For years, my daughter’s after-school routine would be the same. She’d rush home to immediately get through her homework. Once it was completely done, she would then come barreling into my office and announce her arrival.
Hi! I’m bored!
Then, she’d collapse to floor and we’d find something to do. It could be a TV show, a game, or her favorite pastime – attack. Basically, she’d beat me up relentlessly while I pushed her away. It usually ends when she bumps a body part into the wall, yells that she got hurt, and abruptly leaves only to return within minutes to ask for a rematch. Yeah. I’m not a big fan of attack.
Then came a day towards the end of her third-grade year that appeared to be just like all the rest. Olivia was home the elementary grind and just about finished with her math problems. My wife and I were watching some head fluff nonsense on television in my office when I heard the textbook close with its familiar “thud.” I knew what was coming and even said it out loud.
Get ready. Here she comes.
As soon as I spoke, I heard the zip of her backpack and then stamping of her little feet across the floor to my office door…
…and past the office door. Then up the stairs, down the hallway, and into her room with its door closing behind.
I sat stunned. My wife acknowledged my surprised expression but didn’t seem as taken aback. To me, though, it was a monumental moment when things started to shift.
I don’t want to imply that this was the end of an era and she never came running into my office after homework ever again. That’s not true. It was no longer every day, though. Sad? Maybe in some ways, but totally natural in most others. Times were changing and she’s always growing. Our relationship has to evolve over time. She’s a person.
Truth be told, I was of conscious of all of this, in a sub-conscious sort of way, the entire time. Deep down, I knew that the kid I was hanging out with at three would be the person I would hopefully be hanging out with at 30. My daughter now will be my daughter then. So the bonds we were building in her younger years were important to keep us together years later.
That wasn’t always easy to keep in mind. The thing about parents is that we’re still adults. We still have adult problems and adult concerns about adult things. Sometimes being forced to “judge a dance-off competition” or watching a Yo Gabba Gabba marathon can feel maddening. Your brain is crammed full of life’s little stresses and your preschooler is demanding you eat a “pie” they made you from potato chips, tuna, and candy corns.
It sounds awful, but you take a bite and smile through the pain. You do it for a lot of reasons. Above all else, though, you do it because it will make your child happy. The reason it makes your child happy because, well, you’re important. They crave your attention and adulation, so they seek it out in the form of magic tricks that involve you closing your eyes and jokes that every person on Earth already knows. Their attempts, sometimes adorable, can be unnerving, especially during our silently stressful times.
As a parent, I recognize my importance in my home, but it felt like there was a spotlight on it when my eleven-year-old daughter was little. It was as if everything she did was to impress me and she beamed with pride when I was around. Coming to her Kindergarten class to be a guest reader on her birthday was the perfect example. I never felt so much like a celebrity. To this day, being the parent to a young child can’t be described any better than I heard it said on the Netflix show, Orange is the New Black. “It’s like having little fans.”
Olivia was my fan and I never turned her away. I ate tons of candy corn tuna chip cake and scored her on each and every flopping pirouette. She never had to wonder if I liked spending time with her or if I wanted her around. I made sure of that. If I ever did something that made her feel like I didn’t enjoy her company, I tried to make it up to her as soon as possible. Her knowing she’s important to me was, well, important to me.
Now she’s done with elementary school and middle-schoolers don’t bring their parents in to do guest-readings anymore. Even if they did, they’d be more apt to hide their faces than jump for joy. As they reach that dreaded age that everyone warns about from the moment they’re born, you start to feel less and less like that magical adult they so desperately wanted to entertain and more like the embarrassing grown-up in a Disney tween comedy.
Now, I feel like the one with the makeshift pies, putting on dance showcases, telling old jokes, and fumbling card tricks. In the grand scheme of things, it’s increasingly becoming more and more of Olivia’s turn to tolerate me.
Thankfully, I had those earlier years to build our relationship and show her how special it is to get attention from the person you seek it from the most. It’s one of the things I am most proud of in my life. My daughter never has to hesitate when asked if her father loves her. She never has to add “in his own way”.
I’m starting to become the lame one in our dynamic. I know it. I’m not completely there yet, but give it time. It’s slowly teetering, but in about two years, the bough will break, and the embarrassment will fall. I’ll be the mortifying father of a teenager. I’m ready for it. I’ve been preparing for over a decade.
When that day comes, she’ll still hang out with me and tolerate it all. I know she will. After all, that’s how I raised her.