While there’s been a growing understanding of the importance of fathers in children’s lives, their significance in the lives of girls and adolescent teens merits special notice.
The concept of “Father Hunger” is not new. Nearly two decades ago, Franciscan Father Richard Rohr referred to it as “the profound but usually unconscious longing for affirmation and limits from male authority figures.”
And in 2001, James M. Herzog, M.D., a child psychiatrist and child psychoanalyst at Harvard University, wrote Father Hunger: Explorations With Adults And Children. His concept of “father hunger” is the longing for a figure to fill the role of father, which he came up with when treating a group of fatherless boys who were having nightmares that involved terrible threats of violence.
Though some attention is rightly being given finally to the problem of young boys who grow up without fathers, there’s also a connection between fathers and daughters that should also be investigated further.
This is the premise of Margo Maine’s book, Father Hunger, Fathers, Daughters, And The Pursuit Of Thinness. “Father Hunger” is her term for how she describes the yearning of girls for a better relationship with their fathers. She focuses on the link between adolescent girls and their fathers which can sometimes affect girls through eating disorders.
The fathers tend to be those who are perhaps critical about women’s bodies, critical about their wives’ bodies, critical about women in general, and/or who are distant.
The author also discusses the other side, some of the problems that today’s fathers face that aren’t necessarily their fault. For instance, fathers who are afraid of inappropriate gestures; and that prepubescent girls are often emotionally distant, and don’t know how to handle emotional intimacy, which results in a fear of being touched; subsequently, their fathers are afraid to hug them.
It’s an uncomfortable situation on both sides, as the girls can be unsure of what gestures are appropriate with their fathers but not with other men, including other male family members. Some fathers get such mixed messages from their daughters that they’re afraid to touch them at all for fear of the girls’ reactions.
It’s as simple as this: dads may be comfortable putting their nine-year old daughter to bed, but when she turns 12 or 13, they get confused and uncomfortable. It’s natural for there to be a transition — obviously, a dad can’t continue bathing and dressing his daughter forever. But the time line is very grey, and different with every girl.
It’s difficult on the girls as well, because young, confused, pre-pubescent girls need their daddies the most. And if they don’t get the comfort, security and love from them, they may turn to other males, like young boys, for what they think they’re missing.
I believe most fathers can handle this transition, if they stay alert to their daughter’s ever-changing needs, and focus on affirming their love and support, especially during these trying years.