That noxious scent separating me from my daughters was my manhood, bursting with ego, and rotting with decay from an unknowable distance between us. I learned that the rules of masculinity once protecting me from a violent world, also kept me from healthy relationships with them. How much more would I sacrifice?
– Alix Jules
Feelings suck when you’re a guy. Discovering so many emotional germs floating around inside you is traumatic. These huggie, touchie, know your inner child, blah, blah, “emotions” can sometimes overwhelm. Growing up in Brooklyn, a “safe space” was a gun free zone and sensitivity was a punch line. My music was laced with language reinforcing bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, faux bravado, and black female disposability. All really bad ideas. And although those attitudes served me well on the streets, that’s not what I wanted to impart on my children. I needed to shift from “preservation of self to the proliferation of selflessness.”
Parenting changes you, and the father-daughter dynamic is stuff of inappropriate Greek legend. One son and four daughters later, I think I’ve learned a few things about manhood and what we define as masculinity. You think you’ve got it handled, until you’re taken down several notches by a three year old. My reassessment came early, when my eldest daughter hit me with my first “daddy.” My entire identity was undone. Every one of my “hit like a girl” comments, came right back at me. It’s taken me a long time to shed some of that toxicity, and yes, I still struggle. So, after 21 years of parenting, 18 of which with daughters, these are just a few lessons they’ve taught me.
1. Emotions are NOT the New Gluten
Guys, no matter what popular culture tells us, we are not all allergic to emotions. You’re going to feel stuff, and you’re not going to know what to do about. Realize that the strong sensation of being pepper sprayed you get on occasion is from the upper tear ducts trying to eek something out.
Its ok to cry, often, and for many reasons. Let your daughters see you cry. Your child is not your crutch, but they can be emotionally supportive. I recall my own incredible sadness at my grandmother’s funeral. The emptiness was consuming. If I believed in souls, I’d say I lost part of mine that day. Yet, the reassurance from my youngest, “Dad, it’ll be ok,” went further than anyone else’s consolation. We may feel things differently, but we’re not so different that we don’t feel things at all. Little boys start with Mad, Sad, and Glad. Throw in jealousy and that sometimes appears to be the extent of our emotional education. When we seclude ourselves from the rest of our emotions, we deprive ourselves, and our children, from many rich learned and future experiences. Don’t be afraid to open up. And instead of that side hug or fist bump, grunt and give your bestie a bear hug and let your kids see it.
2. Don’t be a Knight, but help her find her armor
Watching your kids struggle is hard, but it’s where learning happens. The desire to save the day, being that primal patriarchal protectorate, is normal. Daddy to the rescue and Damsels in Distress allows vulnerability and are reinforced in society, but it also teaches children how to be saved. I want independent problem solving, freethinking, empathetic dragon slayers that save themselves. When necessary, save others. Daddy’s not going to be there all the time and being a hero takes practice. I’ll give you an example.
After years of trying, my four year old got through her holiday performance last year. It was in front of dozens of people. Every year prior, we’d find ourselves in tears, reaching out for each other through a sea of incorrectly positioned smartphones. It took everything I had not to leap onto the stage, swooping to save the day.
She eventually made it onto the front line, dancing, singing, and even encouraging other kids to join. Our old feelings of pain, shared embarrassment, and that strange feeling of being pepper sprayed aside, she did it. My hero.
I’ll caution, that sometimes we go overboard, expecting children to work through problems that many adults can’t solve without assistance. On occasion, though they get lucky or really creative, sometimes stepping in is appropriate. Just remember to preserve the child’s voice.
Read more: Let’s Talk Parenting: Size Matters
3. She said NO! ‘Respek it’!
I grew up pushing, negotiating, and getting my way. That’s part of militaristic manhood, we conquer (grrr). But my twenty pound bundle, doesn’t see that as tenacity. I am a giant to her and one of her first role models in a culture that, from bodies to bathrooms, dismisses female choices. So when my daughters tell me no, it’s no.
No touching, no kisses, no hugs, no tickles, no bodily contact from me, or others. “BUT SHE’S SO CUTE!” – Thanks mom. She’ll be just as cute two feet away in her own personal space. This is about teaching. Don’t take it personally, it’s not about you, it’s about them.
Their bodies, their voices, their choices.
Bodily autonomy starts young.
4. Protect the child, not the chastity
You’re not the Defender of their Virginity, so put down the cape. You don’t own it. Worse, you’re reaffirming controlling norms and archaic patriarchal standards. Remember that a daughter’s value increased in trade if her virginity was still in tact. Umm, on principle alone, I can pass on selling or trading people as a whole.
