An Open Letter to Anyone Who Wants to Marry My Daughter

At the time I was dating my wife, I was a white guy (still am, in fact) without a whole lot of earning potential.  My now-wife was a Chinese-American (still is) with a promising future and another Chinese-American medical student waiting in the wings to be the man in her life and provide material comfort and security.  Along comes Tim Dalrymple, head honky, whiter than white, studying philosophy and religion — which is roughly the professional equivalent of self-disembowelment with a volume of Foucault.  My plan was to attend seminary and then a doctoral program (read: be thoroughly poor for a long time, in order then to be poor for an even longer time), and although I had studied a little Chinese and made a couple ventures to China, clearly I could not possess a deep understanding of Chinese culture.  Needless to say, and not unreasonably, they preferred the med student.

I had a muddled conversation with my now-father-in-law in which I sincerely believed he understood that I was asking whether I could request his daughter’s hand in marriage.  He did not know this was what I was asking.  His answer – “It’s not like I would disown her” – was all I thought I could ask for, and I took it.  Armed with the knowledge that I would not be separating my beloved from her family, I asked her to marry me, and in a moment that must either be miraculous grace or a monumental miscalculation on her part, she agreed.

I knew her father wouldn’t be pleased.  But hey, I figured, she’s an adult.  It’s her decision.  It’s her decision – and her parents, I thought, didn’t really have a say in the matter.

Holy cow.  Did I really think that?

Now I understand how western that perspective is.  More importantly, I understand what it’s like to be the father of a daughter.  So I have prepared in advance (my elder daughter is now 4) this public letter to any young man who should ever wish to propose to a daughter of mine, which I think must also represent what my father-in-law was thinking but too kind to say: 

*

You Craven, Cretinous Man-Child, 

First of all, get your hands off her.  No, no, don’t smile at me.  I’m not joking.  Take your grimy paws off her shoulder, her knee, or even her hand.  You do not deserve to touch this girl in even the most innocent way imaginable, so please stop pretending you do.  Remember, I was a guy like you once.  I know what you’re thinking.  I know what you’re always thinking.  You may be able to fool my daughter, but you cannot fool me, so kindly remove…

There.  See?  We can be reasonable.  Now let’s talk.  

See, Jerk, this is the thing.  I was there when she was born.  I was there when she drew her first breath, there when she made her first cry, there for her to hold my finger while they scrubbed her clean of the blood and the detritus of birth.  I was there.  I watched everything they did, watched over her every moment, and made sure she was safe and wanted for nothing.  I prayed for her, made sure she was still breathing, and dressed her.  

I was there.  I was there for her when she was crying at night from milk allergy and colic and reflux.  I was there at 7pm, when she cried from the milk burning her esophagus, there at midnight when she cried again, there at 3am when she cried again, each time holding her for an hour, singing to her, rocking her, shielding her sobbing body against my chest.  I was there to give her bottles and there to soothe her after the bottles.  I was there many times a night, night after night, week after week, month after month.  I probably spent every night with her in the first year of her life.  I let her sleep in my arms in the recliner when it was the only way. I let her sleep beside me when it was all that would stop the crying.  And even when I was not with her alone, I was supporting her mother, who was giving all her strength for her little girl.  

I was also there the first time she smiled, the first time she laughed.  I taught her how to crawl.  I taught her how to walk.  My wife and I taught her how to eat, for goodness sake, and I was there to make sure she didn’t eat the wrong thing or choke.  I was there to hold her when she fell and skinned her knee.  I was there to hold her when her stomach ached — or when she bumped her head — or when she was tired — or when she just felt like having a good cry.  I put her to bed every night for years upon years.  I’ve prayed with her thousands of times and for her many more thousands of times.  I was there when she had allergic reactions and we had to rush to the store for Benadryl.  

(Were you there, by the way?  Oh that’s right.  You weren’t there.  Neither were you there to change the 1500 diapers she produced each year, nor to wipe her nose, nor to bathe her (don’t even think about her naked right now), nor to make sure she was warm when we went out in the winter.)

