As a father of girls, I find my love for them almost inexpressible.

When I recently had occasion to meet Tom, an old acquaintance who had in tow his five-year-old daughter, I remarked on the profound tenderness a father experiences toward a daughter. I have five daughters, three of whom started life in other families before settling in to become my children before the start of their teen years, and Tom and I each have a son as well. Tom recalled how, as a boy, he used to chide his father, who treated his sister differently. His father merely answered, “When you have a daughter of your own, you’ll understand.” Now Tom understands. I do too.

Now my daughters are grown women in their late teens and twenties. I don’t have grandchildren yet, but I can see already that it won’t be the same.
[2013 update: Now my daughters, all but one, are in their thirties and I have one biological grandchild at last -- a girl.] The experience of raising daughters, though, qualifies me to make a few observations about the women in a man’s – this man’s – life. I am thinking globally and historically, not just in the USA of the present where certain factions, who deny history and who forget that the rest of the world is not politically correctable, will have their sensitivities offended by statements made below.

The women in a man’s life fit more o’er less under the headings:
Mother – Relatives and acquaintances – Sisters – Young friends – Interesting but unavailable females – Girlfriends – Wife – Mature friends – Daughters – Granddaughters – All other women. These groupings are listed in roughly chronological order, that is, as they occur in a man’s experience, and a woman may either cross from one category to another (girlfriend to wife) or may span two at the same time (foster child and friend).

First among women, of course, is your
Mother. Except that she may breastfeed you and her gender matters for that reason, it’s otherwise insignificant that she is a woman, for she is everything. There is no one else, man or woman, for the earliest months. As you grow and discover the functional differences between the genders, you begin to understand that, as all-powerful as she was in your infancy, she is nevertheless a vulnerable individual. A son is wise to recognize his mother’s vulnerability and to grow protective of her. A culture is natural that fosters this responsibility in its sons.

Unless unfortunate circumstances have taken a mother away, then under the heading,
Mother, there is for most of us only one.

Early in a man’s childhood he begins to notice other women, the
Relatives and acquaintances. They are generally easy to differentiate from the men, and so begin to form a category unto themselves. These women include relatives, neighbors, and others with some influence on the household either by their continual proximity or regular intrusion. I gradually came to recognize that these too were somebody’s mothers, but I recall being repulsed by their sometimes garish faces, their odors, their cold hands on my cheeks, even their piercing voices, and either their bony hardness or squishy fatness when they forced a hug. If their cooking was involved, I more often found it unappetizing. By the time I was ten or so, I was finally somewhat in charge of their influence on me and by then I could be selective about who could touch me and whose food I would eat.

This heading can have an untold number of women, and for a man’s normal development, he ought to be exposed to as many as possible.

A man is very fortunate if, while he is still very young, he has
Sisters, one close one or even two. I had four, ranging from a year and a half younger to fourteen years younger than I. A little sister fills a lot of roles. She becomes a companion and a confidant, a rival and a snitch. She practices her nurturing skills on you and, in time, her bossing skills. She bathes with you, so you each discover the physiological differences between your bodies. Immodestly exposed as she often is as a child, she doesn’t hold much physical fascination for you, though. I recall a sing-song expression I used to describe each of my first two sisters that was a hurtful description of her undraped appearance. They returned the favor by assuring that I never had anything I could call my own for very long.

By the time the oldest three of us were in double digits, say 10, 12, and I at 13, we had begun to replace bickering and petty jealousy with guarded cooperation. While I was amused at their amateur attempts to pretty themselves and to dress and adorn themselves as girls of the ‘sixties, I was cautious about ridiculing their attempts, because I was acutely self-conscious myself and hoped not to earn their scorn. As I began to see my sisters as future women, I also became progressively protective. And I began to see some of their friends as future women.

At about the same time a man is learning about sisters, there may be a concurrent group of girls. For me there were a few
Young friends who had some early influence on my perspective of women. Way before the hormones kicked in I was nevertheless aware, however faintly, of a certain charm in them. There was a cousin with whom I occasionally shared a bedroom. There was a neighbor girl my age, about five, who sat on my chest and pummeled my shoulders and ears (while her skirt took a hike). A more distant cousin and I met at a wedding – I might have been eight – and I remember being intrigued by her bare calves framed between frilly socks and a frilly dress. We agreed we were bored by the reception so we went around the back of the church and sat in a cool, shady alcove, waiting to be recalled by worried parents. We were never missed. Whatever small talk we exchanged never stayed with me, and I never learned her name. It is significant in that it was an interlude of immediate total acceptance by a pretty girl who was a total stranger. I wonder even now whether she remembers it.

