A father’s love for his daughter is not the same as his love for his son, says Robert Wilder.
I am sitting in an indoor arena on the red-bricked observation deck. In the arena, my former student Anya, a junior at Stanford, is walking on the soft brown dirt. Dressed in black, she is directing my daughter Poppy who is atop a Mexican pony named Peter. I try to envision what Poppy will be like when she’s Anya’s age—in college somewhere; I try to transform her by 10 years, make her taller and less self-conscious. But I can’t even get her to 17, the age of my own students. No matter how I try, I still see those copper bangs, eyebrows that need no plucking or waxing, lips red enough for people to mistake the color’s origin stemming from a tube. I wish her to be taller if nothing else just so she can get the bridle over Peter’s head.
Suddenly, Peter’s hind end lunges into the air as if he’s been stung by a bee. I rise, a magazine sliding from my lap. The horse leaps off the ground, its back end first, then its front. I glare at Anya, hoping (praying? do I pray?) she can swoop Poppy off the black saddle somehow—the wooden slatted wall and two large bay windows growing closer to the horse and what seems like a human scarf flying about its neck. Poppy is bouncing up and down, side to side, trying to hold onto the beast’s crest or withers, so hard to tell.
My knees are shaking, knocking together in a cartoonish way. I want to run onto the dirt but what would I do? Punch the horse like in Blazing Saddles? I cannot help my daughter. I cannot scoop her up from the high school bleachers before she takes another tumble as I did 11 years ago. I cannot pull her out of the Bicentennial pool near our home after she’s gone under.
My fingers are shaking and the tiny reservoirs behind my eyes fill with irrelevant tears. This is what it means to be a father of a daughter, I think, as Poppy pushes herself off the shit-crazy pony and rolls away. I am so glad my wife is not here to see this. Even my own father wouldn’t understand—he had all boys, each one hardening him a bit more after burying his wife. Poppy lies far away from me and I am only slightly higher in elevation. That arena—oval space and golden light with bits of hay and dander floating in it—is hers, not mine. Even the danger that is married to the joy of moving quickly atop a galloping horse has nothing to do with this man on the stairs. I am merely a spectator, a visitor standing dumbly in the wrong shoes behind an old wooden gate.
Some parents never watch their daughters ride again after a fall. They sit in their cars in dirt parking lots reading paperbacks or chat on the phone. I still observe with a mix of pride, terror, and love that seems right for a guy like me with a daughter like Poppy. And it’s worth those moments afterward when she leads Peter into the cool shadows of the barn and I smell the mix of manure, wood chips, hay, and sweet grain. I ask Poppy how Peter was and she says, “He was so good,” patting his neck hard enough for me to hear. That’s how she must have felt while being tossed around—terror, pride (of being able to hold on) and love for this creature shown through immediate forgiveness and understanding. He thought I was asking him to do something he hated, she tells me. Poor thing misunderstood. All one big misunderstanding.
I’m sitting on the floor. Sunday night. The yellow wall is to my back as I listen to how I cannot possibly understand what it’s like to be her. How, after homework in science, math, Latin, New Mexico History, and English, after riding three times this week, how unfair it is to ask her to hike with the family, play Memory with her brother, or clean the house. We never really listen to her.
I explain in my caring teacher voice (firm but supportive) that no one likes to vacuum and I know she has a lot of homework and we appreciate her diligence and of course she wants a cell phone and it must be hard being one of the three in her class who doesn’t own one and of course she wants to see an R-rated movie starring Angelina Jolie with her friend Sarah. We let her decide when to do her homework and clean, giving her some autonomy, and when she needs a phone, she’ll get one and it’s fine by us if she wants to choose another movie. Then she delivers the rude, sarcastic comment that she probably (read: definitely) gets from me. I tell her so (without mentioning the origin) and close the door.
Later, after her mother has gone in twice, and I’ve slipped the dishes into their corrals, brushed her brother’s teeth (what’s left of them) and put on his Hank the Cowdog tape and kissed and cuddled him like you do to a 7-year-old boy who still has all of his sweetness left, I knock. There is my daughter in the shape of a backward C, crying into a hillock of stuffed animals.
She tells me what she’s already told her mother—she feels anger that she cannot control, rage at us and she doesn’t know why. And here’s the clincher—a boy at school has been calling her names (lesbian and bitch, ones reserved for solely for females). Poppy doesn’t understand what made him change from a quiet, awfully shy guy in sixth grade to this cruel creature in seventh. I tell her why he does it and how she should steer him away from the pack, look him straight in the eye and demand he cut it out, ask him what happened to him. As I’m doling out advice, I think how easy it would be for me to find this kid and squeeze his arm firmly enough to let him know I’m not fucking around, whisper in his ear the kind of words that shit-scare a student.
But this is her battle, not mine, and real love forces me to let her, paraphrasing that great 20th century philosopher Popeye, “stands it until she can’t stands no more.” And I know Poppy is not perfect, she can be boastful and tease with the best of them, but instead of watching her get bucked on a horse from above on the observation deck, I am sitting below her and her mom, two women, one 12 and the other 45, all eyes full of tears.
My first instinct is to run, but then my back up goes into gear, wanting to fix everything for these two women, fix it all for them and leave the pain for me. I lost a woman when I was young and I don’t like to see them suffer. But suffer they will. Someday that toothless boy sleeping in the room to my back will need the same amount of attention, but he will require something different because a boy’s needs are not the same as a girl’s, and a father’s love for a daughter is not the same as his love for his son. A father’s love for his daughter is borne more out of heart than out of muscle, and that’s the way it should be, if he only lets it.
Robert Wilder is the author of two critically acclaimed books of essays: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge and Daddy Needs a Drink; both have been optioned for television and film. He has published essays in Newsweek, Details, Salon, Parenting, Creative Nonfiction, Working Mother and numerous anthologies. He has been a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition, the Madeleine Brand Show, On Point and other national and regional radio programs including the Daddy Needs a Drink Minute which airs weekly on KBAC FM. Wilder’s column, also titled “Daddy Needs A Drink,” is printed monthly in the Santa Fe Reporter. He was awarded the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation. Wilder lives and teaches in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit his website at www.robertwilder.com.