Once upon a while ago, I wrote a short story that included the completely fictional account of the day a growing girl got her first bra. It was for a book called You’re Dropped, a kind of coming of age collection for kids. This particular story was completely made up, I’m a man, what on earth would I know of bra shopping. And more to the point, what could I understand of the emotional implications of such physical change?
On the day the girl in the book gets her first bra, the dad is told to make sure he doesn’t stuff things up. He decides to make it a ‘special day: a day his beautiful daughter will never forget.’ He did his fatherly best.
Now, as the father of two girls aged 8 and eleven, I can see this and other, incredibly significant days are coming. As a man, I can only try and imagine the correct course of action. As fathers, what are we supposed to do? Are we meant to react, and if so, how? On that first bra-wearing day, do we notice it or not? Do we compliment the attire, with a, “Darling, what a lovely flesh toned strap that is! Boy that looks comfy. Someone’s really growing up – and out, eh?’ Or, as I suspect is the norm, do we follow the FBI method and just ‘deny, deny, deny.’
I would like to think fathers have a role to play in acknowledging the onset of puberty in their daughters, but after a little asking around, I’m not so sure. Simon’s a mate with a happy, well adjusted nineteen year old, so, I asked him. He said he did nothing. ‘It’s got nothing to do with me, anyway,' he said. ‘I taught the boys how to pee straight and shave. Job done. They’ll work the rest out for themselves, I did, and I’m alright.’ He smiled at me. ‘Aren’t I?’
And that seems to be the general blokey vibe. Simon, again. It’s women’s business, mate. And that’s how it should be. We should have women’s business and men’s business. I don’t really want my wife messing about with my teenage son telling him where he can and can’t get rid of his teenage tension – which is normal by the way, boys have got to do it, a lot as I recall - so why would I want to get involved in what’s going on with my daughters?'
Shouldn’t you have the same level of interest in your daughters’ life as you do in your sons? It’s not their sex that should determine your interest, it’s your relationship ...
“Because, they’re your daughters,” I wanted to say. “Shouldn’t you have the same level of interest in your daughters’ life as you do in your sons? It’s not their sex that should determine your interest, it’s your relationship.” But I didn’t say that because it sounded like it’d been ripped from the pages of a How-to-be-politically-correct type pamphlet.
Simon may be right. Maybe it’s not right for a father to pass comment or have excitement or enjoy the physicality of his daughter growing up – all of which is sounding a bit creepy. I mean, if a mother were to say, ‘My God, you should see her, she’s fantastic. She’s sticking out to here. God knows where they came from, she was like an ironing board a month ago,’ other mums might cluck and nod and talk about how great their girls are, too. But if a dad said that…
Of the other regular fathers I’ve spoken to in the name of research, only one or two have mentioned a daughters’ first bra to the daughter. ‘Wouldn’t know where to start, mate,’ is the well-worked reply. And that might be the problem for the dads who’d like to be able to tactfully broach the subject of a growing daughter without turning it into an embarrassing blunder.
Only one woman I spoke to discussed any significant moment or her teenageness with her father, and that was just to piss him off.
George Habib is a Melbourne clinical psychologist who confirmed my suspicions there is no standard way for dads to correctly comment on the way their daughters are changing. It’s not that simple, there are many variables – the history of the relationship between father and daughter being paramount. ‘It’s not really about noticing the bra, but noticing the young woman. Puberty never comes at the right time for girls who are often self-conscious about their changing bodies. It’s either too early, or too late. Most important for fathers is to acknowledge that they can see their daughter is changing, and that their relationship will change also.’
And that may be the nub of it. Just as everyone knew it would, that it had to, the father daughter relationship physically changes. Intellectually we knew our little girls would grow up and out and have boyfriends and first kisses and periods and boobs, but as fathers, emotionally, are we ever ready for it? Not really. We’re reminded of those grandparental words we studiously ignored, ‘Cherish the children, they grow up so fast.'
Somehow, it felt like yesterday I was giving my little angel horsey rides to bed, and soon enough, she’ll not only be looking like her mum, but on the same cycle.
I wondered aloud if my fictional father in that story making a bra cake and singing ‘Happy Bra Day To You’ was a good idea. Mr Habib laughed, kind of. ‘There’s room for humour as an ice-breaker, Andrew. But most important, fathers should be careful of their daughters feelings. It’s often a difficult time.’ He then asked, ‘The father who made the bra cake, what happened afterward?’
‘I made it up,’ I said to George. ‘It was just a story.’
‘That’s good,’ he said. ‘Very good.’