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Of Dads And Mountain Daughters

A foundational relationship in a woman’s life, its impacts lasting a lifetime

Dads need to pay attention and be there for their daughters, columnist Timothy Tate says. Here  Tate's daughter Abbey surveys her childhood homeland on a recent visit to southwest Montana. Photo by Timothy Tate
Dads need to pay attention and be there for their daughters, columnist Timothy Tate says. Here Tate's daughter Abbey surveys her childhood homeland on a recent visit to southwest Montana. Photo by Timothy Tate
I have lived in these mountains of southwestern Montana for the last 36 years. The landscape of Gallatin Valley has informed my sense of reality over this time, shaping a still-expanding perspective about life, just as the view from atop Blackmore Peak south of Bozeman reveals canyons, mountain ranges, and river pathways otherwise invisible.


So many of us struggle to see what’s right in front of us. I’ve had many clients who, upon reaching the end of life through old age or sickness, remark that their greatest regret is not paying attention to the people in their lives who mattered.

My wife and I raised two children in the relative harshness of these northern latitudes. My son, Bryan, from another mother, and our daughter, 20 years younger than her brother, feasted on mountain air like an osprey might while swooping and diving through its terrain to clutch sustenance.

Bryan would come to spend summers in Montana from his Phoenix school year residency to frolic and work in the 1980s’ version of our dear Bozeman community.

A ritual we had was to go backpacking with our external frame Jansport backpacks stuffed with wool and cotton clothing, dried food, pots and pans, and a two-person tent. Susan would drive us to the Spanish Peaks trailhead and, with a folded topo map in my flannel shirt pocket, we would head up the trail towards Big Brother Lake or Jerome Rock Lakes.

I remember that we cut our teeth on mountain trails when we joined my sister, brother-in-law Doc Winter and several of their kids to backpack up to Pine Creek Lake in the Absaroka Mountains which rise above Paradise Valley.

Have you hefted a backpack up that last mile recently? Bryan was maybe 11 at the time, this being his inaugural ascent. We know there is a moment in trail hiking when another step further seems impossible.

° ° °

My sister, a tough Miles City woman accustomed to backpacking in the Beartooths, spoke directly to my son at his breaking point, saying that she would gladly hike down the mountain with him or he could “cowboy up” and continue.

To this day we laugh about that tipping point moment in mountain reality whereby you realize that added joy of a place stems from it being hard earned.

Bryan and his wife now take our granddaughters backpacking each summer and his embarking upon bow hunting adventures deep into unforgiving mountain terrain with bears ready to wrestle you for your animal are what makes a father pray.

Although our children have lived in major urban areas such as Salt Lake City and Los Angeles—where daughter Abbey currently resides—a seed planted in their mountain psyches still blooms. The relationships between fathers and daughters can be special with shared memories if we try to consciously pay attention.

As Abbey wrote to me about some of our hikes : “Still to this day I have an everlasting sense of wonderment to nature and my surroundings.” And she added, “growing up in the mountains alters my frame of reference. I believe you find importance in things such as relationships, health and fitness, nature, and taking care of it.”
Abbey on a float of the Missouri River with friends. Modern dads take naturally to their sons and often form bonds around masculine outdoor activities.  While disconnections between fathers and daughters are a frequent lament, there's no reason why they have to happen. Be present, be available in the moment, eschew distractions, listen, hear and trust. These things instill confidence and help nurture empowerment that lasts their whole lives, Tate says.
Abbey on a float of the Missouri River with friends. Modern dads take naturally to their sons and often form bonds around masculine outdoor activities. While disconnections between fathers and daughters are a frequent lament, there's no reason why they have to happen. Be present, be available in the moment, eschew distractions, listen, hear and trust. These things instill confidence and help nurture empowerment that lasts their whole lives, Tate says.
Fathering children in a mountain town is its own specialty and can be fraught with challenges. The imprint we make is permanent and the behavior we model is carried forward in ways we may not, at first, realize.

I look out my office window at the Hawthorne Elementary School playground groomed as a skating rink or see the skis and snowboards and daypacks of the kids after a school outing at our local Bridger Bowl.

