I had a brand new experience this past Friday. I met my daughter for the first time. It was exhilarating . . . unbelievable . . . mind-blowing. It was a thousand different adjectives for which the English language doesn’t have words.
When Heidi was pregnant with Tristan, we decided to be “surprised.” We never had an ultrasound and didn’t know whether he was a boy or girl until he was in our arms and we could check all his parts for ourselves. We never regretted that decision, but this time we decided for a variety of reasons that we wanted to know in advance, and seeing that little girl on the screen this morning, I’m so very glad we did.
Ever since Friday morning I’ve felt this incredible rush of countless different emotions, the like of which I haven’t felt since Tristan was born. Most prominent among them is complete, overwhelming joy at seeing for the first time this new person who has joined our family. I’ve always wanted the experience of raising both a son and a daughter. Now I’ll have it.
But mixed in there too is a little sadness: sadness that my daughter will inevitably face challenges I never did . . . challenges her brother will never have to face . . . simply because of who she is.
My daughter has some incredible women in her life. Her mom is a courageous artist and entrepreneur who runs two businesses and takes care of one – soon to be two – small children at the same time. Her grandma is an accomplished musician who could have made a career of it if that had been her choice, but who chose instead to devote herself full-time to raising four children to adulthood and who now loves to invest her time and energy into the lives of her grandchildren. My sister, her auntie Joy, is an intelligent, accomplished woman who has run the full gamut from career-woman, to stay-at-home-mom, and is now somehow managing to simultaneously do both. Her aunts Hannah and Kirsten are still in the process of figuring out what to do with the rest of their lives, but both of them are intelligent and incredible young women who will no doubt be successful at whatever they decide to put their minds and energy toward. She will also have the legacy of my late mother, her Grandma Pat, who gave up a career to raise me and my sister full-time.
She will also have some incredible men in her life. Heidi and I both grew up with fathers who didn’t buy into stereotypical gender roles. While both of our mothers were stay-at-home moms, they both had marketable skills they could have turned into successful careers with the full and complete support of their husbands. They lived the lives they did because that’s what they chose . . . not because it was expected of them or imposed upon them.
Her big brother, too, is being raised with a mindset that doesn’t reserve one set of values for boys and another for girls . . . that neither degrades women nor places them on a pedestal. I spent much of my childhood believing that it was my job to “protect” my sister . . . to watch over her and care for her . . . as though this incredible, amazing girl was somehow incapable of living her life without her older brother looming over her. I spent my teen years trying to dictate to her what I thought she ought to do with her life, still in the name of “protecting her.” At some level, I convinced myself that was my proper role . . . my rightful job as a literal “big brother” in every sense of the word.
Tristan will not have that mindset. My parents never taught me that I was “supposed” to sit in judgment over my sister. But at the same time, I think our culture makes that mindset somewhat inevitable unless a young boy is clearly shown how NOT to do so: is explicitly taught NOT to think of his sisters as weaker . . . less capable . . . less, period. And that’s precisely what Tristan will be taught. Is already being taught at some level, in fact.
I think what saddens me is this:
When Heidi was pregnant the first time, we had many talks about our unborn child’s “personhood” . . . about the broad swathes of humanity who don’t ascribe personhood until a child has been born. We read books about the development of personalities and preferences while children are still in the womb. We read stories of very young children who were able to recount to parents the circumstances leading up to and at the times of their births. We grieved for the millions of children in this country and around the world who are viewed as disposable because our culture does not yet think of them as “people.” I thought of them today as I watched my daughter on the screen, squirming and uncooperative as the ultrasound technician tried to get good readings from the machine, while her brother sprawled on the floor, squirming and uncooperative as I tried to keep him out of the technician’s way. “She’s every bit as much of a person as he is.” I thought to myself.
Of course, there are those for whom that doesn’t mean much. Once Tristan was born, we realized that even then, too many people did not think of him as a person – didn’t ascribe the same sorts of wants or needs or preferences or desires to him that older children are known to have, simply because they’ve figured out how to express themselves in ways adults can understand. We realized that much of our culture, with regard to very young children, is built around the assumption that they matter less. That they are less. We value compliance with our own needs and desires, while at the same time dismissing their needs and desires as unimportant, and their methods of expressing those needs and desires as “misbehavior.”
I still have conversations like that sometimes . . . still encounter people who think of my three-year-old son as little more than a “potential person.”
But he can communicate better by the day, and will one day grow to a point where his “personhood” is undeniable. What saddens me is that my daughter will always – for her entire life – be viewed by large swathes of our culture as less than a full person.
This is a sensitive topic, particularly right now. Just over a week ago, a 23-year-old boy killed six people along with himself in my native state of California, after penning a lengthy manifesto in which he repeatedly denounces “the female gender” for inflicting “horror and misery” upon him . . . for treating him “like the scum of the earth.” How so? First by having relationships with people who were NOT HIM, and then later, as he matured physically, by not having sex with him. His manifesto is disturbing not because it contains the incoherent rantings of some crazed lunatic. It doesn’t. Instead it contains the well-organized (if wordy), coherent, intellectually consistent thoughts of the ultimate narcissist – one who believes that the other “people” around him (male and female alike) exist only to serve and please him; whose expectations of women, in particular, revolve entirely around how they can provide him physical and/or emotional comfort; who ends their lives violently when they fail to live up to those expectations.
