A Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Life and Death

My oldest daughter was born yesterday.

Or so it feels. It was the summer of 1995.

My wife Meg had been in labor for more than 25 hours. She was 13 days overdue. When we checked into Providence Portland hospital on a hot July evening, and began settling into our birthing room, the nurse told us we couldn’t stay, that Meg was not dilated far enough. As Meg went through excruciating contractions the nurse said, “I’ve seen women go on like this for weeks.”

The nurse left our room. I locked the door from the inside. “We’re not leaving,” I said. I kept the door locked until the nursing shift changed at midnight. Soon, our new nurse came into the room, took one look at Meg and with a firm grasp of the obvious proclaimed, “You’re not going anywhere. You’re having this baby.”

Six hours later Julia cried as she took her first breaths and I cried as I took in the miracle of my first daughter. I was in awe of the primal force of childbirth, the unfathomable exhaustion of labor and delivery that every mother endures.

The two days we spent in the hospital were a metaphor for the next 18 years of fathering my daughter. There’s been anticipation, joy, pain, exhaustion, and relief, all in abundance.

There is nothing in a man’s life that can compare to having a little girl. I got lucky and had two. I have a treasure trove of memories. I remember the vulnerability I felt that bordered on terror, with the thought that something could happen to end my newborn daughter’s life. I remember playing a game I called “Volume Knob” when Julia was a few months old, and enjoyed shrieking at the top of her lungs. We had another game called “Hunt and Kill,” in which I would slowly wave my hand past Julia’s face, and she would grab it, stick my little finger between her toothless gums and bite down.

I remember reading to her at night, sometimes so exhausted that I fell asleep with her book open. I remember the sound of the electric monitor that connected us to her bedroom in our Laurelhurst home.

Julia had a glorious spiritual insight a few years later when she asked, “What if when you die you wake up and it’s all been a dream?” She was three or four.

At Halloween she would place her order for the evening’s entertainment: “Tell me a spooky story. But don’t make it too scary!” That winter it snowed in the Columbia Gorge, and I drove her to Crown Point. We made a snowman that she named Rollo. “Let’s sing a Christmas carol!” she said. And so we did, much to the amusement of others within earshot.

We went camping. And fishing. And to the park almost every summer night after dinner. When I’d leave for work in the morning, she would run to the front door and declare, “You can’t leave without a hug and kiss!”

Time passed. Soon she was satisfied with just yelling from wherever she was, “Huggy kiss!” when I left for work. We took our own road trips together in the summer, to Lake Tahoe, Santa Cruz, and places in between. I took her to dinner at the Red Robin and a movie when she was in fifth grade. I loved it so much I vowed to do it every month. We didn’t go again until she was in high school. Like a lot of dads, I spent my weeks in the thick of thin things–career stress, economic uncertainty, the busyness of everyday life.

There’s nothing like a little girl. And there’s nothing like a teenage daughter. “Huggy kiss” gave way to “Bye, Dad,” and then to nothing at all. We went into labor as a dad and daughter. The contractions became more frequent; the pain sometimes unbearable. What girls in this culture go through in adolescence is soul-piercing. Sometimes Julia showed and told me how much she loved me; sometimes she did the same with how much she hated me.

We just flew to Boston, where she is starting life as a university freshman. Like thousands of dads who’ve brought their daughters and who will be bringing them to schools in recent weeks, I feel the tug of conflicting emotions. Relief that we made it. Joy at the enormity of what she accomplished and overcame. Gratitude for the happiness we experienced together. Pride in what a strong young woman she is. Sadness for the absence of what we didn’t find together—or at least haven’t found yet. And sadness as well for the inevitable shortcomings that separated the father she got from the father she wanted and the father she ultimately needed.

Julia’s time had come to move on. I didn’t anticipate the loss that I’d feel, as many dads do, birthing a daughter into this chapter of her life.

I couldn’t leave Boston without a hug and kiss. Surrounded by her dorm mates, Julia preferred a non-dramatic separation. I understood that. I was 18 once and starting college. It was the day before yesterday.

So we shared a very brief hug. Then I walked away alone into the night to find a cab.

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Saying goodbye came too quickly

I accompanied my oldest daughter Julia across the country this week, to start her freshman year at Northeastern University. It is a time of enormous excitement for her, and sadness for me.

I loved this piece by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post. It speaks to what I’ve been going through, and a lot of other dads (and moms) at this time of year.

I’ll have more to share on this in the weeks ahead…


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Exhibit A: The Heroic Dad

Ruth lives a simple life; her father’s is even simpler.

Late every summer, she and her family drive to central Oregon for vacation. It’s a common ritual with an uncommon twist. She takes her dad. Every year. And she looks forward to it for months.

