Daughters Speak: What the Father Offers

I remember years ago accusing my husband of being easy on our two daughters and hard on our son; I also remember my daughters accusing me of favouring my son over them – in fact, their secret name for him was 'Baby Prince.' And one of my daughters admits that she is kind of a 'daddy's girl.' Two years ago Sons and Mothers was published – a collection of stories that I edited, written by Mennonite men about their mothers. A corollary to that, Mennonite women writing about their fathers, is currently in the hands of the publisher. Working on these two anthologies, I have discovered that the cross-gendered parental relationship is indeed an intriguing one.

Many fascinating themes emerge in this current collection, written by women who range in age from approximately thirty-five to eighty-two, and who currently live in either Canada or the United States. As I read and re-read these women's nuanced and moving stories about both everyday life and traumatic moments, I realize that this paper could focus on any number of things: I could talk about the intimacy of father-daughter car rides; or how past traumas translate into compassion; or about unique characteristics daughters share with their fathers; or about the humour and joie de vivre that some fathers exuded; or about how fathers refused to manipulate their daughters into faith; or about the many years it takes to get over an emotionally disengaged father. I could also talk about nostalgia and its effects.

But the idea that currently fascinates me – and maybe even undergirds the others – has to do with the yearning that is expressed in these stories. Certainly there are varying degrees to this expression of yearning, both within each piece and between the various offerings. However, the underlying message that comes across in most of these stories, very clearly, is that "whatever his shortcomings as a father may have been, he was kind and I loved him, and because of that, I was willing to forgive him for almost anything" (Carol Dyck n.p.)[1] – while the mother "was the taken-for-granted presence in the house, enforcer of cultural expectations and teacher of domestic skills, moral obligations, and sexual rules and roles" (Spicher Kasdorf n.p.). The father was admired and sought after, while the mother was more of an assumed presence.

Of course everyday life was not nearly this clear-cut. Certainly no writer thinks her father is without fault, and some are frustrated with the lack of attention or with the lack of understanding they receive. Nonetheless, the cross-gendered factor figures prominently in these stories: there is an obvious longing, often admiration, directed towards the father. Even when a daughter speaks of bitter disappointment in the relationship, the reader recognizes the root of that discontent: the relationship matters a great deal to her.

There are many reasons that could be offered to account for this admiration, including, of course, the psycho-analytical explanation – for example, Carl Jung's "Electra complex," the corollary to the Oedipus complex, where the daughter competes with her mother for possession of her father, and all things attendant to that kind of examination. And certainly I don't mean to dismiss all things psycho-analytical. But are there other elements at play here that help to explain this desire for closeness?

In her seminal text The Second Sex, published in 1949, the existential feminist Simone de Beauvoir says that

the life of the father has a mysterious prestige: the hours he spends at home, the room where he works, the objects he has around him, his pursuits, his hobbies, have a sacred character. He supports the family, and . . . is the responsible head. . . . As a rule his work takes him outside, and so it is through him that the family communicates with the rest of the world: he incarnates that immense, difficult and marvellous world of adventure; he personifies transcendence, he is god. (n. p.)

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A number of decades later, feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick takes a more down-to-earth approach, but she too acknowledges that what society considers to be one of the 'paternal function[s]' has to do with the notion that within the family structure fathers "are supposed to represent the 'world' – its language, culture, work, and rule – and to be the arbiters of the child's acceptability in the world they represent" (42). So while not exactly divine in this interpretation, the father is still fundamental to the family's continuance. While Ruddick goes on to argue that this role is a societal construction and is not always constructive, this paternal function nonetheless exists, and fathers do figure prominently in family life. So what does this mean for the daughters in this collection? Particularly, if in fact this function has achieved, as de Beauvoir poetically states, a "mysterious prestige."

