Photo: Thinkstock
Peter Smith thought he was a cutting-edge, equal-opportunity, p.c. kind of dad. But then two little blonde spitfires came along.
They're nuts for Annie Lennox, in particular "Walking on Broken Glass." They love tie-dyed T-shirts, swimming pools, and glitter. They covet nail polish, miso soup, and the Powerpuff Girls. They collect anything smuggle-small and fold-up-able: dimes, hair clips, pebbles. They're willful, funny, and beautiful. They know exactly what they want at all times. They're my girls.

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."
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?


Next Story