“At Black Butte, he’ll go on walks with us,” she told me. “He’ll watch the kids if we want to go somewhere. He’s just fun to have around. I like talking with him, relaxing with him. It wouldn’t be the same without him.”

From the women I interviewed for my book on fathers and daughters I heard stories of fathers who ranged from horrific to heroic. These extraordinary fathers offer incisive lessons to the rest of us struggling with shepherding our daughters from infancy to womanhood.

The stories Ruth and others shared made clear that being a remarkable father doesn’t require a remarkable career, education, or social standing. One of the great dads drove a bread truck; another drove a garbage truck; another was a farm worker from Mexico. One was a scientist; another a medical doctor. Clearly, it’s not social class that matters. It’s the man.

The third son of German immigrants, Ruth’s father married his best friend’s younger sister, and has been married for more than 50 years. He spent his career with the Oregon Highway Department and evenings with his family.

“I remember Dad would get home right around five o’clock every day,” she said. “He had a huge garden, half an acre of corn and beans and everything. In the summertime he would come in, change his clothes, and go out to the garden and pick whatever we were going to eat for dinner that night.

“We did a lot of bike riding as a family, around the neighborhoods. One of my fondest memories was playing catch with him in the side yard, just throwing the ball back and forth, just one on one. And that was cool, because I had his undivided attention.

“He helped us make forts, multi-story forts, like seven levels. They were pretty extravagant tree houses. We had chickens and goofy animals—turkeys, rabbits, and stuff around.

“He read at night to us. That was a big thing he did. I remember sitting on my dad’s lap. One time I climbed up and got settled in and cracked his rib. He was always a big passionate reader so I saw that modeled all the time. I’m a huge reader and so is my husband, and our kids are.

“And camping, that’s another big memory. Friday at five o’clock, my mom would have the Volkswagen van and a tent trailer all packed. We’d camp over the weekend.

“I loved my dad, and he loved me. I just always wanted to do things with him, I wanted his attention, just like I wanted my mom’s attention, but I never felt like I was in his way or he didn’t have time for me.”

When Ruth was in fifth grade, her father declined a promotion because it would have meant uprooting the family from its church, schools, and community. “As an adult, I realize this is a man who had his priorities in order. It was more important for him to have his family life and to make the sacrifice with his career and to keep his family in one place where we were comfortable and happy.”

Father’s like Ruth’s are silent heroes. Ruth, Blanca, Tami, Cheryl, and another dozen women I interviewed had fathers who anchored them. For many, it was grounding in a religious faith that gave them an uncommon sense of life balance and perspective, and resilience in the face of challenges.

Emphasizing education was also a common thread among the strong dads. “From the very youngest years that I can look back on, when it came to education, my dad was always there for us,” Ruth said. “He helped me write my first report, in fourth grade, on chickens. He said, ‘Ruth, I want you to learn how to do research, how to write a good research report. So I will help you through every step of this process.’

“I remember doing homework at night, sitting down at the kitchen table, and if I had questions I would go to him. He was there every evening if we needed him.

“I went out for gymnastics one year, and I played basketball. In high school, my focus was on my studies and he encouraged that. He always said, ‘Ruth, remember that no matter what else you do when you go to college, your studies come first.’ And I would repeat that mantra to myself over and over. And it helped me out with parties, my social life. I always attended to my studies.

My dad taught me to be independent. I saw him do things; having your priorities straight, being true to yourself. My dad does not care what anybody else thinks of him. He’s a good man and people like him. He is the craziest dresser. He wears hand-me-downs from my brothers and my husband. He’s got polyester pants from the ’70s and ’80s that he still wears. He just doesn’t care. He’s very self-assured. Being comfortable in your skin and not needing to pretend that you’re anything that you aren’t, I got that from him. The security that he has given me made me who I am today.”

And who is Ruth today?

She’s a professional woman in her mid-40s living a rich life. She has a plot of land like the one she grew up on, with chickens and a garden. She’s a mom with an MBA who left a career at Chevron and Andersen Consulting so she could work part time as a writer and raise her kids. Like her father, her husband works for the state of Oregon.

Her life isn’t filled with money, titles, or status symbols. It’s instead filled with her family, love, self-acceptance, and happiness. It’s what many us spend our lifetimes searching for, in one fashion or another. And ordinary men who commit themselves to being extraordinary dads help set their daughters on that rich lifetime trajectory.

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How does a daughter change a dad?

Daughters need fathers. That’s hardly a secret. But here is a great article on what a daughter does to change a man’s life, just by her presence. It’s worth the few minutes it takes to read: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/opinion/sunday/why-men-need-women.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

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When a father hits the eject button…

If any movie ever spoke to the importance of fathers, it’s the relative newcomer “The Way Way Back.” This extraordinary movie is a searing, and painful, look at what happens when a father hits the eject button. And how other men who enter the picture can change a child’s life.

