“I need your help, papa”: a reprint with an update on feminist fathering of a toddler girl

From October 2010. Update at the end.

I linked last week to this post from a year ago: Princesses, princes, daughters and dads: a reprint against emotional incest. I stand by my thoughts in that piece still today. But reposting it reminded me that I haven’t written recently about Heloise (or HCRS, as we affectionately abbreviate her).

Our daughter is 21 months old. As of her last doctor’s visit, she’s in the 90th percentile for height and the 20th percentile for weight. She’s doing great on a vegan diet. So far, Heloise is not particularly interested in sports (balls and the like), but is very interested in clothing, and likes to go through her drawers and inspect what she has to wear. Heloise has got a rapidly expanding vocabulary and a great memory for people. She’s clearly social, perhaps even outright extroverted. Like her father, she likes to move quickly from one activity to the next, and is particularly interested in going to see friends and family. Our basic conversations often revolve around when we’re going to see Ruthie (her best friend) or “abuela” again. Walking down the street, she waves at strangers, saying “Hi” in an enthusiastic voice. When strangers don’t respond, Heloise looks confused and crestfallen — and it’s all her father can do not to walk up to those who have failed to notice my daughter’s greeting and tell them “Damn you, pay attention! My daughter said ‘hello!’”

And I notice the compliments she gets. Parents are hopelessly biased, of course. But it is rare that she is out in public without being told by strangers and acquaintances and relatives alike how beautiful she is. Some of that focus on her looks is perhaps due to her very special cuteness; some of it is the way in which we are socialized to praise girls for their prettiness. As a feminist and a father, as well as a professor and a youth leader who has spent much of my adult life working with teens around body image issues, I am acutely aware of how compliments at an early age shape young women’s identity. I am equally aware that as parents, my wife and I cannot entirely insulate our daughter against the most pernicious aspects of beauty culture. But we do what we can.

One thing we do is praise Heloise for things besides her beauty. When she remembers the names of the characters in her “Dora the Explorer” books; when she helps pick up her toys; when she successfully gets herself up and down the slide on her playset unassisted, we respond with wild enthusiasm. I know better than to never praise her looks: when everyone else is telling you something your Dad never mentions, that can make matters much worse (as anyone who works with teens knows.) But Heloise hears far more often how much she is loved, and how much her achievements delight her parents. There will come a time when she will learn that she can’t expect applause for performing routine tasks, but that time is not yet. At this age, I don’t think it’s possible to spoil a child with too much validation.

I also know that having loving and affirming parents isn’t always a prophylaxis against poor self-image. Mothers and fathers play a part, but so too do peers and the culture at large — with each passing year, indeed, our parental influence will diminish slightly as the other two influences grow. There is only so much that can be done to forestall that more or less inevitable process.

Whenever I change my daughter’s diaper, or take off her clothes, or give her a bath, I ask permission. I’ve done that since she was a newborn. “Heloise,” I’ll say softly, “papa’s gonna change your diaper. Is that okay?” Until recently, I got no reply. About six weeks ago, she finally started weighing in, usually with a “yes”. When she says no, I briefly — and I do mean briefly — discuss it with her. “But honey, you’re wet and you need your diaper changed.” That seems to do the trick. (It may not always, and I’m prepared for that.) Continue reading

“What’s SlutWalk?” A note on rallying right next to a sandbox

I will eventually stop writing about SlutWalk, but not just yet.

Not long before I got up to speak at SlutWalk on Saturday, Melissa Maynarich, a reporter from L.A.’s CBS affiliate, walked up to me. I was standing with the other organizers behind the stage. Melissa and I had chatted earlier, but this time she didn’t have a microphone in her hand or her camera operator trailing behind. She asked for a quick word, then pointed over my shoulder to the space just beyond the lawn where the throng of SlutWalkers was assembled. “Did you think about the fact that this is going on right next to a play area?”

I was surprised no one had asked that earlier.

When we first were given the West Hollywood Park location, I’d seen that a large sandpit with slides and swings was immediately adjacent to our assembly area. When I was meeting with city officials on Thursday, I’d briefly brought it up, and was told it would be “no problem.” As one remarked, “parents in West Hollywood are not going to have a problem with SlutWalk.” (The city has a very progressive reputation and is the heart of the Southern California LGBT community.)

