The title of this post is less about why I as a parent love my child and more about why I as a father love my daughter. Because I’ll be honest with you: from the moment we started trying to get pregnant, I wanted a girl. And, shockingly, I had a substantial number of people try to talk me out of that. No joke. Person after person would say to me, after finding out that my spouse and I were expecting, “Oh, I bet you want a boy.” No, I would say, I want a girl. Then they would look at me funny or even try to tell me why a boy would be better. Let me also say that the people who did this represented both genders equally. The bias towards having a son wasn’t limited to men or women, at least not in the experiences that I had and am now recounting. Even after an ultrasound showed that we were having a girl (and what a wonderful day that was!) I still had someone tell me I should want a son. I’m not having a boy, I said. The doctor said I’m having a girl and I want a girl. “Oh, you wait and see,” this person said to me, “it’ll end up being a boy and you’ll be glad.”
Now, I would hope that it would go without saying what I’m about to say, but I do feel the need to say it: if my child were a boy, I would love him and be thankful for him and quite possibly be writing a blog right now about why I love having a son. I didn’t have my heart so set on having a daughter that I would become one of those parents who would have five or six children until one of them finally turns up with the preferred genitalia. I would love my child no matter what was between her/his/its legs. But, well, I’ll just claim that I would have been a tad disappointed and that, fourteen months into this whole endeavor, I still feel as blessed and thrilled to be the father of a daughter.
But why? Why did I want a daughter? I began to wonder, in feelings of defensiveness towards all the people who insisted, in some form or another, that I should really prefer a son, what it was that made me want a daughter. After all, it seemed to be the dominant narrative among the people with whom I interacted that a boy was, well, better. What made me buck this apparent dominant narrative?
I could tell you that I like girlie things. I kind of do, really. I grew up a sensitive, bookish, unathletic boy who had his masculinity challenged by his peers. Perhaps not overwhelmingly more often than most other boys who weren’t sports superstars, but enough so that I internalized some shame at being less than perfectly masculine and therefore resistant to the values of masculinity that were transmitted to me by the various cultures in which I grew up. I don’t like competition: I usually lose, but if I win, then I feel bad for the loser, because I know how much that sucks. I don’t seek to have dominance or authority: I’m uncomfortable with all the ways these were used to oppress and control me with shame and guilt, and I’m fairly afraid that I might use them to do similar harm to others. I don’t enjoy a rational, intellectual distance from the world: it feels out of step with my emotional self, a deeply susceptible and vulnerable empathy who nonetheless learned not to display this side of himself lest it invite ridicule and attack. Of course, masculinity is more than just competition, authority, and emotional distance; but these were the primary values that I learned on the playgrounds and classrooms of my childhood in suburban East Tennessee. So if “girlie” means the opposite of these hyper-masculine traits, then I’m all over it. It pleases me to think that my child won’t have a toybox full of guns and swords and violent video games. (Although I’m not a fool; I know that there are plenty of stereotypical “girl” toys that can be just as harmful in reinforcing simplistic and harmful gender roles; see this previous blog.)
I could also tell you that I feel more comfortable in intimate relationships with women. This is also true. I can attribute this to much of what I described in the above paragraph. That, growing up, I experienced intimate friendship as being safe only with other girls. That, as a sensitive, caring boy, I had girls constantly coming to me to talk about their feelings (always just as friends, of course, despite plenty of unrequited – and completely unspoken – longings). That I was very close to my mother, a counselor, who placed a supreme value on open communication and emotionally available relationship (which I resisted as an adolescent, natch). That developing intimate relationships with women may have served to subtly and subconsciously affirm my masculinity.
I could say these things to you. I could say that I appreciate fashion and being well-dressed, and that dressing a little girl provides more opportunities for this than dressing a little boy. I could say that I like the color pink. I could say that I didn’t want to get sprayed with urine while changing diapers. I could give you a lot of reasons for why I bucked the apparent dominant narrative, all of them true. But the most significant reason for wanting a little girl is because it rejected the dominant narrative. Every time someone suggested I should prefer a boy, it made me want a girl even more.
