The color drained from my daughter Stella’s face. We had just walked through a gauntlet of Secret Service agents, navigated a crowded hallway, and entered a small hotel room overlooking Central Park that was jammed with three cameras, even more lights, and several production staff. In a matter of minutes, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton—who were, my daughter was told by multiple people, big fucking deals—would be ushered into the room. Stella looked ill.
“What’s going on?” I asked her.
“I want to go home,” she whispered. “I want to run out of here crying.”
The day wasn’t going quite as I hoped. A few weeks earlier, we’d hatched a plan. The former first lady, U.S. senator, Secretary of State, and Democratic presidential candidate, and her daughter, Chelsea, would be promoting their new Apple TV+ series, Gutsy, in which the mother-daughter pair traveled the country interviewing courageous women. So how about my seven-year-old daughter and I interview them for Esquire?
Once I told Stella the video would be on YouTube—the equivalent of appearing on all four networks combined for a seven-year-old—she agreed, though I’m not sure she knew what she was agreeing to. The Clintons loved the idea and gave Stella and me an hour with them on camera.
I wasn’t interested in speaking with Hillary and Chelsea to hear their views on the state of politics right now, the Supreme Court, Jan. 6, her emails, or the latest on Trump’s stash of classified documents. No, I wanted to talk about raising kids in this moment—particularly girls.
Here, I’d like to offer a confession: Like many dads I know, going into parenthood I really thought I wanted a son. A Junior Me to instruct and mold! When we learned that our first child was going to be a girl, I couldn’t help but feel the tiniest bit let down. Then I observed parents of little boys and thought: little girls do seem ... calmer. My disappointment began to fade. When she was born, it evaporated. Due to complications with the birth, the doctors had to focus on my wife, Sally, and handed Stella to me when she was mere minutes old. I looked at this little girl in my arms and imagined all the things we'd do together, all the things we'd teach each other. By having a daughter, I felt like I'd won some cosmic lottery. Three years later, when my wife became pregnant with our second child, I prayed for a girl. To my great delight, Stella got a sister, Elaine. Once again, I felt like a lottery winner. We’re done having kids now, in part because I don’t want to risk having a son.
But I worry for them in ways I wouldn’t for a son. “To raise a son is to teach him how to master his world while knowing he’ll get hurt,” Tom Bissell wrote in this magazine in 2018. “Raising a daughter can and should be about that, too, with the added trick of making her aware that the world will seek to hurt her in far subtler ways. The little boy’s mastery will be applauded, but the little girl’s mastery will often be resisted.”
I think about that observation a lot. And it’s come to shape how I parent my daughters—loving and protecting them, sure, but also preparing them for all the insidious wounds, most of which I may never understand, that the world will inflict upon these little girls. Early on, I introduced both of my daughters to the inspirational sayings of Eleanor Roosevelt, particularly, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” I repeat that particular gem to them so often it induces an automatic eye roll. But if they’re acting on those words then it’ll build a muscle that will help fortify them against a world that in some ways has grown more fraught for women. The idea, for example, that all levels of government are chipping away at their autonomy over their bodies has cost me a lot of sleep lately.
Who would know better how to navigate these waters, and overcome them, even in the face of bitter defeat—especially in the case of bitter defeat—than Hillary Clinton? So not only did I want to ask Hillary, a mother and grandmother, and Chelsea, a mother of three herself, my big question about how us dads should be raising girls—gutsy women, to borrow a term from them—in this environment, but also to give Stella the experience of asking them questions about being gutsy women.
That was the plan anyway. Here we were on the verge of meeting them, however, and my star reporter was getting cold feet. She gripped my hand tightly and walked into the room, past the cameras and lights and production staff, and took a seat next to me. She was offered all the M&Ms she could eat. It was not quite 10 a.m. I told her it was fine. She was the talent after all. The color returned to her face. Then the Clintons entered and put everyone at ease immediately. Hillary was flexing her grandma skills; Chelsea, who has a daughter Stella’s age, got down on her level and talked to her as a mother would. By the time the cameras were rolling, Stella was comfortable enough to start firing questions at them: What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite food? What’s your favorite animal? And my favorite: How do you find the courage to talk to scary people? She also told the Clintons a joke. You can see all of it in the video above.
When I had my turn and asked Hillary about how to raise girls right now, she dropped the grandmotherly demeanor. It felt like we were watching Secretary of State Clinton or presidential nominee Clinton. “You can't allow the clock to be turned back,” she said. “There should not be doors that are slammed or laws that are passed or Supreme Court decisions that are rendered that basically begin to chip away at the whole structure of positive change that we've seen over the last fifty years on behalf of girls and women. And it's not just girls and women who need to speak out, it's not just moms, it's dads.
“We have to pay attention to our democracy, to our institutions, to our values, to the rule of law, because we can have the greatest kids that we can possibly raise, but if they're going out into a hostile political and social and economic environment their dreams are not going to be realized.”
On our way home, after treating Stella to a fancy lunch (McDonald’s) and heaping praise on her, I asked her where she found the courage to follow through with the interview. “Because I had my dad with me,” she said. Who was in danger of crying now?
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