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I Don’t Want to Be My Daughter’s Ideal Man

Photograph by Twenty20

One of my least favorite things about being a dad is how some people (outside of my funny little weirdo family) romanticize the father-daughter bond—and, before you say "Eww," I'm NOT talking about "romanticizing" in the gross "Chinatown" way.

I don't believe that anyone thinks dads want to get "romantic" with their daughters, but I do think that far too many people hold fathers up as the ideal men for their daughters, as the template that daughters should measure every other man in their life against. And I don't think that's healthy for anyone.

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(Let me stop a second and acknowledge that the sentence "I don't want to be my daughter's ideal man" sounds like an extremely heteronormative thing to say, but when I say "ideal," I'm not solely talking about a "romantic ideal." I'm talking about a mythological level of "idealness"—the pinnacle of all things masculine. That dad ideal could be applied to a partner, a friend, a coach, a boss, etc.)

I really like being a dad. I love my family. I love spending time with my daughter. I love helping my funny little weirdo offspring learn about the world around her and find her own place within it.

Do I want my daughter to hold me in high regard? Hell yes. Her opinion means more to me than I ever hope to admit, but I also want her to be able to really understand my role as her father. I don't want my daughter to use me as her default definition of the word "man" for the rest of her life, however, I DO want to be her definition of what it means to be a "dad."

Phrases like "Mama's boy" or "You're just like your mother" are often considered insults, while phrases like "Daddy's girl" implies devotion and reverence.

Not sure yet how those two definitions get twisted yet? One easy way to see where that line gets blurred is when you take a look at the traditional daddy-daughter dance.

Now, again, I'm not saying that there's anything creepy or untoward about these kinds of events. (Anything that encourages fathers and daughters to spend time together has some admirable qualities.) I even took my daughter to a daddy-daughter dance once and it was perfectly benign. But what I didn't like was that, throughout the night, I kept hearing people praising how "this is going to show these girls how they should be treated by the man in their lives one day."

Wait, what? THAT I have a problem with. My role as a dad is not to roleplay encounters that my daughter is going to have with all the different kinds of men in her life. My role as a dad is to be a DAD—a loving, paternal authority figure who (hopefully) is able to provide her with a reasonable level of comfort, empathy and support. She should not learn how her life-partner should treat her one day from me going out on fake dates with her. (It is odd that those dances are largely modeled after high school proms, where there is definitely an implied romantic subtext.)

Is my daughter going to pick some things up about how men should treat their partners from me? Certainly. But she'll learn that through observing my interactions with her mother. And she'll learn what it means to be a sibling from how I interact with my sister. And she'll learn about having a job one day by observing how I conduct myself at my job. That's how you teach a child—by letting her see you walk-the-walk, by letting her observe you being a normal human being out in the real world, not by role-playing a dream-date scenario with her.

And, for some weird reason, we don't do this with mothers. We don't expect mothers to role-play "future partner scenarios" with their children. Moms get to be moms—which, granted, can be a hard, thankless job, but at least their role as "mothers" are being clearly defined. And moms don't have their maternal roles idealized as much as dads do, which can be a blessing and a curse. Phrases like "Mama's boy" or "You're just like your mother" are often considered insults, while phrases like "Daddy's girl" implies devotion and reverence.

That might make it sound like dads have it easier (and sometimes we do), but idealizing dads is almost as bad as ignoring or marginalizing them.

I want to be her "dad" and I want her to come to her own decision about what it means to be a "man."

No dad is perfect. We are flawed, fallible, humans who have been thrust into this experience completely unprepared—because, really, how could you ever prepare for it?—and we are all making it up as we go.

At the end of the day, I want my child to feel loved, protected and understood. I don't want her thinking that I'm some sort of everyman. Because I'm not. I want to be her "dad" and I want her to come to her own decision about what it means to be a "man."

Because that might be an extremely different definition than what I represent. Her ideal man might love sports, collect china tea-cups, cover himself in tattoos or design suspension bridges. (I can't do any of that.) Her ideal man might be vegan or a hunter or a hang-gliding hedge-fund manager. (Very "not me" things to do.)

More than anything, I want my daughter to have the freedom to come up with that definition on her own. I don't want society to keep nudging her, suggesting that nothing's going to get better than dear ol' dad. Because there are better people, better men out there than I am, and I can't wait for my daughter to head out into the world and make up her own mind about what the word "man" means to her—as a friend, partner or some kind of bizarre humanistic ideal.

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So, if my daughter uses me as her definition of a "dad" for the rest of her life, I'd kind of love that. (It would probably make me cry.) But if she brings home a potential suitor one day and he looks and acts exactly like me … yeah, that's going to be weird.

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