I was there when my daughter had a seizure from a fever-spike.  I held her stiff little body as her eyes rolled back in their sockets; I was there when her body grew supple and life-like again.  (You — let me see if I remember — no, you weren’t there.)

We were there as she got sick time and again in her first winter and in her second, there when the sore threat kept her from sleeping, there when the congestion made it hard for her to breathe.  I was there to take her to daycare and to school, and to pick her up from school as well.  I was there to teach my daughter her first words.  There to reach her to read.  To count.  To add.  To recite the days of the week, the months of the year, the states of the union.

I have always been there for her.  I’ve paid for 99.9% of all the food she’s ever eaten.  I’ve paid for 99% of the clothes she’s worn.  I’ve paid for her schooling, her soccer league, her karate classes, her gymnastics classes, her summer camps, her violin classes, her Chinese classes, her field trips, her dances (ugh), her car, her nights out with friends (when I worried the whole time).  I’m the one who has slaved and sacrificed so that she could have all those things.  (You?  Not so much.  Not at all, really.)  She may find it romantic when you offer to pay for one meal.  Try 15,000 meals.  She might think it’s nice when you sacrifice an outing with friends in order to spend a quiet day together.  Well, try almost every day for 18 years.  I’ve worked and worked to provide for her.  And I’m still providing, as I’ve paid a king’s ransom to send her to college.  (And no, taking her out to Red Lobster on a date does not qualify as “providing” for her.)

Listen, Monumental Idiot, I’m not complaining.  I was happy to do all these things.  It was my privilege.  My honor.  She’s worth more to me than life itself.  I would do it all again in a heartbeat.  

But this is it in a nutshell.  This is my daughter.  My DAUGHTER.  Can you understand that?  Of course you can’t.  So I’m trying to give you some sense of what she means to me, how dearly her happiness matters to me.  You are far, far more ignorant than you can appreciate right now.  So I’m trying to get some vague sense of the magnitude of this matter through your thick Cro-Magnon skull.  You feel special because you’ve been together for a year.  We’ve been together her entire life.  I really do know her better than you do.  I know too that marriage is far harder (and far better) than you can now grasp.  I know that family dynamics, cultural dynamics, run far deeper than you know.  I know that parts of her that lie hidden when you’re dating will come out when you’ve been married for one year, or five, or fifteen.  And I know the same is true of you.  And I know what a dirty rotten scoundrel you are to start with.

Mostly it’s just that — I was there.  I’ve been there all along.  The amount I’ve given for her is ten thousand times more than the amount you have given for her.  So don’t try to reason with me.  Don’t give me a theological argument.  I’m just telling you what I feel.  You may be an excellent young man, the finest on the face of the planet — but we both know that’s not saying much.  If you ask for my blessing, I may give it.  You may be the best of all evils.  But after thousands upon thousands of hours of holding her, tending to her, comforting her, thousands upon thousands of hours feeding her, sheltering her, shielding her, thousands upon thousands of hours teaching her, challenging her, elevating her, don’t tell me — DON’T TELL ME — that I don’t deserve to have a say in one of the most important decisions in her life.  

God gave this girl to me to protect.  Maybe she’ll be yours to protect one day.  Today, she’s still mine.  And right now I’m protecting her from you until I’m good and ready.  So keep your hands in the air and back slowly towards the door.  We have your number.  We’ll call you when we’ve figured this out.

Sincerely,

-Your Worst Nightmare if You Should Hurt Her

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • Julie

    Good post. Would you say the same to someone who wanted to marry your son?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Please see my response to Marta L. Thanks!

  • http://www.fidesquaerens.org/blog/ Marta L.

    I am comparatively young (I’m thirty), and childless, and a woman, so I feel somewhat at a loss for how to enter into this very personal conversation. I’ve just never been on any side of it.

