Last week, I reflected on the duality of masculine fragility that appears in my Dads with Daughters group. This week, I reflect on how I’m struggling with being an ally for my daughters in spaces like this where many dads reinforce patriarchal views and structures in one post then ask dads for advice on how to raise their daughters to be amazing young adults and future leaders in another.
Struggling with allyship is not new to me. As a white man, I’ve been struggling with various forms of allyship my entire adult life. Now as a father, I’ve entered new territory for being an ally to my two daughters. To be clear, I mean allyship in two ways: as a parent looking out for their kids best interest and as a man fighting for equality for my daughters. For within our house, my daughters live in a world where they are equal and beautiful and have the fullest potential.
When they leave our house, they enter a world where they will be paid less than the white boy next door, but slightly higher than the black boy across the street. They will be seen as bossy instead of driven and other more negative terms in general. They will be objectified and sexualized long before they have a chance to understand what they want out of a healthy sexual relationship. And the chances that one of them will be sexually assaulted in some manner are high.
These are realities that don’t sit well with me, but they are real. They are not an imaginary monster that my daughters imagine lurks in their closet. And while these realities are a constant soundtrack through my mind, I cannot allow them to overwhelm me, exhaust me, or leave me clueless as to what action I can take. I’m a dad and being overwhelmed but still taking action is part of my job description.
By the way, they are five and three and are only just beginning to understand the spoken and unspoken boundaries of gender norms, and for my five, she’s probably much more aware than she lets on…
Over the weekend, one of my dad friends and I were talking about our daughters. I was hosting a cookout for father’s day, and while I grilled the burgers, he made an off-hand remark about lessons we learn as parents. He said, “Sometimes I need to remind myself that it isn’t just about me anymore.”
He is also a white man with a daughter.
He meant the phrase as it pertains to whether or not to take a new job. The new job is not in our town, so he was weighing the new opportunity for professional growth with uprooting his family from their community and school. Being who I am, I heard it through a lens of gender equity, and the aforementioned issues began tumbling through my mind yet again, and I struggled to keep it together during the rest of our conversation. He’s heard my rants before, and with it being father’s day, I didn’t want to go down any rabbit holes. I wanted to drink a beer, eat some watermelon, and break out the s’mores later.
After our guests left, and we got the girls to bed, his comment resurfaced and gnawed at me. What other “rules” exist to inform my ability to be a good dad for my daughters? What could I be doing better than just not being overwhelmed? So I did some research.
Here are some preliminary conclusions. These are not exhaustive and will definitely grow and change as my girls grow and develop.
1. We must change the narrative.
In my Dads with Daughters group, on a fairly regular basis, a new member will post a “rules for dating my daughter” meme. Ninety-five percent of the time the rules will have implied violence toward a hypothetical boyfriend. These rules are not helpful and only reinforce the violent and toxic masculine structures that see women and girls as property and permit men and boys to be unchecked with their violent actions . There are no lines empowering either the hypothetical boyfriend or the daughter to navigate the awkward dating landscape. There are no lines about respecting the agency of the daughter in setting her own guidelines and parameters. They speak to an image of a man being the king of his castle and his family.
Then there is the five percent of posts that speak to these narrative shifts where the rule is “you’ll have to ask her” or like in this article from the New Yorker that highlights the struggle that dads go through as they see their daughters grow. It isn’t easy to step back, and it isn’t easy to watch them make choices we know will lead to heartache. However, it is essential we let them make these choices on their own so they know they have the capacity to lead their lives without us constantly holding their hands.
Even more important is for us, as dads, to live a new narrative. By acknowledging the fact that patriarchal structures harm us, meaning men and boys, just as much as they harm our daughters, it opens a door to a conversation with our wives, girlfriends, and daughters that can bring about healing and stronger bonds.
2. A father’s job is…?
Not just in my dad’s group, but in other groups I belong to, I’ll see a meme pop up with the phrase, “A father’s job isn’t to teach his daughter how to be a lady, it’s to teach her how a lady should be treated.” The images that have accompanied the statement show burly supermen dressing in tutus and having tea parties. They aren’t showing daughters riding a Harley or leading a business meeting with staff in respectful attention. They uphold an image of a porcelain doll. They keep a potential harmful narrative in place (see point 1).
I’m not advocating that dads shouldn’t care for their daughter, and I’m not saying dads shouldn’t join in on tea parties in pink tutus. What I am saying is that dads should not reinforce gender stereotypes and should think critically about the behaviors they are reinforcing by treating their daughter like a lady.