Young friends are usually found at school, though, and when I was in the early grades your friends were chosen for you by those who assumed the duty of “choosing up,” kind of like choosing up teams for sandlot baseball, (where I was never a first-round pick). In each grade, up to about fourth, I recall a girl or two who crossed the boy-girl barrier and made friends with me. In fourth, in fact, where I was a new kid in school, there were two girls, best friends, who chased me around the playground while I successfully eluded them day after day. One had a very pretty nose, very like my wife’s. In fifth grade, a girl with a cute lisp didn’t bother to chase me, so I didn’t flee. Instead she simply grabbed me by the ear and dragged me hither and thither, to my insincere protests.

By the end of fifth grade, a girl who truly crossed the barrier (the one that said my friends all had to be boys) stirred something else in me that I could neither identify clearly nor act upon. I walked her home from school, and she said “Nyang-nyang,” as if it had a magical meaning. She was into alternate fashions and was a hippie precursor in the spring of 1962. By sixth grade, my ability to have a non-hormonal friendship with a girl was almost gone. We banded into small boy-only and girl-only groups and bantered, learned new words, and regarded one another with widening pupils and reddening faces. I was getting ready to think in terms of boyfriend-girlfriend, although I would spend from sixth through tenth grade without so much as a girl whom I could walk home from school – that is, whom I wanted to walk home from school and who also wanted me to. I occasionally learned of one or another who would welcome it, but I had a different idea, and ideal.

Before there are girlfriends, there is another group of women in a young man’s life –
Interesting but unavailable females. Even though you’ve lived with sisters for ten years or more and have seen everything, you still discover a fascination with interesting-looking women. It’s just the hormone thing of puberty, but it justifies a separate category of women in a man’s life and includes the imaginary perfect woman.

She can be a different woman every day. She can be a child modeling girl’s clothing in a catalog. She can be a relative or a neighbor or a friend. She can be someone you’ve played with for years and never given a thought to until one day you see an incredibly pretty face and wonder how it suddenly appeared on the girl that you used to stuff into a wastebasket and roll down the bank in the front yard while she cried for mercy. Interesting-looking women can also include someone on television, a teacher, a friend’s older sister, or even a friend’s young mother. She can also be a composite, and as you become aware of the different things you like about girls, a composite can assume features from many others – the voice of one, the fragrance of another, the legs of that one, the eyes of a certain actress, and on it goes.

It’s my observation that boys I knew who didn’t have sisters near in age had a much harder time dealing with interesting-looking and imaginary women. Their banter and boasting was much more crude than I wanted to hear, much less repeat. Anything in skirts fascinated them. Some tried to become my friend and then confided to me all their horrible fantasies about my sisters. Boys who were blessed with sisters near in age seemed much more gently disposed toward interesting-looking women and had more precisely refined the imaginary perfect woman.

When a young friend or complete stranger, as sometimes occurs, becomes the first girlfriend, a boy discovers a new category of women. It can occur instantaneously – inasmuch as a girl newly-met may pass briefly through the category of interesting-looking women – or it can be a gradual transformation of a childhood friendship. The corral of interesting but unavailable females may remain well-populated for a while longer, but the new category,
Girlfriends, adds new dimension – new physical dimension involving all the senses, but also new social dimension. For the first time, perhaps, there is a woman, albeit a teenager, for whom the boy can’t do enough. He is compelled by new forces to strive to do anything that he thinks will please her. He’s often too dumb (and dumbstruck) to ask what it is that will please her, and so the tragi-comic bumbling would-be boyfriend is brought to life. If he’s confident and calm about it, or if it’s a long-standing friendship gone romantic, he may handle it adroitly. If he’s self-conscious and nervous and terrified of losing the girl’s affection, he will make a splendid fool of himself. It won’t occur to him that the girl is probably remarkably disposed to forgive a long string of mistakes. It won’t occur to him that she may feel as nervous and clumsy as he. He is chiefly blinded by the beauty of each long strand of hair on her head and each glistening pore on her nose. For a time, she won’t notice his clumsiness, and he will never see hers.

