When a stepfather steps in and steps up for a daughter

Leilani was the first woman to open my eyes to the profound difference a stepfather can make. She was a single mother raising two children when we met, tall and striking, of Hawaiian, Portuguese, and Scots Irish ancestry.

Her biological parents met in 1962. Her father was an artist, her mother an aspiring lawyer with little interest in children. “She was told she could never have them,” Leilani told me. “So she was studying to go to law school, and was focused on politics and living an intellectual life with an artistic husband. My mom, to this day, says, ‘I don’t do babies. I don’t like little kids.’ And it’s true.”

Soon, the woman who couldn’t have kids was pregnant with twins.

“That absolutely changed the course of the life she had planned,” Leilani said. “To try to save the marriage, they decided to move to Hawaii. They thought it would help if they were with my mom’s family, with the additional family support that comes with large extended families.”

That attempt didn’t work, and Leilani’s parents divorced within a few years. Leilani grew further from her father, uncomfortable with his idiosyncratic ways, and angry with him for leaving.

Shortly after the divorce, Leilani’s mother married a man she had known since childhood. He had children from his first marriage, and the families melded easily. “I was in fourth grade when they married,” Leilani told me. “He never treated us any differently than he treated his own kids. I was the only girl and so I got a lot of extra attention. I think he was happy to have a daughter around.”

One of her earliest memories is of her dad laying down the law.

“I remember my mom saying I couldn’t have this pair of shorts and so I asked him for them and he got them for me. And then, it was a big blowup about it and he came to me and said, ‘You can’t do that again. It was not fair, because she had said no. I am here for you, but you cannot set us up like that again. I’m not going to allow it.’ That was the end of it. He set the ground rules really clearly. And I never crossed them again. It made me feel like I could talk to him about anything, anything at all.

“There wasn’t one thing I couldn’t tell him or didn’t tell him. I told him, not my mom, when I got pregnant on accident when I was just out of college and I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I had a place.

“He always wanted my mom to have the best of everything, and just doted on me and adored me as the girl; he’d gleam with pride and he was always so encouraging and just a dad. He taught the hard lessons that needed to be taught, but was also the soft place to land when I needed the soft place to land, the protector.

“He participated in our sports, was there for every swim meet. And when my mom couldn’t be bothered with my track meets, my dad came to every single one of them.”
“He was a really fun guy. He had this sort of grumpy old man personality to him, and was sort of gruff. His dad was verbally awful and was ridiculously hard on my dad. They grew up pretty poor, and my dad was the provider and caretaker for his siblings. But he had this real soft side to him when it came to me. And he was really hard-working but didn’t always succeed.

“He owned his own insurance agency. He ended up with a gambling problem and he lost his business to it. But I think it was the constant pressure to live up to my mom’s expectations of what providing looked like. I think it got to feel impossible.”

Leilani cried as she spoke of her dad walking her down the aisle when she got married. He was ill, his remaining years numbered. Leilani watched his health, finances, and marriage deteriorate. “My mom actually kicked him out. She divorced him, because she didn’t want to be financially responsible for him, though they only lived apart for about eight months. Then they lived back together again and he always wanted to get remarried, but she never would.

“He went door-to-door selling mouthwash and pantyhose that don’t run and tried selling cell phone card plans before those were really a thing and doing multi-level marketing and tried any number of things to make something go. And he never could make it go. I think that stress was the catalyst for him getting sick. That loss was humiliating and I don’t think he ever recovered from it.

“I put a credit card in both of our names to try to help, and tried to be there for him in all those ways he was there for me. He never used the credit card. But I just couldn’t imagine him not having a safety net, because my mom wouldn’t help him and she was like, ‘Tough luck, it’s your fault.’”

Leilani broke down as she thought back to the last time she saw the man who refused to shrink as her father, even if he was selling mouthwash and pantyhose door-to-door.
“I took my son home when he was three months old to see my dad. And he was 80 pounds, but getting up and walking, accomplishing something every day. When it was time for my mom to take us to the airport, he was standing at the front door waving and smiling. And I got back in and out of the car five or six times, because I knew when I left I would never see him again.

“And the last time, he said, ‘Baby, you have to go. You’re going to miss your plane.’ And I said, ‘But if I go, then this is the last time I’m going to hug you, the last time I’m going to hold you.’ And I knew it and he knew it. And I’m just crying and he started to cry. And he said, ‘It’s not the last time. We’ll see each other again.’ He was a very spiritual person, and that’s what he was referring to. And he had tears running down his face.

