence of men when she began her career in high tech.
“Professionally, it never occurred to me that there was anything that wasn’t open to me,” she shared. “I spent my career as a young woman in a very old-boys world. I started out in test and measurement, for God’s sake. It doesn’t get any more old-boy than that. I was a senior buyer at a tech company when I was 24 and I fought for that.
“I had been an assistant buyer and they had a senior buyer position open and I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m looking at the job description and I do all of this, why don’t I have that job?’ And they said, ‘Oh, well, it says right here you have to have five years’ experience.’ And I said, ‘Well, just because it takes somebody else five years to get to the point where they can do this job, why should I be penalized? I’m already doing this job.’ I fought for the job and I got it.”
That is the difference a father makes when he walks in the higher calling of bringing his daughter into womanhood instead of walking away. He helps instill in her the flexibility to be more easily feminine and fierce, two sides of the same coin available to all of us, but gifted to a relative few.