Seattle Times

Editorials & Opinion : Tuesday, May 16, 2000

No disrespect to the moms, but girls need their daddies

William Raspberry/Syndicated columnist
The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON - "Promiscuous fatherless women are desperately seeking love. Or we are terrified that if we give love, it will not be returned. So we pull away from it, refusing to permit it to enter our houses, our beds, or our hearts. To fill the void that our fathers created, we only make the hole larger and deeper."

No, Jonetta Rose Barras isn't playing the blame game, condemning her father and exonerating herself for her own awful choices over the years. At least that isn't all she's doing in her new book, "Whatever Happened to Daddy's Little Girl?"

What she hopes to accomplish in this incredibly candid book (apart from the reclamation and reassembling of her own life) is to teach the rest of us how powerfully fatherlessness affects daughters.

Barras' exploration of the subject began with a column she wrote in The Washington Times. The response to that piece made her know that there was much more to it than a newspaper column could address, hence this book - part confessional, part survey, part philosophical treatise.

Still it's hard for someone lucky enough to have grown up in an intact family to comprehend fully what Barras is telling us. Was her psychic injury worse than that of most women who lose their fathers to divorce, desertion or death? Was it exacerbated by the fact that she lost three fathers (her mother's husband, who rejected her, the biological father she never met till she was in her 30s, and the man who seemed really to care about her but who left her and her mother without a trace)?

We've grown used to talking about the devastating impact of fatherlessness on black boys. Implicit in the way we talk about these things is the idea that girls need their fathers less.

Barras begs to differ. Children need both parents - economically and otherwise; that goes without saying. And boys need fathers to learn how to be men. But Barras wants to make another point: Her father is likely to be the first man a girl wants to love. If that love develops as it should, and is reciprocated, the girl is likely to see herself as worthy of genuine affection and respect and therefore capable of demanding these things from the other men in her life.

It doesn't follow, of course, that all girls without loving fathers become suckers for shallow, disrespecting men (or else become too wary of commitment to let anyone get close). Just as many boys grow up into fine men without a male role model at home, so do many girls grow up into strong, self-assured women.

But I believe Barras when she says many of them don't. I have grown tired of "low self-esteem" as the universal explainer for every negative thing women do - whether it's putting on too much weight, taking on too many lovers, having too many babies or making too little effort to get their lives together.

Thanks to Barras, though, I'm hearing the explanation - seeing it - more clearly. I'm starting to wonder if it may not be tragically true that girls who don't know the love of their fathers may find it hard to love themselves as much and as unquestioningly as they should.

I suppose two days after Mother's Day - two days after the Million Mom March - seems an odd time to be talking about the importance of fathers. But I intend no diminution of the importance of mothers. Everybody knows the importance of mothers - takes it for granted.

My concern - even before reading Barras' powerful book - is that men have underestimated their own importance in raising healthy and competent sons and daughters. When we have thought of our importance, we've thought mostly of our sons and our role in keeping them away from violence, criminality, prison and death.

But our daughters need us to model responsible manhood almost as much as our sons do - and in ways both obvious and subtle. Girls are treated with greater respect by boyfriends who find a father on the scene when they come calling. I can't prove that, but I don't doubt it - any more than I doubt that girls with loving fathers at home find the flamboyant thugs and gangbangers less attractive than those who don't.

We're right to spend serious time and attention trying to save our sons from the forces that are sending them spinning out of our control.

But Barras is right, too. We need to pay more attention than we have to what's happening to Daddy's little girl.

(Copyright, 2000, Washington Post Writers Group)

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.

Copyright © 2000 The Seattle Times Company