Your Father

The Father’s Day I Wish For

As a 55 year old daughter, what do I wish for Father’s Day? Foremost, I wish my father was still alive. I don’t have to wish we had loved each other. We did. I don’t have to wish we had been proud of each other. We were. I don’t have to wish we had resolved the conflicts that plagued us during my twenties. We had. I don’t have to wish he had been spared a painful or lingering death. He died quickly and unexpectedly one winter evening - toppling forward in his favorite reclining chair after eating a bowl of chocolate ice cream, my mother nearby knowing immediately that he had died – instantly, peacefully – just after saying “that was good, Fran”.

And yet I wish – I wish we had been comfortable and more open talking about the things that mattered most – the personal, significant parts of our lives like my divorce, his being a grandfather, his childhood, the deaths of his parents and his lifelong friend Paul, his aging, spirituality, regrets, fears, hopes and plans for the future – mine and his. And as Father’s Day approaches, again I am reminded that my father and I were most relaxed with each other when other people were around and when the TV was on. And it was always harder for me to choose a gift for him than for anyone else I loved. Why was that?

Now I know why. And so I wish - I wish I had realized that loving my father was not the same as knowing him – and that loving him was not the same as allowing him to know me. Had I really known my father, choosing gifts for him would have been easier. And had I known how to get to know him, spending quiet time alone with him would have been a relaxing treat. Loving one another was easier than getting to know one another – easier than exploring and sharing the real “stuff” of our lives.

Why? Why didn’t I make time to be alone with my father? Why didn’t I ask him meaningful questions or explore his life and mine with him? I wasn’t a kid. I was 40 when he died. Besides, I’m a psychologist, a professor, an author. I’m good at getting people to open up and engage in meaningful conversations. Sure, Dad could be sullen, difficult, withdrawn, moody. But I’ve gotten to know plenty of people with those traits better than I got to know my own father.

So what was I thinking all those years - that because he was a man or because he was my father, he wouldn’t want us to get to know one another better? That he would refuse to tell me anything important about his life? That he didn’t have anything wise or insightful to share with me? That he didn’t have the same desire I had to be self-disclosing and known by those we love? That even if I was sincere and persistent, he would laugh at me or reject my attempts to be more emotionally intimate?

And so I wish – I wish for a Father’s Day where I would spend hours alone with my father, asking the personal, meaningful questions that I have spent the years since his death trying to teach other daughters to ask their fathers. I wish I had fully embraced my father, rather than simply loving him.

©2008 Dr. Linda Nielsen

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It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father. Pope John XXIII

Dr. Nielsen has been teaching, counseling, conducting research and writing about adolescents and father-daughter relationships since 1970. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and the recipient of the outstanding graduate's award in teacher education from the University of Tennessee in 1969, she taught and counseled high school students for several years. After earning a Master's Degree in Counseling and a Doctorate in Educational and Adolescent Psychology, she joined the faculty of Wake Forest University in 1974. Her grants and awards include the Outstanding Article Award in 1980 from the U.S. Center for Women Scholars and a postdoctoral fellowship from the American Association of University Women. For the past fifteen years she has focused primarily on father-daughter relationships with a special emphasis on divorced fathers and their daughters. Her work has been cited in the "Wall Street Journal" as well as in popular magzines such as "Cosmopolitan", and shared through television and radio interviews..

In 1991 she created her "Fathers & Daughters" course - the only college course in the country that focuses exclusively on father-daughter relationships. In addition to having written several dozen articles for journals such as the "Harvard Educational Review" and the "Journal of Divorce & Remarriage", Dr. Nielsen has written three books: How to Motivate Adolescents (Prentice Hall) and Adolescence: A Contemporary View (Harcourt Brace) which sold more than 60,000 copies and was adopted by hundreds of universities throughout the country and abroad between 1986-1996. Her third book, Embracing Your Father: Creating the Relationship You Want with Your Dad was published in April, 2004. www.wfu.edu/~nielsen or E-Mail

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