When my mom gets asked about our family, she’ll say she has “four grown children.” She omits the fact that all four of those children are daughters.
“I’m just tired of it,” she said. “The dismayed facial expressions, the pity for your dad. I’d rather just not go down that path.”
Fathers of daughters—even one, but especially three, four, or more—know this reaction all too well. Corey Widmer, pastor of Third Church in Richmond, Virginia, is the father to four young girls. He noticed that “90 percent of the time, when I tell people I have four girls, the reaction is negative. If it is positive, it’s usually because they came from a family of all girls.”
We assume, on some level, that having so many daughters must be a disappointment for dads. Ask nearly any of these fathers, though, and it’s far from the truth.
Of course there’s a natural attachment and special intimacy between parents and kids of the same sex: mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. Bonding already doesn’t come as naturally to men—who lack the biology, birth experience, and breastfeeding that naturally attach moms to their offspring—so relating to a child of the opposite sex may be an extra hurdle for dads and daughters.
Still, we’ve taken the worst exaggerated characterization of a father-daughter relationship and accepted it as a laughable norm. Our remarks to dads of daughters communicate that girls are catty and dramatic; that dads can’t share experiences or hobbies with us; and that we should feel bad that none of his kids had been born male. This message, and its discredit for women’s value, should trouble us as people and as Christians, who affirm the equal worth in women and men.
“It comes across in playful stereotypes like girls are higher maintenance, girls take more emotional energy, girls spend more time in the bathroom,” Widmer says. “But deep down, there’s a more nefarious mythology underneath it. That there’s actually something unappealing about having girls and raising girls, and that if you could choose, obviously everyone would choose boys.”
It’s 2016. We know that girls are fully capable of learning and enjoying activities once thought to be exclusively male. For decades, girls have played sports, competed, and excelled in athletics. They hunt, they fish, they drink, they debate. They graduate from college at higher rates than males, lead companies, and even run for president.
A 2013 study by researchers at Baylor University found fathers bond most with daughters through sharing activities and hobbies together. Now, fathers no longer have to keep their fingers crossed for a son to throw the ball with or pass along the family business to. Dads who are strong, present, and honest raise daughters who are self-reliant, independent, and secure. Research shows that women with active fathers are more likely to graduate from college, enter higher-paying jobs, manage stress better, and go on to have more stable, long-lasting relationships.
Fathers themselves are deeply changed by having daughters. They give them, as Dr. Bethany Marshall says, a “new sense of empathy towards women.” The change can be so significant that when a male CEO has a daughter, employees’ salaries tend to go up, and the gender wage gap becomes slightly narrower. Elizabeth McClintock writes for Psychology Today that “among previously childless men, the birth of a daughter causes a larger shift toward more progressive gender ideology than does the birth of a son.” Others have referred to this as the “Daughter Effect,” changes seen directly in the ideology and heart of men, attributed solely to the birth of a daughter. It follows then too that the casualties of fatherlessness are both daughters and fathers. Daughters lose an irreplaceable role, and fathers forgo the opportunity to grow in compassion and empathy.
I doubt my dad consciously sought to expand his emotional repertoire in raising us, or even to teach us how to be independent, industrious women who loved the outdoors. Either way, he acted as if he expected nothing less. We began to love the things he loved, take on his entrepreneurial spirit, and find men of our own who challenge and affirm us. And he has become more open, more capable of feeling something deeply outside of himself, more respectful of perspectives that differ greatly from his.
At crucial points in my life, he was the one to remind me who I am. After I ended a particularly regrettable relationship after college, my dad took me skiing. Over lunch, he looked at me, rosy cheeked and thawed, and told me what a treasure I was. And that anyone who wanted to date me needs to see me with the same worth he—and our Heavenly Father—do. (It was perhaps the second time in my life I’d seen him cry.)
Parenting is a sacred and sanctifying act for any person (one so sacred I still revere it from a distance). Both daughters and sons come with their own unique joys and challenges—neither better nor richer nor more valuable than the other. First and foremost we are rooted in our eternal identity as children of God; we are secondarily formed by our sex, our neighborhoods, our ethnicity, and our families.
Paul says, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith,” meaning both men and women will be granted the same inheritance to the Kingdom of God (Gal. 3:26). John Piper explains, “Women inherit the promises of Abraham as sons as much as men do as sons…There are differences in what you can be and do because of sexuality, but the massive, important issue is that men and women have a common heritage in the image of God and in worth before God and in the destiny of inheritance from God.”
As Christians, we are asked to love those that are different from us, and as “we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12). Even if it is intimidating, scary, or difficult for fathers to play an active role in their daughter’s lives, it is a holy task nonetheless. May we rejoice in the daughters born to the men we know and love. May we exclaim that all children are gifts—not burdens to be tolerated or dealt with. Our words must match this calling we have: to rejoice with all of creation when the Lord bears his image on another tiny child.
Rebecca Parker Payne lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and the corgi she named after Wendell Berry. She is director of communications at Third Church, and occasionally tweets, Instagrams, and blogs too.