Tim Lott: We're helpless. There is nothing like a father's love for his daughter
It's a relationship fraught with jealousy, protectiveness and an utter lack of reason. No wonder Bob Geldof's heart was broken when his Peaches ran off and got married at the age of 19
Sunday 17 August 2008
Bob Geldof was said to be heartbroken this week when his 19-year-old daughter Peaches got married to a musician whom she had been seeing for only four weeks. Personally, if I were in his situation, I wouldn't be thinking so much about broken hearts as broken legs – specifically those of my newly acquired son-in-law.
An unreasonable fantasy? You bet. Unreasonable feelings – as in "get your grubby hands of my half-witted, but nevertheless residually innocent daughter, drummer boy" – are at the heart of the father-daughter relationship. Reason has little part in it – just ask the man who dressed as Batman and stuck himself up a gantry over the M25 on Friday to demand visiting rights to his daughter. For fathers, jealousy, anger, love and protectiveness trump reason every time. I know, because I've got four daughters, and I have deeply unreasonable feelings for each and every one of them.
Dramatists and writers are misguided when it comes to the nature of love between the opposite sexes. They have focused on romantic love as the centre of passion, the thing for which a man would give all. But there is a greater love. I do not know what it is like for mothers and sons, but for fathers and daughters, the love is of a different order to any other relationship. It is forged in blood and it is sealed by beauty – at least for the father. For nothing is so beautiful to a man as his daughter – not a mother, not a lover, not the Virgin Mary or even Scarlett Johansson.
Am I being soppy? Then soppy it is. I am, after all, a modern father, and we are all, to a man, soft on our little girls. Since we stopped sending them down the mines and started dressing them up in Jigsaw frocks, message T-shirts and Hello Kitty hair bands, their powers to charm are without rival.
Unprecedentedly widespread though it now is, this filial intimacy is by no means an entirely modern phenomenon. Whether you were a good father, like Pride and Prejudice's Mr Bennet (indulgent, wise, kind), or deluded like Lear (half-psychotic, jealous, blind), the motif of the daughter-father relationship has loomed large as long as stories have been told and histories have been written.
One of the most telling myths – and the one that Sir Bob must most signally identify with at the moment – recounts how Zeus's daughter Athena sprang from his head, fully formed. She split his head open in the process. Her legacy, therefore, must have been endless headaches for her otherwise all-powerful father.
Many of these paternal headaches – visited on mortals as well as gods – are born of protectiveness, that is, the need to defend daughters against potential hazards, be they cut fingers, casual cruelties or callous cads. I dare say this protectiveness extends to fathers and sons and mothers and sons. But in the case of daughters, it is missing the useful rationalisation that many parents with boys still use when things go wrong – that one about "toughening him up". You can never use this as a justification with daughters. Toughened up is the last thing you want them to be. A father cherishes their softness, their vulnerability, which still shows clearly through the spikes and barbed wire of the terrible twos right through to the full bitter flood of adolescence.
This is illustrated most keenly in the film The Ice Storm (based on Rick Moody's book) when the father character, Ben Hood (played by Kevin Kline), is angrily confronting his troubled, sexually precocious daughter, Wendy (played by Christina Ricci). Suddenly she holds her arms up – after yet another wounding teenage crisis – in a plea to simply have him carry her like a child again, in his arms, across the treacherous terrain of the ice storm.
He picks up the adolescent, sexually knowing girl and holds her over his shoulder, and, if only for the moment, she becomes a child again. It is very touching – a girl lodged right on the edge of a precipice and her father momentarily holding her back before she, inevitably, continues falling.
The departure of daughters into adulthood – via marriage or sexuality – is made more poignant by the sheer contrasting asexuality and innocence of the relationship between fathers and daughters. The fact that one has the opportunity for a close physical relationship with a member of the opposite sex without a trace of erotic feeling is unquestionably one of the joys of fatherhood. To cuddle up in bed and read to my physically mature 13-year-old is still a wonderfully tender experience and one that I cannot imagine being tolerated by a son, or by – obviously – a teenage girl who wasn't my daughter.
But the burgeoning of that sexuality towards those outside the family is not only a threat, but finally – with luck – a reassurance. All children give you a sense of the future, but I am also given a sense of enduring purpose somehow by the prospect of my daughters one day getting married (or "partnered" in a balanced, non-hierarchical partnership between two equals of any gender) – and ultimately, perhaps, becoming mothers themselves (if necessary in a balanced, non-hierarchical arrangement involving an equal relationship).
This process of "moving on", whatever contemporary mores it involves, seems to give me something purposeful to look forward to when life occasionally seems futile. If I make it through to the pairing off of my youngest (Esme is nearly two, 50 years younger than me), I think I will have had a "good innings" and have achieved a certain biological and cultural goal. My duties as a father, in other words, will have been fully discharged.
Is the passion a father feels for a daughter a purely positive thing? Yes – but it can be awkward, at least in the all too common circumstance of a remarriage where a daughter acquires a stepmother. This can be the cue for the most unsightly rivalries. Some women embrace stepdaughters. Others see them as a threat, and vice versa. For this is one of the downsides of daughters – they are female and this means that they are often highly territorial.
Joanna Trollope wrote beautifully about this conflict in her book Other People's Children (later dramatised by the BBC) in her character of Tom, a single father who is frustrated in his attempts to establish a relationship with a new partner by his possessive daughter Dale. She is so determined not to lose her father to another woman that she is prepared to see his hope of happiness destroyed to preserve the exclusivity of their relationship. She is triumphant and the father ends up alone – and bitter at his own defeat in the face of his helpless love for his daughter.
There is no doubt that the father-daughter relationship is a deeply possessive one – even from a very early age. I remember taking my eldest daughter, Ruby, to see Disney's version of The Little Mermaid when she was five or six years old. Even in this sanitised, sentimentalised version of the tragic fairy tale it was often touching, but Ruby showed no particular sign of emotion right until the "happy ending" when the Little Mermaid sails away with her true love. But before she does, she has to say goodbye to her father. At that moment, Ruby, sitting next to me, burst into the most terrible and deep sobs. Some premonition of loss had struck her, and seeing it strike her, it hit me too. Filial love always implies – unlike marriage – inevitable separation. That is its price, and that is what makes the relationship so keen.
This is the "heartbreak" that Geldof Snr is facing. The fact that it probably won't work out isn't really the point. The point is, your daughter isn't just your daughter any more – for good or ill, her closest relationship, officially and legally at least, is for the first time with another adult male. And there is always the temptation to think – as Philip Larkin might have put it – that marriage is not addition, but dilution.
In reality, it's both. And of course it must, sooner or later, be embraced. But to a drummer whom his daughter has known four weeks? Bob, if I were you, I'd get out there right now and offer the groom your heartfelt congratulations – ideally, with a big stick in one hand and a decree nisi in the other. It would probably be the first ever recorded instance of a shotgun divorce – but unreasonable fathers all over the world, me included, would know exactly how he felt, and raise a cheer.
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