A daughter wants fathers to recognize everything they pass on—adultery included.
Dear Fathers of Daughters,
I know most of you guys realize that your girls look to you to teach them what to expect from themselves and from others. You know that if you disregard them, if you treat them like possessions, if you value them only for their beauty or for their place on your holiday card, if you tease them for being dumb or for being blonde or for being too girly or too butch, they will believe that those things are the Truth, with a capital T, about them.
You may also know that how you treat their mother will teach them how they deserve to be treated by others. You know that if you value women, your daughters will learn that they deserve to be valued. If you shit-talk women, they will learn that they deserve to be regarded as shit.
But there’s something more insidious that happens between fathers and daughters, too, something complicated and profound. Something I’m not sure I can explain without telling you how my father is, in a way, responsible for me being an adulterer.
My father was a photographer in Los Angeles. True to form, he married a model (my mother) and became an addict. It’s a story as old as time … well, as old as Hollywood time. He was so unbearably whiny, depressed, needy, moody, and temperamental that when he found another model who was younger and prettier, my mother wasn’t altogether displeased to let him be the charge of this new woman, Elyse.
But I was very small, perhaps six years old, and all I saw was my mother being left alone by the father I adored for this young, vibrant 26 year-old. And boy was Elyse beautiful.
I watched the way my father regarded Elyse. Once she came downstairs in a pair of his beat-up old Levis, cut into shorts. He looked her up and down and was clearly mesmerized. He said, “nice legs” and she shot him a half-smile and went outside to water her flowers. I made a mental note: Always act like you already know anything a man tells you. Oh, and have great legs.
Based upon what I said when I opened this letter to you daddies, you’d think I would’ve married a cheater. I didn’t. I married an incredibly nice guy. A handsome guy who believes the sun wakes with me every morning and sets with me at night. He believes I am smart, strong, gorgeous, sexy and funny. He would wear a giant foam finger that says “#1 Fan” just below my picture if that existed.
He isn’t perfect, he can be distant and cold and quick-tempered. I’m often alone, emotionally and physically. But he’s about as good a husband as they realistically come.
Then one day I watched a man walk into a PTA meeting at my son’s school and everything changed. It was so clear to me that this man was special and important that I made a point to be invisible, avoiding him at all costs. And then one day he approached me, we chatted, and it turned out he was brilliant and funny and perfectly awkward and self-aware. I thought to myself, I’m thoroughly fucked.
I had not even had so much as a crush on a guy in the eight years before I met Mark. But when Mark walked through that door it was like a spotlight was shone on him and I couldn’t walk away. When we became friends on Facebook (mistake number one), I fell in love with his words. I am a word-nerd. A clever turn of phrase is seduction. We became great friends and spent time together at school volunteering. We laughed non-stop and within a short time we had a deep bond. We never talked of love or sex or attraction. We didn’t need to.
Mark adored his wife, Allie. She was a power player in The Industry and he was a freelance writer working from home with his kids. Every day was a new story about Allie, how Allie could name any song in the first five notes, or how Allie looked incredible in a trench coat. Allie was the best gift-wrapper, had the ass of a 20-year-old, and drank bourbon straight up.
We didn’t see each other for a few months in the summer but talked daily. When I ran into him the week school started, I could see in his eyes that he was in love with me. I hadn’t been trying to make him love me, but I loved him immediately and I should have known better than to be anything more than passing acquaintances.
We started an affair, but one purely of words. We avoided each other in person and went a year without seeing one another. We didn’t want to be cheating so we stayed away. In that time, we would “break up” over the guilt probably five times. We were both in love with our spouses but believed we were somehow meant to be together. I couldn’t imagine being without him. He was the other half of me that I hadn’t known was missing.
But then Allie found out about us, and it was over. Mark, rightly so, cut all ties with me. We had never touched, never been closer than three feet away, but we were in love, and in most ways that is worse.
I was wrecked. It was the worst breakup of my life. Worse than when I divorced my first husband, worse than breaking up with my live-in boyfriend after three years. Losing Mark was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, and I was crushed. For a very, very long time.
Every once in a while Mark would write me just to say hello. When I wrote him back he would disappear, which would gut me. I would reach out to him sometimes, I couldn’t help it, always in terror that Allie would find out and go ballistic and tell my husband or shoot me through the heart with a crossbow or something.
Finally we had a perfect moment of closure. We ran into each other at school and admitted that we had been in love, and that what we had was very real, very authentic. We knew there was no other way to go than to focus on our families. We parted ways peacefully and perfectly.
But it wasn’t enough for me. It should have been resolved. I am an incredibly strong person, and I should have been able to move on. What the hell was wrong with me? I Googled “genetics and infidelity” and found some interesting (very) early data about a so-called Cheater’s Gene, a variation of DRD4, that made me wonder if somehow I was predetermined to become my father: a charming, boozing, pot-head who would jump from relationship to relationship. It was sort of terrifying, but I had thus far resisted the boozing and the drugs. The key to living a different life just had to be within me.
Finally, while walking in front of a large reflective storefront window, I stopped. I looked at myself closely. I was in what my friends and husband call my uniform: tomboy-ish jeans, classic boots, a deep v-neck tee shirt that showed off my thin chest and prominent collarbones. I wear my hair in a severe chin-length bob. I feel good, unique, classic. But I look like her. Like Elyse, the woman my father left my mother for. I only wear grey, black and white as a rule. So did Elyse. I don’t wear heels or miniskirts or short shorts or anything trendy. Neither did she. I had somehow morphed into her and never noticed it.
And now I was the other woman. I realized, in that moment, that my love for Mark was very real, very much about how incredible he was. It was genuine, powerful, and authentic. But my inability to let him go was about my dad. I needed to feel powerful. I needed something from Mark that I never wanted and would never have asked for.
I needed him to tell me he would leave his wife for me. It was the only thing that would satisfy me. It felt like it was the only thing that would heal me. The fucked thing is, one reason I loved Mark was because of his commitment to what was best for his daughters and his wife. I would never want him to leave them. But some part of me was screaming for it.
And finally that realization was what started my healing process, nearly two years after meeting Mark. I wanted the power to pull a man from his beautiful family. I wanted to be Elyse, and not be my mother.
I’m still trying to find a way to let him go, to tease out what I’m doing when I start an email to him and then delete it, which is still nearly daily. It’s hard to know what part of me misses him and what part of me just wants to feel that power. If we were both single, I’m sure we would be an epic couple. That part of us was authentic. But for now I remind myself that I am powerful just by virtue of being my own, talented self, and by doing the work to be better.
No longer do I fall for the tricks of my subconscious that tell me I want Mark for myself. That fantasy is the quicksand in my heart, the part of my heart that was damaged by my father’s infidelity. I step into it and I sink, sink, sink into my old daddy-wounds. And that’s what I want to convey to you guys, you fathers of daughters. I want to tell you that where you put your love is where your daughters will want to go. Be it now or when they’re 35 years old and you’ve been duped into thinking your little girl emerged unscathed by your infidelity.
Dads, we daughters are a canvas upon which your behaviors paint a map of our futures. We can veer off that map, toward health and strength instead of your legacies of mistakes, but it’s very hard, like paddling up-stream on a raging river. I am certain any parent’s infidelity affects children of both sexes, and I don’t want to pass this legacy on to my own children. I want the Truth of me to be that I fought against my legacy, and ultimately made a better choice.