Fathers - Be Good to Your Daughters
The father-daughter song that isn’t a father-daughter song at all.
We individualize the things we experience so that we can relate to them - it’s human nature. When a great movie ends, I feel like a small piece of me is altered for a little while. When someone wants to show me something they've drawn, or painted, I feel like they’re sharing a part of themselves with me. When the right song plays, it can make or break my mood before the first chorus even starts.
I'm no stranger to being moved by music. I was 7 years old when I first heard Eric Clapton’s acoustic version of "Layla"; My mind built up a story of a magical woman who brought a man to his knees, and I vowed to name my first born daughter Layla. At age 9, I cried my eyes out after listening to "I'm Already There" by Lonestar (seriously) while in the car with my mother on the way to her chiropractor appointment - I didn’t stop crying even after we were in the waiting room. No matter how many times I hear it, Hozier’s "Work Song" sucks the soul out of my body and makes me believe in a love so real it could raise you from the dead. When I hear the song "Daughters" by John Mayer, I feel like the oxygen has been sucked out of my atmosphere and I’m 13 years old again.
A glance at the YouTube comments on John Mayer's Daughters music video will show you dozens of comments from people who love this song for loads of different reasons. Some people have played this song at their wedding, some have dedicated it to their newborn daughters, and an unreasonable amount of people claim to be really great at performing it at open mics. A handful of comments are written by daughters who’re sad because they miss their fathers. A few comments are by fathers that’re sad because they miss their daughters. Even more sad are the comments from daughters who aren’t sure if their fathers miss them at all. I haven’t left a revealing and personal comment under the YouTube video myself, but this song hits me hard in the chest every time I hear it.
When I was in 8th grade, I got to experience one of the perks of being an 8th grader (not that there are any perks of being an 8th grader - I think it was more of a rite of passage), which was an event we called a "dinner dance". Before junior prom, formals, and the prom, there was the “dinner dance” which gave our awkward selves a chance to dress up. We were guaranteed a night of dancing, and an OK dinner. There was no pressure to find a date, because your "dates" were your parents. My mom (a self-taught, seamstress who'd put Cinderella's mice to shame) hand made my dress - I got to pick the fabric and the dress pattern. I chose this royal blue silky fabric that was covered in glitter - in my mind, the dress would radiate when the light hit it, blinding everyone around me, and turning heads all over the damn place.
In the middle of dressmaking, ride planning, and ticket purchasing - my parents split up for the 87th time and my mother and I moved out of our shared home with my father, and moved in with my sister who lived nearby.
Like anyone would be, I was pissed at my dad. I didn't want to be living with my sister and I was born and raised to take my mom's side those days. When my dad called to ask me if he could still come with me to my dance, I told him I'd think about it, and then waited well over a week to say yes.
When the day came, I felt zero apprehension and was only excited to dress up, get my hair done, and dance with my friends. The 8th graders were let out of school early to have time to get ready. I’d gotten my first manicure the day prior, so I was left with plenty of time to get my hair and makeup done. I still have printed photos that my sister took of me that day, my hair was styled in a curled up-do with rhinestone pins holding the curls in place and I wore an eye shadow that was so glittery it could now serve as a relic of the mid-2000s - but when I looked in the mirror before leaving for the night, I saw the sort of Cinderella moment I’d imagined.
At the dance, I spent the entire time on the dance floor, not even paying attention to my parents, who sat at a table with whoever else had a last name closer to the end of the alphabet. None of the parents attempted to dance, they just watched us and took photos on their digital cameras. Surrounded by everyone I'd grown up with for the past 9 years, I danced until I got sweaty, and didn't stop until the DJ announced the mother-son dance.
All of us non-sons left the dance floor and sat with our parents. We forked at over cooked ziti noodles and picked the crusts off dinner rolls. We giggled while we watched the boys dance with their moms who schmoozed over them, sang to them, and squeezed them into their chests. I cannot remember what song played, but after the duo dance was over, the floor was open for everyone else to dance again. After “Apple Bottom Jeans” had gotten us all to fall onto the floor, the already familiar tune of "Daughters" rolled out of the speakers like a sick foreshadowing. The DJ announced that it was time for the father-daughter dance. I remember smiling to no one in particular, while I watched the dads find their daughters on the floor.
I know a girl, I watched my best friend's dad come and take her hand.
I looked down at the floor. It felt silly to be so hopeful to see the man I’d wanted to uninvite.
