Who's my daddy?

I want a boyfriend who acts like the father I never had.

By Cary Tennis

Published January 14, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I don't know where to begin, or if I should even be writing. Maybe this is just life.

My stepfather, who hooked up with my mom when I was 3, married her when I was 5 and adopted me when I was 14, has a terrible relationship with me. We never had much of a rapport or common ground, but beginning in my early teens, he drank heavily, and what relationship we had went straight to hell. Last year, he and my mom divorced (finally!), and although I hate seeing my mother sad and lonely (she left him, by the way), I felt the first ray of hope in a long time that he and his whole wretched family would no longer be in our life. I know ... horrible. But it's the truth. If I never hear from or see this man or any of my "paternal" relatives again, I won't sweat it for a second. I want them to be well, but I would rather they do it far, far away.

Problem is, I don't seem to be able to have normal adult relationships with men. I can't just find a boyfriend and be happy. I want "Daddy" -- someone who puts me on a pedestal and treats me like a princess and at the same time is firm and commanding and in control. And it's not like I want some celibate platonic father figure, either. Believe me, the "Daddy" thing takes on a meaning in the bedroom that would rock my therapist(s) back on their heels. I recently ended a long-term affair with a married man, the father of two daughters not much younger than I! Sure, he was a lying, adulterous creep, but on the surface, he presented that perfect, stable, "Father Knows Best" image and I couldn't resist it for a long time.

I know this is a weakness. I know that no matter how unfair it may seem, I cannot be 8 years old again and have Ward Cleaver gently admonishing me, "Run along and do your homework, kitten." I know it's not healthy, or normal. And I know lots of women grow up without fathers for any number of reasons, and manage not to end up like me. But I crave this. I feel like I need it to be happy, to be complete. And I feel sorry for the poor guys that stumble across my path, because this whole Daddy thing is like a deep pit covered with twigs and leaves. She looks normal, but get close and WHAT-THE-??!! CRASH!

I tried therapy twice and it seemed pointless. Both times, I felt three steps ahead of the counselor, like he was reading from "Therapy for Dummies" and I was a chapter ahead, waiting for him to catch up. Recently, I've begun taking sleeping pills so that I can come home from work and go right to bed. I sit in my shower and cry hysterically because I'm convinced that I am never going to find someone who both wants to give me what I need and can. I feel lonely and hopeless and so, so stupid.

Daddy's Girl

Dear Daddy's Girl,

Would it be such a terrible thing if you, like many girls, very much wanted a father when you were growing up? Would it be so wrong if, not getting a father, you felt sad and angry about it? Would it be so awful if, as you became an adult, you felt awkward or conflicted about expressing this desire, because it seems so much the desire of a girl and not a woman? Would it be so surprising if, never actually saying out loud, "I want a father," you nonetheless found yourself seeking him out in bits and pieces through relationships with men? If you found that this need, this ancient, searing, primal need, had begun to make itself known sexually, in spite of your desire to push it aside as childish or perverse, would that be so surprising? Would it be so perverse? Sex is an ideal medium for the expression of powerful and sometimes frightening longings. It has much to tell us about what is truly important to us.

So I would say that you are lucky in a way. Your sexuality has chosen to inform you of certain needs that you otherwise, to your detriment, might ignore. Consider yourself the privileged recipient of an urgent message. The message is that you, as a woman, need a man with certain archetypal masculine qualities. As you say, you are looking for a lover who puts you on a pedestal and treats you like a princess but is also firm, commanding and in control. Put that way, it doesn't really have to be a father at all. It just has to be a very good man.

Nonetheless, the truth is the truth: You grew up without a father, and your dream date is all mixed up with "Daddy" and sex. There's nothing wrong with that. It's scary, perhaps. But do not be afraid. The more you fight it, the more it will torment you. So accept it.

That's not to say that accepting it will make the pain go away. Compounding the hurt, you grew up with a man who was a poor stand-in for an actual father. It may be that it would have been less painful to simply grow up with a single mother. I do not know. I just imagine that if you hadn't had this poor stand-in for a father always there, perhaps you would have been able to populate the void with an idealized man, a prince, and put him on a pedestal and wait for his arrival. As it is, you have this negative example of manhood. So try to let that go. He was a flawed man. He had his problems. Try to believe that he was doing the best he could with what he had.

The truth is that the strength, wisdom and comfort you want in a father figure are not simply old-fashioned values from 1950s television; they are in fact ancient. They are archetypal. They persist in men today. Our culture does not celebrate these qualities as it once did. But neither does a culture invent or extinguish human traits in accordance with its fashions.

My advice would be to look for men who exhibit those personality traits themselves, rather than men who have the outward trappings of such traits. That is, a man doesn't have to be married with two children to possess the qualities of generativity and rootedness, of domesticity and familiarity and worldly strength, that you long for.

Now, as to your impatience with the pace of therapy, I would suggest that if you think you're three steps ahead of your therapist, you may well be about six steps behind. If the measure of therapeutic progress were the speed with which you could raise your hand and shout out an answer -- The Missouri Compromise! The double helix! Quentin Compson! -- maybe you'd be a spiritual master by now.

But psychotherapy is emotional and spiritual work, and such work goes slowly. It is not that our emotions and our spirits are slow. They are lightning-quick; they respond to events faster than we can comprehend, and often without our awareness. Rather, I think it is our resistance to emotional and spiritual reality that makes it such slow work. If we could immediately accept the dazzling truths that exist right in front of us from second to second, that would be something! But integrating such dazzling truths into our everyday lives is painstaking work.

So try to take it slowly, look for the good qualities you desire in a man, and try not to punish the rest of men too harshly for not living up to your ideal.

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