From the first moment I looked into my newborn son’s hazy blue eyes, I knew that I would do anything to protect him. He was so new, so delicate, and though I only had 25 years of my own life experience at the time, I felt in my soul that it was my duty to guide him and keep him safe. I silently promised him then and there that I’d do my best.
Fast forward 17 years and three more sons, and I still feel the same — about all of them. Though I can’t shield my boys from everything, and it’s important that they learn their own lessons — sometimes the hard way — I still feel everything that they feel.
There’s a quote by author Elizabeth Stone that we’ve all heard time and time again, because it so perfectly sums up what parenthood is like: “Making the decision to have a child — it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” And it’s true. What hurts my children hurts me, probably deeper than they’ll ever understand … or at least until they’re parents themselves. Whether they’re slighted by a friend, don’t make the team, or are in the throes of a full-on heartbreak, I feel the sting as acutely as if it were happening to me.
I understand the instinct to protect. I do. But that being said, there’s a tired old cliché that as the mom of sons, I’d really like to address: the threatening, “dad with a shotgun” trope. It’s ridiculous on several levels, as outdated as corsets and pantaloons, and as stale as a month-old loaf of bread.
Let’s use Tom Brady as the most recent example, who posted an Instagram story featuring a photo of a Halloween prop tombstone that read, “Anyone who dates my daughter.” He captioned it, “I want to be crystal clear about this.” Yes, it’s a joke. But it’s just perpetuating an antiquated stereotype of girls and women as property — and the stereotype that “boys only want one thing” — which is not fair to any of these kids.
I’m throwing Tom Brady under the bus here, but the reality is that he’s far from the only dad (famous or not!) who makes these wisecracks. Prom and homecoming photos are posted with the gun-toting dad looming ominously. Memes are made about “whatever you do to my daughter, I do to you” and shared far and wide: in a jokey way, sure, but with a serious underlying theme that harkens back to something that’s actually super-horrifying.
This trope is actually a modern remnant of a long-standing legal practice called “coverture” that dates back to colonial times. I won’t go too far down the rabbit hole here (although it’s definitely worth the research!), but here’s what it means and why it should have died out completely by now: basically, coverture meant that no female had a legal identity — and therefore, zero rights.
“At birth, a female baby was covered by her father’s identity, and then, when she married, by her husband’s. The husband and wife became one — and that one was the husband,” says a fascinating (if appalling) article by the National Women’s History Museum. “Because they did not legally exist, married women could not make contracts or be sued, so they could not own or work in businesses. Married women owned nothing, not even the clothes on their backs. They had no rights to their children, so that if a wife divorced or left a husband, she would not see her children again.”
Oh, but hang onto your brassieres, folks, because it gets worse: “Married women had no rights to their bodies. That meant that not only would a husband have a claim to any wages generated by his wife’s labor or to the fruits of her body (her children), but he also had an absolute right to sexual access. Within marriage, a wife’s consent was implied, so under the law, all sex-related activity, including rape, was legitimate. His total mastery of this fellow human being stopped short, but just short, of death. Of course, a man wasn’t allowed to beat his wife to death, but he could beat her.”
Yeah. Essentially, when a dad threatens his daughter’s potential suitors, even in a lighthearted way (har-har!), he’s sending a message to not only boys, but to his daughter herself: this is my property. Her opinions and autonomy are not important to me. Anything that could change that, I view as a threat.
As the mother of the boys who are going to be taking your daughters out, I would like them to be seen less as some sort of predators out to get their grubby paws on your girl, and more as multifaceted, sentient human beings who — gasp! — actually have thoughts and feelings that go beyond teenage horniness (shocker, I know). I have raised them to treat the women in their lives the way they would want me to be treated. From the time they were tiny, I have imparted lessons of equality, respect, and consent, and tried to break the chains of the pervasive toxic masculinity that tells boys they’re “less than” if they’re sensitive, or heaven forbid, if they shed a tear.
I love my boys in the same way you love your girls: with my whole heart. Like you, I would love nothing more than to always protect them from the crushing blows of rejection, jealousy, betrayal, mistrust, or any of the other feelings that sometimes come up in teen relationship (or any relationships, for that matter). And when they knock on your door, please remember that they are just as vulnerable to being hurt as your little girl.
Look, I love that you love your daughter. A girl’s relationship with her dad is so important, and I completely understand that you want her to know — unequivocally — that you want her to be safe and happy and loved. But the best way to ensure that she’ll look for a partner who treats her with respect is to treat her with respect yourself … and that includes honoring that she’s her own person who can make an independent choice about who she dates. No threats necessary.
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