“Right before my daddy died he asked me to give my father another chance. He said, ‘Just get to know him as a man and a person and let him be a grandfather.’

“My dad knew my kids would need a grandpa and he saw my father’s positives. I think he also saw where my father and I have a lot of similarities and knew that the emotional connection that I didn’t have with my mom could be found in my father. And because my dad asked, I’ve given my father another chance. And I have a pretty remarkable relationship with him that is growing in understanding and depth.”

Today Leilani celebrated what would have been her dad’s seventy first birthday.

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Lindsay’s fame and fortune still can’t fill the void

Lindsay Lohan and I went through a stretch where we didn’t think much of each other.

OK, she’s never thought anything of me; she doesn’t know me. And I thought I knew her. Well, sort of. I thought she was a spectacular child actress whose fame, riches and success turned her into another spoiled, narcissistic drama queen birthed by Hollywood.

The public records of her arrest and rehab history since 2007 detail her infamous jewelry theft, DUII and coke busts, five trips to rehab, car wrecks, jail stints, and a third-degree assault arrest for popping Tiffany Mitchell in the face at a Manhattan nightclub.

I was shocked recently to learn she’s only 27 years old; in recent pictures she looks sick, depleted and broken, at the end of the line. Yet in her childhood images (and films The Parent Trap, Freaky Friday, and Mean Girls), she is spirited and full of life.

Something big happened along the way to adulthood. And she tells the story poignantly in her song “Confessions of a Broken Heart (Daughter to Father).”

The first time I heard the song was during a recent meeting of the dads group I’m in, part of The Abba Project. There weren’t a lot of dry eyes in the room of a dozen dads when the music video ended.

It’s a muscular song musically and moving lyrically. It tells the story of Lohan’s father, a former Wall Street trader and her mother, a one-time singer and dancer. They split when she was three, reunited, then split for good in 2005. Two years later Lohan’s drug, alcohol and legal troubles began saturating the tabloids. Shortly thereafter, she wrote the song, and the video (which is on the home page of this site) is worth the four minutes if you have any interest at all in fathers and daughters. It is truly the confession of a broken heart.

“And I wear all your old clothes, your polo sweater
I dream of another you, one who would never
Never leave me alone to pick up the pieces
Daddy to hold me, that’s what I needed

So, why’d you have to go?
Why’d you have to go?
Why’d you have to go?

Daughter to Father, Daughter to Father
I don’t know you, but I still want to
Daughter to Father, Daughter to Father
Tell me the truth, did you ever love me?”

It’s a hard video to watch, not because it’s the story of a world-class talent circling the drain, but because it’s the public version of a story that plays out anonymously all over the world.

The world is full of women like Lindsay Lohan, with broken hearts on the inside and broken lives on the outside, women without the fortune and lawyers to prop them up. Jails are full of these women. So are rehab centers and strip clubs. So are companies, law firms, and workplaces of every sort.

Word has it that LiLo has turned up at a few events in recent weeks looking clean and sober. Let’s hope she’s on the rebound for good. She has much to offer the world. And so does your daughter.

For any man thinking of becoming a father, or who is already raising a young daughter, watch the video. If you’re married, or have been, you get that her parents struggled as a couple. Raising a daughter and hanging in there through thick and thin may be the hardest work you ever do. It can break your heart. It can break your bank account. There’s a blur, an instant, between playing with American Girls dolls and anorexia, cutting, booze, drugs and promiscuous sex.

Watch the video, Dad, for yourself and your daughter. She and Lindsay and every other daughter are wired the same deep down inside. They need someone they can trust and feel safe with, someone to hold them and hug them and love them. They need you. As she cries in her song, a “Daddy to hold me, that’s what I needed.”

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Confessions of a Broken Heart, from Lindsay Lohan

A wonderful, moving video on fathers and daughters from a woman I’d given up on years ago. Now I get her story. I’ll have a blog post and Oregonian column on it later next week. But for now, watch and listen to the lyrics on my home page. It may break your heart. It broke hers.

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What a great dad!

Well worth the couple minutes! I remember those days well…exhausting and joyful beyond measure. Please share!


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Turn Around

Time goes too fast when you are raising a daughter. This song from the 1960s (actually a Kodak ad) was a precursor to more modern day music videos. Except this one, even though commercial, is moving in ways that 99.99% of music videos aren’t. Well worth the 2 minutes for any dad or daughter…

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The news beneath Miley

It’s been quite a month for news that shapes the world. You know, the real important stuff.

“Selena Gomez Drops F-Bomb” (What the bleep?)

