NICHOLAS BARBER has two daughters, aged seven and three
When I read in 1843 that fathers tend to be more content with sons than with daughters, I must admit I felt a frisson of guilty pleasure. I am a father of daughters myself. Two daughters, to be precise, and both wonderful. But, as much as I love them, there are times when they drive me up the wall, and vice versa. So the article seemed to offer me a ready-made excuse. Maybe, I thought, my failings as a parent aren’t really my fault. Maybe it’s my daughters’ X chromosomes that are the problem. It’s a comforting notion, but I’m not sure I can let myself off the hook so easily. Notwithstanding the statistics in Emily Bobrow’s article, in my case I’m pretty certain that I would find sons just as exhausting as daughters. Whether I would find them as rewarding is another matter.
For one thing, I know I never wanted sons rather than daughters. Well, maybe once. By the time my partner and I had children, my oldest brother already had two daughters of his own, and I thought it might be nice for my parents to have grandsons for a change. But on my account, I genuinely wasn’t bothered either way. It may be a cliché to say that you just want your babies to be healthy, but if you wait until your mid-thirties to procreate, as my partner and I did, the chances of having gravely ill children seem terrifyingly high. When the doctor tells you that your scrunchy-faced newborn can see, hear, move and scream her lungs out exactly as expected, it’s such a relief that the very idea of grumbling about her sex seems insane.
I also know that I’ve always found my daughters enchanting – annoying, yes, but mostly enchanting. I play with them, read to them, bathe them and prepare their meals just as often as their mother does (all right, maybe I don’t do as much cooking). I can’t imagine spending more time with them if they were male. I can’t imagine having more intimate conversations. And, unlike some of the interviewees in Emily’s article, I’ve never wanted a “mini-me” to mould into a new and improved Nicholas 2.0. On the contrary, the fact that my daughters are different from me is part of what makes them so fascinating and magical. I grew up with brothers, so every day I’m learning something new about the way the other half of the human race behaves.
It probably helps that I’m not a very manly sort of man, so I’ve never yearned to teach a child how to throw a ball, or mend a car, or shoot and skin a deer, or whatever else it is my more masculine counterparts do. I’m not saying that I treasure every last second of playing princesses and hairdressers with my daughters, but I doubt I’d be any more enthusiastic about playing football with them – certainly, teaching them to ride a bike has been a hideous, spirit-crushing ordeal. Besides, isn’t it just as possible to play football with girls as it is with boys? Maybe the dads in the article would be fonder of their offspring if they didn’t have such anachronistic views on how daughters and sons should be treated. Here’s my tip: treat them the same.
Still, I do accept that gender distinctions exist. If I’d happened to have sons myself, I’m sure I would be convinced that they were better than girls in every way, but, let’s be frank, girls are inherently cuter. The boys in my daughters’ school playground are rougher than the girls, more likely to be caked in snot and/or blood, and generally more like miniature versions of the brutish giants Roald Dahl describes in “The BFG”. I’m always quite glad that none of those feral creatures is mine.
There is one other factor. Recently my partner said, “It’s just occurred to me that I’ve got daughters, but you don’t have a son. How does that make you feel?” I tried to recall everything that friends with sons had told me about their own experiences, before offering the most honest answer I could. “I know I’ll never take off a nappy and have a jet of urine arcing through the air and into my face,” I said. “I feel fine about that.”
TIM LOTT has four daughters, aged 22, 20, 14 and nine
I was surprised, but not that astonished, to discover that couples with boys tend to have more successful relationships than those with only girls. As someone with four daughters and no sons it has become increasingly clear to me over the years that I am missing out on something – and that this has a knock-on effect.
My daughters are incalculably precious to me. But when I watch my two younger children, nine and 14 years old (the elder two live with my ex-wife), in moments of intimacy with their mother – perhaps painting toenails, or exchanging glances about how useless men (ie fathers) are, or performing all the grooming rituals that are typical of teenage girls – I feel, momentarily, like an exile.
I would like to say that this washes over me as part and parcel of being a parent, but it wouldn’t quite be true. The truth is, I am a tiny bit jealous. Women and girls seem to see things that men and boys don’t see, are operating on some vibration that we can’t tune in on. The exact nature of this I cannot, by definition, describe. But whether culturally conditioned or not, it is there.
Then there are the cultural stereotypes that I am often informed by my daughters are irrelevant in the 21st century. I’m not a great fan of football or rough-and-tumbling or computer games, but I do know that there is a gender-based part absent in the jigsaw of my relationship with my daughters. It’s not only that they don’t want to talk about boyfriends, period pains or “Bake Off” with me. They are also unlikely, in the short term at least, to sit with me and enjoy a really violent Tarantino movie or a terrifying horror film. Not incidentally, neither genre is of interest to their mother, who leads them happily through gentle romcoms and genteel Jane Austen adaptations.
This gender-based bonding does tend to run its course. My eldest daughter, at 22, has “The Shining” as her favourite film, while my 20-year-old loves a good gore fest (she thinks Tarantino is kid’s stuff). I think they would deny any gender bias in bonding with each of their parents – although even now I think the fact that they shared a home with their mother rather than me after our separation had an effect. But during the time they are still feeling their way into, and through, gender roles, the mother figure tends to be more important than the father figure.
So far, so much of a shame for me. But it hadn’t occurred to me that this is also troubling for my wife, who counts intimacy and involvement between parent and child as the key to a good family dynamic (her favourite admonishment of me is “get involved!”). I can and do get involved, but I am, when all is said and done, a man, and in this unreconstructed world that means something. As one of the parents interviewed in Emily Bobrow’s article observed, “I don’t know how to make a little girl happy the way I fundamentally know how to make a boy happy.”
In my case, this is not quite pure speculation. Although I have no sons (and interestingly my two brothers can only muster one between them along with three daughters) my own parents did have a child when I was 13 years old – so I have some inkling of what it means to have a boy of my own. I remember that time as being completely delightful and an unmitigated pleasure. Nearly 50 years later, he still lives a few streets from me and is very much part of my life.
My physical closeness to my daughters does a lot to compensate for the fact that I am a bit out of the loop in a psychological and emotional sense – I suspect it’s much harder to get a good cuddle out of a 14-year-old boy than it is my teenage daughter. But the truth is, their mother is more entwined in their lives, simply by virtue of her sex, than I could ever be.
This is frustrating for me – and I now realise, for her too, while at another level she welcomes it – but it’s too late for me, and probably most of my generation, to do anything about it. In the meantime I just remain grateful because the joy of being a parent four times over transcends not only gender, but generation and culture – and anything else you’d care to throw into the mix.