    That said, as I was reading this, I found myself wondering how this conversation would be different if it was addressed to a woman who wanted to marry your (hypothetical?) son. There’s a long history of fathers arranging marriages and giving their daughters away, with the undertone that they are in some way property. And as I read this letter, I got a whiff of that same attitude. You did certain things for your daughter – and really, those are impressive things you mention, you’re obviously a very devoted parent, but the magnitude of the things you’ve done isn’t the key thing here – you’ve done these things, and the letter seems to imply that this has earned you a say in what happens to your daughter. That might be true, for instance, if we’re talking about a garden you’ve spent hours developing, or a car you’ve rebuilt and you don’t want just anyone to handle. But a person? Maybe this just shows that I’m young and westernized, but it seems to me one of the most important things a parent does as he raises a child into an adult is develops her ability to make good choices – and then lets those be her choices.

    As an adult daughter I can only speak of the way I’d want my parents involved in this decision, if it ever comes to that. (Of course you have to go on a date first, which grad school isn’t exactly conducive to, but setting that wrinkle aside…) If I was ever in a position where a man wanted to marry me, I would expect him to earn my parents’ approval and blessing. But this would not be because this was my parents’ decision. Rather:

    (1) I deeply respect my parents’ wisdom. They know me well and have my best interests at heart. If they think a man isn’t right for me, I would seriously question whether I should be marrying him. I might decide they didn’t know my would-be fiance like I do, but it would definitely be something to consider.

    (2) I love my parents for their own sake, and know my happiness matters to them. Because I love them, I don’t want to cause them anxiety or pain. Marrying a man they disapprove of would do this. And if my would-be fiance didn’t respect this enough to at least try for their approval, he’s not really respecting an important part of me.

    (3) My birth-family is and will continue to be an important part of my life. If my would-be fiance truly loves me he will respect that. The difference is that now he will be grafted in to that family, he will become a part of it. In a very real sense he’s marrying into my family, and if he isn’t willing to embrace that whole messy web of relationships, he’s not looking for the same thing I am.

    All of which means both parents will be intimately involved in this decision. They should be. But I don’t think those reasons are because the parent has “earned” this involvement by being a good parent in the past. Nor are they unique to the father/daughter relationship – or at least they shouldn’t be.

    Perhaps I am reading something into this that isn’t there, but coming at this from the other side of the father/daughter relationship, the idea that this decision isn’t full mine, that I am being guarded and given away, did sit a bit wrong with me.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      The decision is overwhelmingly hers, to be sure. I’m responding here to the notion, coming from the prospective son-in-law, that I should not have a say. I’m sure my response would be quite different if the suggestion were coming from my daughter. (Who, by the way, is four right now. So this is very much a tongue-in-cheek projection.)

      I do think it’s a very, very western notion, however, that the parents should have no say. We are much more relational creatures, and families are much more intricate and organic things, that our hyper-individualistic western notions recognize. This is one way in which I believe my continued encounter with eastern cultures — not to mention the biblical cultures, which can be very collective in the way they address matters like responsibility — has shown me not only a difference, but a real limitation and even misunderstanding on the part of the culture in which I was raised. When I became an adult, my parents would not even offer advice unless I asked for it. They are wonderful, extremely loving parents, but honestly I think they were overreacting to my father’s parents being a little too intrusive in their early married life.

      I’m sure the equation shifts in subtle but important ways as the daughter gets older and more established on her own. But I think the notion that a 20-year-old, for instance, should make the decision essentially with no influence from the parent, is misbegotten.

      I would *not* feel the same with a son, and I know that there are issues here with the idolatry of female purity and so forth. But it would depend in part on the circumstances. An alpha female who is 30 years old trying to seduce my 18-year-old son for his vast wealth (I jest) would get a very different response than a 22-year-old suitor to my 24-year-old son. And of course spiritual maturity and etcetera would all be important. But I also think there are good reasons why fathers are more protective of their daughters than of their sons, and that there’s nothing demeaning but actually there’s much that’s honoring about that.

      And please don’t take it *too* seriously.

      • http://www.fidesquaerens.org/blog/ Marta L.