“Miley Cyrus Twerks with Santa” (Millennial generation twist on warm milk and cookies?)

“Miley Cyrus wears sheer white top, black bra to Z100’s Jingle Ball” (She’s back! She’s busy! Black breasts on white girl!)

Paris Hilton’s brother assaulted at party in Miami. Jessica Simpson goes makeup free for date night. Kim gets her body back.

There’s enough noise in this culture, particularly directed at young women, to make your head spin. One of life’s biggest stories, meanwhile, resides like an iceberg under the waterline. The story of a father within his daughter—Miley, Kim, everywoman—is a psychological drama that plays out in plain sight every day but without much recognition.

Whether she’s famous, rich and spoiled or anonymous, broke and struggling every daughter carries the emotional imprint of her father’s presence or absence. I get to hear a lot of those stories from women who share them with me in person or by email. This month, I’m sharing a few, and some thoughts for those who sent them and daughters or fathers like them.

From Lina: “I would be interested to hear more about what you find with girls who suffer the death of a father. My husband died when my daughter was ten, and now she is 15. Her memories and love for her father are strong, but that isn’t a substitute for an ongoing father-relationship. As she matures, I am looking for ways to help her create healthy relationships, and I suppose to help her make the most of what she had with her father, as she is unlikely to ever have the same kind of bond again.”

Dear Lina:

You are right. Your daughter will never have that bond again. There’s nothing to compare to a young child losing a father or mother. We are changed by it forever.

We don’t “get over” the early-life loss of a parent any more than we might get over losing a lung. We learn to cope—maybe. We adjust—maybe. At best, perhaps, we make peace with the loss. With that said, here are a few suggestions, based upon my experience and the stories shared with me.

Don’t stifle your daughter’s grief or desire to talk about her father. (If it sounds odd that I would even suggest that, some parents try to help their children by suppressing their grief and not talking or allowing conversation about the other parent’s death.) Let her wear his shirts and sweaters. Let her fill her life with symbols of him if she wants. Tell her stories about her dad if she wants to hear them. If he has brothers or sisters, bring them into your daughter’s life as much as you can.

I’m a big fan of counseling and therapy, not just for someone who’s suffered such a loss, but also for the entire family left behind. Going through this without professional help is like going through an amputation without physical therapy to recover. The Dougy Center in Portland has a wealth of resources online for dealing with grief.

Your daughter may find it helpful to meet adults or other teens who have lost parents early in life. If she wants to, try to help her with those connections. Bring surrogate fathers into her life, as long as they are men you can trust deeply, because she is likely to have a deep hunger for male approval and affection. Such young women are vulnerable to being exploited. Cousins, uncles, coaches, friends—try to make natural and easy-to-accept connections to as many of them as you can, as long as you know them well enough to trust them.

And here is a final thought. Help your daughter find someone safe who she can cry with.

From Norma: I have shared your columns with most of my friends and especially my daughters. My youngest daughters response was, “I hope you’re not thinking of dating, because you have never known how to interact with men, and still don’t.”

In the late 40′s and early 50′s, my father was sometimes verbally and a couple times, physically abusive. He left when I was eight and my brother was four. We only saw him twice (once a couple months after he had left to introduce us to his new wife and then again when I was 13, when he introduced us to his third wife). After the age of about 36 he came and visited on 2 occasions.

You have really touched my heart and I am starting to understand a lot more about the psychological problems I had / have relating to men and why I grew up so insecure. I have been in and out of counseling a good part of my life. But one thing that never came up, in all my counseling, was my relationship with my dad, or for that matter anything about my dad. So again thank you very much for your words.

Dear Norma:

Your father is the tap root from which your life grew. Your story of abuse is unfortunately so common. Abuse breaks the trust between fathers and their daughters, and can too easily poison a woman’s ability to sustain intimate relationships with men.

At a minimum it takes a great deal of hard work to process a father’s abuse, abandonment, or ambivalence, to get to a point where one can stay present in an intimate relationship. You are anything but alone, and your struggle is shared by people you might not imagine.

A minister in her 70s wrote to me recently and shared the story of her strained relationship with her father, and her struggle to find intimacy in a partnership, something that eluded her for decades until she married recently. I met a clinical psychologist at a writer’s conference a few years ago. She was also in her 70s. During a break in the conference she began telling me the story of her neglectful, uncaring father. Soon it was clear that she was being consumed with sadness as the memories came back. So I just listened, she spoke, and then she began to cry.

You’re also not alone in having your father story never come up during counseling. A close friend shared with me that in ten years of therapy, she and her therapist had never explored the relationship she had with her father. She told me it had never occurred to her until she read my book.