While we were setting up, kids and their parents played in the sandbox. As our speakers began to speak, and as the space began to be jammed with people, small children swang and slid and dug under their parents’ watchful eyes. As our speakers told painful personal stories of rape and slut-shaming, and as at least a few scantily-clad speakers took the stage, the kids kept playing. I kept glancing over at the little ones, many of whom were my daughter’s age. And even before the reporter asked me, I’d been watching the eyes of the parents, locking friendly gazes with a few of them.

(Heloise and her mother weren’t at SlutWalk. As someone who for better or worse was so publicly identified with this, I didn’t want to make my daughter the focal point of attention. I’m reluctant, personally, to politicize very young children. It’s one thing for me to say “I’m here as a father”, it’s another thing to display my daughter as evidence. When she’s old enough to understand the work I do, and if she chooses, she’ll be welcome to come and participate. Other parents do feel differently, and I respect their decisions regarding their little ones.)

I told Melissa that I thought most of the very little ones were completely oblivious to the rally taking place just feet from their play area. Others, I suggested, might ask their moms or dads about what was going on. And speaking as a father and a long-time youth leader, I said there were many developmentally appropriate things one could say to a child who asked “What’s slutwalk?”

With small kids, the easiest thing to tell them is that SlutWalk is a group of people getting together to remind everyone that no matter what you wear, you deserve to be safe. I’d say, off the top of my head, something like:

“No one ever gets to touch you if you don’t want them to. Some people think that if a girl or a woman wears certain clothes, she deserves to be hurt. The grown-ups at this rally don’t believe that. That’s why you see so many people who look like they aren’t wearing very much. It’s kind of unusual, isn’t it? It’s okay to look and it’s even okay to laugh! It’s just not okay to think that any of these men and women deserve to be hurt because of what they’re wearing.”

Melissa cocked her head, looked up at me, smiled her best on-camera journalist smile, and thanked me. Her eyes seemed to suggest that many parents might not share my views or my desire for such a discussion.

More to come.

Daughters Make Their Daddies More Liberal

This post is two years old, but if anything, I’ve grown more resolute in my liberal politics as a result of being a father to my darling, independent, assertive toddler Heloise.

There’s been a lot of research done over the years on the impact that becoming a parent has on one’s political preference. The common wisdom has generally been that becoming a parent, particularly to a daughter or daughters, would push that parent rightward in his or her politics. Indeed, back in my own youth, I heard some variation on this line from several sources: “What’s the definition of a conservative? A former liberal with a teenage daughter.” It “sounded” right, and not being a parent (but being quite left-wing), I was prepared, however reluctantly, to believe it might be so.

My student Hilary sends me a link, however, to this post at the wonderful FiveThirtyEight: Having Daughters Rather than Sons Makes You More Liberal. 538 provides a link to a PDF file of a forthcoming paper which summarizes a number of recent studies, all of which indicate that the presence of daughters in father’s lives (more so than in mother’s) tends to move men leftwards. This trend is true in both the UK and the USA (the two nations studied), and true both for ordinary voters as well as for politicians. For example, the study cites the work of economist Ebonya Washington:

By collecting data on the voting records of US congressmen, Washington… provides persuasive evidence that congressmen with female children tend to vote liberally on reproductive rights issues such as teen access to contraceptives. (She also) argues for a wider result, namely, that the congressmen vote more liberally on a range of issues such as working families flexibility and tax-free education. Her data — compiled partly but not wholly from voting record scores compiled by the three interest groups of the National Organization of Women, the American Association of University Women, and the National Right to Life Coalition — cover a cross-section of 828 members of four congresses of the US House of Representatives for the years 1997 to 2004. As her
final sentence puts it:

“Not only should we consider the influence that parents have on
children’s behavior, but we should acknowledge that influence may flow from child to parent.

Read the whole study, the comments at 538, and check out the fun graphs and charts. A statistician’s delight!