Historian Anthony Rotundo studies the various stages of manhood in the history of the United States, and argues that the masculinity he observes reflects particular socio-economic contexts in a trajectory of urbanization. His analysis is helpful because the settings in which many of these Mennonite women's stories take place fit well into one of the contexts that he describes, that of a first generation, mostly middle class, industrial, urban household. Within this particular environment, "the division of tasks between the sexes gave the man the power to determine the social status of his whole family. It was work that marked the place of his wife and children in the world" (Rotundo 169). Here the father's job, is to 'clear the path' for his children. Prior to this historical moment, men and women, especially within a rural setting, worked side by side to produce food and security for the family, with an eye to settling their children on farms of their own within communities in which they had been raised. But now in the first generation urban context, children were expected to grow up and make a successful living as individuals, and in this context they needed someone to show them the way into this new reality. The family farm and its succession were no longer assured; an engagement with the outside world as individuals became necessary for survival. And so the gendered roles of mother and father were recast. Father became the 'warrior,' so to speak – he was instrumental in obtaining a viable future for his children – and the mother became the nurturer, the morally guiding presence for children as they passed through adolescence. Father was 'of the world' and mother remained 'in the home.'

What surprised me as I read these women's stories, for the first, second and third times, was the intensity of the sentiments regarding their relationships to their fathers. And I wondered: does this cross-gendered intensity simply represent the closeness that many Mennonite families experienced? Certainly many of the fathers had a difficult past, some tremendously traumatic with sea crossings as young boys or mothers dying far too young or being given away at a young age. Stable family life in North America was not to be taken for granted, rather cherished. But I wonder, could this intensity also have to do with what Rotundo's and de Beauvoir's and Ruddick's ideas suggest? Could one of the reasons for this close identification with the fathers have to do with the fact that the daughter sees him as a conduit to the outside world? That these daughters, ironically, latch on to the patriarchal culture as a way to gain a standing for themselves within that larger world?

This is not a new reality. Certainly women born hundreds of years ago knew that they needed male support if they were to succeed in the wider world. Fanny Mendelssohn, for example, easily as talented a composer as her brother Felix, was encouraged by her father to stay at home and look after the domestic needs of her family while her brother was free to compose as much as he liked. This was because "her father's … religious morality dictated [that] Fanny needed to dedicate herself to her home, family, and assume the role of motherhood" (Baltonado 15). Indeed, he wrote to her, "that for Felix, 'perhaps music will be his profession, whereas for you it can and must be an ornament, and never the fundamental bass-line of your existence and activity'" (16). For centuries, in the western world, unless a woman either became a widow and thus owned the family farm, or joined a monastery, her agency was more or less confined to the hearth and home. If she had a male champion, however, it was possible for her to make it in the public sphere.

So were these women writers, many of them living in an age when feminist thinking and practice were not yet common, yearning for their fathers, partly at least, in order to 'get somewhere in the world'? I looked at the stories again. And I found the following excerpts. Jean Janzen begins her essay with her dad on his deathbed: "He is tossing and turning. I caress him, this wonderful man, Henry Peter Wiebe, whom I adored all my life, try to calm him, my usually calm parent, with words –'Mom and I are here. It's me, Jean. I have come to be with you'" (n.p.). Julia Spicher Kasdorf says, "When I was young, our relationship seemed simple: I admired him, and he adored me, the engine of our mutual affection fueled by his glamorous absences and my Saturday morning baking of sweets" (n.p.) And Maggie Dyck ends her story with these words: "In the end, all I can say is that this gentle, strong giant was a good man and a wonderful father. He and I loved each other very much, and I miss him every day" (n.p.).

Then there are more nuanced versions: "I remember sharing occasional moments with him. In my teens, I began to join him in the early mornings, as he got ready for work. It was just the two of us, me with my makeup and my Dad with his razor and shaving cream. . . . No one else was awake. It was our private moment" (Penner n.p.).

Sincerity, admiration. A desire to know this man who was their father. And often this adulation is expressed, as de Beauvoir has described, through objects: "the hours he spends at home, the room where he works, the objects he has around him, his pursuits, his hobbies, have a sacred character" (n. p.). For example, Cari Penner says, "Dad could fix anything, and his workshop in the basement was a fascination to me. There was a large white pegboard above the worktable, with each tool's outline in black paint (as if to dare his kids to place the hammer where the saw should be). Byron and I would stare at the workshop, fiddle with forbidden tools and wonder about this man we knew so little about" (n.p.). And Ann Hostetler writes: "I'm sitting beside my father at his desk, a big one of dark polished wood, seasoned with use – a discard from the Mennonite Publishing House – which he used for his entire adult life. It has two wooden leaves, one on either side of the pencil drawer, and he's pulled out one for me to use as my own writing desk" (n.p.).

