(An earlier version was published in the Washington Post on Father’s Day 2006)
It is fair to say that at some point in life, every guy has visions of himself as a father — most likely playing ball with his son or passing on some male bonding lore.
Movies and TV glorify the simplicity and significance of the father-son relationship. Don Vito and Michael Corleone, Mr. C and Richie Cunningham, Darth Vader and Luke, Marlin and Nemo.
So, naturally we always pictured ourselves with boys, rough-housing as good dads, teaching them about sports, like we’re supposed to, and reliving our glory days, which mercifully, can’t be verified by a 7-year-old.
Then, after years of daydreaming about guiding our young sons, we found ourselves washing pink laundry. No, it does not mean we are so incompetent as to drop a red sock in with the whites. It means we have young girls whose unique wardrobes require a separate load of laundry, the pinkness of which we never previously fathomed.
Pink laundry is, in part, a reflection of our age. Let’s consider laundry as a metaphor for stages of the male life. When we were young and blissfully ignorant, our parents did the wash and we had no idea how, nor did we care, as long as it didn’t deter us from playing football in the backyard.
Then we arrived at college, which is when young men are given their first hint of decision-making power. We embraced this freedom by stuffing 30 pounds of random items, mostly clothing, into a 15-pound washer and setting it on “warm.”
We emerged from the experimentation of college with our new diploma-proven skills needed for adulthood, and we used these skills to master two distinct categories of laundry: whites and colors.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, we were married. This stage was accompanied by a brief and sadly failed attempt to get out of doing the laundry, because we “couldn’t figure out how to do it.” Then, with little girls running the halls of our houses, we finally arrived at the pink laundry stage. We were at the pinnacle of laundry knowledge.
With this knowledge, and the increased responsibility that went with it, we surprised ourselves with a new sense of jealousy as we observed the younger and far trendier people walking the streets in their wardrobe colors that varied between dark grays and black. Wow, their laundry must be a snap to do.
Pink laundry became a symbol of our surrender to the slowly rising tide of femininity in our homes and in our lives. This tide started coming in during the wedding ceremony, and it hasn’t ebbed yet.
Gone were the days of cinder block shelves, (used) milk carton cabinets, and 90% of the furniture budget spent on the TV. We found ourselves thrilled to have little girls, in a way that we never imagined. We didn’t play cops and robbers, because we were playing Cinderella. Our daughters lost their glass slippers at least a thousand times each, but it was still always a thrill when the Prince/Daddy tried it on her foot.
We always figured we would be teaching our sons to hate the Dallas Cowboys or arguing over whether any modern baseball player could have ever stacked up against Babe Ruth. Instead, we discovered we were experts at comparing and contrasting Snow White, Belle, Ariel, Pocahontas and Sleeping Beauty.
We pictured our fatherly role as teaching our sons about power tools in our wood shops (which really only ever existed in our minds), rather than learning the 17 distinct color shades between pink and purple. Instead of the age-old guy activity of taking things apart, we found ourselves putting together matching outfits for stuffed bears, an activity we still don’t understand, but thoroughly enjoyed.
Now, of course we realize that our precious girls will be just as able as any boy to throw a perfect spiral, memorize the lines from Fletch and even assemble a carburetor. It is just that at that particular window of time, they were in a girly-girl phase — much to the dismay of their high-achieving mothers. So — it was all things frilly. That much idealized game of catch would have to wait.
We learned the advantages of having daughters. A daughter runs in the room and gives daddy a hug and tells him she loves him. A son runs in and punches him in the stomach (and then breaks a lamp, just for good measure).
We are not bothered by the lack of media attention for the father-daughter relationship, but we still wonder why all the focus appears to be on other familial bonds. Anakin Skywalker starts toward the Dark Side, because of the loss of his mother.
And father-son themes are everywhere, but other than in Rogue 1, there are not any meaningful father-daughter story lines even attempted in any of the 10 (TEN!) Stars Wars movies made to date. If Leia had been a daddy’s girl, perhaps the Death Star would not have needed to be blown up. Twice. (Star Wars nerd acknowledgement: She did have a wonderful relationship with her adopted father, who was in the Galactic Senate.)
Have you noticed that you never see dads and daughters on Maury, talking about their ridiculous problems? It’s always moms trying to send their sons off to boot camp. Mommy Dearest’s daughter wrote about wire coat hangers, not her son. Is this a coincidence? We don’t think so. Maybe dad and daughter are just too boring with their healthy, loving relationship.
At the end of the day, we are OK with all of this. We don’t want or need the attention for the beauty of the bonds with our daughters. And we’ll continue to let the mommies hog the parenting spotlight. All a mother has to do is tell a childbirth story without an iota of exaggeration, and every man in the room becomes instantly silent.
The measure of the importance of the mother-child bond can’t be overstated, and we won’t even try to enter this sacred area. The secret true miracle of birth, however, is that a father can conceive a second child after the first one kicks him in the groin so many times.
Now at ages 11-19, our daughters are growing more independent every day, and have fully embraced the idea that they know much more than their out-of-touch fathers ever knew. Our greatest defense to eye-rolls and cell phone obsessions is the knowledge that, deep inside them still lives our once angst-less daughters, purely loving from their Pink Laundry stage.
So, when you see a dad out and about with his little girl, give him a subtle nod of affirmation, letting him know that he is playing an important role in our society. A role that is underrated and underreported by the media, and that college-age guys won’t even admit is possible.
Know that he is reveling in the quiet glory of pink laundry, perfectly content that his daddy’s girl loves him.
Tom Downey is a regulatory attorney in Denver. Mark Colonna is an engineer working in Northern Virginia. They have three and two daughters, respectively.