You would assume that the playground would be one of the few places where you could just be a father. No stress, just play, laughter, and a sense of community with other parents. But this is rarely the case. Maybe I missed the memo, but most playgrounds seemed to have been designated as either mommy or nanny spaces. Any way you look at it, men are barely tolerated, or even welcomed a majority of the time. The playground is a women’s space.
Going to the playground, especially during the day when men should be at work, is like being in one of those old cowboy flicks. You enter, everyone stops; you get sized up and immediately judged, and then everyone seemingly goes back to doing what she’s doing. (Yes, “she’s.”) But make no mistake, you are being watched. And don’t do anything that does not conform to the park consensus ideas of child rearing, because you will receive a ton of unsolicited advice and feedback. I’ll give you an example.
My daughter is a little rough. She plays hard, laughs loudly, and will take as many risks as she is allowed. There is a ton of personality in her 43 inches. So when she somersaulted off the play structure, a “concerned” mother ran over to me and said, “Oh my god! Are you sure that’s safe for your son to do?”
In my best not-to-scare-White-folks voice, I gently corrected her and informed her that it was my daughter that just did that spectacular flip. “Daughter?” She said. “How can anyone tell? Her ears aren’t pierced, and her hair is all over the place. She has on a superhero T-shirt… how is anyone supposed to know? She doesn’t look like a girl.” I told her that her son looked like a future Columbine kid and walked away.
Her assumption that I didn’t know how to keep my daughter safe did not make me nearly as angry as her “she doesn’t look like a girl” comment. What compels folks—especially in relation to gender—to categorize and force people to conform to how they view the world? My wife and I made a firm decision to not burden our daughter with gender trappings. If she asked for it, we’d pierce her ears, but only if she asked. At the park, she would wear things that we didn’t mind her destroying. We agreed not to shove her into dresses and shoes she couldn’t play in. You know, we decided to let her be a kid.
And then there’s this: A mom came up to me, tapped my shoulder conspiratorially, and said, “Oooooh, she’s so cute. You better lock her away when she’s old enough to date. You will be in trouble.” Aside from sounding mildly pedophilic, it disturbs me to no end when little boys are called “heartbreakers,” but parents are told their little girls need to be “locked away” like Rapunzel or otherwise removed and protected.
I’m guilty of uttering a “she won’t date until she’s 30” or an “I’ll whoop whomever she brings home” in my time as a parent. But the more I think about my words and feelings, I have to admit that they’re problematic. So much of our society is concerned with the policing and/or defining of girl’s (and women’s) sexuality. And most of this policing and defining comes from men.
It would be great if more men were concerned with, and supportive of, female sexual health. It appears as if many of us are much more concerned with their sexual behavior. Some men have argued that this preoccupation stems from knowing how they themselves were with women, and don’t want their daughters, sisters or nieces to deal with men similar to how they used to be. But one thing is always left out during these discussions: a girl or woman’s body is hers, and it’s up to her how she will, or will not, use it.
Since my daughter is young, it’s all about teaching her about her body and respecting her boundaries. Even during bath time, I ask her if it’s okay for me to touch her. As she gets older, it will be about informing her about responsible sexual behavior, not attempting to hide her away or sideways shame her for having sexual feelings, or for having breasts and a vagina.
When raising a daughter, the best things a father can do in this regard is to be respectful and mindful that her body is hers, support her in making safe decisions, and coming to terms that she will become a sexual being and that it really won’t be any of your business. That last part will be the hardest.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.