The summer I turned five years old, I became, for a short time, obsessed with football. I’m not sure where this fascination came from – the national fervour around the 1998 World Cup, a campaign for attention or just garden variety childhood experimentation - but I played, watched or thought about football all the time. I followed every England game and decided, because my Uncle Andy liked them, my favourite club would be Manchester United.
The World Cup ended, of course. England didn’t win, of course. September came, of course, and I went back to school for Year 1. One day, a few weeks in, I came home a bit quiet. After some probing, my parents unearthed the root of the sulk. A boy in my class had excluded me from a playground kick-about by announcing, with preternatural authority, that it was ‘illegal for girls to play football’.
“Right,” my Dad said, after I finished my tale of woe. I could see he was troubled but, at 5, I was not sure why, and probably moved on to thinking about something else like Sunny Delight or chicken nuggets.
But my Dad was making plans. He began a campaign to make contact with the Women’s team for the Queen’s Park Ranger’s, our local club. After a lot of sleuthing, he got hold of the Captain’s mobile number. She picked up his call while working her day job as a bank teller at Barclay’s.
“Can I bring my daughter to one of your matches?” he asked.
“Uh – what?”
“Can I come and watch your team play with my daughter?”
“My football team?”
Stunned by the request, the woman responded, “you want to watch us?”
“Yes, I do”.
“I mean…yeah…okay. There aren’t chairs or anything but you can – sit and watch, I guess...”
On a sunny, Saturday morning, my Dad and I – the sole audience – sat together on the grass and watched the QPR women’s team play. 19 years later, it’s one of my first memories. I was entranced.
My love for football, sadly, didn’t last much beyond this day. I soon discovered I was not a natural sportswoman, and the world would be a much better place if I stayed far from any kind of pitch. However, what did remain was a belief in myself and my own abilities.
In her extraordinary essay collection “The Mother Of All Questions”, Rebecca Solnit wrote about the terrible sacrifice men so often make living under the patriarchy. They repress their emotions and commit what bell hooks calls "acts of psychic self-mutilation." From a young age, straight cisgender men are encouraged by societal expectation to cut off the emotive ('womanly') part of themselves.
As a consequence, men have a reputation for being more distant, detached caregivers. They are known for being more hands off than mothers, more removed from the tenderness and day-to-day realities of childcare.
This is learned behaviour. Male babies cry, instinctively, because they need food, sleep or affection. Then, for the next eighty years, they learn to never cry again. They are encouraged to see tears as a sign of weakness, not release.
This emotional suppression is one of the most dangerous forces in the modern world. Think of a terrible news story. The chances are, male pride somehow played a part. It seems obvious to me that we should do anything to make men believe it is okay to be caring, to be tearful, to be soft. Otherwise, men can be very dangerous.
Men are encouraged to kill their maternal instincts in constant and not-so-subtle ways. Adverts for household products are full of capable, eye-rolling mothers and hapless, useless fathers, and many well-known men (including, obviously, Donald Trump) have declared they don't change nappies as though proving their virility. Well-respected author Tony Parsons wrote an article for GQ as recently as 2012 declaring that a woman should never be the main breadwinner in a relationship. Like so many messages we absorb, this article tells us women should be successful, but not too successful. It is better and more polite for all of us if men retain the financial upper hand and, accordingly, the power.
I call bullshit. We need to value men for their washing up, cooking and nappy changing as much as their salary. There is no reason men should not be sentimental. The arrangements a couple makes for childcare (who stays at home, who makes dinner, who looks after the house) should be down to personality and convenience, not gender.
The little 5-year-old boy in my class, because he had never seen a girl play football, assumed it was not allowed. This is an understandable assumption. It takes a lot of effort and self-scrutiny to remove yourself from these kind of in-built prejudices. I'm not sure a boy in Year 1 could fit that between his nap-time and his snack. All of us have similar biases and associations with 'father' (salary, discipline, strength) and 'mother' (love, care, domesticity) and put pressure on ourselves and others to fit this ideal.
Unfortunately, this story does not end with me becoming, against the odds, a world-class footballer. I am not writing this essay at half time during the final of the Women’s Euros. In fact, the only impact football has on my life now is the crowds around Fulham Broadway on a Saturday. The words 'offside rule' make me want to lie down in a dark room. But that is not really that important. In that moment, on that patch of grass in Acton, it was an option. My Dad, like all great parents, accepted what I was and opened up the possibilities for what I could become.
We do not need a father to be happy or well-adjusted or whole. However, I do believe that behind many great people, especially great women, is a father who believed in them. Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Malala, said there was no great tip or trick to being a Dad. He just opened up her world as much as he could: “don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings, and that is all.”
Written by Matilda Curtis
Illustrated by Percy Preston