She puts the color inside of my world, I didn't move from my place on the floor; I didn't want my dad to lose me in the crowd. The friends around me migrated away to dance with their dads or sit with their moms. I turned in a circle like I was speared on a spit. He’s so tall, I was sure I wouldn’t miss him. I tried to remember what color he was wearing, but the sea of middle-aged men in monotone suits swallowed up the floor and I couldn’t pick one face out from another. I suddenly felt too large - too tall in my shoes, or maybe my hair was too curly, or my makeup was too heavy.
It started to feel like the room was moving in the opposite direction from the way I kept turning. The floor filled up with dancing pairs and it soon felt like it was divided in half – me standing alone on one side, and everyone else on the other, steering clear of my atmosphere.
Daughters will love like you do, I found my mom on the edge of the floor, standing where the cross-hatched wood pattern met brass ledge and became dark green carpet.
We made eye contact and she reflected a smug sort of pity. I realize now how pathetic I must’ve looked at that moment - a deer who was actually looking for headlights. My face got hot and my eyes started to sting a bit.
She half whispered / half shouted over the music, but I could really only read her lips - "he left".
I started to cry so hard that no sound came out.
I started to cry so hard that my body folded in half and I landed on the floor, my knees hitting the wood, my dress landing around me in a sad blue puddle.
My mom didn't come to me, in fact, I still have no idea where she went after I collapsed. I cried so hard, alone, for what felt like so long but the song continued on just the way it was supposed to, girls become lovers, who turn into mothers, so mothers be good to your daughters too.
Once the people around me started to catch onto what was happening, I could feel people watching and I could hear mumblings. The song played on and I kept my head low, frozen in my puddle and embarrassed more than I’d ever been, or ever would be.
Someone eventually came to get me. A hand reached down towards me and I looked up with my face blotchy and red, my makeup streaked with tears and snot, and I saw my best friend’s dad. He’d been sitting at the table next to my parents, and to this day I’m not sure if he knew my dad left or if he knew why, but he helped me up from the floor and asked if he could dance with me.
He and I danced, and then another friend’s dad asked to cut in, and we danced too. My friends smiled and swayed with me and I felt genuinely loved and supported. Here were two dads, willing to share their father-daughter time with me. I'd admired and adored them both before that night - having been friends with their daughters for years, sleeping over their houses, and going out for dinner with them - but in that moment, dancing with them, I knew that nights like this, no matter how hard they tried, weren’t going to wreck me. I knew that I would always be supported.
Someone would always come to take my hand and help me up off the ground.
For years, I couldn't hear that song without locking myself in the nearest bathroom and hyperventilating. Well over a decade after the fact, I've found myself crying over this story just trying to tell it.
“Daughters” isn't the kind of song you play for a father-daughter dance. It's the kind of song that men write about women like me - women who love their lovers with the same smokescreen sort of love that their dads loved them with. While I fell into my dating years, I found myself chasing a love that I wanted, and only giving a love that seemed good enough for me. My love was careless and convenient. My love asked you to let me in, only for me to leave you hanging. Daughters will love like you do.
In more recent years, this song has turned into a facet of my personality, not as a thorn in my side, but as a conscious dive into how the love we receive at a young age molds us into the lovers and friends we become as we get older. I’ve become an advocate for mental health, and I work on healing traumas and accepting what I cannot change. Instead of owning John Mayer’s anthem for girls with “daddy issues”, I hear this song and think of how different my love can really be. John sings, since the day she saw him walking away, now she’s left cleaning up the mess he made – and for years after that first real heartbreak I was convinced that I was the mess he made; I was convinced that I was damaged, after enduring so many damaging events. I’ve come to learn that I’m not a mess that anyone’s made – I’m an exception to the rule. I’m swimming against the current. I’m literally changing the tune.
It would take a while after the dinner dance for me to forgive my dad. Though I was pressured into forgiveness after he and my mother repaired things, I didn’t truly forgive him for a long time. After another decade of fending off demons of his own, my dad and I have found a place where we are able to share open honesty between the two of us. He has taken responsibility for his actions and has taken massive strides to repair the damage he’s done in his life. Here and now – my dad is the most supportive, loving, self-aware parent I’ve ever had, and I couldn’t ask for more.
So here’s to breaking toxic patterns, healing from old traumas, and playing actual appropriate songs for father-daughter dances and not just songs with the word “daughter” in them.