Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse blew up her email inbox last week with her column entitled, “Dear Dads: Your Daughters Told Me About Their Assault. This Is Why They Never Told You.” Monica was interviewed by NPR and the column has sparked widespread question and discussion.
The relationship between dads and daughters is what good movies are made of—villains and princesses alike are created by troubled relationships between daddy and daughter. As the father of two daughters who did speak with their father about the horrible things that occurred to them, I offer a personal perspective.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Taboo subjects between fathers and daughters are created by dads who make their daughters uncomfortable about communicating. Tell them what to think and they will think it somewhere else. Describe embarrassment in the grocery line with feminine products in your hand and she will accept your bruised ego and ask someone else next time. One of my fondest memories was the day my daughter started her period and came to tell me about it instead of waiting until her mother got home. It was a rite of passage moment that I was happy to share with her, even if it caught both of us by surprise.
Protection is overrated. Many of the reasons daughters were reported not to tell their dads had to do with his reaction. “He would murder the guy,” many said; “Then he would go to jail.” The pledge to protect came from dad but it was the daughter doing the protecting at her own expense. Hesse rightly suggested maybe this isn’t the best pledge to make to a daughter. Teaching her how to protect herself is far better than locking her in the castle until she is safely under another knight in shining armor’s protection. We mean well when we talk about using shotguns and brass knuckles on anyone who would mistreat our daughters; maybe the days of that kind of relationship has passed.
Who is the strong one here? I wasn’t surprised that daughters protecting their fathers carried all the way to his emotional state, not just his going to prison. “It would crush him,” some said. So, the brave little girl sucks up her pain and carries it without speaking a word. Her dad can live like nothing ever happened even if she cannot. I can emphatically say that no man I know wants his daughter carrying her pain in silence. From the time of her first cries, I wanted to hold her in my arms and soothe her tears.
The best response to our daughter’s pain is not revenge but comfort. Listen to her. Reflect her pain back to her so that she knows you understand. Expect her tears to return again and again. Never, ever tell her to suck it up or grow up or ‘big girls don’t cry.’
If we’ve learned anything over the past few weeks, it is that sexual assault is an experience shared by more of the women around us than we ever dreamed. Ending it seems as far away as the horizon. Sharing it at work is unlikely—for the same reasons it happens to begin with. Some things shouldn’t be shared at work. While there are fathers who have not made the path to his ears smooth in the past, maybe we should give men credit for learning something since the 1950’s. All relationships are built on risk. Maybe daddy can’t handle it; or maybe he can. You will never know until you try.
The most power part of Hesse’s column was the men who pledged to ask. Asking opens the door to loving communication. Asking suggests that you are ready to hear the response. Asking invites your daughter to quit wondering what it will do to you and reassures her that you want to know what it did to her. So, when you are ready, why don’t you calmly ask her?