My grief is beyond healing, my heart is sick within me. Hark, the cry of the daughter of my people from the length and breadth of the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?…. For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded. I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored? (Jeremiah 8:18-22 RSV)
“It’s not the mother who calls forth a daughter’s femininity and makes her feel good about being a girl.”
My wife Mary, a psychologist, spoke matter-of-factly—and left me puzzled. A church had invited the two of us to speak at a healing conference for men and women. “No problem,” I assured the organizer. “Mary will speak on ‘Mothers and Daughters’ and I’ll speak on ‘Fathers and Sons.’ That covers the whole picture!”
Listening now to Mary, I wasn’t so sure. “Well, then, who does make a girl feel good about being feminine?” I asked her, confused. “The grandmother? The sister?”
Mary smiled graciously and shook her head. “When I was a little girl,” she explained, “my mother would sew me really nice dresses. When she would first try it on me in front of the mirror, she’d brighten up and say, ‘What a beautiful little girl!’
“We’d both hesitate, then I’d say excitedly—almost on cue–‘Let’s find out!’ That meant: ‘Wait ‘til Daddy gets home.’ When Dad came home later from work, after dinner Mom would nod to me and say to him, ‘Mary has a surprise for you!’
“I’d race excitedly into my room, put on my new dress, and come dancing out into the living room. ‘Oh, what a beautiful little girl!’ Daddy would exclaim, beaming at me. And in that moment, I knew at last that it was true.”
Significantly, Mary’s father did not limit his approval to her physical appearance. As a high school graduation present, he gave her a typewriter, not a make-up kit. “That affirmation from Dad,” Mary declared to me years later, “–knowing that he saw me as both beautiful and competent–has stayed with me all my life.”
Sadly, few women today have received that blessing from their fathers. In fact, few men appreciate a father’s power to shape his daughter’s self-image as a woman—partly because women haven’t told us about it. That’s because so few women have seen their dads exercise his power in a healthy way. Often, therefore, they can’t recognize their own need for it (see my chapter “Fathers and Daughters” in Healing the Masculine Soul).
“What does a girl need from her dad?” as one father in his late 30’s with a 7-year-old daughter and 10-year old son once asked me during a men’s retreat. “I was once a boy myself, so I know what my son needs from me. But with my daughter…” he sighed, shaking his head in frustration, “most of the time I’m in the dark.”
A flash of insight struck me. “You’re married to a daughter. Your wife was once a little girl with a father—ask her!”
The next day, the man returned with his brow knit. “I asked my wife what a girl needs from her dad,” he reported, “and she just said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Hesitating, I sighed. “And what does that tell you?”
“I guess,” he offered sadly, “she never got it.”
The Good News is that the God revealed in Jesus knows how badly His daughter hurts when her needs are not met, and even takes it on Himself. “The wound of the daughter of my people,” as Jeremiah proclaimed, “is my heart wounded.” What’s more, “the Father from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth receives its true name” is powerful to heal—that is, to fill that emptiness in a woman’s heart and give her what her earthly daddy could not (Ephes. 3:14NIV—see “Healing Emotional Wounds: Seeing the Past as Jesus Sees It” in Broken by Religion, Healed by God).
Mary tells me that when a girl is born, for example, her father may wish she were a boy instead. That disappointment from Dad wounds her femininity. Later, as a woman, it can lead her to choose destructive male relationships which reinforce this negative view of herself.
Often, the father-wound is a wound of absence. That’s why Jesus came, to be Father God’s healing presence in this world.
“How can you say I have a father-wound?” many women protest. “My father wasn’t even there when I was growing up! And even when he was there physically, he wasn’t there emotionally.”
You can destroy a living organism in two ways. To kill a plant, for example, you can cut it down, beat it, smash it. But there’s another way: Just don’t water it.
Life requires input.
Hence, country singer Reba MacIntyre’s hit, “The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” in which she laments as a girl living with her father “just down the hall,” but “we never touched at all.” Even as a seed requires water and sunshine to grow, femininity requires the father’s blessing and encouragement in order to blossom in a girl.
That’s where Father God comes in.
The first man every woman loves is her father. His were the arms she looked to for protection and safety, his eyes for love and affirmation, his words for definition and value. A girl’s relationship with her father therefore shapes not only her self-image, but her expectation of what it’s like to be close to a man. If Dad doesn’t engage her emotionally and affirm her, she can become desperate for masculine affirmation, and mis-focus her longing for his attention and love on other men.
It’s a recipe for promiscuity and abuse.
“When I was sixteen, my father died,” as the lady cutting my hair recently told me. “Right away, my uncle came to me and said, ‘You need to be especially careful now. Boys who know you don’t have a father will try to take advantage of you.” There’s a wise and caring uncle!
An unfathered girl grows up insecure in her femininity, doubting whether she’s “good enough” as a woman. She associates bonding to a man with abandonment and pain, and even seeks out relationships with men who make her feel “at home” by leaving and wounding her as Dad did.
Often, a woman’s father-wound draws her to a “bad boy,” ironically, because he feels safe. She doesn’t have to open her heart to him and be hurt again by another man, because he’s not after her heart anyhow. What’s more, from fights to cheating, the bad boy brings plenty of drama and emotional engagement—albeit negative–that she lacked with Dad.
When she meets a good man she truly loves, however, she panics—because her heart opens to him and she must learn now to trust where Dad disappointed her. If she doesn’t know her true Father’s love and His power to heal, she’ll run away from what she wants most.
It’s time to fight for our daughters. To do nothing amid the raging current of pop culture is to be swept away by it. The rising tide of celebrity bad girls and prime-time sex is pre-empting the precious grace of our daughters’ femininity and seducing them into the world’s cheap shame.
Today, before our very media-driven eyes, an entire generation of girls is being infected with the lie that they’re just physical objects, that their ultimate value lies in their ability to stir lust (see “Identity Theft: Beyond Performance and Perfectionism,” in Mary Andrews-Dalbey, PhD, The REST of Your Life small-group workbook).
This lie and its terrible wounding in young women today breaks Father God’s heart even now as in Jeremiah’s day. In Jesus, the Great Physician, He has declared that He is yet alive and active in behalf of His people. It’s time men and women joined Him in the battle to rescue our daughters for His healing and fulfillment.
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-Gordon is the best-selling author of Sons of the Father: Healing The Father-Wound in Men Today. www.abbafather.com