I’m hesitant to admit this in public, but 2020 was a great year for me and my family. The world was, and still is, neck-deep in a pandemic; many lost their jobs; many lost their lives. I am not blind to the pain I witnessed in so many. Amongst all that pain, however, there were many like myself who, in spite of the widespread affliction, were richly blessed, and I speak not of money. Because of my blessings from that year, I do carry around a feeling that’s somewhat akin to survivor’s guilt— grateful to have come through unscathed but still left wondering, “why me?” In spite of these mixed emotions, I will not shy away from reveling in my good fortune; nor do I think anyone will fault me for it, for on November 2, 2020, I became a girl dad.
When my wife, Natalie, got pregnant for the second time, something we had planned for, we were certain we were going to have another boy. That wasn’t based on wishful thinking either. The way Natalie carried our second was much like she carried our first, so both of us felt it must be another boy. Even my free-spirited mother, who has a keen and creepy ability to accurately predict future events, told us she was certain it was going to be a boy. So when Natalie came home from the doctor with an opaque box filled with what I was certain to be blue cookies, the surprise on my face was quite real when I finally opened the box to reveal pink cookies. The word surprise, however, doesn’t precisely document what I was feeling in that moment; stupefied is more like it because I was quite literally unable to think or feel clearly. In truth, this young girl who was to be my daughter, unknown to the world just yet, was already doing to me what women have been doing to men for ages: dumbfounding us.
The astonishment that struck me from our humble, living room gender reveal didn’t cease once we finished eating those pink cookies. It persisted long after. Presley’s first few months of life were hard; she was colicky and sometimes went a fortnight between bowel movements. That was much different than my son. She would, and mostly still, only takes a bottle from my wife. That was/is much different than my son. She is much more physically and emotionally sensitive. That, too, is much different than my son. She’s her own person, I know that, so I don’t constantly compare her to my son, but I only have one point of reference for raising a child: my son, so I was and still am pulling knowledge from that previous experience. Thankfully, Presley’s colic has ended; she’ll occasionally take a bottle from me; and more than anything, she’s a healthy, happy, and hungry little girl— eating just about anything we feed her. Watching her eat buttered bread and a spoonful of spaghetti is like watching a lioness devour prey; it’s serious, messy, and impressive.
It’s been a year since my daughter’s birth, and I am still astonished by her. Raising a daughter is so much different than raising a son, and I am only at the beginning. I literally have no idea what to expect moving forward. About six months into her young life, my wife had asked me why I had not written anything about her for Reno Dads. Why had I not recorded some of my thoughts, hopes, or insights, like I did with my son? The truth is, like I said previously, this young girl is already doing to me what women have been naturally doing to men from the beginning: sending us into a state of bewilderment. How could something so beautiful come from me? How could this little beauty have the most striking blue eyes when both her parents have brown? How am I to teach her to be graceful? How do I teach her to be strong– like Harriet Tubman and Sacagawea strong? How can I be an even better version of myself, one that both a little boy and a little girl need? How can I make certain this world doesn’t damage her the way it has damaged so many other little girls? I have so many different questions than I did the first time we had a child.
It Takes a (Matriarchal) Village
In spite of my bewilderment with my new role as a girl dad, it isn’t as a result of having never been around women. My father died when I was not yet eight. As a result, a whole host of sturdy and resourceful women helped raise me. My step-mother, Kathy, is a north star: consistent through the years, guiding others, even if doing it from afar. My mother, Marie, is a safe harbor: resilient despite the rough seas, magnanimous to all, and always a secure place to anchor. My maternal grandmother, Conseulo, is a rock: firm despite her stature, not be trifled with but always offering a place for others to stand. My paternal grandmother, Ruby, was an oak: wise, steady, and unbreakable despite the long years of disappointment, disease, and death. I was also consistently around my sister, two step-sisters, three nieces, and a number of female cousins. Naturally, being around a lot of women doesn’t mean I automatically understand them. I have one failed marriage under my belt to prove that. Regardless, I firmly believe my time spent with these women, especially when I was doing my best to help nurture my three beautiful nieces, helped me be more cognizant of the female experience. More than that, however, being raised by a kind of matriarchal village showed me firsthand the immense strength, perseverance, and power of women. Even my own profession, English in higher education, is a field that is predominantly female. Thus, most of my role models, teachers, mentors, deans, and peers were (and still are) all female. I am no stranger to being around women.
