For the fifth morning in a row, my daughter was about to leave for school with Hot Mess Hair and I couldn’t take it. Her father had pulled her gorgeous golden locks into a messy, tangled, sad excuse of a ponytail that looked more like a hairball than a hairstyle. He was trying to pitch in to help make our school mornings run more smoothly, but I winced when I heard him say that he’d do her hair. I knew he’d rush, not caring if it was messy or neat, and she’d be bummed out but unable to speak up. I was right, and the look on my little girl’s face seriously pulled at my heartstrings.
“Psst,” I whispered to her. “Meet me in my bathroom and I’ll re-do your hair.”
I’ve never wanted to criticize my husband’s parenting, nor would I want discourage anyone from helping me (especially in the morning!), but I needed to speak up. I told him that while I don’t really care how our daughter looks (though yes, I would prefer that my children don’t resemble Pig Pen from “Peanuts” when they leave the house) she cares. Our daughter is a girly-girl. She likes fashion and sparkles, anything pink, and anything shiny. She cares about the way she looks. She’s got a vision in her head and she wants reality to meet it. And as much as I have always hated the idea of raising a daughter to care about those things, I’ve learned to lean into her inner girly girl. Even at the age of 5, she has a good eye and great personal style.
I explained to my husband that function over form does not work for our daughter. Clearly relieved, he confessed that he had no idea how to make a proper ponytail. In fact, he admitted that when it came to our daughter he felt like he had no idea what he was doing at all.
So, I decided to teach him. Not because I’m a superior parent (I’m not), but because I understand what it’s like to be someone’s daughter and I see myself in my little girl. I also know that much of my daughter’s relationship with men as she gets older will be shaped by her relationship with her father as she’s growing up, thanks to research on the topic. In “Father-Daughter Relationships: Contemporary Research & Issues,” for example, author Linda Nielsen noted that, “The well-fathered daughter is the most likely to have relationships with men that are emotionally intimate and fulfilling…[and] generally have more satisfying, more long-lasting marriages.”
I don’t want my daughter to see her dad as an aloof guy who fumbles a ponytail. I want them to connect and I want her to feel as though dad and mom can handle the girl stuff. I want her to feel seen and heard by the most important man in her life, even down to something as superficial as a ponytail, so she grows up to require the men in her life to see and hear her. No matter what. And, so we began Project Dad Raising Daughter.
I took over the ponytail duties then next morning, in order to show my husband how to create one. I emphasized that unlike our son whom you can rush and he won’t get frazzled, our daughter prefers to take her time and wants those around her to do the same. That means my husband might need to allow a few extra minutes with her in order to help her.
Next, we tackled playtime. I’m with the kids in the afternoon more than my husband is, so I’ve spent more time playing with them. I understand the nuances and wanted to help my husband to understand them, too. While our son is fine with just being in the same room as us, our daughter wants to interact with us. This was new to my husband. In the same way I want my husband’s attention when we connect at the end of the day, my daughter wants quality time with her dad. That means he has to put down his cell phone and pick up a Barbie. Yes, a Barbie. Because, what he isn’t used to is just how much our daughter notices when she’s only getting half of his attention. And when she gets half his attention, it bothers her.
The skills my husband needs to connect with our daughter aren’t that much different than the skills he needs to connect with me. He needs to slow down and not rush her through a story or game because he has another agenda. He needs to show interest in the things that interest her, even if that means spending half an hour playing Shopkins or listening to “Let It Go” for the 30,000th time. He needs to value what is important to her, even if it’s something as silly as watching a YouTube video so he can learn how to French Braid her hair.
As I tried to tutor him into connecting with our daughter the way he had always connected with our son, I wondered if this was just a classic case of gender stereotypes coming true. Was him connecting with our daughter as simple and easy as brushing up on the father/daughter version of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus?”
No. As I watched my husband sitting in a tiny pink chair painting her tiny fingernails pink, I realized that the key to connecting with one’s children, regardless of gender, was to parent each child differently and individually. My husband didn’t have to go out of his way to notice the nuances of our son’s specific personality because he could relate and see himself in our son. But with our daughter, my husband couldn’t relate and so he didn’t relate. But by adopting a one size fits all parenting philosophy, my husband was missing out on what our daughter really needed and wanted.
I’m happy to report that my husband is now an excellent manicurist. And his ponytails have gotten much better. He still can’t French Braid. But then again, neither can most people. More importantly, he’s learning to connect with our daughter, whatever it takes.