Learning That My Dad Never Loved Me Perfectly


The healing power of our father-daughter dance

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I grew up listening to my dad’s favorite music. The oldies station in New York, 101 CBS FM, was the only station we listened to in the car. Otis Redding, The Supremes, Aretha. Dad loved to blast music in the living room, and Bob Marley was often on the rotation. When I was in college and my friends would sit around smoking pot and listening to Legend, I’d be brought right back to my childhood. I also inherited my dad’s love of listening to songs on repeat. He once drove from New York to Washington, D.C. listening to “Sad Mood” by Sam Cooke for six hours by rewinding the tape player on the mini van over and over. I don’t think I’ve reached six hours for one song, but I’ve come close.

When it came time to find a song for the father-daughter dance for my wedding, I asked my dad to pick something out. I didn’t think it was a big deal to me. It was one of the areas of my wedding where I felt really flexible and was happy to create a space for my dad to contribute something he liked that was meaningful to him. At least, that’s what I thought.

I sent Dad links to some lists of suggested father-daughter songs. I listened to lots of them, noticing which ones touched me. I loved “Father and Daughter” by Paul Simon, but I knew that Dad probably wouldn’t choose that because he didn’t listen to Paul Simon. There were so many other oldies and artists he loved that captured the same spirit of Simon’s line “there will never be a father who loves his daughter more than I love you.” And I had a favorite that I was secretly hoping he’d chose: “Nothing Can Change This Love I Have For You” by Sam Cooke. “If you wanted to leave me and roam, when you got back I’d just say ‘welcome home,’ cause honey nothing, nothing, nothing can ever change this love I have for you.”

I bet you think this song is about you

Dad took a while to chose a song, I had to remind him about it a few times. Then one day he called to tell me that he found a song that would be great. “What a Wonderful World” by Louie Armstrong.

My heart sank.

I started running through the lines in my head. None of them were about how much a father loves his daughter. Not one. I was confused. I was upset. Really upset. Inexplicably upset, considering how flexible I thought I felt about this dance. I will admit it: I cried. And even as I was crying, I knew that it didn’t make sense, that it was completely out of proportion to the present moment situation. But there was a big sadness that took over and I didn’t know what to do with it except feel it and let it move through me.

As I stayed with this mysteriously over-inflated feeling about the seemingly innocuous father-daughter dance, I started to listen to the part of me that was heartbroken. I realized that it was a young part, a little girl who longed for her daddy to love her perfectly and profess that love publicly. It was a part of me that got hurt long ago, because no one can ever love us perfectly, because none of us are perfect. It was a part that never gave up hope that it could happen, though, and this wedding seemed like just the right time to make this dream come true.

No wonder I was so upset.

For this part of me, everything was at stake. This wedding was her last chance to be redeemed, to experience being truly and fully lovable by her father, and for everyone to see it. Only it wasn’t, of course. There would be no young child with her daddy on the dance floor. Just an adult woman and her father. The affirmation that I longed for couldn’t fill the need from the past, because we can’t re-write the past. The person who can really love that part of me now is me.

You were right, pops

And then that thing happened that so often happens when we let ourselves cry and feel our feelings. After a little while, I started to think more clearly. I could see the situation from a position grounded in the present, and I could see my dad for the man he is today, through the eyes of the adult woman I am today. From there I could see the beauty in the song my dad had chosen. For most of my life I would have described my father as cynical, though he would call himself a realist. Either way, “wonderful world” are not the words he would have used to describe life. But since he retired a few months earlier, his world changed. He felt joyful waking up in the morning. He felt excited to approach each day. And things like his beloved daughter getting married made him feel even more full of love for this “wonderful world.” I could suddenly feel what a gift it was that my dad felt this way about his life. I could see how beautiful it was that my wedding was a part of that. I realized that every part of my wedding did not have to be about me.

“I hear babies cry, I watch them grow. They’ll know much more than we’ll ever know, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

I cried at the reception during the dance with my dad. They were tears of joy and gratitude and love. For him, for the ways he’s loved and supported me, for the look in his eyes when we danced. For this perfectly imperfect life.

And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

Julia Ellis

Julia Ellis is a Marriage and Family Therapist in the Bay Area with a special passion for working with brides. She lives with her husband and eight-person community in a giant mansion in Oakland, where she often initiates improv games around the dinner table. You can find her at www.juliaellistherapy.com and www.beyondthebigday.com.

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  • Kayjayoh

    “And even as I was crying, I knew that it didn’t make sense, that it was completely out of proportion to the present moment situation. But there was a big sadness that took over and I didn’t know what to do with it except feel it and let it move through me.”

    I think this is one of the most important things we can do when we are upset by something, and while it is difficult to not just skip from “I’m upset” to “and it is the fault of __________,” the maturity of “this is out of proportion, so why don’t I just feel this and reflect on this” is so helpful. It has saved my butt so many times.

    • Amy March

      So wise. This comment and the piece.

    • Kayjayoh

      My process is often something like, “Okay, I *am* m/sad about this thing, but I’m obviously not m/sad about *just* this thing.” Then I let myself cry and/or fume for a bit without taking major action. Then, when I am in a slightly less raw space, I examine what is beneath those feelings.

