In a new memoir, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, a daughter of the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, maintains that what some might see as cruel treatment by her father was his way of building strength in her, and she forgives him. In nearly 1,500 comments on a profile of her last week, many readers struggled with that.
What do our reactions to Ms. Brennan-Jobs’s story tell us about ourselves?
I have spent decades studying father-daughter relationships, and my own research and that of others offers several insights.
It’s important to remember that our childhood memories are not always accurate representations of what actually happened, as the work of the cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus established. What we forget or remember and the meaning we give to those selected memories is colored by the “life story” that we create for ourselves. We feel more comfortable creating a consistent, coherent story than trying to make sense of or make peace with erratic, inconsistent memories and contradictory facts — regardless of whether our story is more negative or more positive than the facts warrant.
As family members, this leaves us with no agreed-upon picture of dads, moms or stepparents. (Indeed, in a statement to The Times, Mr. Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, her children and Mr. Jobs’s sister, Mona Simpson, said that “the portrayal of Steve is not the husband and father we knew.”)
According to leading experts on fatherhood research, compared to mothers, fathers are usually more blunt and tend to expect and require more from their children. Dads are less likely to indulge or acquiesce to their children’s immature behavior. Dads promote more self-reliance, more maturity, and more resilience. Most fathers also communicate more directly and more honestly with children about their flaws. Ask daughters which parent is more likely to help them confront the unpleasant truths about themselves and most will say “Dad.”
Adults who love their children and whose children love them can be lousy parents. To be clear, “lousy” parenting does not mean being physically or sexually abusive, or having serious mental health or substance abuse problems that endanger the children. It means that a father who loves his daughter can be self-absorbed, insensitive, hot-tempered, and inept in communicating with her. Parenting is a learned skill that some parents never master. This is not to excuse poor parenting. It is simply a reminder that, as they both age, a father and daughter can acknowledge their love for one another without ignoring or denying his failures as a parent.
Research also teaches us that we cannot always know the motives or intentions behind another person’s behavior. We know when someone’s behavior or comments hurt, belittle or embarrass us. But we don’t necessarily know if that was the person’s intent.
As to whether a brilliant, successful man can be embarrassing, awkward, rude and insensitive in communicating with his daughter, the research answer is clear: yes. Highly intelligent, successful people can have very little of what is known as emotional intelligence. They may be terrible at reading and responding to other’s feelings and social cues. This does not necessarily mean these fathers don’t love or care about their daughters — or that they are self-absorbed narcissistic men. They are simply inept communicators.
When considering our personal reactions to Ms. Brennan-Jobs’s memoir, we might also ask ourselves whether our feelings are more a reflection of our own family relationships than of hers. Whether we are applauding or criticizing how she came to terms with her relationship with her father or how she views her mother, stepmother, and half siblings, our vision is affected by the reflections in our own family mirrors.
Forgiving her father is a gift a daughter gives, not just to her father, but to herself. In choosing not to allow her bitterness about his failings as a father to consume her, a daughter is choosing not to deprive herself of whatever pleasure she can still derive from their relationship. She does not deny the past. But she does not dwell in it. Forgiving does not mean forgetting.
Ms. Brennan-Jobs’s memoir may provide a comforting message for parents who fear that their mistakes and missteps inevitably will lead to irreparable damage — and for daughters who are grappling with their father’s failures as a parent. Adult children can choose to focus on the dearness or the darkness of their childhood relationships with their parents. Ms. Brennan-Jobs chose dearness. Will we?
Linda Nielsen is a professor of educational and adolescent psychology at Wake Forest University and author of “Between Fathers and Daughters: Enriching and Rebuilding Your Adult Relationship” and “Father-Daughter Relationships: Contemporary Research and Issues.”
The Perspective of Steve Jobs’s Daughter
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