(WOMENSENEWS)–As I write this, my daughter is working six days a week as an intern in her father’s company before she departs for college in the fall. She assembles press packets and gift bags; coordinates publicity events and sends celebrity photos to stores three days a week; and works on the sales floor and in the stockroom unpacking cartons and unfolding and, painstakingly and in a highly specific way, refolding clothes for display.
The work is seldom glamorous, with the exception of one day when she got to meet Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes at a photo shoot (she was as star struck as a little kid); that was huge. But for the rest of what so far has been an exceptionally hot summer, she will work long hours for low pay in her father’s world, watching what he does and how he does it, discovering and testing her own mettle according to his example.
As I watched her grow from winsome little girl into vulnerable adolescent and now into competent adult, it became increasingly clear that if mother love grants you safe harbor and shelter from the storm, perhaps father love provides ballast for the vessel of the self and a sextant to help it navigate the world.
I was hooked.
The more I saw how my daughter was evolving and flourishing under my husband’s guidance, the more determined I became to explore the complex dynamics between daughters and fathers. And the more I found out, the more curious I became.
Why, for example, did some child placement agencies set greater store in having a father in the family when placing a boy than when placing a girl? One agency official told me that when foster home placement or adoption of a boy by a single mother was considered, the agency always made sure she had arranged for the child to be exposed to a male role model. Why, then, wasn’t the agency concerned about a girl growing up without a male role model? Because, the official told me, there is "probably a bias that it’s not as important [for a girl to grow up with a father as it is for a boy], frankly, when it is."
Since then, data have begun to replace the anecdotal conjectures. In one 2009 study, biologist Anna Katharina Braun, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the Institute of Biology at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany, released preliminary findings from a study they are conducting on infant degus (small, highly social rodents typically raised by two parents). In the experiment, the degu dads are removed from the cage shortly after the litter is born and the pups are left to grow to maturity–which takes about 90 days–with their mothers.
So far, the results are astonishing: Not only do the father-deprived pups exhibit more impulsive and aggressive behaviors than the pups with fathers, their brains also develop differently. Neurons in the brains of the father-deprived pups have slower-growing, and in some cases shorter, dendrites (twig-like extensions that conduct electrical impulses between neurons). Moreover, these dendritic differences were found to occur in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for, among other things, modulating emotional responses. Braun’s team has concluded that being deprived of a father delays and may also inhibit the development of brain circuitry.
Too Soon for Conclusions
While it is too soon to draw conclusions about how the physical and psychological development of small fatherless rodents may apply to that of small fatherless human beings, there is ample evidence to anticipate a connection.
The more I thought about it, the more questions I had. Why do we take as gospel the notion that mother love can make or break a child’s self-concept, self-esteem and psychological well-being while glossing over the father’s contributions to these basic elements of personal development? And when we do acknowledge the importance of a father to his child, why do we almost always picture the child as a boy?
If, as common wisdom has it, a father provides his son with a model of virility, competency, power and strength, why does he not also do so for his daughter? And if he does provide a model of these qualities for his daughter, how does she, however unwittingly, adapt and assimilate these qualities to her own needs and into her own life as a girl and a woman?
This, then, was the question: If dads are showing their sons how to be strong and effective navigators of their lives, might they not be doing the same for their daughters?
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Reprinted from "Our Fathers, Ourselves" by Peggy Drexler. Copyright copyright 2011 by Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. By permission of Rodale, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.
Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" (Rodale, May 2011). Follow Drexler on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about her at www.peggydrexler.com.
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