My dad has three daughters. I don’t know if he ever wanted sons, it’s never come up. Well, that’s not true exactly; my dad’s never brought it up and it never occurred to me that he’d want any kids but my sisters and me, but other people have brought it up from time to time. Growing up I occasionally heard people ask my dad if he wished he had a son. His answer was always the same, “No, why would I?” Sometimes some fool would do worse than ask, he’d say, with pity, “Three girls! Too bad you don’t have at least one son.”
The exchange would usually go something like this:
Fool: If you had a son, you could take him fishing.
Dad: My girls fish.
Fool: Well, if you had a son you could throw the ball around.
Dad: I play catch with my girls.
Fool: What about your family name?
Dad: What about it? There are plenty of us. I’ll keep my girls.
I think it was fairly straightforward for my dad. It wasn’t that having daughters was the same as having sons – because it’s not – it’s that having daughters wasn’t less than having sons.
This Father’s Day, I want to thank my dad for making it clear to my sisters and me that we weren’t the lesser, and for doing some specific things that may have seemed small at the time, but that ultimately shaped the person, woman, that I am.
So, here goes; thank you, Dad”¦
For taking me to the airport. On Sunday evenings in the summer my family would ride bikes to the municipal airport to look at light aircraft. I’m sure security would prevent this today, but my dad would boost me up so I could look in the windows of various Cessnas and Pipers, just to check things out. We’d watch ultralights land, and sometimes talk for a few minutes with a pilot who happened to be around. It was a great time! My dad also took my sisters and me to the annual airshow where we boarded, and sometimes even flew in, various aircraft on exhibit. I learned much later that my dad was hoping one of his girls would become interested in aviation as a career – he didn’t know then that we’d all be even more nearsighted than he! But even though Dad’s long-term dream of having a pilot daughter didn’t come true, it was modeled early for me that there aren’t girl interests and boy interests, there are just interests.
For taking me fishing. When I was old enough to sit upright and wear a life vest, I started going out on the boat with my dad. My favorite hat was my fishing hat. It was a bright green Kelly Tires “trucker cap.” My fishing pole was green, too. My dad gave it to me in time for my first fishing derby. He never took me to the fishing derby during the competition; I always went after the derby events ended, when the creek was quiet. “How come I never fish during the derby, Dad?” I asked when I was about seven. “I always catch my limit, I could have won that Snoopy fishing pole.” “You already have a nice fishing pole,” my dad said. “Besides, fishing is its own reward.” When I’ve reminded my dad of this question as an adult, he’s just laughed. “Well, fishing is its own reward! Besides, not everything has to be a competition.” I learned so many things fishing with my dad. I learned about conservation, patience, enjoying (or in my case, bearing) the silence, and I learned I was near-sighted. My dad started to figure out that I couldn’t see when he’d point out a bald eagle or jumping fish or something and I’d look the wrong direction. I also learned a lil’ about grace under pressure. When I was 14, my dad and I went fishing for king salmon. I got an ENORMOUS king on – like, half my skinny teen weight, enormous. It was too big for me to reel all the way in so my dad took over. With my dad reeling the fish in, I was left to net the hog. I’d say I felt 1/3 excitement and 2/3 sheer terror that I would knock the hooks out of the fish’s mouth and lose it to the deep, dark gray. I expressed this fear to my dad. All he said was, “So don’t knock the hooks out.” But what if I DO, Dad?” “You won’t,” he said. And I didn’t.
For wanting me to be better than my old man. My dad had been a fast kid; it was a point of pride. I was also a runner. In middle school all the kids ran the 880 every Friday in gym class. There were always two packs, the boy pack and the girl pack. I was always at the front of the girl pack, but slower than most of the boys. By the end of eighth grade I was toward the front of the boy pack. By the final 880, I was the fastest kid in class. The boys were pissed. My dad was proud. He wanted to race me. I was simultaneously determined and afraid to beat my old man. I knew he wouldn’t hold back, it’s not really his style. So we raced across the backyard, and I beat him, barely. He’d run all out, I could tell. And there he was, red-faced and beaming to have lost to his daughter. When I was twelve or so my dad sat at the foot of my bed and said, “You can do or be almost anything.” You’ll notice I write, “Almost.” There’s a reason for that, my dad never gave empty platitudes. I did not get praised for things I wasn’t good at, I still don’t. When my dad told me he believed I could do almost anything, I knew he really meant it. “That’s not true of most people,” he said. “It wasn’t true of me. There were things I might have liked to do that I wasn’t capable of, you don’t have those limitations. I just want you to know that.” I don’t know if I believed that I could do anything (well, almost anything) before my dad said that. But I know I believed it after. In my heart, I’ve believed it most every day since.
For letting me be a daddy’s girl but not a princess. I try not to be Judgy Smurf, but girls who brag about being princesses generally disgust me. A princess is someone who can’t, or won’t, do for herself. A daddy’s girl, on the other hand, is simply a gal who can count on and is adored by her pa. I don’t mind daddy’s girls; in fact, I might be a bit of a daddy’s girl. My dad thinks I’m neat! And he’s always made sure that I know that. He doesn’t brag my sisters and me up incessantly, mainly because he’s not an ass, but he’s very proud of us and makes that clear. He’s also contributed to our success by supporting us ““ emotionally, spiritually, and, where appropriate, financially. My dad would bail me out if I needed it”¦ really needed it. But he’d be irritated as all-get-out if I sat around waiting for that rescue.
