As a Vassar grad and lifelong feminist, I was selective in my purchasing of gender neutral books and toys. I never met a Raffi song I didn’t like, and I played Free to Be You and Me to my kids in the womb. So, you can imagine I was somewhat stunned by my sons’ proclivity for making anything (ANYTHING) into a gun while making brrroooooooommmmm noises nearly the moment he erupted into life, and my daughters walking around with boas and sparkling change purses at the ‘market,’ pushing a stroller and talking on her ‘cell phone.’
So when I say what I am about to say, take it as imperfectly as I deliver it- my best thinking on a tricky topic, laced with sexism and misfortune, but important nonetheless. Because, I work with women, so many women, year after year, who are stuck, or slowed or struggling because they never felt the approval of their fathers, like the Freudian kind of approval. Yes, they knew their fathers loved them. But, they didn’t feel their fathers genuinely knew them, understood them deep or wide enough to truly approve of them. It lays undone, unresolved and leaks into everyday.
So, fathers, this one’s for you.
Love your daughter, with your heart wide open and say it. Tell her with your words not only THAT she is smart, but HOW she is smart. Notice the things she does every day that demonstrate her capability, her wisdom. Reinforce them, and admire her skills, her application of what she learns and knows. Teach her new things, what you know and the story of how you learned it. Learn something new together, like juggling, canoeing or baking cookies. Make her your side-kick and search for the humor in what makes her belly laugh, I know you’ll find it.
Yes, tell her she is beautiful- that is important too. Tell her she’s beautiful when she’s covered in mud from gardening with you, paving the driveway, jumping in mud puddles, mowing the lawn. Tell her she is beautiful when she wakes up and crumples into a heap in your lap to start her day- hair all wild and stinky baby breath, or after a long hike together, covered in bug bites and brambles, exhausted and quiet in each others’ company.
Ask her about her relationships, her friendships who she ‘likes likes.’ Ask why she likes them, why she believes they like her. Come to know her heart, so that you can bolster and protect it for the future, and so that it stays open and soft to someone who will treat it with the care you do. She will expect others to treat her heart the way you do, so set the bar high, dad.
Pick her a bouquet of flowers, play house, have a tea party. Snuggle up and watch the game together with a bowl of chips and dip, and ask her what she sees, what she notices in the players, in the competitive dynamics. She’ll tell you, and you’ll get a rare glimpse into the world of girls and women and our competitive relationships, and you’ll be smarter for it. Sing songs together- the old fashioned ones that are hard to get out of your head. Play chess and checkers and Go Fish with her and never, ever let her win. Play practical jokes on her, build a fort, and know she’s going to get you back for the former, and good, let her.
Make wishes (real ones) together, notice the details of a flower or painting, and take pictures of the things she does, the ways she is, that give you strength and joy, so that she can look at them one day and know, for certain, that she was loved by you. Tell her about her life as you see it, like a story of great adventure and brilliance, so she sees herself in the radiant light of your approval.
Expect good grades in every subject, and make math and science part of her everyday world with you. Look under rocks, walk through the cemetery, explore her fears without judgment or false assurance, but with the unequivocal belief that she, herself, is strong and smart enough to face whatever is in her path with your blessing and backing.
Learn to sew, respect her mother above all else, and make up jokes that make her giggle, even if she’s annoyed with you for trying so hard. Make up a secret handshake, and do it with her until you’re 100 years old, because she will always, always be the apple of you eye.
This one’s for you, Fathers. We need you, and your expressed love and approval to be the kind of working moms that we can and will be.
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This blog was originally published by the Times Union and can be accessed here.