Fathers and daughters

January 2018

I was with my wife when she gave birth to our first child, Joy. I held our baby in my arms and watched her tiny face and felt serenity and calm, rather than the excitement that I had originally expected. She wasn’t bawling as depicted in the movies, but looked so very contented as she lay in my arms. It’s funny how you are so careful holding a baby, making sure she doesn’t fall by cradling her ever so snugly, when she is so light you could hold her between your thumb and finger. As I put her in a bath of warm water, I could almost feel her relaxing and thinking that coming into this world wasn’t so bad at all. She was a beautiful baby.

Robyn was born two and a half years later in a different hospital (we had moved by then). The first thought that came to my mind when I held her was: she looked exactly like her sister! Robyn as a newborn was an exact replica of Joy. And like her sister, she was a calm baby, not the type that yell for dear life as soon as she takes her first breath. This time, however, my wife and I were a lot more ready and prepared, or so we thought. I don’t remember us going through the routine we had planned to do because, like all battle plans, it went out the window once the “fighting” started. But we had our second beautiful baby.

I was stationed in Washington DC when my wife was pregnant with our third child. Alison was born nine years after Robyn in a hospital in Maryland in the middle of winter. It was cold and there was snow everywhere. She was delivered by caesarean because the doctor couldn’t turn her from the feet-first position. Alison didn’t look like her sisters (as I had thought she would, after experiencing Robyn’s birth), but she was also a beautiful baby, even more beautiful than her sisters, I thought. I had a photograph of myself at 6 months and I thought she looked like the baby in that picture (Alison doesn’t think that’s a compliment, though). Well, my mother thought I was the most beautiful baby she had ever seen.

When Joy and Robyn were toddlers, I had this odd thought – I have two beautiful daughters (Alison was still an egg in her mother) who give me such happiness, but what is life going to be like when they become teenagers? Watching American movies showing teenage girls with varying degrees of destructive behaviours didn’t help to alleviate my anxiety. I believe all fathers of girls suffer the same fear; perhaps we are reminded of own interests in girls when we were teenagers. Times and mores have changed, and what is unacceptable behaviour yesterday may very well be mainstream today. But how does a father feel when someone who is never going to be good enough for his daughter takes her from him? How does a father feel when his little angel has suddenly become a woman and about to leave his nest?

It’s a common belief that fathers have a special relationship with their daughters, much like that between mothers and sons. I had only ever used a cane on my girls once. Joy and Robyn were of pre-school age and playful. I remember them playing instead of taking their baths and getting ready for bed despite being told several times to head for the bathroom. I took the cane and smack them both on the back of the legs. I didn’t hit them very hard, but it was painful enough for them to be shocked by it as I’d never beaten them before. I could see tears welling up in their eyes, silently saying, “Daddy, how could you?” That really hurt, I mean for me. I didn’t think I could ever do that again. I am just so thankful that my girls never gave me a reason to discipline them with a cane ever again.

One other time I’d raised my voice in anger at one of my girls was one I’ve come to regret very much. Alison was unlike Joy or Robyn and she had difficulty coping with her school work. She had a problem I didn’t understand at the time. While coaching her in math in primary school I would often yell at her accusing her of not paying attention, of being lazy and so on. Tears would sometimes run down her cheeks and I had to step away to cool down before trying to resume the lesson. Actually, apart from solving math problems, I was not helping her at all. My beautiful daughter had a problem and all I was doing was making it worse. She is a young lady now and I can only hope she has forgiven me for being such an ass during math lessons. If it’s any consolation to her, and to me, she passed her tests.

On one of my birthdays several years ago, they decided to each write something about me. They recalled personal anecdotes they had experienced that affected their lives, all positive, of course. The things I said, the decisions I made, things which changed their lives or made them look at things in a certain way. Joy wrote about how I made her feel safe and secure by the way I reacted when her high school complained about her scores in Chinese language; and how I gave her the confidence to study overseas when she was having doubts by what I said. Robyn wrote about an incident when she was a toddler and nearly drown (she wasn’t really, but she thought she was) and the way I taught her to ride a bicycle, and how both events made her confident of her own abilities; and how appreciative she was with the freedom and encouragement I gave her to pursue less trodden paths at university. Alison was not much into writing so I didn’t press her less I got a nasty review instead. These were things I don’t even remember saying or doing, but my children kept them in their hearts. It was the best birthday present I’ve ever had!

Some people, when they learned that I have three daughters, would ask “So, when are you having another one?” What they meant was when was I going to have a son. The thinking of the Chinese was that a son was necessary to carry on the family name, and in old farming communities sons were useful to work the fields. Now, the irony is that for the Chinese, family names are common; hundreds of thousands of people share the same family name. And most people don’t live off the land these days. But traditions die hard. Even my daughters have asked me if I sometimes wish I had a son, someone to go golfing or hiking with. I really have not thought about having a son. I don’t see having one improving my life or giving me any more joy or satisfaction. It wasn’t, and isn’t, a factor at all. I think I would have been equally happy if I had a son, or three sons. I guess what I am saying is that the gender of my children made no difference whatsoever in my joy as a father, and I wouldn’t change my three daughters for anything in the world.

I’m pretty sure all fathers feel the same way about their daughters. When the time comes you know you have to let them go, but it’s so hard.