I’m grateful for my dad’s unabashed sense of self as the ultimate girl dad

Malleable masculinity: My dad’s flexible approach to conventional definitions of fatherhood

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published June 16, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Caring father combing little daughter's hair (Getty Images/mediaphotos)
Caring father combing little daughter's hair (Getty Images/mediaphotos)

"It's a boy!"

For some unknown reason, perhaps owing to the shock of becoming a new parent in a matter of seconds, this is what my dad uttered the moment I first saw daylight in the late winter of 1998.

As the oldest, I set the scope of my dad’s parental expectations. For just about a year and a half, he was a girl dad. Though my dad would get a boy on the second go around, my brother would be his only male child among four other girls. Once my brother entered the scene, and as we grew older, the playroom had to be brought to balance. 

My mom and dad have also held largely inverted conventional gender roles.

Ever supportive but somewhat fatigued by my relentless childhood propensity for festooning my younger brother in gauzy tutus, itchy boas and plastic mules, my dad elected to buy him a toy from his own youth: a G.I. Joe action figure. With his sinewy arms, square jawline and camo-print outfit, the little dude had all the makings of a stereotypically masculine plaything. The only problem? He was a gunslinger. 

“That’s a war doll!” My mother was aghast at the sight of my brother, no older than four or five, holding a toy fitted with plastic weapons. When she demanded that G.I. Joe be promptly returned, my dad quickly capitulated, wanting to respect my mom’s wishes and realizing he had inadvertently allowed his sense of nostalgia to cloud his judgment. Several hours later, my dad returned with G.I. Joe’s replacement: a Malibu Ken doll, the perfect complement to my Barbie Dreamhouse. Ken was sun-kissed and equally chiseled as his combative predecessor, and his surfboard was a welcome substitution for the army-green bazooka. It was certainly less of a choking hazard. 

It’s heartwarming if not altogether comical to reflect on the ways my dad’s own lifestyle aligns with Ken’s. His closet is interspersed with swatches of pink, and, if capitalism was dead, his lifelong tenure as a Jersey Shore resident and interstitial surfer would make “beach” his natural job choice.

I find myself turning to the doll-swap memory often. It’s certainly something of a synaptic snag. But more than that, it encapsulates the flexibility my dad has with fatherhood and his definition of masculinity.

My dad is a big guy, both in appearance and personality. He’s incredibly strong. His early adulthood was characterized in part by picking heavy things up and putting them down, be they weights at the gym or bundles of lumber and stacks of pavers from his landscaping side hustle. He loves brawny celebrities like Chris Hemsworth and Zac Efron and has binged their respective health-guru television series. He loves Disney World. He has an affinity for ludicrously spicy food and could list every player on the Yankees, Knicks and Giants stretching back decades. He has a few tattoos. He enjoys Titos with a twist of orange rind and books with gritty, intense characters. He loves anything to do with ancient Rome and has since long before men contemplating the that lost empire became an internet trend. He is a capital F family man. He blesses himself when he drives past our local parish, but he’s not an overly religious guy. He loves a cigar on the front porch on summer evenings while Frank Sinatra croons in the background. He knows someone anywhere he goes; I’ve never encountered a more gregarious person. His impassioned and often hyperbolic way of interacting with the world and those around him is one of my favorite things about him.

A superficial scan might slot my dad among Herculean-muscled carnivores who yearn for nights of brews with The Boys. People are often surprised to hear that my dad is a years-long vegetarian. Or that he’s not great on the grill but is a dynamo baker. All of this seems incongruous with much of what they know about him. But while my dad certainly has clearly delineated interests – many of which harmlessly tend toward gender normativity – he’s never been precious about what he likes or how he presents himself to the world. 

My parents have always embodied fairly equal domestic responsibilities, sharing the bulk of cooking and cleaning in our household as much as they can. In many other ways, however, my mom and dad have also held largely inverted conventional gender roles. My mom has predominantly held the position of breadwinner, a role that was amplified when my siblings and I were young. In the early to mid-2000s, she worked long days on Wall Street as a stock exchange trader. My dad, in turn, stayed home with us to act as a stay-at-home dad and Cinderella in one, a persona that allowed him to lean into his obsessive cleaning habits. My household has always had an unspoken rule that you don’t leave a cup unattended for more than two minutes, lest you want Dad to put it in the dishwasher. 

I look back on the times I, as an ignorant third grader, was jealous of my friends' Lunchables and school-bought cardboard pizza. I cringe at the shame I once held for the deep garlicky smell that slashed through the seams of my brown paper bag. Girthy meatballs, leftover from our weekly Sunday sauce, smashed together between two slices of Italian bread is just about as good as a lunch as a 10-year-old could ask for. From the time my siblings and I started school through our high school graduations, my dad woke up at an ungodly hour to assemble homemade lunches for us, often adding a small note with a hand-drawn heart inside. 