I schedule teenage clients around their Bridger Ski Foundation arrangement with Bozeman Senior High that allows them to leave school at noon to train.

I watch fathers roll up in their Ford F-250 pickups, bounce out, spot and grasp the small hand of their daughter, hefting her into the truck’s cab. I listen to distraught fathers whose teenage daughters are rebelling against their authority. And I hear stories of daughters whose fathers have abandoned them long ago either emotionally or literally or both.

As noted above, the father-daughter relationship matters enormously in the development of a girl, it shapes her sense of self as she moves through her teenage years into womanhood and stays with her for all of her days.

Dads are culturally naturalized to spend more time with their sons, but based on conservations I’ve had with women clients, including those in the last years or decades of life, the relationship they had with their fathers—or didn’t have—can have deep impacts in figuring out who they are and how they navigate relationships with other men.

I know women in their 90s who reflect on the influential relationship they had with their dads nine decades earlier.

° ° °

There are specific qualities that a mature father personifies: presence, consistency, boundaries, consequences, motivation, trust, and a blessing. Being present is big but it is the combination of these qualities that might be an operational definition of what we mean by fatherly love. These qualities apply to raising both boys and girls, yet differ in how they are experienced and needed by the child depending on their gender. This is to say that establishing boundaries as a father will look differently for a boy of 10 than it will for a girl at 16.

Take bridge or cliff jumping for example. Daughter Abbey relished and took pleasure in joining in with her 15- and 16-year old friends in jumping off bridges on the Jefferson and Yellowstone rivers.
There are specific qualities that a mature father personifies: presence, consistency, boundaries, consequences, motivation, trust, and a blessing. Being present is big but it is the combination of these qualities that might be an operational definition of what we mean by fatherly love.
There was very little in that activity which made either of us parents comfortable. Yet a context built around our daughter’s choices, constructed from a story of trust and consequences over her developing sense of self, created a risk/reward sensibility that we trusted her to exercise.  When a friend severely injured his back leaping off the cliffs on the Jefferson in 2004, Abbey chose to cease from such jumps.

As readers here know, I recently wrote a series on men in mountain towns and the moments of truth they reach in middle age and beyond.  I created a composite character named Walt that possessed aspects of the various men who generally were attracted to communities like Bozeman and Jackson for outdoor recreation, but got lost along the way in their own identity and relationships with others.

Rather than attempt to take a similar approach with women in mountain towns, I will share in future columns different kinds of scenarios I’ve observed over the past several decades with women. But I think it is important to first share a few thoughts about my own imperfect parenting and how it took shape with Abbey.

° ° °

Fathering my daughter began on a subzero December morning in 1988. Remember those “old school” winters that morphed like the 88-89 winter into sustained -30 days if not weeks?

I fired up our reconditioned 1956 Chevy 210 Sedan and we drove in the brittle morning darkness up to the recently built Bozeman Deaconess Hospital on Highland Boulevard. We had arranged with the OB-GYN group to have her birth take place in their newly created birthing room, where we could control the room’s temperature and play Beethoven during the birthing process.

We also contracted with the attending physicians to follow the Frédérick
Leboyer birthing method called Birth Without Violence. This meant that the umbilicus would not be cut at birth but was allowed to continue providing oxygen while the baby is moved up onto the mother’s chest for imprinting. Once this time is savored the cord is cut and the father takes the newborn and places her in a 90+degree saline solution bath mimicking the baby's intrauterine experience. What a joy to watch my daughter's eyes open, followed by a smile.

How we begin this life journey is so fundamentally critical to a person’s sense of fear and if this life is to be trusted. This beginning was the start of what I mean as presence.

A father’s charge is to be a consistent presence in his daughter's life, not micro-managing or ever-criticizing but abiding. Either a father believes that his daughter knows or senses what is intuitively right or he feels compelled to instruct her on how he thinks she should be. She may seek your counsel but what she really values is your trust.

° ° °

Creating this field for a daughter is enhanced by the time spent in nature where simultaneously dads can show their interest in being there for their daughters and together amass of reservoir of shared experiences to draw upon.

