You guys have your guy thing,” my sister often says, “I’m always out of it.” She means that, in our male-heavy family—four boys and lonely her— the men tend to stick together. Not that there was much choice. My father’s sister also had four boys and one girl. My sister had a boy and a girl, while my oldest brother started fast out of the gate with two boys before propitiating the gods with a girl. It was assumed that, when the rest of us got around to the procreation business, we would keep the home team stocked with talent.
As I watch my 16-month-old daughter toddle around the close spaces of our old house, it’s easy to forget that before she showed up, my image of being a father had always involved a boy. Now I cannot imagine it. I wouldn’t trade her for a battalion of stomping sons.
Not long before her birth, I heard that my younger brother’s wife was pregnant—with a girl. “Two girls in a row,” my sister said. She didn’t figure this. A few months after that little girl arrived, another brother told me his news. You guessed it: wife pregnant. You guessed again: a girl. Now my parents have more female grandchildren than male, and every member of the men’s club will spend the rest of his days raising girls.
“It’s a great time to have girls,” I heard often after my daughter’s birth. “Look at all the changes in society.” That’s true. We’ve all lived through a social revolution perhaps more transformative than the civil rights movement. Career choices for women, women outpacing men on many educational measures, women in sports and business and medicine and politics, women mixing it up with men on the Sunday talk shows. If it weren’t for the Democratic Party’s weird primary system, we’d have a woman president. Of course, the new opportunities come with challenges. It’s more complicated raising girls than in earlier times, when certain expectations tended to bound the limits of aspiration and propriety. With Girls Gone Wild, reality TV, college spring break culture, and the remorseless pornification of everyday life, fathers like me won’t have trouble finding things to worry about. And I’ll have to be civil to the boys and men she brings home while searching their souls for shallowness and corruption (okay, that problem is timeless).
But consider the boys’ plight. It’s pretty much the girls’ in reverse. The cultural assumptions have not been capsized entirely; in fact, expectations of male behavior, even chivalry, are perhaps stronger than ever for being so contingent and concealed. Still, few would say it’s a “great time to be a boy.” Schools have long tilted curricula toward more feminine pursuits; the merest playground scuffle invokes disciplinary action and even the threat of expulsion; and the culture often characterizes men as either “wimps or barbarians,” as Terrence O. Moore put it a few years ago (he forgot flat-out idiots). In the black community, boys are the very embodiment of “at risk,” with a 70 percent illegitimacy rate and fatherlessness a deadly, if quiet, assault, killing less like a bombing raid than a nuclear winter. Some are hopeful that President Obama can make headway on that problem. He’s spoken to black audiences on the importance of fatherhood, and by all indications he’s a good exemplar. But then, he’s also created a superfluous White House Council on Women and Girls. Of course, he has daughters, too, as did his two predecessors.
Everywhere I look these days, I see daughters. Just the past week, a friend e-mailed to tell me that his wife was pregnant with their first child—a girl, of course. “After a second’s disappointment, I am perhaps more excited now than if it were a boy,” he wrote. Given what I know about these things, it was likely longer than a second, but he’ll understand soon enough the joy of daughters.
“Besides,” I told him, “look on the bright side: Now we won’t have to teach boys how to be men.” He laughed, but I probably wasn’t joking.