I would squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath as he laid waste to the crown of my head with engulfing aerosol hairspray fumes.

He even finessed the precarious art of doing little girl's hair. My sisters and I waited like a row of unshelled Russian nesting dolls outside the bathroom for our turn to have Dad slick our unruly frizz to our skulls with his Brylcreem before diving into the hair Caboodle – a rainbow-colored cornucopia teeming with sparkling accessories – for items to wrangle our locks with. His go-to ‘do was The Fountain, a simple yet classic half-up half-down look that created a sort of sprouted seedling meets Cindy Lou Who effect. As he dragged a brush through my hair, sweeping it upward, Dad’s pale blue eyes glimmered with a dogged focus, like a cooking show contestant adding the final garnishes to their plate. 

I would squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath as he laid waste to the crown of my head with engulfing aerosol hairspray fumes that left my hair glistening, crunchy and utterly fabulous. 

My dad grew up as one of two boys, in a hyper-masculine and hyper-toxic space. My paternal grandmother, who I have heard was a kind and lovely woman, passed away from breast cancer when my dad was a teenager. My dad’s father — a strikingly handsome and deeply selfish person who shared the image and likeness of Paulie Walnuts — was largely absent from his life. From my vantage point, their relationship was founded upon a shared interest in football and not much else. Towards the end of my grandfather’s life, he moved in with my family, infuriating my sisters, mom and me on a regular basis with misogynistic and antiquated commentary. I recall one early morning as he tsk-tsked while watching my dad make sandwiches for my younger sisters, complaining that it shouldn’t be his job. 

Thankfully, despite his coming from a home where gender lines were starkly drawn and masculinity was often weaponized to belittle women, my dad never assumed these habits. Parenting mostly girls has inherently led him to learn a great deal over the years, ever-revolving his perspective to ensure that he accommodates the fullest extent of a woman’s that his straight, male whiteness can allow. 

Perhaps one of the most immediate and important ways he has done this is through his rearing of my brother and the golden rule he instilled in him: always listen to women. And especially, my mother. 

This principle was not merely dedicated to my mom’s instructions to complete chores. Of the many things my dad appreciates about my mom, her immense intellect arguably reigns paramount. It’s always been the case that when my brother — or any of us for that matter — acted defiantly or challenged our mom’s logic that Dad would simply reexplain what she had said and succinctly advise him to listen. Amid murmurs that Gen-Z men are skewing more ideologically conservative and less influenced by feminist values, this example of generational male progressiveness can’t be overstated. 

In the summer of 2022, Jim Harbaugh, the head coach of the University of Michigan’s football team, told an ESPN writer something that my dad — and many other people — found rather shocking. Apparently, Harbaugh had told his players and staff members the “same thing” that he told his own children – that if they experience an unplanned pregnancy, they should "go through with it” because he and his wife would take the baby.

My dad was gobsmacked at Harbaugh's farcical offer. Take all the babies?! Impossible. Though he's always been one for embellishment, my dad couldn't entertain the preposterousness of a scenario in which women might reluctantly endure an unwanted pregnancy only to be comforted by the knowledge that they could shuck their kid off to some football-themed foster home setup. 

Of the many social justice hills my dad finds himself sitting atop, reproductive rights is one he will consistently die on. Once an ardent east-coast fan of the Block M’s Big House, my dad renounced all future support for Michigan’s historically decorated NCAA Division I program until it was unfettered by Harbaugh’s pro-life fundamentalism. For a bonafide football junkie, my dad’s decision was almost surprisingly swift. And yet, it was true to his overzealous style of doing and saying things, an M.O. some might even call impetuous.

My dad’s pro-choice stance has everything to do with my sisters and me. It has absolutely nothing to do with us, too. Pigskins and trophies aside, I’d qualify that knowledge as a true and legitimate win.

My parents chose not to learn the sex of their first four kids until we were born. When my mom got pregnant with the youngest of us, we pleaded with our parents to know. No one was more frantic than my brother, then a beleaguered 11-year-old in desperate want of a brother.

Nearly foaming at the mouth with anticipation, we squirmed in our car seats as my parents turned to us with shining eyes.

"The next Ferrigine child is . . . A GIRL!"

My brother was like a mortally wounded animal, his body twitching in death throes as he wailed in utter defeat.

I remember huffing momentarily to myself — it was of little consequence in the end, but another brother would have been a fun addition to the party mix.

"Don't worry!" My dad called to my brother with a smile from where he was punching at the seats in the recesses of our Honda minivan.

"You're going to love her."


By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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