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The evolution of the dad hat

There was a time in the life of Schuyler when being her parent advocate was pretty straightforward. Protecting a different little seven year-old girl from the toothy monsters of the world is full-time and fraught with anxiety, but it’s also not all that complicated. Teach my kid, teachers. Treat my daughter with respect, doctors. Don’t make fun of my little girl because she’s different, society. Don’t bite her face off, random big dog.

In a few weeks, that same little girl turns seventeen. And advocating for her has become complicated in ways that I hadn’t really thought about beforehand.

The world of a teenaged girl with a disability is complex, in ways that aren’t cute or sitcom-ready. We’ve discussed many times how dangerous the world is for women with disabilities, and how vulnerable they are to sexual abuse and assault. It’s terrifying as a father; it’s more terrifying for a young woman with a disability, and Schuyler is old enough to understand what’s going on now, and what’s at stake. Ten years ago, she was worried about werewolves. That’s not what’s waiting for her now, though.

As her father, some impulses don’t change, certainly not easily. She’s my little girl, even though she really isn’t, and it’s my job to protect her from the hazards of the world, even though it isn’t. So much of my job as a father now has changed. It’s not about standing in front of her to shield her. Increasingly, my job these days is to teach her to advocate for herself, and to understand that the world isn’t made of good people who look good and bad people who look bad. Some of the good people look different, and deserve patience and understanding. And some of the bad people only reveal themselves after they’ve built some trust. Predators don’t always look like wolves, and she’s got to be able to recognize them on her own, as best as she can.

Most of all, there are very few people in the world who are outright good or bad, which may be the most difficult lesson for her to process. She’s been getting some unwanted attention, including nonconsensual physical contact, from a young man who himself has a disability, one that makes it hard for him to understand boundaries or the concept of mutual consent, and also makes it difficult for him to process his frustration. It’s been tough, and it’s being addressed by her school, but the reality of the situation is that it has fallen on Schuyler to stand her ground and decline his advances. She’s done really well, and we’ve had a number of conversations about which situations she owns (her autonomy and her level of comfort with a situation) and which ones she doesn’t (his impulses and wants, and the emotions he’s trying to process). She’s learning an important real-world lesson that is going to be crucial for her in the future.

For me, it has been an exercise in balancing my dad hat and my advocate hat. The dad hat wins, because it must. But the advocate hat teaches, and in doing so, it makes me a better father, and advocate, and human being and citizen of the world. Most of all, it empowers me to empower Schuyler, which is mostly what being her father is all about now.

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  1. December 1, 2016 |