When you first meet your kid you feel love for her, but she’s mostly a screaming, helpless puddle of pudge. You love her but, also, you don’t know her. She hasn’t fully formed or come into being yet. How do you love a thing you do not know?
After a few months or so that little pudgeball starts to smile ― really smile ― at you, starts to chortle when you peekaboo in a funny voice, starts to turn and look and twinkle when you call her name. It’s the strangest and nicest feeling to have your heart swell with love as this happens and this tiny little human starts her journey of becoming.
With the birth of my daughter Molly, some might say I became a ”GirlDad.”
That term was created in recognition of Los Angeles Lakers star and father Kobe Bryant, who once proudly declared “I would have five more girls if I could. I’m a girl dad.” (He and his wife, Vanessa, had four daughters, including Gianna, who died with him in January’s helicopter crash.)
After Bryant’s death, celebrity fathers like The Rock, Levar Burton and Aaron Paul started employing the term as a hashtag to demonstrate pride in fathering daughters.
The hashtag quickly started trending, with countless posts by men expressing love for their daughters. It’s become ubiquitous, with the hashtag emblazoned for Father’s Day on T-shirts and coffee cups. To some, the pride in being a “GirlDad” is part of a pushback against the assumption that men must want a son instead of a daughter, with many of the tweets including the hashtag #Blessed in case there was any doubt.
How you respond to the #GirlDad hashtag I suppose largely depends on your view of men in the first place. In an age where the treatment of women by men has been rightly called into question, it’s hard for me not to view this pride with a degree of suspicion. To be sure, by all accounts Bryant had an admirable relationship with his daughters, but even Kobe had his own #Metoo moment.
What does it mean to be a father to a daughter ― especially as someone who has likely both contributed to the harm done to women, subconsciously or otherwise, and who is now trying to make a better world? I ask myself these questions in advance of my first Father’s Day after Molly’s birth.
I remember when my wife Melissa told me she was pregnant with our first child, Oscar. Waiting until I went out for a run, she took the pregnancy test and then excitedly gave me the news upon my return. We’d both said we’d be happy regardless of the gender, yet also both admitted we wanted a boy. For me, it was because I felt I could better relate to a son, at least that’s what I told myself. I could teach him to be a better man, right? A man who would treat women, and all others, with fairness and compassion. An intentional, conscious, thinking human being.
I am glad to be done with whatever past conceptions we had of what it means to be a man. I never really fit into that “boys club” anyway.
Not quite white, not entirely straight, I struggled with the role models presented to me. I threw a ball like I was aiming for the ground, I was shy and spent a lot of time worrying about my fat knees. When a teacher in nursery school asked if any of the boys wanted to be a girl, and vice versa, I was the only one to raise my hand. I knew I didn’t fit the traditional notion of being a man, whatever that was. Yet I’ve still been trained to process grief, embarrassment, love, as a man, lacking an emotional vulnerability. And whether I like it or not, that processing will likely also condition my children in similar ways if I do not do everything I can to prevent it.
Two years after Oscar’s birth my wife and I were expecting our second child, but this time it was different. We both wanted a girl, in some sense to complete the symmetry of our family. Another boy would be fine too, we agreed, but we both wanted that chance to parent a daughter.
And now Molly is here. In many ways she is just like Oscar. Already developing a keen sense of humor, love of food and fascination with the many screens in our home. In other ways, of course, she is different. Unlike her brother, she hates being messy and I have to remember which way to wipe her bum. Even before we really know who she is, she is her own person.
I think parenting a daughter is about making space for them to grow to be who they want to be, to help them be aware of the history of harm done to them by men, as well as the potential to overcome those obstacles we’ve thrown in their path.
And yet, in the same way that Molly doesn’t fully exist yet and is in a process of becoming, that world that we want her to live in doesn’t exist yet either ― and we are partly at fault. Even those of us who mean well are still imposing our old realities. We’re reinforcing old beliefs and rules we hope our children will somehow break. In spite of my best intentions, I catch myself mindlessly imprinting behaviors on my children.
When Oscar opens a box, he growls like a bear in imitation of me. Why did I do that? Why did I try to impress upon him my “manly” strength. Our best attempts to keep their clothing genderless fail. We get a hand-me-down, a flowery dress and Molly does look really cute in it. Oscar loves his trucks and dinosaurs... but also his pink headphones and I am the first to encourage him to wear the pink tutu a relative sent for Molly, desperate for him to experience a freedom with clothes I never had. Though hard for me to pinpoint I know this unconscious gender bias affects how I treat my two children. I call Molly “my little baby mama,” thereby resigning her to a role I don’t label in my son.
I parent my daughter differently because I have been conditioned to treat women differently. That’s not an excuse, but a recognition of the problem.
Does that mean to parent better means not treating the children differently, to consciously fight the impulse to think of them merely as a girl or boy...?
If we’re not mindlessly reinforcing these ― not just useless, but ― harmful ideas of gender, we need to be mindfully, intentionally, teaching both Molly and Oscar ideas of love and respect, with regard to one another, and any others they encounter, regardless of gender or race.
What’s more, the world has changed ― is changing ― and our ideas of what gender is or can be have changed too. Molly is a girl because we assigned her that gender at birth based on how her body looks but, of course, we don’t know what gender Molly feels or will feel in the future. Whoever she is, her mother and I will love and support her. And, when you think about it, the fact that the way we understand and think about gender continues to evolve is just one more reason that no matter what gender Molly ― or Oscar, for that matter ― turns out to be at any given moment, teaching them both that they can be and do anything they want regardless (or because of!) their gender is that much more important.
I remember when we first introduced Oscar to Molly the day following her birth. My wife and I had planned it long in advance. Following advice online, we made sure Oscar had time to reunite with his mom first, that he came bearing a gift for his new sister and that she had something for him. It was an intentional meeting because we thought it out carefully. And it worked. Oscar gingerly made space on the bed for his new baby sister and gently cooed “It’s baby Molly!” as he peered over her crib.
I resist saying that I am changing my behaviors for Molly. I don’t want to be one of those mindless dads who hold their child as the catalyst for change, the kind of man who would say “as the father of a daughter” ― as if you need to think of a woman as your child to show her respect. I want to say I started this process of investigating and undoing my male privilege long before I became a dad, but I also know that it is symbiotic.
Looking down at Molly as her eyes twinkle up at me, still halfway between being nothing and becoming something, I’d be lying if I said my behaviors weren’t changing because of her.
Still, I am not a “GirlDad” because, I remind myself, she is not becoming a girl or a woman. She’s becoming whatever she will be. In whatever that new world will be. A world that I will not be introducing to her, but that she will be introducing to me.
Arran Skinner is a multimedia specialist and a father of two living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @arranskinner.