This violent tragedy has sparked a much-needed conversation across this country about what it means to be a woman in 21st century America. And what many are realizing is that most men in 21st century America simply have no idea what the women around us face every day. We think dehumanizing women is something that happens in other “backward” countries where the laws dictate what a woman may wear and how she may act. We enlightened Americans would never do that! And yet there are everyday stories of women who, after being violently raped and seeking law enforcement assistance, are asked by their supposed protectors, “well, what were you wearing?” as if they are somehow responsible for the actions of their attackers.
The mindset behind it is exactly the same: women are responsible for the feelings of the men around them, and for any actions those men may choose to take.
And we men too often simply don’t get it, on any number of levels. Too often, a group of men will read a story like that, and if a picture is posted alongside the story, will engage in a spirited discussion in the comments about whether or not “I’d hit that.”
I know I didn’t really get it until I began reading the ways some of those women are expressing themselves in 140-character stories, accompanied by the hashtag #YesAllWomen.
Take a look. Please. For my daughter’s sake. Read past the blatant political propaganda and outright trolling coming in from both ends of the ideological spectrum, down to the real, gutwrenching stories you’ll see there. And as you’re reading, do me a favor: don’t take it personally. Because it’s not about you. Those who (accurately) note that not all men engage in the behaviors described are entirely correct . . . and are entirely missing the point. It is an absolute fact that not all men are rapists, murderers, or even misogynists. It is an equally absolute fact that all women . . . at least all the ones I’ve known . . . have suffered some form of rape, abuse, and/or misogyny at the (sometimes literal) hands of SOME men. My wife doesn’t believe me, but I’ve watched as complete strangers look her up and down in a restaurant, as if evaluating a piece of meat, while I’m standing right there beside her.
And the travesty is that a lot of those who read that last sentence – men and probably some women too – are probably thinking to themselves, “what’s the big deal about that?”
Meanwhile, other women – some of them dear friends of mine – have endured much worse.
That’s the world my daughter is being born into . . . and there’s only so much I can do about it. I can let her grow up watching me treat the women in my life as my equals: neither degrading them nor elevating them onto some unrealistic pedestal – neither treating them as inferiors or idols. I can teach my son to do likewise. I can warn him against the countless hours his father used to spend in secret, objectifying the women who appear in movie sex scenes or porn videos, not because it’s “dirty” or will “ruin him for his future spouse,” or any of the idiotic cliches I heard growing up – all of which still made it all about me – but because THAT’S A PERSON ON THAT SCREEN . . . a person who has, for whatever reason, decided to voluntarily surrender her personhood and become instead an object for men (and some women) to oogle, drool over, and worse. A person who is worthy of just as much respect and dignity as he is, or as I am, or as his mother and sister are.
And I can teach my daughter that, while there are certain attitudes and actions she will no doubt face throughout her life, this is NOT the way our broken, fallen world was meant to function. I can teach her that while she will endure challenges I myself have never known, that does not mean . . . not ever . . . that she should accept them as “normal.”
I can teach my son (and my daughter, too) how to think in certain ways that respect other people as people. And I can teach my daughter (and my son, too) that they are responsible for their own thoughts and actions . . . and are NOT responsible for the thoughts and actions of others with whom they interact. As I read Elliot Rodger’s manifesto, penned before he went on his murderous rampage, one thing that shocked me was how much of it I could have written: the bullying, the feelings of insufficiency, the social awkwardness and overwhelming guilt throughout the process of discovering my own sexuality, the repeated rejection, even the stigma of being “the short kid” or “the kid who’s bad at sports.” There were some surface details of my childhood that looked fairly similar to his. But there were some important differences, too. The biggest one, I think, was this: Rodger blamed everyone else around him for his own feelings, thoughts, actions, and their results. I did the exact reverse, blaming myself for everyone else’s. My hope is to raise both of my children so that they know better than to make either mistake.
I always wanted the opportunity to raise both a son and a daughter. Now that I have one of each, that thought is even more daunting than ever. I don’t worry so much about my son, even in a culture that is increasingly suspicious of – if not openly hostile to – young, white, males. For the most part, the challenges he will face are things I know I can equip him to handle, and then turn him loose on the world. I’m less confident in my abilities to do so for my daughter – both because I don’t know what the landscape looks like from a woman’s perspective, and because there are some things that are so far beyond her control that I don’t know what to advise her to do about them. The temptation I know I’ll face – the temptation I’m sure I share with many fathers of daughters – will be to try to “protect” her in the same way I tried to “protect” my sister . . . to shelter her and fight her battles for her and live her life for her, rather than “turning her loose on the world,” the way I will my son. It’s a temptation I may face. But one to which I know I can’t succumb. I’ve seen too many examples of where that road leads, and I don’t want that for her either.
So I’ll do what I can do . . . teaching her to make wise decisions for herself, just as I will her brother . . . teaching her what to expect of life in the best way I know how. And once I’ve done so, I’ll enjoy watching her step out into this crazy mixed up world of ours and make her own mark on it.
That thought excites me. It terrifies me. I’m so looking forward to seeing her in person and starting to get to know her.
I can hardly wait.