Every woman is a daughter. And her father, by either his presence or absence, had an enormous influence on her life. As the psychologist and author Kate Kavanagh wrote to me, “Reading (your) memoir of fatherhood prompts me to say to women, regardless of age, culture, or background: ‘Tell me if and how your father loved you as a child, and I’ll tell you whether or not you have found love as a woman.’”

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So, daughters, women of the world, what is YOUR story?

I’ve received a great deal of email from my last blog post and Oregonian article. Share your own father-daughter story with me and my blog readers. You can send it through the blog response here on the site, and feel free to keep your real name out if you please.

So many rich stories are coming my way. Let the world hear them; they are important for other daughters of all ages to experience.

OK; sound off. What is your story? I’ll respond to every post possible.

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So, Dad, You Are the Mirror

Ask any man, “What do you do?”and he’ll tell you about his day job. But if he’s a dad, he’s also by definition a software programmer. Every day, he’s coding his daughter’s (or son’s) mind, particularly during the first dozen years of that child’s life.

Everything a father says and doesn’t say, does or doesn’t do, leaves an imprint. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s profound. Those imprints shape your daughter into the woman she becomes.

Michelle Watson, a Portland psychotherapist and author, works with dads and daughters. She uses the phrase, “More is caught than taught” to describe how this programming works. By showing up or not as a father, by loving or abusing, you are laying down the beliefs that form your daughter’s identity. In the early years of her life, the deepest core beliefs are programmed, and they are excruciatingly difficult to rewrite, for better or worse. “Men are frightening. My world is unsafe. Men are my equal. The world is my home…”

As I began writing this column, I met a young woman I’ll call Gina. She’s in graduate school, smart, attractive, open, and kind. She was raised by a father who belittled her and told her she was worthless. How does she view herself? As worthless, unattractive and undesirable. Low self esteem is her constant companion.

If not for her supportive mother, who knows how far Gina would have sunk. And who knows how her life will play out with men—at work, in love, or anywhere else she enters into relationships with them. The first and most important man in her life wrote the software that left her emotionally scarred and no doubt angry and resentful as well.

I see these fathers in countless women I’ve interviewed and come to know in recent years—drug addicts, homeless women and others. Jails are filled with them. I’ve also seen the great dads who did the work that led to women such as Cheryl, whom I wrote about last month; the daughter of a well-known scientist, she never questioned her ability to thrive in a male-dominated field when she began working in high tech decades ago.

There is also a great father behind Lucille, now in her eighties, who was a professional musician and conductor. Blanca, the daughter of a farm worker from Mexico, went on to earn her law degree from Santa Clara and MBA from Berkeley to honor her father. There is a calm, confident father within Mariah, a similarly calm and confident actress who shared her story with me.

Programming the software of a daughter’s mind takes place in the nooks and crannies of everyday experience. Lucille told me childhood stories of her father taking her into his woodshop at night so she could hang out with him while he worked. It was during the Great Depression; his salary had been cut in half and the family lost its home, but Lucille grew up emotionally rich. Her dad told her stories, showed her how to use tools, and just listened to what she had to say. The real dialogue wasn’t about wood working; it was the subtext she internalized from her father’s interest in her. She took away the message, without being conscious of it, that she was interesting, and that she mattered.

Here are just a few of the ways dads program their daughters’ minds every day.

If you belittle your daughter, she grows up knowing herself as small.

If you tune her out, she comes to see herself as unimportant.

If you don’t care about her, she’ll grow up craving attention from men, many of whom won’t
care for her as much as their own impulses.

If you degrade her mother, she grows up believing that intimate relationships with men are precarious and unsafe.

That list goes on and on. So does this list:

If you listen to her intently, she sees herself as someone who matters.

If you take a deep and genuine interest in her, and do things as simple as play catch or go to movies together, she sees herself as interesting.

If you hold her accountable, she learns responsibility.

If you play with her, she becomes more playful.

If you live with dignity and grace, she probably will too.

Every day as a father raising a daughter, you’re laying down another coat of paint. It’s either a color of death or a color of life. By the time she enters adulthood, she’s either black and blue from your work, or a work of art. You are the mirror, Dad, in which she comes to see herself.

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The Easy Way Out, or Masculine Energy?

“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.

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4 Years Old is Magic

What a great dad. And what a great 4-year-old daughter. Worth taking a few minutes to watch. http://laughingsquid.com/dad-and-four-year-old-daughter-cover-tonight-you-belong-to-me/

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