When your older siblings are a little more than a year apart from you, it is natural to question what motivated your conception. When I asked my parents why they had a third child, I expected a customary, sentimental answer. Something like, "We loved the twins so much we wanted a third child." Some shit like that. I wasn’t expecting them to say they tried for a boy and having failed, stopped trying to have more children. As the third daughter of a former weightlifter, I’ve felt my sex has always been a bit of a disappointment. My parents wanted a Jack. They got a Jacqueline.
My father sells weightlifting equipment as one facet of his multi-platform company, which also includes sports science and journalism. We, along with my sisters and occasionally my mother, travel internationally often to competitions where he gathers data for his articles and books. Every once in a while he’ll write a scathing editorial about the girth of women’s weightlifting bars or the steroid use that rocks the small, eclectic world his writing caters to. Much of my childhood was spent at competitions, or playing Game Boy in his truck while he used a forklift to load it with platform mats.
This semester I wrote about my relationship with my father for an essay course. I didn’t realize then how much my gender role would factor into our story.
For my sisters and I, appearing distinctly feminine was not a concern in our youth. I was more rough and tumble than my siblings. I played in the dirt. I climbed trees with apples in the pockets of my overalls. I grew up as Huckleberry Finn, not Mary Jane Wilks. I thought my dad liked me better that way.
When my father wanted help loading barbells into his truck, he would roll up his sleeves and say, “Let’s get to work, men.” I’ve always been more comfortable being called “dude” or “man” than “honey” or “sweetheart.” I wanted to be just like my dad, but felt my sex became a barrier between the two of us.
In high school my father wrestled and played baseball. He was into weightlifting too. I was an editor for my high school’s literary magazine and wore a lot of black. I ran track but was so terrible he once wore a paper bag on his head during one of my meets. I quit the team and took a drama class instead. I couldn’t keep up with what I believed would help our relationship — I couldn’t be the child he wanted.
My sister started weightlifting in high school, and the family dynamics shifted. She became the “athlete,” and our sister and I became chopped liver. She was closer to him than I ever could be. When we traveled to competitions, he would be back in the training hall with her, and I’d be stuck behind a video camera flipping through a Cosmo and feeling utterly invisible. When his last book came out, some of the photos I’d taken made it in, but he falsely credited my sister. He probably mixed up our names — easily done, as they all rhyme — but it burned me in the worst way.
I don’t remember exactly when I realized my dad didn’t care about my sex, but I think it was around the time I discovered writing. I dabbled in high school, but in community college I was the editor in chief of our paper. He thought it was ridiculous and small-town, and mocked the articles I wrote and edited. But he always read them.
When I became a senior news editor at The Michigan Daily, he really started to pay attention. The night he called me a real journalist sticks out in my mind. My father was negotiating credentials for a weightlifting competition in Texas, and customarily we would attend with matching press passes that had to be applied for months in advance. Security was tight at this event, but my dad had confidence that if I was affiliated with the Daily I would get clearance.
“Now that you work for a real paper, they’ll let you back there,” he said, referring to the roped off area near the stage where a forest of photographers and videographers stood. There was confidence in his voice, and a flicker, however faint, of admiration. I never considered him having that perspective. Squatting behind a tripod, Jackie the journalist. That’s how he saw me.
Writing had always been an important part of my life and at times my sole source of pride. My best grades were in English classes. The ever-present word scrawled on my report cards was potential, shortly followed by talks too much. For my dad to see that potential in the thing that I loved was far more important than if I was the athlete he wanted, or the son he’d hoped for.
I never went to the competition, but I found an unlikely link to my father in writing. My father just wanted something in common with his children, and he’s fond of us in his own way. I realized I didn’t have to be his son to be what he wanted. I just had to be his kid.