In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, I have a distaste for traditionally assumed narratives about gender roles. I have a distaste for traditionally assumed narratives about a lot of things, really, but being the father of a daughter helps me feel more connected to my personal commitment to changing the way I think about gender and equality and encouraging others to do the same. My spouse is equally committed to this task. She has been actively engaged in this firsthand as an engineer who gets energized by math and numbers and data, despite assertions that women don’t have the natural aptitude for such things. She is successful at her job, although she regularly encounters disrespect from her male colleagues who don’t seem able or willing to acknowledge her competence and abilities. My spouse is a living example of redefining women’s roles in a corporate workplace.
I’ve always subscribed to a “standpoint” view of feminism: that feminist thought is rooted in the experience of being a woman. Of course, there’s no single monolithic experience of womanhood, but I don’t have access to claiming any women’s experiences since I’m not a woman. So I rarely call myself a feminist, committed as I am to feminist ideals and endeavors. But being the father of a daughter raises the stakes for me; my investment is more intense now. I’ve always been invested, because women make up a majority of the people in my life that I love and treasure. But now that I’m the parent of a girl, I feel I’m as all-in as I can get. I now have a very personal and hands-on opportunity to raise a girl in this society, and to raise her with a skeptical and counter-cultural suspicion towards the normative roles given to her.
But here’s the rub. You may notice that in the title of this blog, between the words “love” and “girl” are the words “my” and “little.” How’s that for a glaring statement about cultural roles? My spouse could make the same statement; it’s not specifically about gender, although that’s certainly in the mix. And those words are accurately descriptive: she is still pretty small, and half of her genetic makeup comes from DNA. But you want to talk about a normative role, just look at the fact that I would refer to another human being with terms both possessive and diminutive. I might be able to do it somewhat self-critically, but there is a ridiculously confining element to the relationship between parent and child. The relationship between father and daughter just adds the gender element to it, but it’s present with every parent and his or her child. It’s there with her mother, too. If I’ve resisted claiming authority, well, let’s just say parenthood has given me a safely sanctioned role to inhabit dominant authority without much oversight or outside criticism.
So how do I raise a child to question normative roles without running the risk of undermining any authority of my own? How can I teach my child to think critically about everybody else, but keep her obedient and subservient to me? Clearly, I can’t, although I think I’ve seen parents try this before. That’s the scary risk behind this kind of discourse. If I’m really serious about challenging the implicit authority behind social norms, I’m ultimately giving up my own claims on authority.
Well, at least my own claims on authority based on social norms. After all, if I’ve learned anything from my studies in feminism, it’s that authority doesn’t have to be authoritarian. There’s an authority to be claimed in cooperation, mutual respect, and emotional vulnerability. These things don’t automatically equal submission and subjugation. Claiming my own authority does not necessitate the invalidation of the next person’s authority. And I didn’t just get this from feminism; I got it from Jesus. Is there a more clear and powerful example of authority through vulnerability? Of service as power? Of rejecting the oppression of normative cultural roles?
So: back to why I love my little girl. She is my little girl, and I’ll just have to live in the tension of my role as an authority over her. After all, she is only fourteen months, and she needs someone to take responsibility for her. But as she grows and changes, I will have to do the same. I love that I have the opportunity to make a counter-cultural statement in the way I raise a little girl in a culture that still, appallingly, favors and privileges male over female. I can claim all of the ways that my personality and upbringing has made me allergic to hyper-masculine myths and drawn me to intimate connections with women. I love that I can see in my daughter what it might have been like if I had been a girl, and that makes me even more fiercely protective of her in a complicated patriarchal kind of way. And as I said before, I take pleasure in opportunities to puncture holes in assumed cultural norms. It delights me to no end to think that I now have an opportunity to join with my life partner, herself a fiercely strong and independent woman in her own right, to raise a girl to become a fierce, strong, independent woman who does not need to define or understand herself based on the expectations of other people. Including (gulp) me.
But my daughter is not an abstract concept. I’ll confess that during those conversations when people tried to suggest that I should have a son, my need to have a girl was about abstract concepts. About my need to be different, to buck the system. About my longing to be unique and get a chance to flip a middle finger at all the bullies who picked on me as a kid for being a sissy. About acting out my political or theological ideals. But now that she’s here, now that she’s a real live human person who daily blesses me with the new joys of discovering what it means to really love someone and, yes, to take responsibility and assert authority in her best interest… Well, I love her because she’s beautiful. And as she grows, I love her because of who she’s becoming, because of who she is. I just love her. She’s my child, and I want to give up all of myself to give her life, even if it takes a form I might not have scripted. That’s how a parent should love his or her child, how a father should love his daughter. That’s what love is.