I argued in March that “strong public institutions which offer alternatives to traditional family structures and allow for maximum personal autonomy and responsible self-expression are a key way to promote a feminist vision on a macro-economic level.” That was and is my view, but it’s interesting to see that having daughters seems to lead other men (politicians and ordinary voters alike) towards that same position. It’s not the case that those who have girls are automatically more liberal; it’s difficult to argue that on most issues, Dick Cheney was somehow made more progressive by having two daughters and no sons! One shudders to think how much more extreme he might have been had he had “Larry” and “Mark” instead of Liz and Mary. (It’s worth noting that his nuanced and moderate position on gay marriage, rare for a right-wing Republican, was certainly influenced by having a lesbian daughter.) Continue reading

Blood, gratitude, and “you are my sunshine”: my day with my daughter

I’ve been sick much of this week, and needed to cancel both yesterday’s and today’s classes due to flu. I’ve also been editing the final galleys of Beauty, Disrupted, working on promotion for SlutWalk LA, and a host of other things.

I was still in bed this morning, fighting the chills, when I heard my daughter scream. Eira is out of town on business, and as I was sick, my mother-in-law (who lives with us) was getting Heloise ready for school. Part of her morning routine includes getting a little dab of perfume on each cheek, a ritual her Colombian abuela never misses. Somehow, however, the bottle of perfume had cracked — and my mother-in-law accidentally lacerated Heloise’s cheek and jaw. The howls of anguish were immediate, the blood was profuse, and in the space of about forty seconds, I was healed of the last vestiges of the flu.

The bleeding stopped quickly, but taking no chances, my mother-in-law and I bundled Heloise into the car and raced off to our pediatrician. Dr. Gordon is in Santa Monica, and it was rush hour, so the trip took nearly 45 minutes. When we got there, my girl shrank in my arms (she is no fan of doctor’s visits, even with the gentlest MD in town). I had hoped that Jay would look at her, give her a bandaid and a pat and send us home. But his jovial face took on a flash of concern when he saw the cuts. “It’s not serious”, he said, “but it may need stitches. And because it’s on the face, I’m sending you to a plastic surgeon.” Continue reading

Love, like water, should flow downhill

Yesterday’s post about Guess How Much I Love You prompted a phone call to my mother. After all, I had just written that if I were forced to choose between saving her or my daughter from a burning building, I wouldn’t choose the woman who gave birth to me. I brought it up with mama, and she had the expected reaction: “Of course. Love flows downhill.” (Meaning that we love those whom we raise more than we love those who brought us into the world.) Or rather, and here’s where it gets tricky, we should love our children more than we love our parents.

In the human past where children died so frequently that the average parent buried at least two or three of their kids, the kind of love we feel for Heloise would be, perhaps, unthinkable. (This is one of the classic debates in medieval and early modern history, and it tends to get folks riled up: did our ancestors love their children as we love ours, given the high infant mortality? Did they steel themselves against heartbreak by “holding something back”? Scholars of family and childhood can’t agree.) In a world without pensions of one sort or another, the need of the parent for the child increases exponentially.

In my family, the great horror of the aging is becoming a “burden to the children.” It’s an idea loaded with both class privilege and assumptions about what a family ought to be. Comfortable retirement communities with various stages of care or a team of home nurses are out of financial reach for many. And of course, many families believe that changing grandma’s diapers, while perhaps burdensome, is part of the natural reciprocity of life. “As she once did for you, you now do for her” and so forth. That’s not our familial ideal; the thought of someday needing Heloise to care for me fills me with horror. When it comes my time, and if my mortal coil shuffles off slowly and painfully, I’d infinitely rather the care I receive be given by kind strangers than by my own flesh and blood. I’d want Heloise to visit my bedside, but I’d want to shield her to the last from the decay of my body.

Her vulnerability was my responsibility; mine will not be hers. That’s loaded with class privilege, sure, but also with what I know is a very particular (and relatively new) view of what family is. I would lay down my life for my daughter, but would be horrified if she felt compelled to do the same.

Water, love, and duty should all flow downhill. That may not be a universal sentiment, but it is as deep a truth as I know.

You should adore your kids more than they adore you: in defense of “Guess How Much I Love You?”

When Heloise was born, we bought (or were given) all the classic children’s books. We have Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny; Each Peach Pear Plum and Ferdinand. We read what we were read; I can’t wait to recite Charlotte’s Web to my daughter in the next few years, as I loved it so. (My brother and I grew up listening to the LP’s of E.B. White reading his famous book aloud.)