For tolerating cheerleading. When I was a little girl I was into Barbies, digging for night crawlers, nail polish, shooting Pepsi cans with my BB gun, running, ballet leotards, making forts by the creek, kittens, chatting, fishing for bluegills, braiding hair, coloring, playing kick-the-can (yes, I grew up in Mayberry), looking at stuff through binoculars, looking at stuff through microscopes, writing stories, accompanying my dad to the coffee shop to drink 7-Up through a bendy straw, and so on. My dad couldn’t give a rat’s ass about some of the aforementioned stuff, some of that stuff, he loved. Your kid doesn’t need to be like you to be loved by you. And what’s more, your kid might be like you, even while being different from you. This became really evident for my dad and me when I quit track to pursue cheerleading. Oh, my dad’s face when I announced that I’d be trying out for the squad! He tried to persuade me to stay on the track team, when that didn’t work, he tried to talk me into the tennis team instead. At one point, he even suggested that I wasn’t a very good dancer, hinting that cheerleading might be embarrassing for me (I’ll let that one slide). It was all to no avail. Because I, like him, am stubborn. And I’d made up my mind about cheerleading before I even brought him, or anyone else, in on the discussion. And I knew that I was, in fact, a very good dancer (that’s the thing about confidence, it sticks). Well, Dad was not at all happy about cheerleading then, maybe he never was after that either, but his car was always present at our car wash fundraisers. He helped me buy uniforms, sent me to cheer camp, and went to my games. I’ve never had to be like my dad to be loved by him, I just had to be me. And yet, even though he never expected me to be like him, in so many ways, I am.
For raising daughters who’d never be dependent on a man. My dad started asking my sisters and me what we wanted to do professionally from the time we could talk. My answers ranged from country and western singer to optometrist to teacher to writer to lawyer. The answer didn’t really matter, it was the conversation. We never stopped having it. Even when I was in my most awkward years and talked to my parents about little else, I talked with them about what I would do after college. It was a foregone conclusion that I would develop the ability to support myself. Education was also a foregone conclusion. The question wasn’t whether I would continue my education beyond high school, but how. On the other hand, my dad never once, as far as I can remember, asked any of us girls if we planned to get married. You don’t notice these things when they’re happening, but I once asked my parents why Dad always asked us kids what kind of professions we’d have. He said, as if it was completely obvious, that he never wanted any of his daughters to be dependent on a man, he wanted to make sure we had plans for ourselves. My dad fostered independence so subtly that I didn’t even realize it until I was an adult. An independent one. Though marriage was not a foregone conclusion, I happen to be happily married. And I realize as an adult that, simply by encouraging me to be an independent person who is whole in her own right, Dad helped me prepare for healthy partnership too.
For being there. My dad came to my piano recitals, track meets, soccer games, debates, Christmas pageants, and horrible middle school band performances, he even, as I mentioned earlier, came to the high school football and basketball games despite the fact that he was irked as all get out that I quit track to cheerlead. But more than going to these events, my dad was just around. When I mowed the lawn on Saturdays, he was in the yard pulling weeds; after the yard work, he’d fix lunch. If I wanted to know how to repair the broken chain on my bicycle, he’d show me. I’ve asked my dad countless questions; he didn’t always have the answers, but he was always there to field them, that’s the clutch move. And I never once worried that my dad might leave. I can’t even explain what that security feels like to the people in my life whose fathers let them down in this way (I’m mad that they didn’t get this security, and I’d share it if I could). For me, understanding gender equality, this very basic idea that women and men should receive equal treatment, respect, and responsibility, hinges a lot on that last one – responsibility. Gender equality means not making excuses for men and not elevating women based solely on their gender. The idea that women don’t abandon their children because they are women, and that men might abandon theirs because they are men, is a harmful one. My mom is a wonderful parent (she’ll get her essay another day!) because of her personhood, not just her womanhood. The same goes for my father. “Real women do this”¦” “Real men do that”¦” My dad helped me learned what “Real People” do, what “Real Parents” do.
For knowing when to leave me alone. One of my favorite fights (if there is such a thing as a favorite fight) with my dad was in middle school. I have no memory of what the fight was about, just that I stormed out of the house, and my dad didn’t follow me, he just hollered out the back door as I was running across the yard, “Quit bein’ weird!” (Because clearly his sweet child had been replaced by an evil tween.) He knew to leave it alone. My mom loves information, “Where did you go? What did you do? Who was there?” And as a kid I hated giving info as much as she loved asking for it. My dad usually did not get involved in these exchanges where my mom would ask for some relatively harmless piece of info and get, “Gollllll, Mom, whyyyyy do you care?! Uuuuuugh,” as a response. But every once in a while he’d just sort of clear his throat/grunt. My mom tells me that was their sign for her to stop pressing me for info, “Dad always knew when to not bug you.” I’ve probably logged more cumulative hours talking to my mom than any other person on the planet. In many ways, I’m sure my mother knows me better than anyone, but she and I are very different, and she does not know when to stop bugging me. I’m grateful that she and my dad could tag out and tag in on certain things. There has always been great relief in knowing that my dad somehow “gets” me, even when he has no idea why I’m being so weird. The antiquated notion that girls are all just like their mothers was never forced on me. My mom is amazing, and I’d be lucky to be like her, but in a lot of ways, I’m just not. At birth I reflected my dad’s exact expression back at him; sometimes girls are just like their fathers.
So that’s it. That’s, in part, how my dad, who probably doesn’t self-identify as a feminist himself, helped raise one.
Thank you, Dad. For these things and the million other things I didn’t name or was maybe never even aware of; you did right by us. I was originally going to call this piece, “Just a Regular Dad, Raising a Feminist,” but I know you’re no regular dad. Happy Father’s Day (a day late… I know, I know, I get my tardiness from Mom).