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Expecting a Daughter

As I discussed in this post, my husband and I are expecting a daughter come August. Beyond being pushed to either the pink or blue sides of the aisle at baby stores (unless you’re at Target!), and a bit of direction for picking a name for the baby, I was curious to see the research specific to daughters as it relates to each of us – the mother and father – and any impact to the family unit as a whole.

The development of any individual in cognitive, social, and emotional constructs can be argued on the basis of nature, nurture, or some combination of the two. One such factor that is increasingly addressed in the literature as having an impact on personhood in a variety of ways is the attachment style a parent establishes with their child in infancy. In children, four attachment styles emerge based on the relationship with the primary caregiver: secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized. The identified attachment style has an impact on the individual as they progress to adulthood, particularly in the realm of developing relationships with others; consequently, four adult attachment styles have since been identified – secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, fearful-avoidant – and the construct itself is involved in a plethora of studies, including my own Master’s thesis regarding friends with benefits relationships. However, beyond attachment theory and a child’s resulting future relationships, how else can a parent directly impact their daughter’s development, and how can she, in turn, impact her parents?

Mom & Daughter

Research ties the influence of mothers’ body-related views to the construction of their daughter’s sense of self; in general, those closest to an individual are influential contributors to a person’s perception of who they are, and those with more positive family relationships are less likely to experience poor body image (Arroyo & Andersen, 2016). As the same-gender parent is often the largest contributor to learning typical gendered behavior in children, there is substantial literature regarding a mother’s impact on her daughter. Previous research identified a pattern in which mothers who were preoccupied with their weight increased the likelihood that they encouraged their daughters to lose weight, which in turn was associated with increased restrained eating behavior by the daughters. Arroyo & Andersen (2016) delved further in the mother-daughter dynamic to examine if self-objectification attitudes and behaviors were similar between mothers and daughters. Not only was there a relationship between mothers’ and daughters’ self-objectification – mothers who self-objectify have daughters who self-objectify -, the relationship was moderated by perceived maternal care. That is, there was no difference between daughters’ self-objectification at high levels of perceived maternal care as it relates to a mother’s self-objectification; the daughter’s self-objectification was not affected by whether or not their mother’s self-objectified. But, at low levels of perceived maternal care, daughters were more susceptible to self-objectification when their mother self-objectified herself; similarly, of the sample with low maternal care perceptions, daughters with mothers who reported less self-objectification were less likely to report self-objectifying themselves.

Unfortunately, this moderating result indicates that stronger maternal care can actually negatively impact a daughter’s self-objectification pattern, whether or not the mother self-objectifies; perhaps the increased communication and openness integral to more secure attachment styles can make body-image topics more salient, and, when discussed, are protected in a conversation that is free of negative consequences. Further, the implicit rewards that can accompany discussing one’s weight or body with others, such as receiving compliments or forging bonds with others – especially peer groups -, may also contribute to the likelihood of self-objectification in young women. Although the mother’s relationship with weight or beauty is not the sole predictor of a daughter’s relationship with either expectation, in order to promote a healthy body image in younger generations, the mother’s attitudes and behaviors are arguably an influencing factor.

Dad & Daughter

The onset of mental illness has a genetic component in that a family history of depression or anxiety increases your risk for developing the same. In addition to the genetic nature of mental illness, attachment theory has previously identified a causal link between insecure attachment, parental emotional unavailability, poor communication, and depression. Whether or not we want it to be the case, the importance of a father “being there” cannot be overstated. In a study conducted by Demidenko, Manion, & Lee (2015), adolescent girls with a depressive disorder were likely to report more perceived paternal rejection and neglect, less perceived warmth, less attachment to their fathers, more negative affect regarding fathers, less perceived emotional availability, and more negative communication that adolescent girls without a depressive disorder. Similarly, fathers of girls with a depressive disorder reported poorer communication that did the fathers with daughters who were not depressed. However, the extent of psychopathology in fathers did not affect how a father rated their levels of parental warmth, rejection, and communication, nor did it impact the daughters’ ratings of their relationship with their fathers.

