The ways that Ahmed Youssef plays with his daughter are changing as she grows up, and he wonders whether this is really such a good thing.
I can honestly say that this past Memorial Day weekend was one of the best weekends I’ve had in a long time. Not because I was forced to go to two family parties where I shelled out well over $500, and certainly not because our air conditioning system broke down during a very hot and humid east coast heat wave, but because I got to play with my kids. I have two kids, Maya, five years old, and Adam, three. As the three of us were rolling around on the floor in hysterics and sweat I realized there’s no discernible way I play with each of them.
Sure I play action figures with my son and Barbies with my daughter, but when we play without toys it almost doesn’t matter that one is a girl and the other a boy. I toss both of them around the room, rough them up with pillows and tickle them like crazy. But as Maya gets older I can’t help but to feel like I need to play with her differently. Even though she’s only five I can’t get over the fact she’s becoming a “girl” and I’m worried. I don’t necessarily think about raising a girl regarding her social behavior or her values but I’m worried that her gender is going to push us apart. I know, this sounds extremely sexist and can come across like I’m headed for being a failure as a father to a human being I made, but the feeling is still there and may become more extreme as time goes on and she matures.
I have to preface this story by telling you I’m a guy who was raised almost exclusively around women. Aside from my father I had no male bonding in my life. I have three sisters, one of which has three girls of her own and another sister with two girls. Needless to say the ballerina and pony tails got old for me quickly. The fact I’m an only male surrounded by an overwhelming amount of estrogen and that I’m fairly physical and heavy sometimes hinders my relationship with females. Case in point, my wife refuses to let me practice my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu techniques on her; most of the women in my life simply don’t like aggressive physical contact.
Don’t get me wrong, I love hanging out with my sisters; I laugh more with them than I do with almost anyone else I hang out with but I absolutely cherish my time with my little boy. Adam takes me back to my childhood: aggressive cartoons, comic book characters, action figures, toy guns and jumping off the highest piece of anything I can find. I don’t have to worry about how I handle or behave around him because I’ve been there; he’s me. I’m very close with my son. When I’m home he’s my shadow and my sidekick. We even shower together.
When it comes to Maya, it’s becoming different. When she was three it seemed to be much simpler. She was just this little cute person, but now she’s a little girl. About six months ago I made the decision that I wasn’t going to wash her after she went potty because the last time I did she told me not to wipe so hard, and that’s when it clicked. Suddenly I was shockingly aware of where my hands were and what they were touching. It made me very uncomfortable. I don’t want my little girl to be touched period, but I certainly don’t want to be the person causing any discomfort. In fact, I rarely bathe her now. It saddens me to think about the time when she was very young and I used to change her diaper while I sang Prince’s Raspberry Beret to her.
During this past Memorial Day weekend, as I was on the floor with Maya laying across my chest, as I tickled her I was very conscious of where my hands were. Making sure they didn’t stray higher or lower than her tummy. We were having such a great time but as soon as I became cognizant that I was playing with her differently than with Adam, or when she was younger, I became upset with myself. I shouldn’t be thinking this way, right? After all, she is my daughter; but I can’t help it.
I recently confided with a female friend about how I was feeling with Maya and she immediately gave me a look of confusion and disgust. Not because of my behavior with Maya but because of her experience with her own father. My friend distinctly remembers the time her father became different with her; just about the time she started to develop breasts. All of a sudden he wasn’t hugging her as much, and he stopped rubbing her ear lobe as they sat next to each other. It became different between them and they never seemed to get that bond back.
I had a bitter sweet feeling when my friend told me about her relationship with her father. I felt solace in knowing I’m not the only father to be going through this; but it still felt like the wrong way to go about having a relationship with my daughter. I want that bond with Maya, I want that incredibly strong connection a man can have with his daughter, but for a guy who expresses his love and affection through physicality it’s extremely hard to do. This is what worries me.
I still dress Maya, play Barbies and watch her girl-centric shows on Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel. I probably hug and kiss Maya more than Adam, I tell her I love her countless number of times daily, and I know all this is an attempt to make up for the diminishing lack of physical play with her. I feel like the hugs, kisses and words are a fair compromise and a way of shielding Maya from knowing how awkward I feel at times with her. It would devastate me if she knew I feel weird about playing with her like I do with Adam.
I don’t want Maya to be the woman who once had a great connection with her father but doesn’t have it anymore. So for now, I make the most of my time with her with the small gestures that probably mean more to me than to her, until she grows up and becomes embarrassed by her old man. I want to be the man that sets a very high standard for the man she marries and I know in order for that to happen I have to keep a constant connection with her. And I hope my overall goal of being an excellent father to my little girl will overcome my awkwardness in an evolving relationship with a female I helped create.
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Photo of Loving father and daughter courtesy of Shutterstock