A girl may become a girlfriend by consent, or she may be someone close at hand who is a girlfriend only in his eyes. Nevertheless, she fits the category. She is real and requires an effort of social engagement and may provide a measure of physical engagement as well. She is no longer imaginary. A boy who has constructed an unrealistically perfect image of the ideal woman will be slower to accept a real girl, warts and all. A boy with very low self-esteem over real or imagined deficiencies in his appearance or prowess may dwell for a much longer time on the interesting but unavailable women who populate that group for him, and the first live girl who treats him kindly may become, for him, the only member of the girlfriend category. If he is lonely and disposed to expose his heart but also astute, he should act on the opportunity.

A woman must almost certainly pass through the girlfriend classification before becoming a
Wife. Where arranged marriages still occur there could be an exception. A woman who dismisses marriage and favors co-habitation, a largely-American phenomenon, still fills the function of wife in the classification of the women in a man’s life. The sacramental union, though, has the greater potential for depth, love, and longevity – just my opinion.

It is necessary to acknowledge now that these groupings of women – leading to the special place of daughters – are poorly defined for many men. There are those who, like some boys who wanted to use me to reach my sisters, are fixated on copulation and nothing else, perhaps forever. It seems that at least one guy out of two with whom I was acquainted in the Army had no higher ambition from day to day than to find a woman who would copulate with him before day’s end. While I was one who had made the study and worship of women a hobby, men I’ve known ever since I was young, who were fluent in derogatory descriptions of the female anatomy, seemed also to have no respect or reverence for women in any category, including their mothers. All women fell into one pit for them: Whores, basically.

Therefore, what becomes of a relationship when a girlfriend crosses over and becomes a wife, is probably highly subject to a man’s recognition of the distinct groups of women in his life and his sense of responsibility to each.

A wife is a little bit of everything that a man has experienced before, and yet so much more. No, she is not his mother, but she voluntarily takes over some of the tasks managed by his mother when he was a child. As well as he might know her before they begin living together, she forever represents a little of the puzzling array of relatives and other women he knew from the time he was young. She baffles him with some of her habits and emotions. A man who bonded with a sister in the intimacy of childhood will not hesitate to bond readily with his wife in the intimacy of marriage. A wife becomes a best friend and confidant, a comfort in times of tears, and a truthful critic in times of over-confidence. A wife is also the ultimate, permanent girlfriend and sole, life-long partner in sex, and should dispel the specters of all the interesting-looking but unavailable and imaginary women of a man’s immaturity.

A man with a secure marriage is able to have
Mature friends among other women. It’s preferable that the other women also have secure marriages, but not entirely necessary. A married man who shows an unmarried woman that he respects her and, more importantly, his wife, can establish a unique friendship. A man is fortunate who is friends with his wife, and blessed who is best friends with his wife.

What, then, of love? From the time a boy first stumbles about trying to please a girl who has charmed him, he is in love. Ultimately his wife and best friend, his partner in intimacy is also, let us hope, his partner in love. After the thrill of romance has etched her name onto his heart, it lies in embers, as the poets have aptly noted, ready to dance back into flame at the touch of her breath, at a certain word carried on her voice, at the meeting of eyes and smiles. All this is contained in that one person who fills the role of wife.

And more. So much more that new dimensions of love and passion are opened in a man when his wife gives birth. People – actual humans with individuality and the capacity to love – are brought into existence as a result of the specific “effort” of a man and his wife. Her role in carrying and bearing babies is a source of wonderment to him, as is the realization that each child is half him, half her.

