Sometimes I mourn the loss of my baby girl. She weighed 14 pounds when I met her and she was the largest piece of Velcro that I had ever encountered. She clung to me in the first few chaotic days in China. I was grateful for her death grip on seemingly every part of me simultaneously because I saw some of the parents struggle with girls who refused to look at them or interact at all. I had purchased a baby BabyBjorn and wore her through the streets of Guangzho while she took in the sites from the vantage point of my hip. When we returned home, there was really no need for the carrier as she found ways to hold on without the need for fancy gadgets. She sat at my feet while I cooked dinner and held onto my leg with one hand while she played with pots and pans with the other. I carried her around the house on my back while doing chores looking not unlike a momma gorilla. I swear that girl spent more time on my back and shoulders in her first two years of life than she did anywhere else.
When life got tough she was, thankfully, still clingy. It was in those days that I found I was holding onto her as tightly as she was hanging on to me. And in those days, I found such comfort in little hands around my neck; fingers clasped together for a better grip, occasionally patting my face the way little ones show love to both puppies and parents. She clung to me for safety but she couldn’t have known that she was saving us both. She was a life jacket keeping my tired head just above the water that tried so hard to pull me under.
In the blink of an eye that baby is now a lanky 13 year old with arms and legs that she can scarcely control. The clinginess is gone; replaced by a quiet confidence, a surety of self that I did not possess until a much later point in life. I was reminded of the clinginess last year in New York. She held my hand while walking in subway stations and down Broadway. She hugged me tightly in Times Square on a Friday night as the lights, the people, and the noise were almost too much for her to bear. I was sorry that she was frightened but a little part of me delighted in the fact that she could still find comfort in reaching out to me.
My mother recently asked if I missed my baby girl. I said that sometimes I do but most of the time I just marvel at the amazing young lady she is becoming. It hit me then that a mother’s brand of love is holding on, holding on to everything. We hold on to the past and we try desperately to remember our babies as they were, not as they are. We sometimes hold on to them long after we should have set them down and let them walk on their own because we’re afraid of all that comes after that first, halting step. We hold on to every crayon drawing from kindergarten. We hold on to macaroni necklaces. We hold on to teeth and bits of hair even though both practices are disgusting if you really stop to think about it. We hold on to whatever we can knowing that it will never be enough to keep our babies, well, babies.
If a mother’s brand of love is holding on, then a father’s brand of love is surely letting go. While mom’s continually look over their shoulders to remember the past, dad’s are looking ahead, eyes fixed on futures that only they can see. For awhile I was both mom and dad to Kaitlyn and I suspect that I was pretty terrible at both; too strict or too lenient depending on the level of guilt I was feeling on any given day. It wasn’t until I was no longer pulling double-duty that I was truly able to reflect on the magic that is fatherhood.
My major areas of focus have always been over-worrying about enough food, enough sleep, enough clothes, and the procurement of industrial sized rolls of bubble wrap to protect my fragile girl. Dads, however, seem to come pre-wired with a different understanding of these things. The food thing will sort itself out (it always does), the sleep thing will sort itself out (nature is cool like that), a spare change of clothes is all anyone truly ever needs, and bubble wrap only provides the illusion of protection since most childhood hurts start on the inside, not the outside. Over the course of the last few years, I’ve received wonderful, gentle reminders about all of these things.
I was hounding my child to finish her vegetables one night at dinner and realized that I was receiving an odd look from the other side of the table. He seemed to be asking me if this was a hill I was willing to die on. It wasn’t then and it’s still not. I know it’s my responsibility to feed my child healthy food and I do try. However, in ten years will it matter whether or not she ate four pieces of broccoli at dinner instead of eight? It won’t.
