My mom died young, so my dad was my sole caretaker, and therefore the only parent around to weigh in on my relationships. It didn’t help that my dad has an intimidating appearance — he shaves his head and is 5-foot-10 — so all of my friends were scared of him at sleepovers. If he wanted to pull out a shotgun and tell my date not to “mess with his daughter,” it had the potential to make a significant other sprint in the opposite direction.
I got exceptionally lucky. Although my dad was a little tough when I first asked him if I could date — I was 13 and his immediate answer was no — he came around quickly. After a few conversations, his no turned into a yes, but with limitations. He allowed me to date but told me I couldn’t go beyond just kissing with anyone, regardless of their gender. His decision was fair, because I still was only a middle-schooler and wasn’t really ready for a mature sexual relationship, but at the time I wanted to scream. I didn’t know when I’d be ready for sex, and if I were, how I’d feel about lying to my dad when I was usually so honest with him.
My dad was sex-positive and feminist in his approach to my dating life. When he gave me the sex talk, he went over consent and queer safer sex. His motto was: “If you’re going to choose to have sex, please talk to me about it, so I can make sure you’re safe.” He notoriously refused to offer opinions of anyone I dated, unless he saw something genuinely unhealthy, because he wanted me to make my own decisions.
In high school, I brought my girlfriend over after school because I felt comfortable having her around my dad. Unlike a lot of my friends, who had to hide their romantic and sexual partners from their parents and weren’t allowed to use birth control, I felt completely comfortable integrating my romantic partners into my life. My dad, my girlfriend and I often played Scrabble and watched superhero movies together, and he even started stocking our fridge with Mountain Dew just for her.
As a high school sophomore, when I found myself in a love triangle — two women were romantically interested in me at once — it was my dad I turned to for advice, during one of our regular walks. I asked him how to turn down a friend’s romantic interest without hurting their feelings, and he was happy to walk me through that awkward situation.
Because my dad and I were so open with each other, I was comfortable talking about sex and romance, and I had a deep understanding of some of the challenges of long-term relationships. He was someone I could come to with questions such as: “Can you trust someone who tells you they’ve never had sex before, or should you ask them to get an STI test?” And: “Can two people with major differences in interests stay together?” Because I could be so open with my dad, I never had to resort to extreme measures like some of my friends did, such as having sex in the woods behind the mall or in the back seat of a car.
I’m not perfect as a romantic partner, but I always know I can have meaningful conversations with my dad, who’s seen his fair share of relationship mishaps. When I was a senior in college, I got into a huge fight with my girlfriend after seeing a movie together. During our fight, I’d yelled that I just wanted to “break up already,” which only made the fight worse. I was sitting in my car in the campus parking lot, unsure what to do, so I called my dad.
He was never afraid to tell me when I messed up. “I hate to say this, pumpkin, but you’re in the wrong here,” my dad said. “You need to apologize to her, and commit to actually seeing that apology through.”
As my relationships matured, so did the conversations that I had with my dad. When I decided to move in with my partner for the first time, I asked him how to discuss finances with her, and he walked me through some of the different options couples take, such as splitting everything 50/50 or opening a joint checking account. I felt responsible and ready to take that step, mainly because my dad let me make mistakes, try things out and experience all the heartbreak of romance while being there to act as a sounding board.
And while he’s got dad jokes aplenty, I’ve never heard him say, “Let me get my shotgun.” I’m grateful for that.