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Monica Porter

Girl’s Best Friend

Daily Express, 15 November 2007

MONICA PORTER on how a woman’s relationship with her dad can influence every aspect of her life

When I was a little girl I would sometimes go into my father’s study and tell him stories, which I made up as I went along. During these “performances” it was a particular quirk of mine to fashion little figures out of his pipe-cleaners, with which to “illustrate” my tales. My father would listen to me with patience and interest, having interrupted his own work to do so.

Who knows? Perhaps those early exercises in storytelling helped develop my skills as a writer and journalist. At the very least they imbued me with the sense that what I had to say was worth listening to. I grew up believing that this was a normal function of a girl’s relationship with her father. It was only much later that I realised how fortunate I had been.

I’ve heard it said that if you want to know what makes a woman tick, look at her relationship with her father. This was never truer than in the case of a former friend of mine, Susie. We were in our mid-thirties when we met. She had a prickly personality, and was a little too forceful in her own opinions, while somehow always being on the defensive. As if she were trying to have a superiority complex but was too insecure to manage it.

In the only genuine, heart-to-heart talk I ever had with Susie, she revealed something which I found quite shocking. “It wasn’t until I was 30 years old,” she remarked, “that my father paid any attention to me or thought I was interesting enough to talk to.” I had met her father. He was a big noise in international banking, and the proverbial cold fish. After her revelation, Susie’s character began to make sense to me. I could see that her whole life had been about trying to prove to her father that she was worthy of his attention. He had a lot to answer for.

The father/daughter relationship has been much analysed by experts. “Some of the most meaningful moments in a daughter’s life are spent with her father,” says the American family therapist and “forensic counsellor” Dr. Jane R. Rosen-Grandon. “From dad, little girls gain their first reflection of themselves as a female. They develop a sense of acceptance or non-acceptance; they feel valued or discounted. Their self-concept is largely shaped by this relationship.”

And psychologist Dr. Sylvia Gearing, author of Women-Sense Rules!,claims that a woman’s relationship with her father is a training ground for all future relationships, and is central to her “adult adjustment”. She says fathers are the first to make an impact on girls’ self-respect and self-assertion, and that a father’s behaviour will often determine his daughter’s future expectations of men. “A father who is protective of his daughter’s interests will help her to believe that she is worth honouring.”

So, it’s quite unlike the relationship a girl has with her mother. That is more intense, more competitive, more combative. A mother is meant to provide us with a female role model, but often that model is one we reject and rebel against. Naturally, this conflict doesn’t exist between us and our fathers.

I don’t doubt that the person who’s had the greatest influence on my character has been my father, which might be why I chose to follow in his footsteps as a journalist. He gave me the confidence to feel that I could sally forth – over the years my Hungarian émigré family has sallied forth more than most – and make my mark in the world. Everyone needs someone to believe in them unreservedly.

I also take after him in that we are both ardently independent-minded, not affiliated to any political party, not “clubby” types, not prone to following mass movements of any kind. This is probably the most defining trait a person can have. “A writer should remain independent,” my father used to tell me. “He must be free.”

For a long time, whenever I was uncertain about what to do or how to react in a particular situation, I would muse to myself: how would Dad behave in a case like this? Would he get upset? Be philosophical? It was often a valuable yardstick for me. (I should add that occasionally I also drew upon George Orwell for this exercise.)

Of course, my father and I have our disagreements and don’t approach all of life’s challenges in the same way. After all, we belong to different generations. His influences were central European and he grew up in the 1930s and ‘40s. I grew up in New York and London in the 1960s and ‘70s. Utterly different worlds. But the generation gap and culture clash are over-ridden by a far more crucial factor: our unique connection, part-nature and part-nurture, forged in my childhood when I was finding out who I was and what my place in the world might be.

I haven’t seen Susie for about 15 years, but once in a while I think of her and her mean-spirited father. I’m sure he loved his daughter, he just didn’t see the need to “waste” too much of his precious time and energy on her – that’s what mothers were for, in those pre-women’s lib days before men shouldered their share of child-rearing. Maybe Susie’s dad wasn’t much worse than a lot of men then, and mine was simply ahead of his time. Lucky me.