There's more. Jean Janzen describes her father's study: "During my high school years he had a small upstairs study where he kept his books, including his beloved commentaries. We all understood that he needed to be solitary and undisturbed, but sometimes he walked down those stairs with the Bible in his hand to announce to my mother that he had discovered something new" (n.p.).

Admiration of what the father can do, what he learns, what the father knows. The daughters want that knowledge, too, and these objects are symbolic of that knowledge. The father is, quite literally, the liaison between them and the outside world: Jean Janzen again: "He is away from us for most of the week . . . . He travels by bus, and when he comes home, I stand close beside him as he eats his late supper, his clothes smelling of cigarette smoke, listen to his stories about the book of Jeremiah and the joy in his voice, my mother busily serving him. I have missed him" (n.p.).

Julia Spicher Kasdorf explains it this way:

Maybe that is why I refused those fairy tales, choosing instead to reflect on the heroic distance my father had come: from plowing with horses to The Westinghouse Research and Development Center. My mid-century modern father wore suits and ties and carried a brief case, every day driving to 'the R&D,' a complex so important we could not follow him past the security guard's booth. And he continued to travel, flying in and out of Pittsburgh International Airport with its massive Calder mobile, gone for several days at a time, or even a week sometimes. On one early trip, he stayed up all night riding city buses in Chicago, just to see the marvelous city. (n.p.)

I know there is a larger narrative at work, that these individual pieces are much more nuanced than I give them credit for in this paper. Certainly each of these stories represents a complex inter-weaving of events and rationales and relationships and past histories; certainly each story far outstrips any easy interpretation. But in order to pursue this specific line of inquiry, let me suggest that one of the ways the daughters are drawn into their fathers' world is through that world's perceived adventure and excitement. Feminist sociologist Nancy Chodorow, citing Susan Contratto, connects with de Beauvoir's sentiments to corroborate the idea that the father is often seen as the parent who "energetically return[s] to the household evenings and weekends bringing treats; who engage[s] in exciting adventures and interactions; . . . who contrast[s] with taken-for-granted, everyday mothers. These fathers' 'presence [is] . . . an event in their daughters' lives.' They ma[ke] 'their daughters feel special, cosy, cared for [and are] exciting and fun . . especially . . . in comparison to their mothers'" (58).

Indeed, Raylene Hinz Penner more than hints at this when she writes that,

On Valentine's Day Daddy brought home from town a big red heart-shaped box of chocolates for my mother, smaller versions for my sister and me. When he bought Mama a 'nightie' for Christmas, he might buy my sister and me smaller, more girlish versions. Today, I see that these simple gifts were ways in which Daddy affirmed us, bodies, minds and souls. . . . Before church on Sunday morning Daddy noticed our clothing, twirled us around to comment on our hair. (n.p.).

Affirmation from the father is crucial. Carrie Snyder states outright: "I want this essay to please my dad, as in, to meet his standards, yes, that is a piece of it, but also to please by giving him pleasure, to surprise and delight him" (n.p.). Lynda Loewen also speaks to this as she describes what happened when her father asked her, as a sixteen year old, to drive a large farm truck:

I had driven on the highway exactly zero times. I had driven the truck exactly zero times. . . . So, with shaking hands I drove the truck behind his tractor so that he could have a ride home after he dropped it off. Finally, the odyssey was over. He parked the tractor and walked back to where I was waiting by the truck. He put his hand on my shoulder and said: 'You're a trooper.' It was one of my proudest moments. Dad did not believe in over-praising his children. I basked in the glow of that compliment for a week. (n.p.)

