Dal Gender and Women's Studies Collective

Hugo Schwyzer is a great man, feminist, activist. He write columns for various online spaces and works as an activist in his community and across North America. Here is a piece he wrote about raising his daughter:

“I need your help, papa”: a reprint with an update on feminist fathering of a toddler girl

From October 2010. 

Our daughter is 21 months old. As of her last doctor’s visit, she’s in the 90th percentile for height and the 20th percentile for weight. She’s doing great on a vegan diet. So far, Heloise is not particularly interested in sports (balls and the like), but is very interested in clothing, and likes to go through her drawers and inspect what she has to wear. Heloise has got a rapidly expanding vocabulary and a great memory for people. She’s clearly social, perhaps even outright extroverted. Like her father, she likes to move quickly from one activity to the next, and is particularly interested in going to see friends and family. Our basic conversations often revolve around when we’re going to see Ruthie (her best friend) or “abuela” again. Walking down the street, she waves at strangers, saying “Hi” in an enthusiastic voice. When strangers don’t respond, Heloise looks confused and crestfallen — and it’s all her father can do not to walk up to those who have failed to notice my daughter’s greeting and tell them “Damn you, pay attention! My daughter said ‘hello!’”

And I notice the compliments she gets. Parents are hopelessly biased, of course. But it is rare that she is out in public without being told by strangers and acquaintances and relatives alike how beautiful she is. Some of that focus on her looks is perhaps due to her very special cuteness; some of it is the way in which we are socialized to praise girls for their prettiness. As a feminist and a father, as well as a professor and a youth leader who has spent much of my adult life working with teens around body image issues, I am acutely aware of how compliments at an early age shape young women’s identity. I am equally aware that as parents, my wife and I cannot entirely insulate our daughter against the most pernicious aspects of beauty culture. But we do what we can.

One thing we do is praise Heloise for things besides her beauty. When she remembers the names of the characters in her “Dora the Explorer” books; when she helps pick up her toys; when she successfully gets herself up and down the slide on her playset unassisted, we respond with wild enthusiasm. I know better than tonever praise her looks: when everyone else is telling you something your Dad never mentions, that can make matters much worse (as anyone who works with teens knows.) But Heloise hears far more often how much she is loved, and how much her achievements delight her parents. There will come a time when she will learn that she can’t expect applause for performing routine tasks, but that time is not yet. At this age, I don’t think it’s possible to spoil a child with too much validation.

I also know that having loving and affirming parents isn’t always a prophylaxis against poor self-image. Mothers and fathers play a part, but so too do peers and the culture at large — with each passing year, indeed, our parental influence will diminish slightly as the other two influences grow. There is only so much that can be done to forestall that more or less inevitable process.

Whenever I change my daughter’s diaper, or take off her clothes, or give her a bath, I ask permission. I’ve done that since she was a newborn. “Heloise,” I’ll say softly, “papa’s gonna change your diaper. Is that okay?” Until recently, I got no reply. About six weeks ago, she finally started weighing in, usually with a “yes”. When she says no, I briefly — and I do mean briefly — discuss it with her. “But honey, you’re wet and you need your diaper changed.” That seems to do the trick. (It may not always, and I’m prepared for that.)

The point is an obvious one: my daughter’s body belongs to her. Her caregivers (her mother, her father, her abuela, the nanny) do not get to do as they please with it. Because she is in a temporary season of helplessness, not yet fully capable of performing basic tasks for herself, she’s delegated her care to a few trusted loved ones. With each passing week, she becomes more capable of seizing the autonomy that is her birthright. With each passing week, subtly but unmistakably, she is exercising her free will more effectively. The time will come when I will no longer need to bathe her, and when indeed it would be wildly inappropriate for me to do so. Heloise is learning that love and control are not synonyms, that we are willing to give her agency as soon as she is mature enough to wield it. She’s recently hit the stage of wanting to do things herself, like strapping down her Velcro laces on her shoes. “No papa”, she says when I forget and start to do them for her. “Nena do it.” (She calls herself nena, the Spanish affectionate term for “little girl” which we often use instead of her Christian name.) The ancient process unfolds: where once she watched as I did for her, now I watch as she does for herself. Her body. Hers alone.

And I’m not “wrapped around her finger.” I wrote last year about that unhelpful phenomenon. If mama always disciplines while papa stands around in a fog of apologetic helplessness, that sends a child a very unhelpful message about gender roles. Heloise, like so many young children, flirts — not in a sexual way, of course, but experimenting with what works to gain adult attention and what doesn’t. By making sure that I praise her as much when she’s muddy in her overalls as when she’s clean as a whistle in a little dress, by making sure that she doesn’t have to “play cute” with me to get my attention, I’m doing what I can to let her know that her power doesn’t lie in her capacity to use her looks and her “feminine wiles” to get male attention. I won’t be flirted with, but I will accept with wonder and gratitude her love.

One more anecdote. We were at a public playground last week. Heloise was running around, playing with children she didn’t know, drawn as she usually is to kids — especially boys — just a little bit older than she. My daughter seemed especially smitten with a lad of about three. First she chased him, then he chased her, then they stopped and hugged. Then he pushed her down, and she got up and ran to me, shaking her head but not otherwise upset. The boy’s parents looked at me apologetically, mouthing, “sorry”, but I laughed it off. The boy and his parents were black, and the playground was filled with mostly white children. Their child was “big for his age,” and I sensed that they were gauging my reaction, seeing if I was especially upset at having my precious little daughter (Heloise is of mixed race, but passes for white) knocked down by their black son. But I know my daughter’s resilience, and we all watched as she sat with me for a moment, collected herself, and then ran back after her playmate, hugging him again fearlessly.

The stereotype about fathers says that at moments like that I should be fighting back jealousy, unhappily contemplating the moment when she will prefer the hug of a lover to that of her dear old Dad. But I know where I am in my daughter’s heart, and I know where she is in mine. For the rest of my life, I will be there for Heloise, knowing that as is the way with things, I will always love her just a little bit more than she will love me, just as I love her even more than I love my mother and my late papa, for whom my love is deep indeed. There’s no bitterness in that, just an ancient and familiar rhythm.

June 2011 Update: Heloise has been in preschool since January, doing splendidly. She’s a social, articulate girl who now speaks in full sentences and has her own little circle of friends. My attempts to engage her in sport continue to meet with a complete lack of interest, while her fascination with clothing and flowers and other living creatures is enormous.

She’s hit a phase where she prefers me to her mama, a huge shift from where we were for most of the first two years of her life. Heloise calls me “papa” and “abba” and “daddy” interchangeably, and I respond to each with equal delight.

And with potty-training well underway, we’re still gently reinforcing the lessons about bodily autonomy. The other day, when I was running her bath, Heloise came to me, put her hand on my knee, and said solemnly, “Papa, I need your help to get undressed.”
The new game is clear: I wait until she asks. There’s something important there.


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