The second rule of fatherhood is that if everyone in the room is laughing, and you don't know what they're laughing about, they are laughing about you. A few months ago when I dropped Tallulah off at school I had that peculiar fatherhood feeling, of having just discovered in a crowded room that my fly was unzipped. From the moment I walked into her classroom, my mere presence seemed to remind her three lady teachers of some impossibly funny joke. They choked back giggles and turned away and pretended to be very busy organizing the dinosaurs in the sandbox and counting the graham crackers in the box. After a couple of days of this I finally asked one of them what was going on, and while she said, "Oh nothing," she meant "you don't want to know." But her smile was indulgent; whatever I had done evidently had caused no offense. I should have just let it drop. Instead, I sent in my wife to investigate.
"They wouldn't tell me exactly what it was," she said, when she'd returned from fetching Tallulah from school. "But it has something to do with something Tallulah said about your …"
"About my what?" I asked.
She looked pained.
"About my what?"
"About your penis."
"That's all you can tell me?"
That evening, as I showered, Tallulah rushed into the bathroom. This in itself wasn't unusual. It's a hobby of hers to open the shower door and spray water all over the bathroom. She likes to watch her naked father wash the soap from his eyes with one hand and prevent a flood with the other. But this time she also had something she wanted to say.
"Daddy has a small penis!" she shouted.
The phrase came a bit too trippingly off her tongue. Clearly, it wasn't the first time she'd said it. I squinted down at her, menacingly, through soap bubbles.
She took it up as a chant.
"Daddy has a small penis!"
"Daddy has a small penis!"
"Daddy has a small penis!"
As the little vixen spun out of control, I considered my options. To protest at all was to protest too much. I was as trapped as an elephant in quicksand or a politician in a gossip column. Anything I did or said in response would only make matters worse. Really, there were only two choices, silence or laughter, and so I laughed—mainly because stoicism is impossible when your 3-year-old daughter is hurling insults more or less directly at your privates. "Ha Ha Ha," I said, with what I hoped sounded like detached amusement. Sure enough, Tallulah instantly lost interest in the whole subject.
Surprisingly quickly, my mere presence ceased to amuse her teachers. My vanity soon recovered, as it always does, and I'd very nearly forgotten all about the incident. But then, last week, as I walked through Tallulah's classroom door, the giggles resumed.
I went straight to my wife.
"Yes, they're all laughing at you," she said. "But it's only because of the way you dress your daughter."
Since Dixie was born three months ago, it has been my job to dress Tallulah. I had heretofore regarded my performance of this duty, and indeed any other duty I happen to perform, as little short of heroic.
"How do they know I dress her?" I asked.
"Because when you were out of town last week, I dressed her. And when she walked into school last week they all said, 'Mama must have dressed you today!' "
"What's wrong with how I dress her?"
"She looks fine when I dress her."
"She looks like a street person."
"Look," I said, pointing to Tallulah's room. "There's a war in there every morning. I do the best I can."
"It's a war because she knows you don't know what you're doing."
You might think that I have would come away from this conversation relieved. It obviously could have been much, much worse. But a similar nerve had been struck, the one that is somehow more fully exposed in the male who must constantly defend his self and habits in a house of females. There was a time not very long ago when I didn't think twice of wearing the same hiking shorts for a week at a stretch, or even once of going a year wearing only the shirts that happened to be stacked on top. This was not sloth; this was not indolence; it was efficiency. A minute more spent dressing than was absolutely required was a minute wasted.
In the three months that her appearance has been my problem I have done my best to instill Tallulah with the same ideals. "Daddy, I'm awake!" she screams at some bleak hour when she is the first in the house to rise. I stumble painfully over the barricades and into her room and throw clothes on her before she has a chance to wake up everyone else too. It's true that I'm not thinking much about what clothes I'm throwing on her, but that's because she's 3 years old.She's not supposed to care how she looks, so long as she does not look wildly dissimilar to every other 3-year-old. Plus, my theory is that so long as she's dressed to get dirty, the way small children are meant to, no one will notice that I haven't the first clue how to do her hair.
But a fact is a fact and I can't deny this one: In the past month or so, Tallulah has become increasingly difficult for me to dress. Every morning for a month the first conversation I've had with her has sounded like this:
"Daddy, I want to wear a party dress."
"It's cold outside. Brrrrrrr! You should wear pants."
"I don't waaaaaaant toooo!"
"But I'm wearing pants!" (Spoken cheerily.)
"No! I hate you!"
With which she collapses howling in the corner of her closet, forehead pressed into the carpet like a Muslim at prayer. It's been an odd experience. Tallulah has throughout this difficult period acquiesced happily to her mother's aesthetic judgment, but the moment I walk into her dressing room she revolts. If it's 45 degrees and foggy, she insists on wearing a skimpy dress. If it's 80 degrees and sunny she demands wool tights. When a day calls for pants and a T-shirt (as every day does, in my view), she calls for her hula dancing costume and hollers until she gets it. By my lights, she is wildly unreasonable. By the lights of the women in her life, her mother and her teachers, she has finally and justifiably decided to resist my incompetence.
I have a tendency to prove, at least to myself, that whatever I happened to do in any given situation was exactly the right thing to have done. (Small penis syndrome, my wife now calls this.) This time, I surrender to a force greater than my opinion and try a new approach.
"I want to wear a party dress."
"Sure! Pick a dress!"
"OK, Daddy! And Daddy, I want to wear mama's lip gloss."
And from there it couldn't have gone more smoothly, except that the party dress hung awkwardly, the lip gloss wound up as face paint, and her hair remained far outside my abilities to cope with. The truth is Tallulah didn't look any better than she did when I muscled her into pants and a T-shirt. The origin of vanity is not the desire to be admired by others but the need to be in charge. The other thing just follows from it.