Dear Men: Having a Daughter Does Not Make You a Girl Expert

Dear Men: Having a Daughter Does Not Make You a Girl Expert

Hey dads, when you have a daughter I gather it feels like a front seat to The Truth about all little girls, a gift to help undo your previously unconsidered assumptions about them. It is hard, but you must resist the urge to take this new knowledge and generalize even more.

For instance, in a HuffPo piece by Brett Spears called “10 Things No One Ever Taught Me About Having a Daughter,” the author itemizes his newly discovered insights into daughters, and marvels at the newfound knowledge and love and joy he experiences now that he knows what he knows.

On the one hand, this is great. More dads than ever are really getting into being dads these days, and that is a thing worth celebrating, and better late than never, right? On the other hand why must men have a daughter to suddenly get that girls are people, or that they face a daily onslaught of cultural prescriptives that reinforce super retro roles?

So, using some of what he learned, if you want to avoid generalizing what daughters are like, how about try these things:

Get to know women!

I know there’s a lot of fun new feelings to have when daughters show up, but you could thwart much of the surprise by getting to know women in your life, and talking to them about what it was like to be a girl, and then maybe finding out that they like boys at a young age wouldn’t be so shocking.

For instance, Spears writes:

1. No one ever told me how soon she might pay attention to boys. 
Like many of us, I pretty much bought into the social anthropology that sees boys as the romantic aggressors and girls as, at best, generously tolerant of their pursuits. This all changed one night at the gym, when my daughter Mary Grace tugged at my arm and earnestly pronounced, “Daddy, do you see that boy over there? I like that boy!”

I mean, yeah dude, girls who like boys tend to like them. Immediately. It’s not until later that everyone mysteriously gets cooties. I am not saying Spears is a bad guy for not noticing this until now — I’m glad he finally noticed! I just wish it didn’t take a guy having a daughter to realize that girls are not cryogenically frozen until marriage, and have the same curiosity about themselves, their bodies, and others, just as boys do, and well before puberty. Girls are culturally conditioned to wait passively for boys to approach, but it’s not as if they are born automatically deferential — that takes a lifetime.

Spears says:

No one ever told me that all of my previous attempts to understand the female anatomy would be completely revolutionized by a single nasty diaper. The resultant force of uncovering a tiny baby vagina that is smeared with poop is staggering. I have literally stood over my daughter with a baby wipe in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other, surgically removing flecks of feces from her hoo-hoo.

A book might’ve cleared this up, too.

And this:

2. No one ever told me how much more I could fall in love with my wife. Having a mini-version of Mary in the house cannot help but re-contextualize who she is to me. Many of the idiosyncrasies and dispositions that have tempted me to frustration over the years were suddenly recast in the person of our daughter, allowing me to see with new perspective and compassion some of her ways of being that seemed most alien to mine. To give an example: I never could understand the seemingly crushing disappointment that my wife experiences when plans fail. Even the most mundane engagements, extemporaneously altered, can greatly affect her mood. I once saw her have a complete breakdown in a cafeteria line as she watched the last carvings of “her” prime rib sandwich get distributed to the guest in front of her. Frighteningly, Mary Grace is exactly like this.

More love is good; accepting people is stellar. But I have to point out that this has nothing to do with gender. He is conflating the idea that because he had a daughter who had the same qualities as his lady-wife, he can now judge those traits more charitably. But a son could be just as impatient, and it could be just an endearing and useful to seeing how personality can be mysterious and unchangeable and shared between parent and child regardless of gender and yet still be instructive. And hopefully, he’d be just as moved by that.

Recognize that cultural influences on women are just that — influences, not destiny.

Pink, weddings, tea parties, yadda yadda. This is all cultural, not innate. Liking them is not proof of anything other than the fact that girls are fed this stuff, and some of it is fun (and the smart boys always realize this).

Spears says:

7. No one ever told me the extraordinary importance of the color pink. 
Last Christmas, M.G. asked Santa for a “girl puppy.” When Claus asked her what color she wanted, she unflinchingly said, “pink!” I have seen her moved to tears upon hearing the report that her pink plate was in the dishwasher and unavailable for use at dinner. A radiant, white-robed Jesus could manifest in her room and present her with a blue, winged unicorn and I honestly believe it would go something like this: “Um, ‘hank you Jesus for my flying horse, but you forgot one ‘hing — PINK! Now, about that white robe…”

Look, but pink doesn’t have to be that important. You can’t really think girls are just born loving it? Also: You could investigate this a little bit more, rather than just accept it as a condition. How much did they dress their daughter in pink, buy her pink things? How much does the stuff she watches push pink? Or the friends she has? Not that it’s bad to like pink. But it’s not inevitable. And definitely sort it out. And just because his daughter is into it to this degree for whatever reason, doesn’t mean all daughters are. Some of them certainly are. Also, there are boys who are into pink too. The more you observe children without projecting behavior on them based on gender, the more you see that it’s some about preference, but a lot about whatever is pushed on them.