When my girl was younger, I obsessed over a proper, regimented bedtime. I thought it was a way of imposing discipline and routine. When she began asking to stay up a few minutes past her regular bedtime my instinct was always to say no, but the voice that answered said “it’s fine baby”. That voice forced me to take a step back and listen to my child and watch her rather than focus on rules. I made a deal with her a few years ago that she could go to bed whenever she wanted as long as she was able to wake herself up in the morning. I am not a bear wrestler. And you know what? At 13 she monitors her sleep more than I ever did. She loves to sleep and, like me, she knows that she needs it. These days she goes to bed at 9:30, not because I tell her to, but because she understands that it’s what she needs to do in order to wake up in time for school.
As a kid I never seemed to have the right clothes at the right time. I was always about six months behind the cool kids. Admittedly, the anxiety of never fitting in followed me into adulthood and manifested itself, in part, in worries about my child’s clothing. In one of those great ironies of life, I have the ability to buy her the cool shoes and the cool clothes but she has no interest. I’ve taken her on shopping trips for new school clothes that have ended with both of us in tears. I want her to wear the trendy clothes and she only wants more yoga pants and t-shirts. After one shopping trip, I was reminded by a gentle, reasoned voice that my child just doesn’t care. I was horrified at first because, in my mind, that translated to she doesn’t care what she looks like. While there is some truth to that, it’s not entirely true. She does care, but looks aren’t everything to her. As long as she has clean clothes to wear to school she’s fine. Our shopping trips now involve me handing her the iPad and asking her to pick three shirts and two pairs of yoga pants from the Old Navy website. There are no tears. None. While there is a piece of me that wishes she would occasionally wear a skirt or a dress without threat of a court order I am thrilled that her focus is on everything but clothes. She’s an excellent student, a gifted musician, has great friends, and has so much natural athletic ability that it seems a bit unfair. How could I complain about any of that?
Then there’s the bubble wrap. When it was just the two of us I felt like most of my energy went into protecting my girl from everything. There was something in me that decided she would be safer if I just held her closer and tighter. And then a voice came into my life and reminded me that trying to protect her from everything meant depriving her of an awful lot. I recently found a video of my girl scaling a climbing wall when she was six. While I was recording the video (and being mortified) there was a voice over my shoulder shouting encouragement. I was standing there thinking about all the terrible things that could go wrong and he was encouraging her to reach higher.
And isn’t that the beauty of fatherhood; acknowledging the scary possibilities but realizing that greatness lies just beyond them? When I think about my childhood, I remember a dad and grandfathers who let me do amazing, scary things that my mother and grandmothers would probably have killed them over if they had known. I got to climb in barn rafters, drive tractors and trucks long before I had a license, help herd cows, explore underground rock quarries, climb trees, feed cows, and a hundred other things that I don’t have room to list. They must have known there was some element of risk involved in all of those things but they also knew that they were giving me experiences that I couldn’t get anywhere else. What they might not have known is that they were giving me permission to one day take chances with my own girl; to let her do things that are scary even when it’s hard on my momma’s heart and nerves. When I asked my love what we would do one day when our girl says that she wants to do a summer program in Kenya or a semester in Barcelona he said, “we’ll tell her to have fun.” He reminded me that we’re raising her to be strong and independent so that she’ll want to do those things, so that she’ll want to go change the world. I know he’s right and I know that when the time comes I’ll help her pack her bags. As we drive to the airport I’ll be crying and thinking of my baby girl and wondering where the time went. He’ll be smiling and thinking about all the amazing adventures ahead of her. For a child to have two people on this earth who concern themselves with both her roots and her wings is its own sort of blessing.
This is my thank you to all of the fathers who nurture their children in their own special ways; whether they live under the same roof or in a different country. This is my thank you to the fathers who act as both moms and dads and the moms who do the same. This is my thank you to the fathers in my own life who worried less about broccoli and more about tractors and Barcelona because we can always eat vegetables tomorrow but sometimes the tractor needs to be driven today. I love you all and I want you to know that everything you have ever done made a difference in my life and is, even now, making a difference in the life of my own girl.