But even more importantly, dads need to think about how they treat other women in their daughter’s lives. When I grew up, I have vivid memories of how my dad treated my mom, my godmother, and other women in my life. He was polite and kind and taught me to see their humanity as equal to mine. When I stepped out of line or fought with my sister, he didn’t spank me or beat the lesson into me; he spoke to me and explained how I wasn’t treating her with respect.
To this day, I still falter and make mistakes. I’m sure my dad does too, but as I look to my daughters and work to make the world a better place for them, my father’s examples weave themselves through the soundtrack in my mind.
3. Get comfortable with discomfort.
I’ll admit when my daughters were born, some of the first thoughts running through my mind were the future talks about periods and puberty… but also, I felt slightly grateful not to think about the circumcision decision. When it came time for my firstborn to get her first bath, I felt awkward. I felt awkward changing her diaper and as she grew, there were still moments of feeling awkward. But then I realized, if I was awkward around her, what was that saying to her about how I saw her body?
If I couldn’t even say the word vagina or uterus or period or breasts, how was she going to learn to say them to me? If a problem arose and her mom wasn’t around, would she come to me or feel ashamed and keep it private until my wife came home?
So, I got comfortable saying all of those terms and more. As she grew, we destigmatized all the things that our media and our culture will try to stigmatize.
Oh, and I learned how to braid their hair too. My first French braid was a disaster and tears were shed by both of us, but as I practiced and as we got adventurous with braids and ponytails, a special bond formed over those few minutes in the morning as we looked into the bathroom mirror.
4. Diversify your reading list.
I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes and fantasy novels. Judy Blume’s “Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing” and “Superfudge” were favorites. All of these had male protagonists, and when I dusted off Calvin and Hobbes the other day to introduce him to my five-year-old, I hadn’t thought through how Calvin and Susie’s relationship would seem in our current culture.
So after a few pages, Calvin and Hobbes went back on my shelf, and my daughter and I have returned to Junie B Jones and Ramona with Matilda waiting in the wings. On her bookshelf, child versions of biographies on Malala Yousafzai, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and many female leaders stand in attention.
As we read them, I remember a moment in high school when I complained to my English teacher I didn’t relate to the books we had been reading. Our latest required text was “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin. Prior to that we read the “Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan. My teacher pressed me to reflect deeper and reminded me that we had read the “Heart of Darkness” and the year before, several books with all male casts, like “Moby Dick,” and “Lord of the Flies” took up ample space in the curriculum. Reflecting on that now, I realize just how unaware I was in my youth.
I’m not unaware now, and every time we head to the library, I research lists of books with strong female leads and amazing women authors to make sure my daughters have role models and stories they can relate to. Then, maybe, we’ll bring Calvin and Hobbes back down from the shelf.
5. It really isn’t about me.
Like my neighbor said, it isn’t about us dads anymore. It is about our daughters and the opportunities that lay before them. It is about ensuring their confidence is strong and their resilience resolute. But, as important as that is, so too is the work of checking on our baggage, hang-ups, and self-consciousness.
While my friend and I were talking at the grill, my daughter was with the other kids playing in the basement because it began to rain. At one point, I saw her run upstairs with her friend and slam her door. I went upstairs and tried to make sense of the situation, but all the other kids followed me, and screams and meltdowns ensued. The next day when we talked about it, she admitted that she was very upset that so many kids were playing with her stuff. It was crowded and loud and she couldn’t find me and all she wanted was a quiet space to hide.
I have memories from my childhood like that too, when my extraversion ran out and my introversion screamed to be recognized. So as best I could, I explained introversion and extraversion and anxiety and a host of other issues related to how she felt overwhelmed by the crowd of people in our house. Then, we made a plan for the next time we host a party because I enjoy hosting parties and cooking out and playing yard games… but then my friend’s voice spoke up, “it isn’t about me anymore.”
I paused and started over with the mindset that it’s about creating a safe space for my daughter to grow and discover who she is to be in the world. Does that mean I hide her away from every challenge? No, but it means I take into account her emotions and opinions to the best of my ability, and probably not inviting so many people over for the next cookout,
Conclusion (for now)
Allyship is not something I get to claim. I don’t make the rules or guidelines for being an ally either. Every morning, I have to prove myself to my daughters, to my LGBTQ friends, to my POC friends and coworkers. It can feel exhausting and overwhelming just like the soundtrack that runs through my mind that points out everything that constrains my daughters potential.
But then, if I think about it a bit longer, I’m reminded that if I’m exhausted, just imagine all of my friends and coworkers who face discrimination and a system that caters to white men. So, while I’ve only listed five conclusions here, I’m certain more are awaiting discovery, and with organizations like Promundo, I know there are plenty of other men working through this with me.