When a baby, born of his wife and soon afterward bundled into his arms, is a
Daughter, though, a man has no basis in experience or preparation to comprehend what he holds and beholds. He cradles a woman for whose very existence he is responsible. This is a new category of women, and one which, after the perfection that can be found in a wife has been realized, is too much to believe. Too good, too awe-inspiring, too far beyond perfect. After all the confusion about sisters and young friends and girlfriends and imaginary women and whether he would ever be loved, he now holds a child with whom the word intimacy is an understatement, from whom love will pour in his direction until he drowns in it in giddy delight, whose little girl trust will seal a bond with him that has no equal this side of heaven. He will marvel at her infant nakedness and her little-girl indifference to it, at the touching she seeks, needs, tolerates, insists upon, and returns. He will crave it and simultaneously recoil from it. At the same time she will scare him to the core for her vulnerability, both as he sees it before him and as he imagines it through the years. She is her mother’s, and yet she is his. She is his and she is not. She is herself and she is someone else’s.

If a man is blessed with foster daughters, as I have also been, then his experience as a dad has even more dimensions, responsibilities, and rewards. Here I must stress that the rewards can come many years later, and unexpectedly, but that is too much to address here. (See
On Being A Foster Parent.)

There is no more confusing person to a man than a
Daughter. And there is no more delightful confusion than that brought on by a daughter’s love. His wife loves him, but she knows his limits and his weaknesses. They’ve had their trying moments, to be sure, and a wife is vigilant, lest he backslide or lose his spine somehow. But a daughter will love her father like no other woman has loved him yet, with complete trust in his care, with complete confidence in his skill and prowess, with utter disregard for any of his shortcomings, and with complete disregard for social proprieties. Any sensible man recognizes that he doesn’t deserve such unreserved love. And any prudent man wistfully lets the child decide when modesty and circumspection have become guiding principles.

A son loves his father as completely, but it is impossible for a man to dismiss the gender thing. When he saw his sisters growing up, he missed so much because his perspective was according to his age. When he sees his daughters growing up, he has the perspective of the man who barely knew what was happening in the family of his own childhood, who may lament that he missed his wife’s babyhood and her little-girl girlishness, and who more likely wishes he’d seen her teenage blossoming and awkwardness. With a daughter, he sees it all unfold before him as the precious few short years rush by and he makes a space as wide as his whole being for the tenderness he feels for the baby-girl-becoming-woman. For it is the girl in her that is the ultimate fascination.

It was the girl in every scene of his life that was the ultimate fascination from the beginning.

I can’t predict what it will be like to have
Granddaughters. It may be a reprise of having daughters, but the “ownership” is another father’s now. That can’t be begrudged or taken from him. So a new group of women may await me. But it already feels as though I’ve had all the joy that can be sent from heaven. It can’t get any better than it already is.

I am left to classify one more category of women who may enter a man’s life. So far I’ve been substitute father, and longest-lasting father, to three foster daughters at three different times and stages of their lives, each lasting from one to five years. Where the relationships between a man and his wife or a man and his daughters is safe and almost-certainly rewarding, the relationship between a man and his foster daughters is fraught with challenges and hazards. Rewarding it can be, but not assuredly.

A different kind of tenderness arises, for these girls have effectively become orphans. A different kind of caution is called for, too. They are justifiably suspicious of men. Some, although not those I’ve “parented,” attempt to seduce. They let a man offer his heart, eye it curiously, and then flick it to the floor and stomp on it, laughing. Another time they collapse against your chest in absolute pain, confusion, and tears. I don’t know where to place them, quite. But maybe it’s not that difficult. I feel a responsibility toward
All other women of the world, and perhaps these foster daughters are members of that group, briefly entrusted to me for shelter, safety, and guidance. For of those whom I’ve tried to nurture and who have left, none has permanently counted me as her father. As close as they’ve come, then, to being in the family, they’re more accurately members of that larger group. They haven’t been mine, either in my imagination or in theirs. They’ve stopped at our house for a relatively long period, and they’ve moved on. Travelers caught in a blizzard. Unwitting tent mates for a time. Assigned and then returned to the larger world whence they came. I suspect that one or two will, in one fashion or another, come back around as adults and allow a mature friendship to resume where childhood left off. But that's about the best I can hope for.

And there you have it, Tom. For a man who worried, as a youth, whether he’d ever hold a woman in his arms in an embrace of true love, (true love, which has proven to have so many meanings), I have known it all. God has spoken to me once, clearly, in my lifetime and other times less distinctly. I wish now only that he had spoken to me once in my youth and had assured me even a hint of what was to come. Then, again, I probably wouldn’t have believed it.