I’ve learned that children’s books can divide parents; everyone has one they love or loathe. But I was surprised to read this commentary at Daddy Dialectic about one of my daughter’s favorites (and one I also treasure), Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You. Jeff writes:

In it, two rabbits – an adult and a child – engage in a game of one-upmanship in their quest to say how much they love each other. The game begins with the little rabbit telling the big rabbit “Guess how much I love you.” The little rabbit then stretches his arms out wide and says “This much.” The big rabbit smiles, and, doing the same thing with his arms, says “Well I love you this much.” They then proceed in back and forth fashion through raised arms, extended legs, jumps, etc. until the little rabbit begins to fall asleep. At this point, the little rabbit presents his final claim: “I love you all the way up to the moon.” The big rabbit ultimately concludes the book by replying: “I love you all the way up to the moon – and back.”

According to the publisher this book has sold over 15 million copies and is published in 37 languages. The children’s book review publication Booklist gave it a starred review and said about the book, “There’s not a wrong note in this tender tale.”

Am I the only one who thinks the adult rabbit… is a bit of an asshole? Aren’t the adult rabbit’s constant moves to up the ante on the little rabbit evidence of an ego that’s out of whack? Even when channeled through professions of love, this kind of behavior doesn’t feel particularly tender to me. In fact, it seems to me that the adult rabbit’s answer to the question of how much love it has for the little rabbit should be, “Not enough to restrain myself from besting your every move.”

Gosh, that’s not how I read it at all. And since I’ve never written about children’s books before, I’m happy that my defense of McBratney’s charming tale will be my first. Continue reading

One Drop

This post is making the rounds and stirring folks up: Why I don’t want to have biracial children.

The “One Drop Rule” previously was used as a method to keep people who had Black heritage down. Once an individual was identified as having Black heritage, it was easy for white people to dismiss and subjugate them. But, today, in many cases, the “one drop rule” is used instead to convince Black people who have a white parent that they, in fact, are closer to “whiteness” and should therefore reject the notion of struggling to dismantle white supremacy.

While some people claim that the term “biracial” allows them to embrace the fullness of their heritage, I think, unfortunately, that white people often use it to keep Black people, who could otherwise be working together to end racism, stratified. It creates a sort of “buffer” zone between white and Black, which is used to convince people that racism/white supremacy is no longer an issue.

Yikes.

As I’ve written before, my daughter is not “bi-racial”. She’s a glorious mix of many things. Her eight great-grandparents hailed from four different continents. Under the old One Drop rule, Heloise would be an “octoroon” (one great-grandfather was from what is now Nigeria.) Because of that history, blackness is a part of her identity. But she is also the great-granddaughter of Holocaust refugees; her great-great-grandmother died in Auschwitz. Is that not something to be claimed as well? She carries within her the blood of indigenous Colombians (probably Muisca); is their suffering not to be part of her story? And yes, she’s got healthy dollops of heritage from history’s more recent “winners”, ranging from dour, business-savvy North German Lutherans to fiery Scots-Irish Presbyterians. I’m the great-great-great-great grandson of a rabbi in a Moravian shtetl, and the great-great-great-grandson of Calvinist slave-owners in East Texas. My wife and I carry the blood of the victims and the perpetrators of slavery and genocide, and we have the gift to know more than many about our family history.

My wife can check a lot of boxes on the census form, and does so. She is proud to be black, and proud too to be the great-granddaughter of hard-working Dalmatian stonemasons. In her closet hang the soccer jerseys of the Nigerian, Croatian, and Colombian national squads. When it comes to her heritage, she fiercely rejects the notion of prioritizing one people and one history. And we are raising Heloise to reject that tribalism as well.

We speak Spanish and English to Heloise, but my mother-in-law easily mixes elegant Castilian with Afro-Colombian expressions that owe more to the Yoruba than to the inhabitants of Iberia. My daughter calls her vulva her “kozumba”, a West African loan word common among black Colombians; that same little one can recite the blessing for Friday night candlelighting. (With her voice, it starts “bah-wook atwah Ah-doe-nigh”.) Her nose is African, her eyes are green, her hair the same light brown as her father’s. She is African, Spanish, indigenous Colombian, English, Scots-Irish, Czech, Croatian, Welsh, German, Flemish and Jewish.

