As The Daily Mail puts it with typical understatement, "A dying mother gave her husband a 'masterclass in motherhood' to help him bring up their two young children alone." Obviously, she hired a professional hairdresser to teach French-braiding.
When 29-year-old Jemma Oliver found that her cervical cancer had gone terminal, she, as the Mail puts it, "trained" husband Jason "to master all the tasks she had done for Keaton, four, and Codi, two." In addition to more personal remembrances, like cards for each birthday, she left a blueprint for her husband: explicit instructions about schooling, her wishes about their behavior. and directions on buying clothes for the children (bring an aunt.) And of course there was her daughter's hair. Apparently Jemma told Jason, "I can't have my girl looking scruffy. No bumps in her hair please!"
This is not an uncommon concern; single fathers' sites are filled with articles titled "Handling Hair" and "
"Taking Care of Your Daughter's Hair." I have heard single dads talk about the challenge of learning to fix a girl's hair to her - and her late mother's satisfaction. Clearly it's some kind of litmus test. In a recent "Modern Love" essay, "Raising a Princess Single-Handedly," a single father talks about the challenges of learning to understand his young daughter's love of femininity, grooming and all things girly. "I'm a father who makes bumbling attempts at motherly things," says the author.
A mother need not be gone for us to be touched by these stories: when an article made the rounds last year about a white Emory professor taking over the braiding of the hair of his adopted Ethiopian daughter, everyone melted. And it was lovely: this father's actions demonstrated not just devotion and love and a willingness to go outside his normal sphere of activity, but a respect for his daughter's heritage and an attempt to live multiculturally in a real way. But I wonder why we are as touched as we are by these stories - for, much as we might admire a mother who taught her sons "fatherly" things, it surely wouldn't summon the same pathos these stories inevitably do.
Is it simply lower expectations? Is it the sense that men are fundamentally unsuited to these small acts of feminine domesticity? Part of it, I think, is that these fathers are adjusting their priorities, trying to understand that things like hair are important, not merely to the outer world but to a sense of self. In this regard, it's not merely taking up an unfamiliar skill, but an exercise in empathy which I think we find immensely appealing. The funny thing is, these stories are so touching because they depend on men overturning stereotypes. "Awww!" we think. But, without taking anything away from the courage and accomplishment of any father who's raised children alone, what if these stereotypes didn't exist? Maybe the stories wouldn't have as much human interest - but I'm guessing the actual dads' lives would be a lot easier.