And this:

8. No one ever told me… well, maybe my wife had told me this, but I never really believed it: Lots of girls really do start thinking about planning their weddings from the time they are toddlers. 
Personally, I blame Disney. Every piece of white linen in our home is fair game for a pretend wedding rehearsal. She acts it out in detail. At first it was supremely cute because she wanted to marry me, but recently, a preschool compatriot has overtaken my place as groom-to-be. She says it is because he’s “silly and handsome…”

Ugh. I don’t know any toddler girls planning weddings. Even sorta. Again, this is something wildly reinforced by parents, grandparents, teachers, culture, TV, everything. What he is really talking about is culture particular to his home and environment, but instead he treats it as inevitable/generalized. Side note: Boys proclaim their love and affection for little girls just as much at this age I’ve noticed, they just aren’t culturally scripted to do so through wedding ceremonies, and if they were, they’d be talking it up too.


10. No one ever told me how much I would genuinely enjoy manicures, tea parties, midday wardrobe explorations, impromptu waltzes, pastel tackle boxes or Fancy Nancy.

Guess what, these are not innately girl things either! These are things your daughter likes because she is growing up in America, in your house, in your community, and sees this stuff and is given this stuff. Glad you like them too, but if you wanted, you could interchange all the pink, and tea parties (not that these things are even bad!) with science kits and Lego sets and go from there, and this could just as easily an entry point exclaiming: Guess what! Some girls love science!

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong to like either. I’m saying don’t conflate unchecked social programming with innate nature, and then call it a revelation.

Check your own bias and assumptions about gender roles and your culturally scripted role as a father.

Part of the surprise at what little girls are “really like” often comes alongside seeing men and women as vastly different to begin with, at odds, while also not paying much attention to those differences until it’s literally required. Along with that also comes this idea that any relationship between a man and his daughter is automatically a kind of proxy for future hetero love.

Spears writes:

9. No one ever told me how irrationally crushed I would be the first time my little girl wanted to marry the silly, handsome boy from preschool instead of me.

Yeah, ok, look. It’s sweet when little girls want to marry daddy, and bittersweet when they grow up and move away, but there is something weirdly unexamined about this statement in particular and the larger notion in general. The idea of a father being a daughter’s first proxy for romance has never made sense to me. I agree a father-daughter relationship is critically important and can inform her sense of respect and relating to the opposite sex, but I think it should be clear that it’s a totally different role than future husband stand-in, just as much as it is important to distinguish being a parent from being a friend to your kid. It’s also weird to be jealous of your toddler daughter’s first crush. Why do so many dudes feel this way? And how come there is no mother-son equivalent in the culture that wouldn’t be mocked relentlessly? If dads should “date their daughters” how come no one ever tells mothers to “date their sons?”

And finally, it shouldn’t take having a daughter to want to be a feminist.

Says Spears:

4. No one ever told me that having a daughter would automatically turn me into a feminist.

He doesn’t add anything below this item, as if its just self-explanatory, but it isn’t. I’m glad he is embracing the term, but I don’t get any sense of what it means to him, or if he’s surprised that he is experiencing this desire to embrace the term with a daughter, but ironically, not with a wife, and why that may be. To put it to use, I would rather see this clearly well-intentioned, invested dad exploring how gender-coded these assumptions are, and draw some bigger links about the future his daughter will face as a girl in this culture, and what he aims to do about it. But rather than sort this stuff out as cultural imperatives we push on girls, he is viewing them as reinforcing exactly what most people think makes little girls different, and it’s just now occurring to him.

What IS valuable about observing children is that you can see how early we push girls toward a feminine ideal and boys toward a masculine one, and how guilty we all are of confirmation bias that whatever girls do directly after we push them toward doing it, is suddenly proof of their innate nature. Same with boys.

So it’s great to try to understand our children. But if we want to understand women better, or men, it’s way more helpful to strip away the expectations and pressure we put on them to “do gender,” and go from there. And ideally, to do this before having any children at all.

Image by Tara Jacoby

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