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No one seems to agree on what fathers give daughters, though they do agree on one thing: Our sheer presence matters. I was definitely around. But after a while it became clear that certain boundaries had drifted into place: Sam was "mine," while the two girls "belonged" to my wife. I was a great father to my son and only a so-so father to my daughters, and it might have gone on like this for quite a while if my wife hadn't said something when Lily was around 5. "You seem to spend so much less time with the girls than you do with Sam," she said. She didn't sound angry, just sad. "What's that all about?"

The question stopped me in my tracks. I had no good answer, though for the next few weeks and months I stumbled across a few mournful realizations. First and foremost, many males, myself included, grow up believing that females aren't entirely human, at least not in the same way men are. We fetishize the "otherness" of women, and women help things along by shaving their legs and ornamenting themselves with trinkets and perfumes that men adore but find baffling at the same time. That was my initial problem: I was finding it hard to recognize myself in the form of a girl. I could see myself in my son easily, but in my daughters? That wasn't so easy. And yet all three children bore my last name. I was their father. So why did Lily and Susannah seem less mine—in the tribal sense—than Sam did? Was it also because somewhere along the line I knew that if they cleaved to tradition and got married, they'd probably take their husband's name, while my son will always retain the profoundly exotic name Smith?

The trap I'd fallen into was one that insulted my daughters' intelligence by undervaluing who they were, and I wanted out. I wanted to be a great father to all my children. The problem, as I saw it, was that I'd spent a lifetime under the mistaken impression that I really knew women when in fact my knowledge was based largely on fantasy and projection. Otherness was staring me right in the face, but it was actually me in disguise.

The reality is this: My two girls are strong. They're resilient. They're resourceful. They're wily, creative, and spectacularly unafraid. Every day I'm struck by their ferocious brainpower, their social agility, and the sheer delight they get out of being female. As a parent to two daughters, I've learned that the differences between males and females are far more minute and shadowy than most of us go around believing. With one exception: I don't worry about my girls in the slightest. It's my son I'll be keeping tabs on.

And a few months ago, when Lily's first-grade teacher told me that she was a prolific writer and a big reader, I couldn't help thinking, Well, naturally, she's her father's daughter.

Peter Smith's most recent novel is A Good Family (Doubleday).

More O: How does a daughter talk to her dad?

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