        I probably did take it a bit too seriously, Tim. My apologies. For one thing I didn’t realize how young your daughter was. And I think, because of your experience with your wife’s eastern culture, you probably have a different perspective than I do. (A better, more rounded, perspective I think.

        Looking back, I think a lot of what bothered me was the tone seemed more suited to a first date of a high school girl. By the time you get to the point of marriage, I would hope that the would-be fiance has invested a lot more into the relationship (emotionally if not financially) than a few dinners out. Of course, it doesn’t come close to 20+ years of parenting, but a long-term boyfriend will hopefully have built a deep emotional bond with the woman he proposes to. Your advice struck me is entirely reasonable for the parent of a teenage girl, but I think in the context of marriage, after this woman has been (I assume) navigating four years of college more or less living apart from you, a lot of this struck me as infantilizing the woman.

        I do reject the idea that a father needs to be protective of a daughter, anymore than he does a son, but I am coming at this from the daughter’s perspective, not the father’s (or mother’s). I freely admit there’s lot about being a parent, the lay-down-your-life kind of bond that comes from your side of the relationship, that I simply am not in a position to understand. I also have a personality that does not like being “guarded,” for whatever reason – I would rather be trusted and supported if necessary. So I don’t think I would perceive being guarded as someone honoring me, though I would certainly appreciate the intent behind it because I can see it coming out of love. That said, every relationship is different and I can see a good father/daughter relationship being built on this kind of protection without it being sexist or demeaning, if done right.

        If nothing else, you’ve made me think about my own Dad and how much I appreciate him and all that he’s done for me over the years. I’m going to email him after I sleep. So you’re blessing father-daughter bonds of fathers you don’t even know. Thanks for that.

      • Kristen inDallas

        As a mom, I can tell you I would very much have a say if my son were thinking of proposing to “one of those girls.” I doubt it’s much to do with the property/objectivity aspect of it being a daughter, I imagine it’s more that fathers know all the dark twisty thoughts men will hide in the begining of a relationship (sons and potential sons in law, so there are likely to cut potential daughters in law a little more slack), and moms know all the dark twisty things a girl will hide (daughters and potential daughters in law alike). As a fully grown woman, I am more capable of understanding ways in which my daughter may not be perfect, and also ways

    • Richard Quigley

      Yes, I think you are reading something into this which is not there. There are also some elements that may block your complete understanding of the situation. You are a woman. You are unmarried. You have not born a child. You are not a Mother, and you can NEVER be a Father. Please do not take offence. From your post I am guessing that the list is true. I could be wrong.
      But I am a male, a husband and a father and I have a daughter. I have never owned her. From the moment of her birth she was her own person. Her mother and I were guides and like Mr. Dalrymple, guardians of her youth. And yes, Fathers DO know what boyfriends think. Oh boy! Do we know!
      Sure, we made mistakes. But our job was to allow her to be herself and help her to prepare for her life on her own. when she chooses we will support her choice. But we will want to know that the choice has been rationally made and, as far as is possible, the implications are clear.
      Then we can sever that invisible cord. But until then, “… keep your hands in the air and back slowly towards the door. We have your number. “

      • http://www.fidesquaerens.org/blog/ Marta L.

        No offense taken, Richard. I completely recognize that I only have one side of the relationship, the daughter’s side. And that makes it easy to misread Tim’s letter here. I tried to elaborate a bit more on where I was coming from upthread, if you’re interested.

        I do think it is worth noting that at least this daughter (and I suspect others besides) isn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of being protected, in a way you wouldn’t protect a son. Is this discomfort a good thing? Perhaps not. But just as I cannot understand what it means to be a father, I am not sure a man can completely understand what it means to be a daughter, particularly in a world marked by gender roles, and not always in a good way.

