Are father-daughter relationships undervalued?

// 25 October 2007

There was an article in The Guardian last weekend (unforutnately I’ve been unable to source it online as of yet) written from the first-person perspective of a woman and her father. Karen Glaser had asked her father to be present at the birth of her second child, a decision that was met with amazement and horror by her close friends. She explains that the reason she wanted her father by her side was because:

“When a woman is in labour she wants to be supported by people she loves and trusts, and who could, if necessary, be an advocate on her behalf.”

Glaser’s father felt honoured when asked to be part of this special moment and, when processed, it is logical for a birthing mother to want to be surrounded by the people she feels she can depend on. Now, I consider myself to be an open-minded woman, but I read this article with my mouth so wide open in disbelief that I’m surprised my jaw didn’t snap off at the hinges (surprised but also pleased). What’s significant is that considering the issues the article raised about the different facets of the father-daughter relationship, I could not help but keep asking the same question: so, did he see her muff? And, how did she feel about said dad-muff-viewing? Was it awkward afterwards? Did they both keep thinking about her muff? Did she trim before? And if so, did Dad notice muff mountain had been mowed? On finishing the article I discovered that yes, he had in fact seen her lady parts. Not only did he get a prime spot at the end of the bed, but he also got to see her vagina stretched and distended to allow muff-zilla to spit out a human head. Had he been in any doubt that his daughter was sexually active and indulging in ‘insertion,’ the cutting of the cord and the prompt squelch of the afterbirth as it emerged probably removed any uncertainty.

It’s a taboo subject, and one that I struggled to understand. I tried to imagine myself in that position, legs spread so far my thighs are aching, ankles in stirrups, sweating and straining, looking up over my contracting stomach to see my father peering up from my massively untrimmed pubic mound to tell me how well I’m doing, and how much I look like my mother. And then the image fades, and my brain cuts out, because I can’t take it. I don’t think I could sit with my father and discuss my sex life (even if it was exciting), and I definitely would not be able to place him face-to-fanny with the definitive evidence that I let a man inside me, let alone allowed him to spray his seed all over my eggs like a water sprinkler. I have always had a close relationship with my dad, but the prospect of him finding one of my stray pubic hairs in the shower or on the toilet seat is a thought that fills me with dread, let alone him watching a nurse fit her fist inside me to see if I am fully dilated. Or at least, this is what I thought.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that Glaser also asked her mother to be present at the birth, although this was reported as nothing new and was just briefly mentioned in the article. Women have been watching women giving birth for centuries, but for her father to be present…this was newsworthy, right? But why? And is it fair to say that the father-daughter relationship is considered less significant than the mother-daughter relationship by popular culture? Maybe this is because fathers are traditionally considered strong, oppressive patriarchs, whereas mothers, as women, can empathise with daughters who are also struggling against prejudices and discrimination in a world where the ‘cock’ historically reigned supreme? I would say that yes, to a certain extent, father-daughter relationships are not given the press they deserve, even though this is to do many men and women a disservice. We live in a culture where the body is something that should be covered up unless you are a celebrity, (or have the pert tits and ass to rival one), and the thought of a women exposing a triangle covered in masses of fur is something that would only have been acceptable in a 70s porn film. Add to this then, the fact that it is widely considered inappropriate for a father to look at his daughter’s naked body, without the presence of some perverse sexual subtext.

A friend of mine at university was from a family of naturists, and so it was not uncommon for her, along with her parents and siblings, to sit around on a Sunday afternoon reading the papers, watching the Eastenders omnibus and eating cheesecake while completely stark bollock naked. This was considered the norm. But, when she revealed this information many of us (some from Daily-Mail-reading backgrounds) were horrified at the thought that her father may have seen her sans scanties, and thus as a sexual being. It was hard for us to accept that there was nothing more to this scenario than the fact that they all just liked being naked, the feel of their leather sofas and shag pile against bare skin (and nothing more), and in many respects is this not a healthy way to be? If you feel comfortable dropping your drawers and liberating your baps in the comfort of the family home, in an atmosphere of acceptance and security, then surely you will cultivate a healthy body image, devoid of the complexes that plague those of us who are afraid to peel off that cagoule in case some randomer miraculously notices that we have one tit slightly bigger than the other.

I grew up in a small community in the South Wales valleys, a place where gender roles are clearly defined. It is not acceptable for a woman to talk about her sexual experiences (unless she’s comfortable being called a whore), and fathers are not supposed to show any recognition of the fact that their daughter is sexually active, unless they want to be arrested. For a father to discuss sex with his daughter is, for many, unthinkable, because this may imply a desire on his part (although this can be completely and utterly unfounded). For many, however, it would be completely healthy and beneficial for a woman to speak with her father openly in this way. If we try and think beyond these redundant and archaic belief systems, wouldn’t we feel a lot more confident and better equipped to deal with the opposite sex? Of all the people I have met, or will ever meet, my father is one of the very few people that I know I will always be able to depend on. The strength of my relationship with him (as well as that with my mother) allowed me to develop confidence in my own ability. I do feel that my parents have influenced my maturation in different ways, but watching their relationship provided me with the first example of male-female interactions, and this is undoubtedly the same for many women.

Mothers act as role models for their daughters. We may wish to emulate her behaviour, (or perhaps not), but irrespective of that, mothers (or indeed female carers) provide us with the first glimpse of womanhood. The dynamic of our parents’ relationship provides a template for our own, and it is surprising the extent to which the respect accorded us by our father influences our future interactions with men. As a teenager I argued with my dad, and we are still known to have the odd disagreement, but he has always listened to everything I have said and valued my opinions. In this way I learnt that women do not always have to be subservient to men, and that it is a right and not a privilege for a woman to be shown respect by her male counterparts. There have been times when he has laid down the law, given me a specific and rigid curfew, and chastised me for failing to meet this, rolling home at 4a.m covered in kebab, but it has been through this sort of rebellion that I have learnt to trust my own decisions and developed a sense of independence. This is not always the case, and if a female has been raised in a home where her father was abusive towards her and her mother, either physically or emotionally, then it is not surprising that that woman may be invested with a fear of men, and regard them as fundamentally abusive beings. But in both instances, the influence a father has on his daughter’s development is unquestionable.

My relationship with my dad demonstrated that I could be warm with a man without being seen as an object of sexual desire, and I am lucky in that I have always felt very safe, secure, and in many respects protected, when in his company. I don’t think that this idea rests uneasy alongside my feminist beliefs, nor do I think it raises questions about my independence, but rather it shows from where my strong sense of self-worth has emanated. At the age of 23 I still hug my dad regularly, and we are very affectionate, (along with my mother and brother we are a very close family of four in fact), and there is nothing awkward or sinister about this. In retrospect then, I can completely respect and admire Karen Glaser’s decision to have her father with her as she gave birth, and I do wonder how many other women would make the same decision if this scenario wasn’t considered so completely and utterly unthinkable? Should I find myself in the ‘family way’ one day and rolling around on a hospital gurney, legs akimbo, I will certainly consider having my dad there with me (even if only to argue over who is right). Considering that he has had such a positive influence on my development, I cannot see why I would deny him the opportunity to play a part in what would be one of the most significant moments of my life (although whether he would feel comfortable about seeing me in the altogether is, of course, another question).

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