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Challenge: My Dad Hero

The Language of Fathers and Daughters

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Less talking, more doing. My personal perspective of the relationship between fathers and daughters has always been in this spirit of more show and less tell.

My father wasn’t big on words and communication, an experience that was culturally informed. Asian fathers are famous for their economy of language; it’s part and parcel to the experience of having an immigrant parent who keeps things close to the chest and isn’t keen on the heavy talks. The lifelong language barrier between my father and I also didn’t help, with his broken English pairing clumsily with my equally fractured Korean. Our father-daughter language was short on words, but imbued with gestures. When I hit significant milestones — graduations, marriage and the birth of his granddaughters — words were simply superfluous. We always managed to make it work and these big moments were never diminished by our lack of language. When my father unceremoniously mailed me a year’s supply of Korean ginseng tea after my second daughter was born, I knew it was his unspoken way of saying I was handling motherhood just fine and to be mindful of self-care.

In the absence of words, we had alternative languages. I learned that the powerful nuances of fatherly love can be articulated through the universal language of food. When he got cancer, I flew in to be with him whenever I could. During one of my visits, he had prepared a large pot of my favorite Korean beef bone soup. It is a time-intensive, painstaking process to make this soup. Despite my father’s weakened condition, he started cooking it at 3 a.m. and tended to it throughout the day. I held back my objections at this effort because I knew this gesture provided singular meaning for him. For one home-cooked meal, he could suspend the weight of illness and just be a father doing something for his daughter — again, without an assist from many words.

There was always a deeper connection underpinning our relationship that was light on language. Less complicated, but just as loving even without a robust vocabulary to pull from. And I see similar parallels in the relationship my husband has with our two daughters.

My husband is naturally more reserved; an under-the-radar guy with a quiet nature. Such traits make him both an excellent poker player and an antidote to my overly communicative parenting style. In other words, I like to talk about all the things. Whether I’m expressing my adoration or admonishment, my desire to talk things to death reflects my personal love of language (I teach writing) and how it can be an essential part of raising children. I hope my notes, declarations, lectures, and our marathon talks will have a meaningful impact on my daughters.

With their father, my girls will also have an equally profound, but altogether separate language. My husband says a lot with less words or sometimes, no words. Without lengthy objection, he can be counted on to offer a simple “yes” to nightly piggy back rides and “can-you-fix-this-one-more-time-it-keeps-breaking-for-some-reason” appeals. He wordlessly sits the younger daughter atop his shoulders when she reneges on her pinky promise that she can make it through a hike without complaining of being tired. He is an active, engaged listener. In their father, the girls find a riveted audience member whose effortless laughs of approval speaks volumes. In mere minutes, he can concisely defuse and deescalate altercations between sisters or daughter vs. mother, an objective third-party observer always offering perspective and never any judgment.

There is a shorthand between fathers and daughters that can render itself in thoughtful acts. My husband’s unobtrusive parenting actually means he is more present with the girls. It’s in the details. He interrupts his yard work to save cicada shells to show his budding entomologists. At a moment’s notice, he can accurately predict the type of battery needed in any given toy and is the unsung surgeon to untold amputated doll limbs. A daughter’s simple request is always elevated into something better. With a lot of tinkering, but little flourish, my husband will construct a makeshift lunch box for a 38" stuffed bear using cardboard and twist ties from a loaf of bread.

He teaches by doing, whether it’s how to win in Battleship, getting a good grip while rock climbing, drawing realistic farm animals, or getting out of your comfort zone by dancing with them in public. He grants our girls the benefit of his silence when they are struggling. Because waiting a beat and not rushing to fill the pauses can be comforting and validating to a child. A sustained and silent embrace from him at the end of a long day of preschool or tiring day on the soccer field can be everything to them.

The language between fathers and daughters is implicit. It commands a type of fluency that is rooted in trust, security and reliability. To be sure, mothers and daughters might have a more verbal relationship that considers the texture and tone of the words we use. But I’ve learned that the specific language between fathers and daughters reminds us of an essential truth: that our children can also feel the weight of our presence and the depth of our love without words.

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