Affirmation, excitement, adventure. But there are sterner and more practical aspects to this paternal role, too. Sara Ruddick talks about the societal function of a father, and how he represents the world to his children. Andrea Doucet adds to this conversation by suggesting that fathers tend to "promote children's considered risk taking . . . and encourage . . . [their] children's independence" (112). In essence, fathers see themselves as responsible for educating their children on some of life's harsher aspects, aspects that may appear in opposition to the protective and comforting instincts of mothering, aspects that have to do with the potential dangers the outside world holds. Not necessarily dangers from outside influence, although that is alluded to in several of the stories, but rather the danger associated with lack of financial security, lack of a secure future. Given the changing public sphere, a broader spectrum of possibilities was being considered, even for Mennonite women.

Indeed, many of these writers talk about how their fathers lauded and strongly encouraged a post secondary education, both for themselves and for their daughters. In fact, a number of these fathers went back to school as the daughters were growing up. Because the father believed in the importance of education, because they recognized intelligence and curiosity in their daughters, they participated in intellectual conversations with them, they put pressure on them to do well academically, and they also provided them with academic opportunities. Raylene Hinz Pennersays that "In high school my chief competition for top of the class was a boy named Harold. My father believed my test scores should always exceed Harold's, even in math where girls were often given a pass since boys were believed to be innately better at math and science" (n.p.).

Carrie Snyder confides that while

My mother believed . . . that her children are so fantastically gifted that her belief itself is fantastical . . . my father balanced this out by believing that we could have done better. At 17, I showed him a term paper written for a third-year-level university history course, for which I'd received an A+; my dad read my paper and said he wouldn't have given it that mark, as it wasn't deserved. I was stung and furious. I also thought he was probably right. (n.p.)

Similarly, Ruth Loewen writes:

I was the eldest and therefore I got the full brunt of Dad's academic aspirations for his kids, which were considerable. . . . There was an . . . occasion when I got 97% in a test and Dad's response was: What happened to the three marks? He was quite serious: three marks were not to be dispensed with lightly. I was quite annoyed: Why couldn't I have had a father who was pleased with 97%?" (n.p.).

Both Rebecca Plett's and Hildi Froese Tiessen's memories also corroborate the idea that these fathers fervently believed in education for women. Plett says that "The capture of university was ultimately, for me, a place where diversity in body and diversity of experience was lauded, welcomed, and discussed, and I was affirmed for my choices by my parents, and particularly by my father. He also had a graduate degree, and admires openly the pursuance of education" (n.p.). And Froese Tiessen tells us, that, "Considering where [my father] . . . was 'coming from,' he might have . . . suggested . . . that while it made sense that my older brothers attend university, it was not expected that I would do the same. In fact neither my mother nor my father gave me any sense that what my brothers were up to wasn't a suitable model for me" (n.p.). Without the father's support higher education would have been impossible for many of these women. The self-actualization that these women eventually come to realize and appreciate was borne out of this patriarchal support.

That the fathers believe in their daughters' 'worldly' achievements is evident. Carol Dyck says that "My parents were always supportive, and they would travel anywhere to hear me sing. In 1966 I had a solo part consisting of about twenty-five notes sung as an echo in a major choral work performed by the Mennonite Brethren Bible College Choir and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. They flew out to hear me" (n.p.).

The situation has come full circle. The daughters want to succeed, so they latch onto their fathers for security, for knowledge, for protection. They notice their fathers' objects; they listen when he speaks of the public sphere, the outside world; they court their fathers' affection. The fathers want their daughters to succeed, and so they prepare them for life's harsher realities by encouraging a greater degree of possibility for their futures. Patriarchy does indeed come with benefits.


My daughter still gives my husband really long hugs, and the term 'Baby Prince' still occasionally but always affectionately pops up in our house.[2] I know that I suggested that many of these women were part of a specific time in history, and that certain societal conditions applied then that no longer apply. We assume things are different now, in terms of how 'the world' views gender. And in many ways they are. My girls know they can choose any career they want, and my son almost always is the one to stack the dishwasher after a family dinner. And yet, my older daughter would say that the business of architecture is still patriarchal when it comes to a pay scale. Power is still slippery. But maybe it's not about power or patriarchy in the end; or maybe our curiosity should take us beyond that focus. As I read these stories I am reminded that life is more than any of us can put to paper. I am reminded that the relationship between any father and daughter is special, fraught, examined, unexamined, held close to the heart, sometimes ignored. But regardless of the reasons, and there are myriad, fathers and daughters matter to each other, at a fundamental level.