The natural world in our Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the playground and training ground for our kids. We would amble and play by creeks, sled down our street, walk up rocky hillsides where rattlesnakes den, and bike along community trails where I as the father set the stage, watched the lay of the land like a hawk, and was ready to dive in should she slip into the creek or hear the rattling buzz of a disturbed snake.

Danger and boundaries commingle. The dangers of the natural world demarcate clear boundaries. One does not rock climb crumbly granite any more than canoe down a swollen runoff River with uprooted cottonwood tree snags. There is a clear and present danger represented by the inherent character of the landscape’s diversification: what my eyes witness in our western world registers as a sense of place that travels with us over a lifetime. Who can grow up in the mountains and not carry that vista as their inner landscape horizon line?

This notion reminds me of one time during our tenure in Miles City when I guided a visiting opera singer from New York City (performing in the local culture series) on a hike up into the rugged butte terrain called the Pine Hills southwest of the town.

We hiked through the ponderosa pines, over the multi colored lava rock to a vantage point that reveals the endless horizon of the badlands and prairie. She had arrived at night, was accustomed to the vertical landscape of Manhattan, and was closely watching her footfall over the rocky terrain.

I asked her to close her eyes and take my hand as I led her to my favorite overlook perch. Once I had her in position I asked her to open her eyes. She did, gasped and fell down, overwhelmed by the expansive distance we often take for granted in the West.

How we perceive the world and our own sense of our value in it is influenced by our assumptions and past experiences. The role of the father is to create, to generate a range of experiences that push, test, and support his daughter without imposing his version of a particular outcome.

One of the lessons learned in my professional life is that children model their behavior after or against their parents. We can instruct, shame, punish, rage, and bicker to our heart’s content but what daughters learn from fathers is watching how they behave. I imagine like me other fathers have made mistakes, errors in judgment, worked too many hours, lost their way under the demands of providing, but when the final tally is made, it is how the daughter witnessed her father comport himself over a lifetime that either motivates her to make her life her own or not.
I remember another time when my son, his wife, another couple, and my daughter and I ventured into the Beartooths coming in from the Boulder River around the Independence Peak trailhead. It was my daughter’s first backpacking experience.

We divvied up her backpack’s weight between us, insuring a heavy but not a crushing load. After we hiked for five or six miles we camped by Rainbow Lakes together for the a few nights, but then my son and wife went on with their friends and left Abbey and me alone to spend a night by ourselves.

Do any other fathers out there know what it means to lie awake most of the night listening to every sound as if it is a wild animal making its move on the ramparts of a nylon tent’s protection? I am not one to carry a sidearm or bear spray (I know, I know…) and have a rather outdated existential position straddling destiny, fate, and trust in my magical thinking.

I mean Doug Peacock did teach me about the mental/physical stance with bears: No eye contact, hold your ground, get as big as possible, show no fear. I had to take this stance only once at the base of Elephant Mountain in the Absarokas on a solo backpacking adventure but that story is for another time.

It is the quiet breathing and deep sleep of my young daughter next to me in her sleeping bag, warm and undisturbed, that represents a quality of fathering that I am attempting to convey. A father’s duty is to guide and protect his daughter without letting on to how much mental or emotional content rattles around in his primal brain.

Let not my own neurosis become my daughter’s life map. Rather let my own risk taking, my own adventuresome spirit and consistent approach to getting up once again after taking a fall into cancer or financial or relationship challenges show her the way. Like all writers know: show, don’t tell…

This brings me to my last point, one that is sadly missing from women in my practice and in my circle, and that is the effect of the father’s blessing on his daughter. This blessing takes the form of sitting quietly by her cradle just as it does in unheard evening prayers for her safety and wellbeing as she drives through the labyrinthine Los Angeles surface streets on her way to work each day.

Our daughters’ adventure with immortality is their own story. As fathers who have raised our daughters in the mountains of Montana our task is to provide the context for a secure inner sense of self, generated one trail hike, raft trip, campfire at a time and yielding the type of blessing William Butler Yeats writes about in his poem A Prayer for My Daughter:

       A PRAYER FOR MY DAUGHTER
                       By W.B. Yeats

“May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Not but in merriment begins the chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear place.”
Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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