And as we all do, she carries history encoded in her genes. But she is carried by parents who know better than to saddle her with the burdens of that history. We live in Los Angeles, the global capital of self-reinvention, for many reasons: not least to raise a child who can honor her diverse heritage without ever being haunted by the false obligation to elevate one of those ancestries above all others. Heloise may someday feel the call of one aspect of her heritage more strongly than the rest, and that’s fine. She can self-describe as she likes. Until then, she is gloriously, unmistakably, unapologetically multi-racial.

For more, see this post: Kindly Remembrance: of Faith, Ancestors, and Debts to the Past

And: A very long post about Los Angeles, an Eagles song, nationalism, history, self-reinvention and the “club versus country” debate

It would be funny if it weren’t so deadly: why Amy Chua has blood on her hands

A reader sends me a link to this piece that’s getting a fair amount of discussion this week: Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. I read it twice, convinced on the first read that it was satire, but on the second, coming to the depressing conclusion that it was anything but. Amy Chua, a professor at Yale, celebrates the relentless inculcation of perfectionism, pushing back against the growing public concern about the damage that the relentless pursuit of the unattainable is doing to our children (particularly our daughters.) Indeed, Chua’s piece is so outrageous, so Swiftian in its defense of the indefensible, that part of me still suspects it’s particularly well-veiled satire.

Chua writes that we (presumably middle and upper-middle class “white” parents of the sort who make up many of her fellow Ivy League faculty) are far too concerned with our children’s self-esteem, and focused too little on what actually gives kids esteem, which is mastery of something. That’s the sort of thing that sounds good when you first read it, but becomes horrifying upon reflection — and upon comparison of Chua’s gleeful celebration of Chinese success with the reality I work with every damn day in my classes.

Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)

About one-third of the students at Pasadena City College — a public two-year, open-admission institution — are of Asian ancestry. The plurality, if not the outright majority of those East Asian students are of Chinese ancestry. Some are immigrants themselves, many are children of immigrants, but few are more than second-generation Americans. They came from across the Chinese world and its diaspora (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, as well as the mainland itself.) Most are Mandarin-speakers.

Many of them, particularly in my Humanities and Gender Studies classes, tell me that their mothers were much like Amy Chua. Many were shamed, some were beaten, almost all were made to feel inadequate. Many, particularly from the more affluent areas of the San Gabriel Valley like San Marino, were expected to get straight As and be accepted into prestigious four-year universities. A great many didn’t, and most (despite what Chua claims) got Bs, and more than a few had high school transcripts littered with Cs. Chua peddles (one hopes, how one hopes, with tongue in cheek) the myth of the model minority, the myth in which average grades, depression, drug and alcohol problems, eating disorders and significant learning disabilities simply don’t happen to Chinese children. In her world, Chinese children don’t get rejected from Berkeley and Stanford and Princeton. But I have Chinese-American students who were not only rejected from those schools, they didn’t have the grades to get into Cal State Los Angeles.

Many of these Chinese-American students are at PCC for financial reasons, but the notion that all or even most could have gone to Berkeley if only there’d been a bit more money is also very much a myth. Many of these students were pushed and tutored and browbeaten (and beaten for real), and still couldn’t make the grades. Some marinate at home, they tell me, in the hostile simmer of their parents’ disappointment. A lucky few have parents who have adopted a more tender and compassionate model, encouraging effort rather than insisting rigidly on a perfect outcome. They are a small minority. Far more are shell-shocked, numb from years and years of the very abuse that Chua celebrates. (I not only know this through my students, but from my first wife, who was born to a Chinese mother and a Filipino father. I saw the success — but also the haunting damage — up close.)

