Fathers and their daughters

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's parents John and Moira in 2010.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's parents John and Moira in 2010. Photo: David Mariuz

Like many Australians, my hand flew to my chest when I heard about the death of Julia Gillard’s father. I was touched to hear that he was her inspiration and the source of her work ethic and passion for education. I love that they spoke every weekend and were incredibly close.

It is crystal clear that Julia Gillard adored her dad. The photos of them together show they are built of similar stuff.  They have the same nose, chin, grin and determined eyes. The snaps of them hugging, of him toasting her success with a cup of tea and watching her speak, show the power of their affection.  John Gillard once said there were not enough words in the English language to describe his pride in his daughter but in those photos, it’s written all over his face. It must have hurt him to hear the toxic detractors belittle his "little girl" made good.

John’s death and Julia’s grief have made me ponder the power of the bond between dads and daughters. Much is written about the complex relationship between mothers and daughters.  Much is said when fathers and daughters don’t get on. But a close, loving and respectful relationship between a dad and his girl is incredibly important and beneficial.

Julia Gillard: 'I will miss him for the rest of my life.'

Julia Gillard: 'I will miss him for the rest of my life.'

As we girls grow up, we have to pull away from our mothers.  Forged in their wombs, we sense that we are, and always will be, a part of them. We fight that closeness as we forge our own identity, always knowing its depth.   We look to our fathers in a different way.  As a calm port in a storm, as a strong guiding light, a pillar of stability, a set of values, as an example of what’s right, good, just and best in a man. When we girls get a good dad it sets us up for life. 


Then there are the simple things that all girls need and never forget. The feeling of being picked up in your father's arms – of being enclosed in a safe, secure pod protected from the worst of the world.  The thrill of balancing high on dad’s shoulders, clutching his neck, clinging to his power, anchored to his earth yet lifted closer to the sky.

Girls often look to our dads for the practical lessons in life – how to change a tyre, how to start a fire, how to kick a ball, shoot a goal or ride a bike.  I adore hearing my daughter chat with her dad as they design and build doll’s furniture. Dads push us higher on the swings, let us go earlier on the ice rink, pull us faster on the billy cart; encourage us to taste danger and feel free, brave, capable and strong.  Many girls seek sport to involve and impress their dads. We don’t feel the pressure to fulfil their unrealised dreams, yet strive to achieve what they were denied. 

John and Moira Gillard with daughters Julia (left) and Alison.

John and Moira Gillard with daughters Julia (left) and Alison.

When my father was young, he was not allowed to learn to swim (according to the family joke "there were too many germs"). So, as a counter-response to his dry childhood, we were all taken to the pool very young.  Lessons and then squad were compulsory. We swam laps and laps while our dad watched us grow fish-like, fast and confident in an activity he was denied.   We didn’t refuse because we knew he knew what was good for us. 

Like many dads, my father always snatched time to watch us in sport, even setting up one of the very first incredibly heavy and clunky video cameras to film my gymnastics.  I’m forever grateful to have those videos of me falling off the beam with dad’s soft lament of "Oh Sair" in the background. 

Dads are less likely to lecture than mums. But we absorb their lessons.  Perhaps because we don’t see them nearly as much as our mums, we seek their approval far more.  There’s nothing like the feeling of letting your dad down, not living up to his expectations.  We strive to make them proud.

Dads are not only vitally important to the woman you become but also the partner you seek. We all know, instinctively, that a girl with a great dad will most often seek a great guy but recent research proves it. Durham University in Britain found women with a positive relationship with their father usually select life partners who resemble, or remind them of, their dads. The research also showed that women who have negative or less positive childhood relationships sought out partners who were vastly different. My advice to any women whose mums are urging them to hurry and get married is to say "it’s hard to find a bloke who measures up to dad". That should keep them off your back!

A research group from Rider University, US, examined the importance and role of a positive father-daughter bond in areas crucial to relationships.  It found women with high levels of trust with their fathers also have significantly better communication and trust with their boyfriends. According to author Dr Linda Nielsen: "When a woman doesn't trust men, can't maintain an ongoing relationship, doesn’t know how to communicate, is sexually promiscuous, or is too co-dependent, this is probably because her relationship with her father lacked trust and/or communication."

Other studies have shown that relationships between fathers and daughters can have a direct effect on problems such as eating disorders (a high percentage of girls with anorexia say they feel disconnected from fathers) and even the timing of puberty.

It’s hard when dads get old. It’s confronting to see those shoulders that once held us so high begin to sag and weaken. It hurts to see that strong, indomitable, body weathered and made vulnerable by the cruelties of age.  We need our father’s strength and to see it wane is sobering and sad. To lose a father is to lose our anchor, our champion, our rock.

I grieve for Julia Gillard.  I sense her pain, loss, love and the depth of respect she had for her dad.  She was lucky to have such a wonderful man as the main bloke in her life and I feel it stood her in great stead.  Perhaps her strength under fire comes from John Gillard’s admiration, love and support. 

The PM said in her statement "I will miss him for the rest of my life".

She will.  But she will also honour and adore him and, for that reason, she is blessed.