What my daughters taught me

24 Oct



14th October 2014



By Joseph Wakim Daily Dilemma, Must see, Wellbeing October 14, 2014 71 36 4

“A widowed father with three daughters? Bet they pamper you!”

I roll my eyes as these common comments roll out the assumptions: they must cook and clean for you, especially in your culture.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and modern men need to be prepared for my confronting truth.

No tea leaves ever predicted that I would raise my daughters alone. A happily married man reaches 40, then desperately kisses his beloved’s face, hands and feet as breast cancer claims her last breath.

The sharp edges of my grief were cushioned by the immediate needs of my 4, 7 and 11 year old daughters. They anchored me in the present so that I could not lament the past or fret about the future. We grieved together and they saw a grown man express, rather than suppress, raw emotions. The shared tears transcended generations and genders, bonding us through a pact of honesty.

They watched me morph from a father to a parent. They watched me over-compensate and flounder as an L-plater (loser) to a P-plater (parent). My own traditional Lebanese childhood in a Victorian terrace house, in a family of ten, with one crowded kitchen, meant that I graduated as an absolute beginner at cooking. If I was their role model, I dreaded their future mothers-in law, pitying their sons.

Aware of my anguish, our parish priest gifted me the 1669 Rembrandt portrait, The Return of the Prodigal Son, alluding to the hands of the father – one masculine, one feminine. Perhaps the dual role was not so modern.

My daughters watched me smash all gender stereotypes. I became iron(ing) man as mountains of school clothes went through the laundry cycle daily. And as the menstrual cycle graced our family, I became an instant expert in the sanitary aisle of supermarkets, where the female trolley-pushers appeared more embarrassed than me.

I invented a comfort zone by explaining this milestone moment as a “regular clean” to ensure that the womb of human life was in pristine condition. As their cycles synchronised,

I circled dates on the calendar to know when I needed to walk on egg shells. I learned quickly that if I ever tried to defend anyone in a spat against another, they would join ranks and turn on me. They would remind me that menstruation and menopause all started with men. It was best to tip-toe away on these circled dates; everything I said was irritating.

Menstruation and male menopause can create a toxic cocktail. I started losing hair where it belonged (crown) and growing hair where it did not belong (ear). They watched my vulnerability as I struggled to read the menu at candle-lit restaurants.

Pampering only happened when I was arrested by the juvenile judiciary on my way out: ‘you cannot go out like that.’ They mixed and matched my clothes and taught me about color coordination.

And now we have reached the dating stage, together.

They bring home their peers to ‘hang out’. They had watched me entertain guests and now surpass my hospitality standards. After conversing with their friends and making them feel welcome, I excuse myself and give them privacy. When the visitors whisper ‘cool dude’, my daughters shrug ‘just dad.’

When they return from a ‘date’, they find me still up, typing away with two fingers. They share their reflections, questions and impressions about this guy. I recall being his age and offer my insights: caring for my daughter while empathising for someone else’s son. Our honesty pact is reciprocated when I introduce a woman. Their intuition detects many cues that I may miss, and they are usually proven right.

Their male benchmarks are subconsciously affected by the first man of their life: their father. They expect the man of their life to embrace gender neutral roles, and I feel this weight on my shoulders.

In traditional Lebanese culture, mothers should mentor their daughters while fathers should mentor their sons. But in the modern diaspora, family traditions are competing with social media for the “new normal”. Regardless of the parent’s gender, it appears that peer pressure kicks in at younger ages.

In my culture, I was nudged early on to recouple because the daughters needed a mother and I needed a wife to ‘look after me’. This grossly understated the love that I shared with my wife, and overstated the role of gender.

Men need to be prepared as they may suddenly find themselves in my situation.

Outsourcing to a paid maid skirts the real challenge. In-sourcing within yourself not only completes the family, but completes you, awakening a dormant ability to do virtually anything.

But even in families where there is both a mother and a father, men can – and should – do anything women can do. Just leaving family roles to play within traditional gender boundaries denies us all the opportunity to explore an important part of ourselves.

It does not mean becoming less complementary to your spouse. On the contrary, it means more sharing and being more well-rounded role models for your children. For us men, it means emancipating ourselves from the rusty shackles of gender roles.

It has nothing to do with pampering, and everything to do with parenting.

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