I began by saying that I could write about any number of themes that arise out of this collection, this wealth of story. And I am grateful to these thoughtful, intelligent women who agreed to take time to look back on their lives with their fathers. Who dared to do so, bravely and honestly. Indeed, while the sentiments expressed within each story vary, they are all personal, poignant, sincere, and 'real.' I hope each one is read carefully, allowed to settle inside of the reader. I am a firm believer in life writing. And I agree with Richard Miller who claims that "all intellectual projects are always, inevitably, also autobiographies" (50). Personal narrative, specifically, is a powerful genre, ultimately a hopeful one, and we need to keep it alive and well because the world needs it. Arundhati Roy, author of the Booker prize winning The God of Small Things, recently published her second work of fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which she dedicates to "the unconsoled." When asked by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now who this "unconsoled group" refers to, Roy says "All of us, in secret. Even if we don't show it. Some of us do and some of us don't, but the world is unconsoled right now" (interview with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now, June 20, 2017). The world needs consoling, one reader at a time. And that consoling is helped along by authentic life writing.

I leave you with an excerpt from Rebecca Plett's piece:

After dinner, I started crying, knowing it was now or never. And so, somehow, impossibly, I summoned forth the words "I am gay" from the pit of my stomach and the recesses of my psyche to face the harsh light of day. The words had barely formed in the air between us. I sat in shock – and still do – at the unfathomable scene, where my father, usually so reticent to touch, without hesitation rose from his chair across from me, moved around the table and put his arms around me. (n.p.)

Works Cited

Baltonado, Juella. "Out of the Shadows: Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, and the Will to Persist." New York: City University of New York (CUNY) CUNY Academic Works, 2017. Print.

Chodorow, Nancy. Femininities, Masculinities, Sexualities: Freud and Beyond. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994. Print.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. First Vintage Books Edition, May 2011. Le deuxieme sexe copyright 1949 by Editions Gallimard, Paris.

Doucet, Andrea. Do Men Mother?. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006. Print.

Dyck, Carol. "Reflections of a Grateful Daughter." Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

Dyck, Maggie. "The Reluctant Farmer." Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

Froese Tiessen, Hildi. "Our lives together, my father and me." Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

Hinz-Penner, Raylene. "My Father and the Pieties." Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

Hostetler, Ann. "Technologies of Affection." Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

Janzen, Jean. "Journey." Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

Loewen, Lynda and Mary Ann and Ruth. "Requiem in Three Voices." Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

Miller, Richard. Writing at the End of the World. Pittsbrugh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2005. Print.

Neufeld, Elsie K. "Memoried with the Feel." Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

Penner, Cari. "Finding Father." Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

Plett, Rebecca. "’The Revery [sic] alone will never do.’" Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

Rotundo, E. Anthony. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic Books, 1993. Print.

Roy, Arundhati. interview with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now, June 20, 2017. Podcast.

Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace: Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. Print.

Snyder, Carrie. "The Father Character." Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

Spicher Kasdorf, Julia. "Go For It: Writing my Father’s Story." Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women Ed Mary Ann Loewen. Regina: U of Regina P (in press). Print.

[1] n. p. here and elsewhere in the text because the quotations from Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Women are from an as yet unpublished work

[2] This term has recently been applied to my older daughter's new baby boy. Both my two girls now gleefully tell their brother that his position has been usurped.

About the Author

Mary Ann Loewen

Mary Ann was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, but has spent most of her life in Manitoba, Canada. She spent a few years working as a nurse, then taught piano part-time when her kids were young; then she realized that she wanted to know more about reading and writing. Since her stint in grad school, she has taught Academic Writing at the University of Winnipeg and Canadian Literature at Canadian Mennonite University. She loves spending time in her kitchen and hanging out with her family: her husband, three adult children and one adorable grandson.