|My Daughter Grows Up
(A Father peers into the abyss of sexuality)
By David Laskin
The breasts were disturbing but so gradual in coming that I had months to adjust - but somehow I was totally floored to discover that my thirteen-year-old daughter had pubic hair. I had blundered into the bathroom one morning without knocking as My daughter was coming out of the shower (since when did she take showers?), and before I stammered my way out I couldn't help noticing the dark patch of hair between her legs. She was still a little girl, as far as I was concerned - my little girl, practically still my baby. The idea that she had pubic hair was incongruous, almost grotesque - like stumbling on your parents' old love letters.
Reassuringly, my daughter was totally cool about the "incident" when I apologized later. It was no big deal as far as she was concerned. In fact, she only seemed embarrassed that I was so embarrassed, and she was quick to change the subject. But I found myself brooding about it. Ever since she had learned to sit up, smile, laugh, and especially talk, my daughter and I had always been extremely tight. We shared a sardonic sense of humor (yes, even a baby can be sardonic), a love of maps and exotic places (her favorite birthday present was a huge world atlas that weighed almost as much as she did), eclectic musical tastes that encompassed Aretha and Mozart. I had always felt totally relaxed and unself-conscious around my daughter - which may sound like an odd thing for a dad to say, but when you stop to think about it, isn't it obvious that fathers "fit" with some kids better than others? My daughter and I were on the same wave length - or had been until I saw her pubic hair. Now I felt unsure, shy, uneasy. I didn't know how to "be" around her. She wasn't my little girl anymore, but who was she?
Did this mean we could no longer be close in the old way? Were we doomed to communicate across the great abyss of sexuality? Two years later, I can report that the answer is, no, not really, though it has taken some effort and soul-searching on my part to avoid falling into the "distant dad syndrome." I emphasize "on my part," for my daughter has remained totally unflapped by both her adolescence and my fits of angst. This has definitely been my problem - though of course I'm not the only dad who has ever wrestled with it. As I discovered from chatting with other dads and thumbing through parenting magazines in doctors' waiting rooms, the distant dad syndrome is the default option for a lot of fathers of adolescent daughters. My reaction to my daughter's pubic hair, as it turns out, was pretty standard. There's a kind of instinctive uptightness that kicks in when our daughters hit puberty.
The root of the uptightness, I'm convinced, is fear. Fear of being inappropriate. Fear of complicated feelings. Fear, above all, of the tangles of sexuality. All of which, unfortunately, is heightened by our societal hysteria over sexual abuse of children. I'm aware that sexual abuse within families, including father-daughter incest, is a serious and widespread problem and that a father can damage a daughter for life by sexualizing their relationship. But I'm also aware that child sexual abuse, though far more prevalent than commonly recognized, is still not an issue for most fathers, myself included. My issue, in fact, was the opposite: recoiling from my daughter because I couldn't deal with the fact that she was becoming sexually mature.
For our daughters, the timing of this paternal pull-back couldn't be worse, because early adolescence is precisely when their self-esteem plummets. Just when they're beginning to question everything about themselves, from how they look to whether they're smart, the number one man in their life suddenly turns from pal to prig. I count myself extremely lucky that I realized (with a little help from my wife) that this was happening to me and was able to do something about it. In a way, that accidental glimpse of pubic hair was a kind of wake-up call, for once I got over the initial shock it made me stop denying the fact that my daughter's body was changing. My daughter was becoming a woman, at least physically - emotionally and intellectually she still has a way to go - but there was no reason why she had to be shrouded in some symbolic purdah as far as I was concerned. I came to understand that the boundary between us would be different, our displays of physical affection more careful and restrained. But that didn't mean I should cease to notice and admire her physical being.
Yet there was still a giant step from recognizing this to communicating it. Telling my daughter she was beautiful used to be the easiest thing in the world - now it was fraught with anxiety and self-consciousness. Would she think I was being flirtatious? Was I being flirtatious? Would it sound too intimate, too knowing, too demanding? One day I just came out and said it, and I knew in a flash from her reaction - an imperceptible smile, a quick cut away of the eyes, that sardonic tilt of an eye-brow - that it was the right thing to say, that I had been a fool to worry. Of course my daughter would want to hear that her father thought she was beautiful - now more than ever.
Saying it somehow loosened things up, broke down the barrier of uptightness. No, we're no longer buddies in quite the same way. I don't tickle my daughter anymore. I don't pick her up and toss her into the pool. I now knock when she's in the bathroom or her door is closed. But a lot of things haven't changed at all or changed for the better. We're still very much on the same wave length when it comes to music and we've added books to our wide-ranging conversations (we're both big fans of Cormac McCarthy). We love to ski together and I don't even mind that my daughter is now better than I am. She confides in me the intricacies of the ninth grade social scene. We've even talked, gingerly, about boys she might be interested in.
I no longer worry about the appropriateness of what I say or do or see when I'm around her. As far as I can tell, my daughter does not worry about appropriateness either and never has been one of the benefits of being fifteen. I know there are going to be many bumps ahead, but I think it's safe to say that we've put this particular bump behind us.
David Laskin is the author, most recently, of Partisans, Marriage and Betrayal among the New York Intellectuals (Simon & Schuster). He and his wife, Kathleen O'Neill, co-authors of The Little Girl Book (Ballantine), are raising three daughters in Seattle.
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