        I think that Tim and I are relatively close, even coming from our different perspectives (though not 100% together). We both agree that parents have a unique counsel to offer, and the idea that this just doesn’t concern the parents – even I agree that’s off-base. :-)

        • Kristen inDallas

          re. being protected in a way that he wouldn’t protect a son… see my comment above, but I’ll elaborate a bit her. Think of a mom and a dad together as a team that share the job of protecting kids against all sorts of things. (I know it doesn’t always work out that way – for me it didn’t, but I can still see the other role even when it’s missing) Two of the biggest things to protect against (well after you get them through the 1st 10 years without serious physical injury) are damage to the heart, generally by done by the opposite sex, and damage to the soul generally inflicted by the self. For daughters, dads are best suited to protect against all boy-related damage, because they know the nature of the beast, and moms are best suited to guide the inner development (for the same reason). for sons the opposite is true. So scratching the surface of most nuclear families and I think you’ll find that sons are protected in that same way, just by a different parent. (just mention the word mother in law to any married female friend…) In fact, I think you’ll find that boys actually get that kind of protection MORE often than girls do, given the number of dadless families.

  • Dusty S

    Ms L, I can understand how you might react to this letter by thinking he is treating his daughter as property, but nothing could be further from the truth. He is saying that he has poured his heart into his daughter, he loves her with everything he is and has, and that she is more precious to him than his own life. I am a dad to a married daughter, too, and I know what he means. His daughter is a unique and wonderful person and he wants her to be respected, cared for, and treated with dignity, love, and a deep commitment for her long-term well-being. If a young man only sees her only as a pretty face or an easy lay, he will cheerfully rip that young man’s gizzard out because that young man is not treating her with the respect as a person and as a woman that she deserves.

    • http://www.fidesquaerens.org/blog/ Marta L.

      Thank you, Dusty! I am really enjoying these insights into the father’s heart, and as I mentioned to Tim upthread, they’ve given me an urge to call my own dad tomorrow. The father/daughter bond truly is beautiful.

      If this was reaction to a first date, I think I would feel very differently. I would hope, though, that by the time you got to discussing marriage, you’d be past the easy lay concern. This is the man who wants to make a lasting commitment to your daughter, who loves her enough to forsake all others, and your daughter has (I hope) given him some indication she reciprocates that kind of love. Maybe I simply don’t know enough about how guys think, but coming from a woman’s perspective, a lot of the concerns seemed too lowbrow. If they were realistic I don’t think I’d have agreed to a second date, or I hope I wouldn’t. But as I say, this is coming from a woman’s perspective, not a man’s.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        I’m sure my daughter will choose wisely, and I pray for a son-in-law in whom I can rejoice. That, all joking aside, is my hope and frankly my expectation. Thanks Marta!

  • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

    Tim, I can’t help but be reminded of “I Loved Her First”. Although there was a spate of syrupy-bad songs about father/daughter relationships (“Butterfly Kisses” makes me want to smash my speakers with a hammer), this one is actually quite good, and expresses much of the same attitude you express in this post.
    I’m a dad of a daughter as well, so I get it. Very well said.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJEPqZa8FDs

  • http://nolamomof6.wordpress.com michelle

    No offense taken… every precious girl should be so loved, so protected, so treasured. I’m pretty sure my husband has his version of this letter in the wings for our 3 girls.

  • http://geezeronthequad.com Dave Swartz

    Tim, I believe your daughter isn’t quite five, right? You are going to be such an interesting guy in eight or nine years! I told our kids that if they did to us what we did to our parents when we married that we’d kill them in their sleep. Always the nurturer, my wife jumped in and said, “We’d never do that…we’ll kill you when you’re awake so you’ll know who did it.” Sounds to me like you’re right on beam. As this ages like good cheese, pity the cretinous Cro-Magnon who crosses your (and your daughter’s) path.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      You are correct about the age! ;-)

    • http://wovenbywords.com Mimi

      That’s so awesome! I think I really like your wife. I’d tell my kids the same exact thing. =)

  • John Alsdorf

    What took you so long, Tim? Four years already, and you’re just writing this now?!

