A piece I wrote for The National. Happy Fathers Day!
Is being a father to a son different from being a father to a daughter? Shouldn’t be, right? After all, one of the central premises of parenting is to treat all your children with the same amount of love and affection. “You both are like my two eyes,” my mother used to say to my brother and I when we asked her which of us was her favorite. “How can I pick one over the other?”
It is a common theme. We parents bend over backwards in our effort to treat our kids fairly and equally. But we all know that we have embarked on an impossible quest. You may love all your kids equally but that does not mean that you will treat them equally. All said and done, a daughter is different from a son.
Nearly a decade ago, when my second daughter was a newborn, my wise journalism professor said something that I’ll never forget. David Klatell and I were talking about parenting. He is the father of two daughters and I mentioned that I had just given birth to my second daughter. “Your husband is a lucky man for he will have two girls who will adore him as long as they live,” said David. “Your life, on the other hand, will be a little more complicated.”
“A little?” I’ll say.
It’s been ten years now. My elder daughter is 14 and my younger one, ten. I can tell you now that David Klatell was right on the money. The father of two daughters has it easy (and I say this with a certain level of bitterness). On the days that I want to make myself feel better, I tell myself that the relationship that my girls share with my husband is not as multi-dimensional as what they share with me. My daughters love their father unreservedly and with an intensity that makes me envious. They are also scared of their father. When he raises his voice, which happens rarely, they run for cover. Fear and love, I tell myself, as I try to poke holes and pick flaws in their connection. That’s so limited; so stereotypical. It doesn’t have the many facets that I share with my girls. My daughters are embarrassed by me; they compete with me; lecture me; look up to me; love me; and hate me, often all at the same time. It is all so breathtakingly complicated. Isn’t that better? It’s got to be.
As I write this, my ten-year-old daughter, Malini, is making a Father’s Day card for her Dad. It has a garden, butterflies, blue skies, flowers, a rainbow, sunshine, hills, a father and a daughter holding hands. It is uncomplicated, just like their relationship. I envy that.
As a psychology student, I studied the Oedipal and Electra complexes in which sons competed with fathers and daughters competed with mothers. I see shades of that in my household, but even that, oversimplifies things. Sure, my girls compete with me, but they compete with their Dad too. They want to dress differently from me; they want to be “cooler” than their Mom. Their struggles with their Dad are deeper. They want to make their father— this alien creature— see their point of view. They yearn for his approval in a way that is different, and somehow deeper, than what they seek from me.
Our children learn a lot from us. But most of all, they learn how to be men and women from us. If you are lucky enough to be the father of daughters, you have got one entire segment of their growing up out of the way. Your daughters don’t look to you to figure out how to be women. Freed of that parenting constraint, they can simply adore you.
Happy Father’s Day!