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 its 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: (look at that face, I was crushed):
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.
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.
#’Respek It!’ (Not a typo)
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.
#My relationship with my daughters are more important than my discomfort.
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.
Bonus tag: #somelegaciesshoulddie
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.
7. If I can Tag, She can tag
I know, its related to the last one, but this is of particular interest to me, because I grew up during the rise of the graffiti artist, Rev, Sane, 167, Bee, etc., and I was raised witnessing an unfairly represented “male dominated” art form. Women were always around Pink Lady, Eva 62, Claw, etc.. But men always got the fame. Even when the ladies tagged up SOHO pointing out the discrepancies in pay, exhibit space, media coverage, conservatorship, etc., they were still unheard. It was a boys club.
We love street art! Women bring a very different and much needed perspective to it. Much love.
8. Strength in numbers, but don’t be afraid to Stand Alone
Dad’s 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.
9. Selfies are about Them, not You.
Real men don’t do selfies! See above, sure we do. We just do it more when we’re flaunting biceps or pickups, or using our biceps to pick up. #baddadjoke. Yet, we dismiss our girls’ self expression of who they are, as narcissistic material tendencies reflecting an unfettered electronic world. However putting yourself out there, subject to continual criticism, and still loving yourself – is hard. Our girls are too fat, too skinny, wrong color eyes, wrong color skin, too ethnic, not girlie enough, not genetically girlie enough, too anything that doesn’t make the scrutinizer feel better about themselves or their standards.
In other instances, its other parents that choose to lay thick negative social or religious commentary veiled as slut shaming on our daughters. Be supportive of image choices for the pieces your daughters choose, and be the defender of the pieces they don’t.
10. Words Matter
My mom has this amazing ability with words. “Did you put on a few pounds over the holidays sweetie?” And just like that, I’ll start fasting an hour past the comment. As adults, we learn in our therapy sessions that we spend much of our lives dealing with the crap our parents did or said to us. And I don’t blame them, I’m doing it to my kids too. We have our limitations.
I could burn pages citing examples of bad language that produce harm, then be accused of policing language and tone, because words don’t matter. Really. Try calling your daughter a “bitch” just once during an argument to see the lasting effects (please don’t). But the one virulent word I’d like to address, is one that plagues society across racial and socioeconomic lines and has a shared root with the title of this piece:
This word engenders fear in men almost as quickly as castration. Not manly or manly enough. It is the root of derogatory queer and homophobic comments that result in epic beatdowns on WorldStarHipHop, or transphobic rants by religious politicians. It is the word that is used to control or influence men, our decisions, attitudes, and buying habits. As I double take in the mirror checking my cut and ruffneck boots, I see the subtle remaining influence.
Its strange that somehow the idea of someone else’s standard of “manhood and masculinity” can define you. That sounds like compliance, cowardice, and dependence, which defies the concept of manhood. So should we redefine manhood?
In addition, it has an ugly, cousin we see too often in the Black community:
It goes beyond just emasculation, because this is an idea that is powerful enough to suggests that an entire race of men is being systematically manipulated into being more feminine and less masculine, as to minimize Black male potency, relevance, and reproduction. It is the boogieman frequently used in conscious, pseudoscientific, and quasi-intellectual circles to promote solidarity, empowerment, and bigotry. At its root, homophobia? No at its root is powerlessness and fear, much of which is real. But this again sounds like another contradictory concept that defies what they portray as manhood, not liberation.
Deconstruct the terms and reclaim – you. I tell my daughters the only thing I let stand between us is body odor, because that’s just not fair.
Cuz #mygenetics2… eew.