    I was shocked as I drove home the night my daughter was born–she’s turning 32 this year, happily married and the mother of an 11.5 month old of her own, but I still remember the shock I felt–with the overwhelming thought, “Who is this jerk who thinks he’s good enough for my daughter?” She had two older brothers, and I’d been present at both of their births as well; never had that sensation on the drive home.
    Yes indeed, there is something very special in the father-daughter relationship. Not ownership, but a special cherishing. And, as you allude to, there can be a bit of idolatry of female purity mixed in. Complicated, but oh, so strong, these sentiments.

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    Marta L’s comment is very well said.

    This may just be where our life experiences diverge, but the daughter I picture in your admittedly entertaining letter is about 18 years old, 20 tops. This is a letter to a boy about a girl, not to a man about a woman. And I picture a close relationship, one which I have no doubt you will earn and maintain with your own daughter. But neither of those is a given.

    I started dating my future wife when she was a 27-year old law school graduate. Her parents divorced when she was very young. She had a solid relationship with her father but they weren’t close, and her mother was openly hostile to the fact that I am Jewish. I didn’t ask for their permission to marry their daughter and it would have been an insult to my wife’s personal experience and our own views to have done so.*

    That doesn’t mean they had no part in the decision, just not a direct one. I think that parents will always have a part in their children’s decisions, but it will more typically come in the form laid out in Marta’s awesome comment, especially for couples that don’t marry by their early 20′s.

    *And in case you think I’m justifying having broken up a family or something, my wife and her parents are closer than ever and her mother has called me the best thing that ever happened to her daughter, that we were made for each other, that she was wrong about me.

  • Daniel Staub

    C’mon, Tim. You travel. Have you been there EVERY single moment. What about the moments when she needed you, wanted you, and you did not have the time for her or were away on a trip? You are too good a man to act like just another Evangelical Dad who thinks he’s perfect. When she hits the teen years and hates you simply for existing, give me a call and we can chat. Dan :-)

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Not claiming I’m perfect, Dan. But I’m not going to let the suitor know that! ;-)

  • http://wovenbywords.com Mimi

    As a mom of 4 let me just say, “big high 5 to you!” My daughters are 21 and 19. They have never dated, purely by their own choice. Through high school, I made it very clear that they didn’t get to date just because they were a certain age. They were taught from about early middle school what I thought and felt about dating. We discussed it. What the heck can a 4th or 5th grader do when they’re “dating”? I would make it sound so outlandish and thankfully, my girls could see that it was goofy. I was never, ever a stick in the mud and said they weren’t allowed to date, but they knew it would be an open discussion and that the boy who wanted to date them would have to come speak to me first. They’ve chosen to save themselves for marriage and not date just because everyone else was doing it or they wanted to get experience. They’re waiting for the “right” man. That being said, now whoever these men will be, will need to not only go through me, but the support systems my girls have in place. Won’t that be fun?

    Now, I also have 2 sons. I’ve taught them from an early age to be gentlemen. I also believe it’s my job as a woman and a mother to teach my boys not to objectify women. I have been extremely careful what my boys see around them (movies, magazines, etc). Not obsessively, but careful when I could be. Now, a girl comes along and my son wants to date her or vice versa, she’ll have to meet me just the same as any boy who would want to date my daughter. It’s my job to test the character and faith of whoever my kids will eventually marry one day. I mean, they’d be my family, too! I won’t do any of that in a way that would alienate me from this guy or gal, but they would know that I love my kids fiercely, but that I, in time, would be able to love them as fiercely, too. =) Ah, parenthood, isn’t it a trip? =)

  • Daniel Staub

    Thanks for including me in the conversation, Tim. I have a lot of respect for you and for the way God has used you to teach me HOW to learn. Currently, I am enmeshed in a learning experience involving the effects on a marriage from neglect of a girl’s cognitive disability by a too-busy parent. The parent is not to blame. The times were different and the parent was a huge blessing in many other ways to the girl. These days, awareness of intellectual disabilities is much stronger and, Lord willing, the church will catch up soon! As the Dad of a five year old boy, I hope to influence the future so that no girl ends up being “the girl whom nobody wanted to marry.”


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