Raising a daughter is the best... except when it's the worst
I can pinpoint the moment our daughter began transforming into a stereotypical girl. She was two, and her mother and I took her to Ariel’s Grotto, in Disneyland. The restaurant traffics in so-called character dining, meaning the tables are careered by marquee Disney characters—princesses, in our case.
Since well before we had a child, my girlfriend and I considered ourselves enlightened on the subject of gender binaries. The notion that boys are naturally one way and girls another seemed like bullsh**t, to use a technical term.
Naturally, natural: These are words designed not to explain but to compel. Not every boy loves pointing an imaginary M16, and not every girl squeals when a tiara is placed on her head. To insist that any child behave in ways that to them feel wrong is to lay the first bricks of what will become an adult prison cell.
We thus established a household of mild gender neutrality: Yellow-and-gray decorative scheme in her room. Unisex clothes whenever possible. As many tractors and superheroes as dolls and plushy kittens. Highly gendered birthday or festive gifts from relatives that went unopened. And absolutely no princesses, at any time, under any circumstance. For her first Halloween, she was Han Solo.
But then, in Ariel’s Grotto, as the coiffed and ball-gowned women began emerging from their lair, something happened to our daughter. She couldn’t stop looking at them. Couldn’t stop touching their dresses. Couldn’t stop talking about them afterward.
The parent-friends with whom we discussed what happened all had some reliably structuralist explanation. Patriarchal culture had seeped into her brain, you see, as in a gas leak. Or she was following the cues of the other, less evolved little girls. Or she was responding to the novel sight of women in a commanding position, confidently displaying their power.
But that’s not what it looked or felt like. My daughter hadn’t been brainwashed by the Princess Industrial Complex. She didn’t watch princess cartoons or movies. Until that moment, in fact, her entire reality was made up of roughly five rotating locations, none of which bore a sparkly trace of princess residue. All she’d done was react to something she obviously and instantly liked. And so I went from buying her Spider-Man pajamas and encouraging her interest in dinosaurs to tolerating her roughly four hundredth viewing of Snow White, which invariably ended with her demanding a dress as poofy as that of its peerlessly insipid heroine and me having another drink.
A couple years later, here are my daughter’s favourite things, in order of preference: lipstick, sparkly dresses, being a princess, putting on blush, Princess Anna (from Frozen), Mommy, wearing Mommy’s high-heeled shoes, unicorns, watermelon, Queen Elsa (from Frozen), Minnie Mouse, Frozen, and Daddy. Her favourite color? Pink.
I suppose I could have discussed with her the harmful gender stereotypes inherent in the princess archetype, just as I could make her watch Dunkirk or describe the rules of golf. But what would that actually accomplish? Eventually I had to ask myself, What’s my real hang-up here? My daughter’s sincere and seemingly spontaneous love of girlie things, or my hope that she would disdain such things?
I now realize I’d longed for our daughter, now five, to be something other than a typical little girl. There’s a name for that. It’s called sexism, just slightly off-brand.
Each day, I thank sweet Christ I don’t have a son. It’s not as though I think little girls (or the women they become) are somehow more evolved or admirable than little boys (or the men they become). Of course, I can talk only about my experiences, both with our daughter and with our friends’ children. But these experiences have nevertheless allowed me to deduce that little boys are tiny but efficient engines of parental misery.
Case in point: A couple frequently comes over with their son, who’s a wonderful kid. Our daughter adores him; we all do. Unfortunately, he climbs anything that’s remotely climbable, cannot ambulate without running at full speed, and injures himself with a frequency that would startle a medic on the front lines at Khe Sanh. I’ve watched this boy leap off a high patio couch directly onto his own head, apparently to discover what that felt like.
Guess what? It hurt. His parents are always picking him up, cooing to and soothing him, until his cheeks, shiny with tears, dry. They set him down and off he goes—directly into a wall. Chaos is come again.