And yet, I’m still dumbstruck by my own little blue-eyed woman. I look at her and I don’t see me, not because I don’t see any physical resemblance. I mean I don’t see my experience. I see one that I will only ever know secondhand. When I look at my son, I see me simply because I know what it is to be a little boy. I know intimately the feelings, frustrations, needs, wants, and desires of boyhood. I know the struggles he will face—with girls, with himself, with the world, because I had the same struggles. I know why he’s ornery; it’s just plain fun. I know why he’s angry; he doesn’t feel understood. I know why he’s not listening; he’s singularly focused on the task at hand. He is me, and I am him. I instantly get so much of him. I already do not get so much of her. That’s why I know I need my wife’s guidance. Natalie knows what it is to be a little girl. She knows intimately the feelings, frustrations, needs, wants, and desires of girlhood. She knows the struggles she will face— with boys, with herself, with the world, because she had the same struggles. Even more, she knows what it was that she needed (and sometimes didn’t get) from her dad (who is now gone). It’s Natalie’s experience as a little girl that I will glean the most from as I learn to be the best dad I can be for my little girl. Thus, I will draw from the wisdom of the matriarchal village once more as I seek to understand how to be the best girl dad I can be.
I am a Girl Dad
The whole term “girl dad” with its accompanying #girldad a relatively new term, and it didn’t go viral until after the tragic January 2020 helicopter crash that took the lives of nine, two of which were NBA star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. It’s supposed to be a term celebrating the dedication men give their daughters as they seek to raise them with a healthy balance of glam and grit. There’s even a new movie coming out this month (November 2021), starring Will Smith called King Richard. It’s a biopic about Venus and Serena Williams (two of the most glamorous and gritty women in sports) who came to dominate the world of tennis, in a large part, because of the dedicated coaching they received from their dad, Richard Williams. It’s the sort of movie every girl dad should see, and one I know I will. In spite of the intended positivity surrounding the term “girl dad,” it has garnered some disdain. Some view it as an “awkward social media venture” that ultimately just “perpetuates…gender stereotypes.” More than that, some even believe the #girldad should only be “reserved for those who are actively working to dismantle forces that seek to place limits on what girls can do and who they can become.” In spite of the politicization (I mean, what isn’t politicized nowadays?), I am proud to be a girl dad. I’m even proud to jump on the bandwagon of the hashtag that goes with being a girl dad— and I don’t particularly like hashtags or the fickle nature of the movements surrounding them. Now that I think about it, that’s precisely why the #girldad naysayers don’t like the trending term; they don’t want parenting of young women to be relegated to a passing trend— and that’s something I believe in wholeheartedly.
I’m a girl dad now. That means something profound that I haven’t yet found the words for, but feel in my bones. When I look into the blue eyes of my daughter, Presley, I see fire! That’s why it’s so fitting she was born with blue eyes, because blue flame burns hotter than any other. So if anyone in her life ever tells her, “you can’t,” I know she’s going to smile that side-eye smile she already has, and burn that mother down! And if she won’t, I will. Girl dads everywhere, if they take their sacred responsibility seriously, should fight like hell against all those “forces that seek to place limits on what girls can do,” for my daughter shall have no limits, and nor should theirs. Presley, like her mother before her, will be a sturdy, resilient, and resourceful woman, capable of overcoming in ways that others can’t or won’t. She already is, commanding her big brother’s love and respect, especially when it comes to demanding with a growl her share of the toys. Presley, also like her mother, will be tenderhearted, needing affection and touch. She already is, constantly seeking out her brother’s presence and her parents’ smiling approval and embrace.
Having a son four years ago made me (and still makes me) proud like never before, but having a daughter gave me joy like never before. He’s my pride; she’s my joy, and the both of them call me to be better, more whole, in ways that nothing else ever has. Being a dad is a sacred calling, one that requires all of me, but nothing in life gives an individual more satisfaction than knowing they gave their absolute all. We call Presley our little “Sissy” or “Missy Sissy.” She’s precious, soft, and sweet. She’s a glamorous little beauty who can already strike a coy over-the-shoulder pose to see if you’re chasing her. She’s more than that just a beautiful face, though. She’s a precocious, keen, and determined force. She’s a gritty little girl who already scales any stay-in-this-room obstacle we put in front of her, and I’m proud of that. She comes from a long line of gritty women, some of whom I mentioned above, and I know they’d be proud of her pluck. I’m delighted to now be a girl dad. In truth, I fully believe that the world would be a markedly better place if every man had the blessed opportunity to be a glowing girl dad.