Openly talking with your daughters about sex is uncomfortable. It is however, a better long term strategy. Getting past the awkward phase takes work. Start with the “pill.” It’s less scary for guys, but get to the condom soon, it could save their lives. Then progress to the actual relationships which often include sex. Imagine the insight you might bring into healthy partner relationships. Is she in a healthy relationship? How would you know if you’re blinded to it? Are there warning signs you might share IF its asked of you? Might you see something she’s missing?
You get to grow into a different kind of parent-child relationship if you can move past your discomfort. Make it age appropriate, but remember that “us guys,” have biases when it comes to our daughters, because… they’re our daughters, and we are actual patriarchy, because… we’re patriarchs.
5. Don’t hold Financial Leverage over your Daughter’s head
Not even a little. I am the primary financial provider in my home. I am needed, but my level of importance is not determined by the size of my financial contributions. We have budgets, criteria for purchases, and delegation, and as a parent, yes I have a lot of say. However, I don’t get to thump my chest and call it a day claiming “I pay the bills, so I get my way.” Financial abuse is one of the first tools of manipulation that a partner uses in asserting control in domestic violence. Don’t model that behavior, ever. Find other ways to feel important. Listen to your kids, they’re waiting to show you how.
It’s hard playing against your “role” though. For example, I don’t want my eldest daughter to go to a specific college. I think it’s a terrible mistake, but it’s hers to make. Affordability aside, unless there’s a conscientious objection to the institution, I can passionately argue my case, but I don’t get to harass her or manipulate her into false choices.
#adultlife. Wayy too soon…
Although, there is an argument to be made for allowing her to strike out on her own and self-fund her education, I did. Unfortunately though, that brings with it a mountain of debt with which I’m not comfortable. And in many minority households, the wealth gap is very real.
Read more: “Mommy, What’s a Miracle?”
6. Wash a Dish, learn to Cook
If Yan can Cook, so can you! When it comes to housework, we’re “all in.” My long hours don’t dismiss my contributions. Many men grew up equating the word domestic with “women’s work.” I lucked out, my mother’s cooking was horrendous, so in lieu of starving I picked up a skills from my granny and afternoon PBS.
Dismantling the preconceived gender roles by doing “what’s not expected” allows our daughters more say in how they define themselves. Skies are the starting line, not the limit. And according to a 2014 study by the University of British Columbia, “Dads who do housework, have more ambitious daughters.”
I can certainly get behind that.
Its also kind of fun. I have a crazy schedule and sometimes I’m not available. Cooking together allows us more time together. Its also an obvious life skill.
7. Let them try on different hats
The first time I heard someone tell my daughter “you can’t do that, because you’re a girl,” resulted in the clap back heard round the world. What do mean she can’t do that? She can do whatever she chooses. “I bet she can’t pee standing up!” – oh really you lil… “baby, please show this young man a thing or two.” I don’t know if it was my projected hypercompetitive nature that day, but two smiles and an eew later, I doubt that young man was the same.
Yes, if I can do it, she could do it. But I also found that if she could do it, then I could do it too. And if she saw me doing it, then she could do anything, because to a child, daddies (and mommies), are bigger than the roles defined by society.
Read more: Spanking Causes as Much Harm as Abuse
8. Strength in numbers, but don’t be afraid to stand alone
Dads can make great single parents, including Black fathers by the way (its true). No better and no worse, I’ve found, it just depends on the circumstance. You can’t replace mommy, but sometimes things just don’t work out. My first marriage ended badly, resulting in me having to raise two children on my own for a while. Getting over the initial grief and fear, I discovered I had a job to do. Cooking I had down, laundry wasn’t a big deal, but I needed to raise a daughter. That meant hair, and a bra, and a talk about a monthly visit that I was in no way qualified to have. It was all “girlie stuff” and I barely had “manhood” figured out.
She was going to be raised in a perpetual bachelor pad, living a life of ponytails and gourmet ramen. I was the LEAST qualified person I knew to raise a girl. Being alone tests you. I couldn’t send “booboos” to mommy anymore, I had to learn to treat them myself. Magical Band-Aids, painkilling kisses, braiding, and learning to mend broken hearts – all skills I didn’t know I possessed. My daughter got to see me juggle parenthood, my studies, my career, and my personal life. I learned to do hair and makeup, and even more importantly, listen.
And doing makeup hasn’t affected my bench or my squats – at all.
#If I can do it, you can too.
Alix Jules is a secular activist, involved in issues regarding the role of diversity in the atheist community as well as atheism in diverse communities.