My parents divorced well after they should have. I can remember the way they would hold each other in a full embrace or let their hands touch while they were sitting beside each other in the car or on the couch. I remember the gentle way they talked to each other and the way they made each other laugh sometimes. I loved that. Sometimes I would interrupt a kiss – one of those long, tender kisses that are gross and unnecessary through the eyes of anyone younger and blood related.
Then I remember the silence. The awful, empty clamour of a silence that never used to be there.
No fighting. No yelling. No arguing. Just silence. The shift wasn’t a sudden one. It happened over time but through it all I always felt like he loved her. Whether he did or not doesn’t matter, because feeling as though he did was what made the difference. Even when things were strained, he would say lovely things about her to us. Sometimes I would feel the warmth of that as though it was around me too. It was never enough to connect them but it was enough to lift me above the ache of it all, for a little while anyway.
At the time I didn’t know there was another way to be. The dads love the mums and that’s the way the world worked. It made me feel secure and treasured. Treasured because when he was kind to her, I felt that kindness and tenderness as surely as if it was for me. I took the lovely things he said about her personally, because she was my mum. I was proud of her, he made sure of that. If he said awful things about her, which he never has, I’m sure I would have taken those just as personally.
I don’t know what happened when I wasn’t watching. Something did though, or maybe not enough. I don’t know, but there came to be a distance between them that felt hollow and sad. Something wasn’t right between them, I knew that, but I also felt as though it was something about the mix of them, and nothing about the way he loved her. Maybe it was. I don’t know. And it’s not for me to care. What matters is what I believed, and I believed that he still loved her purely and completely, even if neither of them loved the combination of the both of them very much any more.
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Through my naive little girl eyes, I believed all women were princesses – because that’s how he treated her. Even when things weren’t right between then, he treated her like she was made of sunlight and precious things. I came to think that all little girls would grow up to be adored by someone who would love them so much, that nothing else would matter. It wouldn’t matter if they didn’t talk. It wouldn’t matter if there was a distance between them. Or if one day they just stopped holding hands and talking tenderly to each other. It wouldn’t matter.
After a while, they separated. They probably should have separated long before they did. Even after this, he never did or said anything to change my belief that all little girls would grow up to be women who deserved to be loved tenderly, respectfully, kindly, beautifully – because that’s how he treated the woman in my life – like she deserved to be loved that way, even when he would have had his own reasons to treat her like she wasn’t.
My point is this. Dads hold so much power over the way their daughters will grow up to see themselves. The power comes not just from the way they treat their little girls, but also from the way they treat the mothers of their little girls.
It would have been so tempting for my parents to trash talk each other. It would be tempting for any person to speak badly of an ex, especially one who is hellbent on making your life miserable – I get that – but for dads with little girls, know that you will lift her above the chaos and heartache of a divorce by speaking kindly of her mother, or at the very least, by not saying awful things. Whether you love or hate her mother, she’s the only mother your little girl has – and your daughter will love her, in the same way your daughter will love you. Kids just do. They love their parents no matter what, even the ones who don’t deserve it.
It’s not easy to be kind to someone who has hurt you. It mustn’t have been easy for my mum or my dad – they hurt each other, as everyone does when a relationship turns bad. I know that now, but I’m so grateful to him for never making me feel as though I shouldn’t love her. He could have done that, but he didn’t. Whatever he did or said, I would have loved her anyway. I just would have kept it a secret from him.
Little girls feel like little versions of the women they came from. Even if her mother doesn’t deserve to be treated like a princess, every little girl deserves it, and there won’t be another man in her life who can make her feel that through to her core like her dad. There will be men who come into her life and love her, but the messages from dads are the ones that are there for the longest, and if we let them, the ones that settle in the deepest. The greatest thing a dad can do is make sure those message that are settling deep into the essence of are ones that she won’t have to fight against one day.
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To dads, anything you do to love her mother, even if you don’t think that her mother deserves it, will help your daughter to learn how to receive love, give love and most importantly, it will influence the way she expects to be loved – because you will have shown her. You will have shown her not just by the way you’ve treated her, but by the way you’ve treated her mother. She’s watched, she’s listened and she’s felt it all – for better or worse. When you’re kind to your daughter it will help her to define the way she sees herself. When you’re kind to her mother it will define the way your daughter expects the world to see her, because you’re teaching her that this is what all women deserve, not just her, and not just from her dad. The message moves from ‘but of course you say that about me/ treat me like that/ do that for me – you’re my dad,’ to ‘all women deserve to treated well / with kindness/ with respect – you did it even when you didn’t have to, and even when it was hard.’
Dads are heroes. Ask any little girl and she’ll tell you. However you treat her mother, is what your daughter will expect from the men she chooses to let close to her. The world might shake her self-belief at times, but she’ll always know somewhere deep within her that she deserves love, respect, tenderness and kindness from the man she lets in – not just when she’s being who he wants her to be, but always.
It’s easy for dads to treat their little girls like princesses. It’s not always so easy to treat their mothers that way. I learned a long time ago that dads don’t have to love mums. They don’t even have to like them. But a little girl with a dad who treats her mother with respect and kindness and, if he can, with tenderness and so much love has a hero walking beside her.