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When you share your story, you move the world

This came in from someone I met recently, whom I’ll call Ellie. She has a heartfelt message for the women who have shared their stories with me, and thus with her. She says better in her words what I can say, so in keeping it simple and real, here it is:

I became acquainted with Author Kevin Renner’s writings through his monthly columns in The Oregonian newspaper. These columns moved me to tears, which then inspired me to read In Search of Fatherhood. Thank you to all the brave women who shared their deeply personal stories…..you provided a light of sunshine and hope in my own journey of healing. I felt a profound connection with each of you. I am grateful for the wisdom each of you shared on how you survived your childhoods, including the “life lessons and fatherly advice” your fathers shared with you about how to maneuver through the challenging events that this universe presents to each of us.

You filled a void in me because I can not recall my parents sharing advice to me, and now this book provides that for me too. This book is filled with so much hope, wisdom, inspiration, survival, and a connection to such spirited women. I found myself reading this book again and again, and finding new connections with these courageous women again and again.

Thank you Kevin for writing about the incredibly important relationship between fathers and daughters.

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Out of her darkness, into the light

In the past month since her back surgery, and past two decades since her father’s death, Lenore has had plenty of time to think about how he shaped her life of 77 years. Hers is a common story with an uncommon ending. She shared a lifetime with me after reading an earlier column I wrote. Here’s part of her story.

“I was assaulted mentally, emotionally and physically by my father. My heart was bruised by his name calling. His temper and wrath created panic and anxiety. I became fearful and cautious around him. I was developing into a little girl who thought she needed to be charming, and thus I developed these skills early on.

“Wounded and lost, I searched from adolescence into my twenties for someone to love me. Over and over I remained in the same pattern looking for love, always from tall, dark, handsome and strong men resembling my father. I left home at 18 with naïve impressions of what a woman might set out to find in a man. I was destined to be wounded again and again.

“Unwittingly I went looking for someone who not only looked like my father, but was also 11-12 years older. It seemed glamorous at the time. My mantra was, ‘Older men knew how to treat a woman.’ Some women might think I lived an exciting life…affairs with attorneys, jet fighter pilots, television anchors and program managers.

“I wonder how many women carry the burden of a wounded heart. Are they looking to fill the emptiness of lost love from their fathers? How many of us have suffered from low self-esteem and despondency? How many have jumped at the first marriage proposal? How many of those marriages failed?

“I remember a romantic encounter with a man who touched my heart, because of his immense respect for me. He was the lead pilot for the Air Force Thunderbirds. We met on several occasions but it was never more than delicious moments of affection–holding hands, an occasional kiss and the memorable hug given when he departed from the air base. We both knew love was surfacing, but like some of the men before him, he was married. We parted ways. His kindness and respect left me with a newfound strength and hope that I would cross paths someday with a man just like him.

“It happened many years later….yes, he resembled my father physically, but he was strong and gentle, supportive and respectful. It was a wonderful and exciting marriage…almost 37 years. I lost him in 2007 when he elected to end his life by physician-assisted suicide as a result of a cancer that was eating him away. He was my lover, best friend and soul mate.

“He told me three days before he passed that I was the ‘best thing that ever happened’ to him. Does it get any better than that?”
Does it? I don’t think so, unless perhaps by 38 or more years that are at least as fulfilling.

Lenore asked “How many women carry the burden of a heavy heart” when they’ve been abandoned or abused by their fathers? All of them. Every. Single. One.

Nobody dodges that bullet. We come into life wired to love, and receive love from, our parents. When that bond gets repeatedly violated, we get rewired into lonely, sad, depressed, angry, or violent men and women. A woman’s deepest beliefs, her sense of herself, of her desirability, are molded like clay at her father’s hands.

Serial affairs? Lenore’s were just a symptom of an ordinary woman with a lifelong hunger to feel desired. Her father left a gaping hole in her heart. She tried to fill it with sugar syrup. She found temporary relief in one of the fixes we pour into our hearts hoping to fill what’s missing. Trysts, drugs, compulsive shopping, expensive cars, the raw pursuit of fame, fortune and power–they’re all mindless attempts to buffer our pain and emptiness.

In time, Lenore found something more: 37 years of joy with a soul mate. There aren’t many women who draw the short straw in a father who can form, much less sustain for 37 years, such a deeply intimate relationship. Her story is a triumph of the human spirit.
Medical doctors such as John Sarno and Vincent Feletti, among others, have researched and written about the link between childhood trauma, repressed emotion, and physical illness, including back pain. A day after pouring out her story, Lenore wrote to me this past Sunday.

“Hi Kevin. I felt so much energy just flowing upwards through my body. My head has been clear all day. Most importantly I feel like the story is no longer on the back burner. The pain that I have had from the surgery just seemed to melt away….almost like a miracle. I feel like I can breathe deep again. The relief I feel is just incredible.”