The Yale professor may have daughters who play instruments beautifully and got near-perfect scores on their SATS. I had a student in 2008, the daughter of immigrants who owned a dry cleaners, who tried to kill herself by drinking cleaning products when her transfer application was rejected by UCLA. I’ve heard many other stories of suicide and suicide attempts. If we’re gonna get anecdotal, no ethnic group in the multicultural melting pot that is PCC has had as many self-reported incidents of self-harm per capita as have my East Asian students. That’s based on more than 18 years of community college teaching and mentoring, including five years as advisor to the overwhelmingly Asian honor students’ society, but it’s also based on the reality that Chinese-Americans 15-24 are much more likely to kill themselves than are white teens, a statistic that’s remained depressingly consistent since the 1980s. None of my Chinese students have taken their lives while my students, but I hear more stories of attempts — and the deaths of friends and siblings — than I do from any other ethnic group.

Chua’s assumption — that the pressure cooker of perfectionism will cause short-term pain but long-term success — simply isn’t borne out by the evidence. Let her come and meet my queer Chinese-American students who’ve been hit and humiliated and disowned. Let her come and meet my Chinese-American students with dyslexia who’ve been called stupid so often the light has faded from their eyes. Let her come and meet my Chinese-American students who are overweight, including the young woman whose mother only lets her eat cabbage and water at home and rifles through her room, looking for the sweets she’s convinced her daughter is hiding. I’m not for a minute suggesting that Chinese-American parents have a monopoly on the cruel inculcation of perfectionism; that is, as even Chua admits, a multi-ethnic phenomenon. But to assume, as she does with staggering myopia, that a little adolescent suffering invariably leads to long-term success, simply isn’t backed by the evidence.

Chua knows this, of course. She knows that Chinese-American children don’t all go to Yale or its equivalent. Many have parents who pushed them relentlessly, but for any number of excellent reasons, the straight As did not appear. There are more Chinese and Chinese-American students in community colleges than in the Ivy League, and I’d venture that since I started teaching here in 1993, I’ve taught at least 4000 of them, probably more than she has or even ever will. But she knows, surely, about the higher rate of suicide as well as suicidal ideation and depression — and she probably knows those rates are particularly high among Chinese-American young women. If she does know — and if this isn’t Swiftian satire — then she’s guilty of celebrating not only a falsehood, but a lethal one. Chua deserves not mere polite disagreement, but repudiation and scorn for perpetuating an ideal that is directly and unmistakably linked to suffering and self-harm. I’ve seen too much suffering in my years of teaching and mentoring — and been too convinced of the cause by unmistakable evidence — to let a fear of being labeled culturally insensitive blind me from my obligation to say three words to Chua: Shame. On. You.

Fortunately, the repudiation is coming from many quarters, including some wonderful and important bloggers like Angry Asian Man.
May it continue to come.

Now I know a little of what he knew: on fatherhood and leaving a crying child

On Wednesday, our daughter Heloise started pre-school. She’ll be two on January 26, but the place we’ve wanted to send her enrolls little ones at 23 months. (And please, let’s not have this be a thread about the ideal age to start school. Like vaccinations or breast-feeding, it’s one of those issues likely to send privileged and anxious parents — I’m in that category myself, no doubt — into paroxysms. Plenty of other fora for that discussion.)

Her little school is five blocks from our home, and for the 2 year-olds, runs 8AM-12PM. I’ve been worried and excited for weeks, remembering my own mixed experiences of very early childhood education (I attended Humpty-Dumpty Nursery School in Santa Barbara from 1969-1972). And on Wednesday morning, I was the stereotypical wreck of a father as we took Heloise to school. I sniffled as we packed her little Dora the Explorer backpack and filled her little Minnie Mouse water bottle. I had a lump in my throat as we walked into the classroom to chat with the teachers. And though my gregarious little one immediately ran off to play and barely noticed our departure, I was in full-fledged tears by the time we made it back to the car without her. My dry-eyed wife patted my arm. “They told me all the Dads cry on the first day, honey. It’s okay.” Great. This is how the gender studies professor finds one way in which he’s an utterly stereotypical male.

This morning is Heloise’s third day at the school, and somewhat predictably, she burst into tears (something she hadn’t done the first two days) when we left. We’d been told that was normal too — the first day or two are wondrous and new, and it’s only when it starts to seem routine that the upsets come. I walked out of the classroom while my daughter collapsed into the endlessly comforting arms of Mrs. Shanaz. My own tears were welling up well before I made it to the front gate. One of my friends, a father with two boys slightly older than Heloise, was leaving at the same time. He read me in an instant, and said gently, “Man, I know that face. That’s the ‘I just dropped off my crying kid and I feel like the biggest jerk in the world for abandoning her’ face.” It made me laugh.