My daughter also explores, but more carefully. I don’t have to tell her to get down, because whenever she climbs too high, she gets down herself. I don’t have to yell when she picks up scissors, because she looks at them, surmises their inherent danger, and hands them to me. I don’t have to tell her not to run away when we’re out and about, because she instinctively takes my hand whenever we’re in a crowd.
She’s more than happy to destroy things—furniture, hardwood floors, video-game controllers, her parents’ sex life—but the virtues of self-preservation, at least, appear to have taken firm and early root.
She has, all the same, found herself in two emergency rooms, suffering separate ailments that don’t bear disclosing. The second time, I was forced to hold her down, kissing her head and telling her it would be okay, while a doctor urgently trying to help was also forced to make her feel pain. I’ve seen war wounds up close, visited refugee camps, and once nearly stepped on a piece of human brain, and yet the most haunting vision of my life remains that helpless confusion in my daughter’s eyes.
The parents of many little boys must learn how to live with the primordial noise of spidery fingernails dragging across the cosmic evolutionary chalkboard as daily soundtrack. I’ve asked many of them, “How are you able to do that?” They’ve all said variations on the same thing: “It was hard. But you have to let go.”
They’re wise enough to know that the alternative—a clingy, helpless child—is worse than bumps and scrapes. Tears dry, but habits of mind are forever.
Besides, a few parents have told me, as hard as living with little boys can be, raising a teenage girl may be parenthood’s most harrowing gantlet of all.
Male aggression develops early and expands outward, eagerly finding enemies. Female aggression develops late and bends inward, toward the most sophisticated, implacable foe of all—the self. Forget watching the unwatchable. With teenage daughters, you must notice the unseeable. For their sake, and for yours.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when well-meaning but doltish fathers preface their opposition to gender inequality by saying, “As the father of a daughter . . .”
These are frequently the same guys who think that raising a young woman necessitates assuming a protective, vaguely Talibanized crouch when it comes to her theoretical sexual activity: It’s a father’s duty, their thinking goes, to chase away his daughter’s future suitors, possibly while brandishing a smoothbore firearm.
This is damaging and absurd. Women should feel every freedom to be as craven, reckless, and self-interested as men. Before I met my daughter’s mother, I enjoyed a rich, traumatic sex life and slept with as many partners as I could get away with. I hope my daughter will settle for nothing less. In any event, it shouldn’t require procreation to make a man recognize a woman’s basic human worth. Contemplating your daughter’s inevitable sexual intimacy with another human should not generate horror-splashed feelings of despoiled ownership.
But post-#MeToo, I’m more forgiving of such instincts. So a few blundering men have become accidental feminists via fatherhood. Surely that’s sort of gross. Just as surely, it’s far better than nothing. Anything that causes more men to discern the indignities suffered by women is better than nothing.
What keeps us silent in the presence of monsters is fear and shame, and those feelings—so reflexive, so determining—form early. Little girls can stand up for themselves, but first they have to learn how. Mothers and fathers are together responsible for teaching their daughters how to do that. But only fathers can model what being a good man actually looks like.
To raise a son is to teach him how to master his world while knowing he’ll get hurt. Raising a daughter can and should be about that, too, with the added trick of making her aware that the world will seek to hurt her in far subtler ways. The little boy’s mastery will be applauded, but the little girl’s mastery will often be resisted.
How my daughter will deal with that will largely be a result of the tools my partner and I give her—whether she loves ponies or not. This is, quite obviously, terrifying. And with Donald Trump as president and gender-rights revanchists rampant, the world, as seen through the eyes of those of us with daughters, feels newly thorny indeed. I will guide my child through that briar, but she’ll be in the lead, and one day she’ll let go of my hand.
If I’ve done my job properly, she won’t even notice. But I will.
People say parenting is hard, and it is. There are not many jobs whose sole purpose is obsolescence, and that’s if you’re any good at it. History suggests most of us are not. This is why parenting is the worst. Except when it’s not. Then it’s the best. Those are the parameters. Good luck.