The quality of relationship with a father, specifically regarding the paternal psychological presence, can also impact the behavior of daughters as they mature. After controlling for impulsivity, participation in other risky behaviors, and mood, daughters who reported less paternal psychological presence were more likely to engage in sexual risk-taking and illicit drug use (Rostad, Silverman, & McDonald, 2014). This finding is in line with evolutionary theory which posits an attachment perspective – a secure attachment relationship early in life makes the world a more predictable place – as well as a model regarding resource management. In this theory, proposed by Belsky, Steinberg, and Draper, responsive caregiving is most efficient in environments that are safe, with plentiful resources, allowing for balance and steady maturation to reproductive age; offspring raised in this type of environment may be more likely to delay mating. On the other hand, in an environment where resources are less available, it may be more reproductively efficient to produce many offspring with reduced attentive caregiving; under these circumstances, where the future is uncertain, individuals may be driven to engage in sexual intercourse earlier in life.

Other studies have found paternal absence linked to an earlier onset of menstruation, earlier sexual intercourse, and earlier first pregnancy. However, the psychological presence of a father, as opposed to the physical presence of a father, is “good enough” as a protective component against these effects. In close father-daughter relationships, daughters come to expect the same qualities in a romantic partner as their psychologically present father (e.g., physically affectionate and supportive) and are therefore more selective in their choice of sexual relationships.

Other Impacts

In the fields of economics and sociology, studies have reported relationships between the sex of children and marital stability; apparently, marriages with firstborn daughters are more likely to end in divorce than those with firstborn sons. A conclusion that has been drawn from this finding is that fathers are more invested in a relationship that has produced a firstborn son, due to a son preference – rooted in the biological desire to pass down genes – and in the event a daughter is born, are not as invested in the stability of the marriage or family unit.

Hamoudi & Nobles (2014) explored this correlation from a perspective that focuses on live birth selection. That is, the sex ratio of births may be distorted due to a prenatal female survival advantage; this survival advantage posits that female fetuses are more resilient in the face of stress and can reach viability despite the exposure to such stress, and these marriages were more stressful and difficult prior to the birth of a child and therefore more likely to end in divorce due to the already-present marital strain. This susceptibility of a pregnancy to stress is largely due to the overlap between corticosteroid (or stress) hormones and progesterone, the hormone critical to fertilization through early pregnancy – when miscarriage risk is at the all-time high.

Using data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth, Hamoudi & Nobles (2014) analyzed 1,314 responses to explore the relationship between biological stress factors and offspring sex to develop a simulation tool and apply it to 250,000 hypothetical couples. The simulation assigned new pregnancies to couples who are still married and not currently pregnant, new live births to couples who are currently pregnant, and new divorces to couples who are still married; each new pregnancy had an equal chance of being male or female. At the end of each time period, the simulation chose a subset of couples to divorce. Both the likelihood of divorce and live birth variables run in the simulation tool were subject to stress inputs. The simulation tool results indicated evidence that stress predicts the sex of future live births, as well as predicting future divorce, though a major limitation of these findings are obviously the application being entirely hypothetical and limited to few, highly controlled variables. Marriages obviously do not exist in a vacuum, and there may be additional pieces to the puzzle that are missed based on the selective focus of the simulation model.

Still, if our firstborn daughter’s viability is partially a result of a prenatal female survival advantage in the midst of stress we encountered at the time of fertilization through early pregnancy, I would welcome that knowledge as an indicator that my husband and I are capable of working through difficult situations in our marriage, and we, as a couple, might be just as resilient as our daughter in the face of adversity!


Works Cited

Arroyo, A., & Andersen, K. K. (2016). The Relationship between Mother-Daughter Self-Objectification: Identifying Direct, Indirect, and Conditional Direct Effects. Sex Roles, 231-241.

Demidenko, N., Manion, I., & Lee, C. M. (2015). Father-Daughter Attachment and Communication in Depressed and Nondepressed Adolescent Girls. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 1727-1734.

Hamoudi, A., & Nobles, J. (2014). Do Daughters Really Cause Divorce? Stress, Pregnancy, and Family Composition. Demography, 1423-1449.

Rostad, W. L., Silverman, P., & McDonald, M. K. (2014). Daddy’s Little Girl Goes to College: An Investigation of Females’ Perceived Closeness with Fathers and Later Risky Behaviors. Journal of American College Health, 213-220.

2 thoughts on “Expecting a Daughter

  1. Thanks for the excellent article. Didn’t understand all of it but found it very interesting. As the father of two daughters I often have wondered if I was sufficiently engaged as they were growing up. Is there a similar analysis regarding sons?

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