Why do men cry more than women at moments like this (if they do — the evidence is indeed anecdotal)? Perhaps it’s because of our fears of being the sort of father who abandons his children. Even if we ourselves were raised by loving and present dads, most of us are keenly aware of the reality that men famously leave their children. Most of us know what it’s like to have had a man we loved not be there when we needed him. And we very badly don’t want to be that sort of father to our own kids. So it’s devastating the first time we walk away from our weeping child, forcing ourselves not to respond to the cry of “Papa, Papa!” I wanted to scoop Heloise up, rush her home, promise her that she and her Daddy would never be separated. I know of course the damage that fathers can do to daughters by putting them on pedestals, or by being over-protective. But all of that knowledge has to confront the reality of my indescribably intense love for my child. Continue reading

Fearless (well, almost fearless) feminist fathering

I linked last week to this post from a year ago: Princesses, princes, daughters and dads: a reprint against emotional incest. I stand by my thoughts in that piece still today. But reposting it reminded me that I haven’t written recently about Heloise (or HCRS, as we affectionately abbreviate her).

Our daughter is 21 months old. As of her last doctor’s visit, she’s in the 90th percentile for height and the 20th percentile for weight. She’s doing great on a vegan diet. So far, Heloise is not particularly interested in sports (balls and the like), but is very interested in clothing, and likes to go through her drawers and inspect what she has to wear. Heloise has got a rapidly expanding vocabulary and a great memory for people. She’s clearly social, perhaps even outright extroverted. Like her father, she likes to move quickly from one activity to the next, and is particularly interested in going to see friends and family. Our basic conversations often revolve around when we’re going to see Ruthie (her best friend) or “abuela” again. Walking down the street, she waves at strangers, saying “Hi” in an enthusiastic voice. When strangers don’t respond, Heloise looks confused and crestfallen — and it’s all her father can do not to walk up to those who have failed to notice my daughter’s greeting and tell them “Damn you, pay attention! My daughter said ‘hello!’”

And I notice the compliments she gets. Parents are hopelessly biased, of course. But it is rare that she is out in public without being told by strangers and acquaintances and relatives alike how beautiful she is. Some of that focus on her looks is perhaps due to her very special cuteness; some of it is the way in which we are socialized to praise girls for their prettiness. As a feminist and a father, as well as a professor and a youth leader who has spent much of my adult life working with teens around body image issues, I am acutely aware of how compliments at an early age shape young women’s identity. I am equally aware that as parents, my wife and I cannot entirely insulate our daughter against the most pernicious aspects of beauty culture. But we do what we can.

One thing we do is praise Heloise for things besides her beauty. When she remembers the names of the characters in her “Dora the Explorer” books; when she helps pick up her toys; when she successfully gets herself up and down the slide on her playset unassisted, we respond with wild enthusiasm. I know better than to never praise her looks: when everyone else is telling you something your Dad never mentions, that can make matters much worse (as anyone who works with teens knows.) But Heloise hears far more often how much she is loved, and how much her achievements delight her parents. There will come a time when she will learn that she can’t expect applause for performing routine tasks, but that time is not yet. At this age, I don’t think it’s possible to spoil a child with too much validation.

I also know that having loving and affirming parents isn’t always a prophylaxis against poor self-image. Mothers and fathers play a part, but so too do peers and the culture at large — with each passing year, indeed, our parental influence will diminish slightly as the other two influences grow. There is only so much that can be done to forestall that more or less inevitable process.

Whenever I change my daughter’s diaper, or take off her clothes, or give her a bath, I ask permission. I’ve done that since she was a newborn. “Heloise,” I’ll say softly, “papa’s gonna change your diaper. Is that okay?” Until recently, I got no reply. About six weeks ago, she finally started weighing in, usually with a “yes”. When she says no, I briefly — and I do mean briefly — discuss it with her. “But honey, you’re wet and you need your diaper changed.” That seems to do the trick. (It may not always, and I’m prepared for that.) Continue reading