I have three kids, I say to anybody who asks. A son and two daughters. People nod: Three sounds good, complete, fecund but not out of control. What they don't know, and what I'm usually too embarrassed to admit, is that it's taken me a while to recognize my daughters—ages 7 and 5—not just as my wife's kids but as mine, to claim them as unconditional equals to their older brother and to treat them that way. And that my cringeworthy odyssey toward self-knowledge shone a light on some old- fashioned, subtly sexist thinking that would shame my parents' generation, not to mention my own. br>
Now, you wouldn't meet me and think right off the bat, Wow, what an ignorant pig, or even, Does he have a problem with women or something? I'm a fairly presentable, well-traveled graduate of an Ivy League college, and I've always counted women among my closest friends. If push came to shove, I'd go so far as to describe myself as a feminist, and what's more, I'd feel faintly annoyed at the need for a word to describe behavior that comes second nature to me.
And then I had daughters.
Or rather, two girls parachuted into my life commando-style, bearing lanyards, Fruit Roll-Ups, and Hello Kitty toothbrushes. Two years earlier my wife had given birth to a boy, Sam, so I believed I was prepared, that I had the hands-on father business down cold. But along came Lily, followed by her little sister, Susannah, and I felt suddenly like a bad performance artist—klutzy, thickheaded, a distinct unnatural. Lily was and is a diva: raspy voiced, melodramatic, witty, and adventuresome. Susannah is more retiring and has the sort of angelic, thumb-sucking plaintiveness of someone who makes her home underneath a mushroom. There's never been a single second when I haven't loved my daughters to pieces, but as the years went on I began noticing that I was favoring my son in quiet ways. He and I did more things together—rode bikes, Rollerbladed, went to the movies. Because of our physical likeness, I acted under the assumption that he'd grow up to be like me: a voracious reader, a writer, something artsy. Whenever Lily's or Susannah's teachers remarked on their intelligence or creativity, I was pleased, but at the same time the praise felt impersonal, disconnected. I might as well have been the girls' tour manager, loving and interested but ever so slightly not there.
Another unexpected thing: The girls appeared to need me less than my son did. It was as though their destinies and mine only happened to intersect. Perfectly pleasant and all, but, hey, a girl's gotta keep moving. I think I bored them a little. My carefully neutral tastes weren't theirs. They ignored the politically correct stockpile I brought home from the toy store—the rain forest snake, the Hopi masks, the sack of plastic falafel and tacos designed to celebrate eating habits around the world—in favor of sequined I Dream of Jeannie outfits, Beanie Babies, and insanely expensive dolls with names like Felicity and Kirsten.
"That was my initial problem: I was finding it hard to recognize myself in the form of a girl."