Fathers, Daughters-and Presidential Elections


In this time of Thanksgiving, the excerpt from “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” most famously sung by Maurice Chevalier, conveys one of life’s blessings for fathers.

In this time of Thanksgiving, the following excerpt comes from the show Gigi, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” most famously sung by Maurice Chevalier. The verse conveys one of life’s blessings for some fathers. I’m not implying that fathers should not be grateful for their sons, but there is probably a good reason that we don’t have a song titled “Thank Heaven for Little Boys:”

Thank heaven for little girlsthank heaven for them allno matter where, no matter whofor without them what would little boys do?

Perhaps, along similar lines, it should come as no surprise to anyone, including me, that my previous blog on fathers and sons would elicit requests or protests for a corresponding one on fathers and daughters.

Since that last blog, another example of fathers, sons, and presidential elections has received considerable attention in the media. This one is centered on Jesse Jackson Sr, once a Presidential candidate, and his son, Jesse Jackson Jr, thought to be a possible future Presidential candidate. The influence of the father on a son’s moral reasoning, as discussed in that earlier blog, may be playing out in this gut-wrenching story of the reported interplay of mental illness, ethics investigation, and political ambitions. A recent New York Times article from November 25th, “A Family Business in Disarray,” states, “By all accounts, the relationship between father and his oldest son has been complex, layered with love, pressure, resentment and even competition.”

While it would be ethically inappropriate to comment more about the psychology of the particular father and son in the New York Times story, psychiatrists should be fascinated by the general question of how mental illness may or may not influence morality.

Interestingly enough, though, the recent Presidential election lends itself to fathers and daughters as well as it does to fathers and sons. President Obama, of course, has 2 daughters and no sons. President Bush, before him, had the same. President Clinton had 1 daughter. While we of course don’t know what goes on in the privacy of their families, it looks like these Presidents have many reasons to thank heaven for their little girls. A couple of the daughters have married and the older ones are doing some humanitarian work.

Nevertheless, it would be ridiculous, would it not, to think that it was more than a coincidence that our last 3 Presidents have only had daughters? It would also be another example of wild psychological analysis to think that something about fathers caring for their daughters in public view would have something to do with caring for our country. Wouldn’t it? If not, should this be a criterion for the nominations to come for the 2016 Presidential run, at least for the male candidates who also are left-handed? Could it be that this is the real unidentified reason Romney lost?

Regarding fathers and daughters: Freud’s Oedipal theory and challenge doesn’t seem to be as applicable as with fathers and sons. For that matter, Freud admitted not understanding what women wanted. Freud himself had 6 children, a mixture of boys and girls. His last, Anna, was unmarried, and seemed to end up devoting her life to her father’s legacy, eventually becoming an innovator herself in child psychoanalysis.

If not from Freud, then how to understand this relationship? Maybe we can turn first to another master of understanding people, Shakespeare. After his son died at the age of 11, Shakespeare was left with 2 daughters. In his play “The Tempest” (which I just happened to see in an opera version shortly after the last election), a father and daughter relationship is isolated and central to the play. Prospero and Miranda are shipwrecked on an island with a non-human aerial spirit, Ariel, and with a grounded partial human, Caliban. Prospero educates and protects Miranda, but his highest priority seems to be to help her find a good husband, and with the aide of some magic, does so.

In reality, the father-daughter role can vary immensely across time, cultures, and particular families. In my own culture, the traditional role of the father with daughters can readily be seen in the ever-popular musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Whereas in the past, the role of the Jewish father was either to be immersed in the study of the “good” (holy) books and/or making a living, Tevye in this play depicts the beginning of change in this role over the last century, perhaps one of the reasons for its popularity. From being a rubber stamp in the matchmaker’s finding a husband for his 5 daughters, he has to grapple with anguish over their new requests to marry for love, learning, and intermarriage.

The last 2 unmarried youngest daughters are going to America from Russia, and in America today these changes seem expressed in the matching on internet J-Date, falling in love by chance, having a career before marriage, and increasing intermarriage across cultures. One would have to image that maybe one of Tevye’s remaining daughters might be Lesbian and want to marry another woman. Maybe the other would never want to marry. The tradeoff for the father now is often being much more involved with child rearing from birth onward.

In my life, I came to know a general practitioner who, akin to the last 3 Presidents, had only daughters. The middle one displayed unusual musical skills, which he confirmed and supported. She was to return this nurturing in caring for him in his last years when, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, he did not go gently into the night. In the middle of all this, I was the fortunate recipient of the nurturing relationship by marrying her.

I also became a physician, a common profession for American Jewish boys in the latter part of the 20th century. We had 1 daughter, our first child. Fortunately, early bonding was easy as I cared for her for much of her first year as I finished my medical school thesis at home. Hopefully, our evolving relationship can be summed up in an ending excerpt from a poem I wrote for her when she was thirteen and being Bat Mitzvahed:

Instead, may you modelAfter Queen Esther’s legacyThen a wise, brave, and beautiful StaciaWe can someday expect to see.

And we have come to see that.

Over time, I also got to know another daughter, though her father certainly did not fit the stereotype of Jewish fathers from that time. He was a Jewish Marine who fought in Iwo Jima, and later became the only Jewish policeman in an upper class town. He taught his daughters about sports, how to drive a stick shift, and basic construction. His dating advice was: “all guys are pigs; I know, I’m a guy.”

Is there any research to complement and explain these father-daughter relationships? Unfortunately, if the research on fathers and sons is sparse, it’s even more so for fathers and daughters. What seems to be suggested to me is that the most prominent task is to model a loving and respectful relationship with his partner, for his daughter’s future partner. As with Prospero, protection and safety still seem important. And as with fathers and sons, encouraging learning and skills development are also important-in fact they are becoming more so. But teaching and modeling moral behavior seems to reside more importantly with the mother. And, like with sons, there can be more than biological fathers to include . . . other “father figures” of importance who will “thank heaven for little girls.”

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