      • Jess

        My process goes, “I’m upset about this thing, I obviously am overreacting to this thing, what the hell is wrong with me! I need to stop being upset about this thing! (dissolve into being upset about being upset)”

        The learning to let yourself be upset first is a surprisingly important part!

        • Kayjayoh

          It really is. As kids we just go all out, and then we get taught to calm down, get over it. But that middle ground it a good space to find. Being upset, allowing yourself to be upset without shame, while not acting out in that moment. It’s hard.

          • E.

            Someone who worked with my mom when my sister and I were little told me that one morning my sister was at work with her and was throwing a tantrum as my mom was trying to get her to school. The coworker was internally rolling her eyes thinking my mom should just put her foot down and drag her butt to school, but then my sister said, “I’m not done being mad yet!” and the coworker thought “holy cow parent of the year teaching her child how to meet her emotional needs.” It’s something I’m so grateful for and try to teach my students as well.

  • savannnah

    This was such an interesting article to read.I am not married yet but every time I hear that song I think of my dad immediately. I am not sure if he played it when we were little or what but in my life, that song is all about a fathers love for his daughters.

  • RH

    I thought this was written by a therapist! It’s so insightful. Great piece, and I have to add that “What A Wonderful World” is going to play as the ‘family dance song’ for husband-to-be, our son, and me (not sure about the actual dancing logistics yet though…). It was on at the doctor’s office when we saw the first ultrasound, and both of us cried. It really is a great choice!

  • another lady

    I had a similar thing happen at my wedding. We decided to let our parents pick the songs that they wanted to dance to with us (mother- son and father-daughter). We figured it was the parent’s moment more than it was ours. They took the song selection seriously and told us what they were. My dad picked a Christian song about being forgiven by God (that I had not heard before) and his mom picked a song about a little boy growing up (that my husband had not heard before). We had to give up on the idea that they were going to pick songs we liked, or had even heard before, and just let them have their moments. I assume that they had been thinking about dancing with their children at their child’s weddings since we were young. My dad seemed to really enjoy the moment of the father daughter dance, and my hub’s mom talked to him the whole time ‘so that she wouldn’t cry’. For me and my dad, It was a special moment in our imperfect relationship that turned out to be meaningful for us both. I also had my dad walk me down the isle, which I did not think that I wanted, but it really seemed to have a lot of meaning to him.

    • Sosuli

      I swore for the first year of engagement that I would walk down the aisle by myself… until my dad mentioned walking me down in a way that showed he assumed he would be. And then I got how important it was to him and realised he wouldn’t get my “I’m a feminist” and would just hear “I don’t want you there”. So instead I told him “You can walk me down the aisle, but no one is giving me away.” And he burst out laughing and said “I didn’t think I could.”

  • joanna b.n.

    This is such a perfect example of how so many moments in the wedding day all have their own stories… and if you get lucky/are willing to do the work, they are each just as real, beautiful, and deep as this one.

  • tr

    My dad tried to pick a song that was about trafficking drugs and getting sent to the electric chair…
    Edit: He was 100% serious.

  • Jess

    “The affirmation that I longed for couldn’t fill the need from the past, because we can’t re-write the past. The person who can really love that part of me now is me.”

    Excuse me as I sob about that line for the next three days…

  • Felicity

    Loved this! I had a similar experience letting my dad choose our father daughter dance song. I get so much of my musical taste from him so I thought he’d choose something from that shared taste – Motown! Bob Dylan! But instead he picked something from his youth, a doo wop song. And in the end it was perfect.

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  • alicepizorri

    “For this perfectly imperfect life.”

    This is so lovely, I am getting married 3 1/2 weeks from now. My Dad initially suggested “Dance with my Father” which was sweetly tone deaf considering that my fiance’s mother passed away in July. We eventually settled on “Child of Mine” by Carol King and now I get a little teary and start feeling all of the feelings when the song even begins to edge into my brain.

  • kaitlin

    It’s funny, I picked the song Landslide by Stevie Nicks to dance with my Dad to, because I have a vivid memory of being a teenager and that song came on the radio and my Dad and I were both singing along to it and it always stuck with me. My Dad had no recollection of it, but said he was fine with me choosing it. A few days before the wedding he told me he had 1 song request that he wanted the DJ to play but wouldn’t tell me what it was. I was very curious and a little skeptical about it, turns out it was Father and Daughter by Paul Simon and we danced with all the Dads and daughters at the wedding. The DJ was hesitant to play it b/c he thought it was “cheesy”, my husband had strong opinions about the music and when the DJ checked with him, he said if it was important to my Dad then the DJ should play it. My Dad is not a sentimental or emotional guy but it was really touching for a number of reasons. I would have never in a million years guessed that was the song he wanted to play.

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  • kaywel

    I had kind of hoped this article would be about a question I wrestled with: what do you do if your father doesn’t really want a father-daughter dance?

    It really wasn’t organic to our relationships–we’re a reserved, private people–but the endless string of sentimental in-laws, DJs and event managers I had to explain this decision too felt, to a one, like they were guarding the pity behind their kind smiles. I understood that my father is simultaneously the ubermale and full of terrible stage fright and that this wasn’t really about me, but it still hurt a bit.