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When fathers leave a hole in their daughters hearts, it lasts forever

For the many readers visiting my blog after Oprah’s program on fatherless daughters, I’m sharing the thoughts below.

“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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Oprah and fatherless daughters

The publicist for Oprah’s network sent me an announcement about their Sunday special on women who grew up without fathers. Details are below. I’m sure there will be some heartfelt stories.


on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network

In this all-new episode, Oprah Winfrey and Iyanla Vanzant address an audience and online community of daddyless daughters who reveal their personal stories of how not having a father present in their life affected who they are today. With symptoms of low confidence, overcompensating in other relationships, and seeking love in all the wrong places, daughters who want to heal seek guidance from Oprah and Iyanla in order to prepare to move forward with their life with a positive, new outlook.

This dynamic, interactive show allows Lifeclass viewers and students from over 200 countries worldwide to be a part of the online classroom experience by joining with Oprah Winfrey via Oprah.com and Twitter using #Lifeclass.

For a sneak peek of the episode, click here:


For the embedded code, click here:

First Look: “Daddyless Daughters, Part 1″

Oprah and Iyanla Vanzant address an audience of fatherless daughters, who reveal how their lives have been affected by their fathers’ absence.

Watch this episode of Oprah’s Lifeclass on Sunday, July 14, at 9/8c.

For downloadable links to the sneak peek, click here:







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The man who got hit with a brick on Father’s Day

You listened as she told you about the Father’s Day gift she couldn’t wait to share. You hadn’t seen your daughter this excited about doing something for you in ages. She was filled with the exuberance of a 17-year-old, just out of high school, part girl, part woman.

It was Saturday morning. She would share her gift for you that evening, because she would be leaving early Sunday to visit her chosen college in Boston. She’d miss you on Father’s Day.

Evening came, like many before it. You were busily working through the paperwork on your desk so you could make dinner, then leave for a movie with your other daughter.

“Dad, are you ready for your present?” she shouted a few minutes later from the kitchen.

“I’ll be right there,” you replied, and then promptly forgot that you’d said anything. Your busy mind pulled you a little deeper into its quicksand. A few minutes later, you heard her voice calling. “Dad?” Or was she calling her sister, “Kat?” You couldn’t tell from your office. “It’s OK,” you thought, immersed in your work; “I’ll be done in a minute.”

You emerged later, ready for her. Then the firestorm from your wife hit: Your daughter had to leave for a babysitting job; you said you were coming and then you didn’t. She had been waiting expectantly in the kitchen to give you your Father’s Day gift. You stood her up.

Your wife’s voice was filled with anger. Do you have any idea how dismissive it feels to be ignored—again? Do you have any idea how badly your daughter wanted to share a gift of love with you? What could you possibly have been doing that was more important?

Nothing. Not the life insurance forms. Not the email and paperwork. Nothing was more important in that moment than your daughter, and you lost that opportunity for connection. And with your apparent disinterest you carelessly tossed another dart into her heart. Once again, you reacted mindlessly, hurting without trying, sometimes without knowing. You were embarrassed and angry at yourself.

Like most dads, you try your best, parenting by trial and error—your errors become your daughter’s emotional trials.

You walked upstairs to talk with your daughter. She had no interest; she was tired she said and wanted to rest before her babysitting job. Her eyes were red. You made dinner. You couldn’t eat much.

You took your youngest daughter to the movie; a knot took your stomach hostage. On the drive home, you stopped to buy Father’s Day cards for your girls, to thank them for filling your life with joy and love. You put one on the seat of the car, for your oldest daughter to get early the next morning before she drove to the airport. You wouldn’t see her until she returned.

And the gift she wanted to give you? Maybe you’ll see it when she gets back home. You hope. She loves you; that’s how she’s wired. And she also resents you for the times you’ve failed her. You’re walking the march of an ordinary father; two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes one step forward and two steps back.

You’re taking life’s biggest test—bringing your daughters from womb to womanhood. But it’s not an SAT or bar exam. There’s no do-over.

The brick to the head woke you up. It came late. She’s moved out, moved on, to a family and career. Her desk is piled with busy work, her calendar full of commitments. You’ve worked through your pile; you have no desk in your room at the assisted living center, no email in the critical care unit as your heart shuts down.

You hang on until your daughter arrives. She sits by your side. You’re sorry, you tell her; you did the best that you could. You are so terribly sorry for every scar you etched into her heart like ruts in the freeway.

You ask her forgiveness. Your breathing becomes labored. You’re more present with your longing for her forgiveness than you were with her. You pray that she knows the depth of your regret. One more time you tell her: “I am so sorry. I have loved you since your first breath. Please forgive me.” Your eyes close. You wait for her response.

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