Becoming a parent forces you to look at your own parents in a new way. As a mom, I know what I say to my kids, positive or negative, matters. It shapes them, just like my father’s words shaped me.
Parents’ words echo in the heads of their children. These words become a second internal voice that we listen to and believe, a voice that can lift us up or create self-doubt.
While no parent is perfect, my dad could have done a lot better. It took me decades to trust my own internal voice and stop listening to my father’s words. On this blog and in our current society, I think we often focus on moms and how they impact their kids without giving enough weight to the influence of dads. For any dads out there reading our blog and looking for insights into how to talk to your daughters, here are the ten things I wish my dad said to me:
#1: You are a good person.
For Christmas one year, my dad bought me a pink coffee mug with white script. The message on the mug said, “You think it’s easy being a (insert expletive)?” It wasn’t a joke. He meant it. This gift conveyed what he thought of me.
Just like Meredith’s character on Grey’s Anatomy (for those of you who watched that show in its early days), I grew up thinking I was, “Dark and twisty,” inside. It took a therapist telling me, “Oh, honey, even when you’re bumming, you do it with a smile on your face,” for me to begin breaking out of the warped self-perception my father’s words painted for me.
#2: I’m sorry.
As a mom, I mess up a lot. Sometimes, when my kids fight, I send the wrong one to his or her room. The other day, while standing in line at Sephora trying to hear the inquiry of the salesperson ringing up my items, I turned to my yammering children and said, a little too loudly, “Quiet!” drawing the attention of the whole store. In these instances (and many others), I follow up with my kids after the fact and apologize for what I did wrong.
In my entire childhood and adult life, I do not recall my father ever offering me a sincere and heartfelt apology. My mom and I compare him to the Fonz on Happy Days who could never say, “I was wrong.” On the show, the Fonz elicited laughs by drawing out and choking on that initial “r” sound of wrong, except in real life, it’s not funny.
#3: It’s not your fault.
As a corollary to #2, my father’s words usually put the blame for any conflict between us squarely on my shoulders. Think Taylor Swift’s song Look What You Made Me Do. Kids, who often think they are the center of the universe, need help defining their locus of control. When I got divorced, all the books I read emphasized the need to tell my kids, “It’s not your fault,” as many times as it took for them to believe it. As an adult daughter, when my dad attempts to shift his share of the blame onto me, I now tell myself, “It’s not your fault,” and I believe it.
#4: Your feelings are valid.
Kids need to hear that their feelings, whatever they may be, are always valid. After I separated from his father, my son felt really angry at me for initiating the divorce. I told him he had every right to feel that way, even though I still expected respectful behavior from him.
When my father’s words do attempt to form an apology, he says something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but the fact that you feel that way is your problem, not mine.” For those of you who do not already know, this version of an apology does not actually count as an apology. Telling someone, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” invalidates their feelings and does not convey any regret or accountability for your part in the situation. Additionally, any time a “but” follows an apology, it negates every word prior to the “but.”
#5: You are enough, just the way you are.
My son started middle school last year. We all remember what that’s like, right? Middle school kids are mean. At the same time, the schoolwork gets harder. Puberty begins. Drama with dating and friendships starts. We all just have to survive it and move to the next stage. Through the highs and lows of his days, I gave my son a mantra, “No matter what, you are good enough, and your mother loves you.” It would have meant the world to me as a middle school girl to hear these words from my father.
#6: I support your professional journey, whatever you choose to do.
After I finished graduate school, I moved back to Vermont during a recession. With no one hiring recent college graduates, I found a job as a flight attendant.
My father repeatedly emphasized his disappointment in me wasting my education in this manner. Conversely, I want my kids to develop a strong work ethic. No job is below anyone, regardless of education or experience, especially when jobs are scarce.
While I eventually moved my career to positions that require a Master’s degree, I value my time as a flight attendant, traveling and meeting interesting people. I met doctors who picked up trips on weekends for the free travel benefits and stuntmen who scheduled trips around shooting movies. I met Eric Clapton and Jackson Brown. My roommate and I flew to Vegas first class one weekend, just because we could. To this day, when I tell people I was a flight attendant, their eyes light up in curiosity, and they ask me all the questions everyone wonders about that job. For that moment, I feel like a celebrity. I finally recovered from the pang of shame my father’s words once induced about my time as a flight attendant.
#7: Are you sure about getting married today?
Before I married my ex-husband, I experienced my first crippling panic attack in the bridal room exactly 16 minutes before I walked down the aisle.
I realized with shocking intensity at that moment that I didn’t want to marry him. I am an only child with five aunts and uncles and six first cousins. With my parents’ expense and my entire extended family waiting, I felt like I had no choice but to go through with the wedding. My father’s words to me as we stood outside the church were, “I’m so proud of you.”
That sealed the deal. Disappointing him in that moment seemed unfathomable to me, so I married the wrong man.
Years later, preparing to get remarried (to the absolute right man), I sat in the chair of my wonderful wedding hairstylist conveying this story. She then shared that immediately prior to her own wedding her father gently took her by the shoulders, looked her straight in the eyes, and said, “Are you sure about this? Do you want to get out of here? All these people will wait if you want to take a drive around the block and think about it.” She laughed and said, “No, Dad, I’m good. Let’s do this.” She and her husband have been happily married for over 20 years. In hearing her story, I realized those were the exact words I needed to hear from my father that day. Only my father’s words could have given me permission to acknowledge my true feelings and avoid making a big life mistake.
#8: Congratulations on your pregnancy! I’m so excited to become a grandfather!
After trying for several months, I ironically learned of my first pregnancy when both of my parents were out of town.
I managed to conference my mom in New York and my dad in Colorado into the same call and gave them both what I considered happy news. I’ll never forget my father’s words. We worked at the same company, and he said, “Have you told anyone at work yet? You know when they find out it’s going to hurt your career.” Ouch. I was devastated.
#9: I will follow your parenting rules.
As any divorced parent knows, parenting becomes more difficult when you and your ex-husband establish different rules and expectations of behavior for your children. Under these circumstances, it becomes more important for grandparents to observe consistency by following the parenting rules of their adult child.
Ultimately, my father does what he wants when it comes to correcting my children and ignores any direction I provide to the contrary. As a result of his approach, we avoid spending time with him. To me, it’s not worth his tacit criticism of my parenting and my children’s confusion about rules and expectations that his parenting input creates.
#10: It’s your house, and I respect that.
My second husband and I recently renovated our house. Everything in it, from the brown laminate kitchen cabinets to the pink cast iron tub, harkened back to 1971.
Prior to the demolition, my father, an amateur carpenter and furniture builder, kept making noise about wanting to salvage some things. I called him to find out what he wanted. As it turns out, he wanted to dismantle the entire kitchen himself and keep the cabinet doors, shelves, hardware, and the whole countertop.
When I asked for what purpose he intended to use what I considered garbage well past its prime, he informed me he planned to make furniture for my children out of it. I told him he could take the materials, but I didn’t want any of it back. My father then accused me of wasting, “Perfectly good lumber.” Needless to say, I asked our contractor to demolish everything and haul it away. I am an adult woman, and this house belongs to me and my husband. It baffles me how my father fails to comprehend that fact.
Arriving at middle age, I now accept that my father will probably never say these things to me. While it’s taken half a lifetime, I’ve finally learned to silence my father’s words that play in my mind and to listen to my own inner voice. My hope in writing this post is to provide any dads who read it with the words their daughters need to hear. These men can then raise strong, secure, and kind women who expect to feel loved, respected, and heard by the men in their lives.