It was the first week of school. Our car crept through morning traffic in the school drop-off chute. To my pleasant surprise, my nearly-nine-year-old daughter selected My Favorite Things from a playlist on my iPod; a jazzy, scatting rendition from an obscure, 1965 Al Jarreau record. She’d have probably preferred Julie Andrews, but I like my show tunes with a little soul.
She’d been obsessed with the song for a over a week, since we watched a rousing performance of The Sound of Music at an outdoor amphitheater in the mountains above our California home. Her younger brother watched her worshipfully as she sang along in the backseat.
“Raindrop in roses and whisperon kittens, bricoppaettls and warm wooom mitten, round paper packages tied up wiffstin, thee or a few of my favorite things.”
A double smile crossed my face. Nothing amuses me as much as my normally shy daughter’s willingness to mangle songs in the backseat when she doesn’t realize anyone’s listening. But my smile also contained selfish pride that, in singing along to this particular song, she showed evidence of good taste. Or, more specifically, of my taste. As the kids hopped from the backseat and ran to their classrooms, I felt like a successful parent.
Parenting has presented me with many challenges, more than a few of which, if I’m being honest, I’ve failed to meet, because of lack of ability or, occasionally, interest. But if there is one parenting goal I’ve embraced – my fatherly raison d’etre – it has been my mission to teach my children to value what I value, to appreciate the things and experiences that I deem important or worthwhile. I have tackled this cause with vigor. I have seeded their bookshelves with timeless classics, dragged them into the garden to grow our own vegetables, spun scratchy Lester Young records on a 30 year-old turntable, taken them camping, openly lobbied for Obama, denounced war, brewed my own beer, caught-and-released spiders, and apologized when I’m wrong (and occasionally even when I’m not).
By and large, my lessons have gotten through. My son ardently insists on air-drying his hands because “paper towels come from trees.” My daughter, who generally avoids green food, will gladly eat just about anything that comes from our garden. They can quote A. A. Milne and John Lennon. And they know that Han Solo is cooler than Luke Skywalker.
For the most part, my efforts have turned my children into people that I not only love, but like. I’ve imagined that when they grow up, we will genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
But for all my guiding and shaping, I’ve been left to wonder just how happy they are, especially my daughter, who is quick to cry, slow to recover, and sorely lacking in self-confidence.
She is a unique child, but not outrageously so. She wears her hair short, prefers sports to princess dolls, gym shorts to pink dresses. She bravely marches to her own drummer, even while knowing that her beat has an isolating effect. She wants badly to belong, but, to my pleasure, she seems unwilling to conform to the popular opinion of what’s popular.
But her individuality has made her insecure, or so I’ve always believed. And the intransigence of her insecurity has been my most galling experience as a parent.
Her mother and I routinely remind her of her many attributes, carefully naming all the ways she is special. She is surrounded by a gaggle of adoring grandparents in whose eyes she can do no wrong.
Still, she has struggled. I have seen her suffering. And the origin of her suffering has eluded me.
A week or so after our musical drop-off, I arrived home late to an unhappy house.
My wife and daughter were not speaking. Something had gone wrong. The girl was crying dramatically in her room. My wife was doing dishes and telling me that she’d had it with “your daughter.”
“I know she’s tired and I know she just needs to go to bed. I try to be patient, but the attitude is just too much sometimes, you know?”
“It is not okay to talk to your parents that way.”
“It is not. Do you want me to talk to her?”
“You can do whatever you want. I’m done.”
I went down the hall and opened her bedroom door. She was on the floor, heaving. She had reached that point, unique to young children, where she’d decided that it might actually be better if things got worse.
I held her and petted her snotty hair until she calmed down. There was no point in asking what happened. I already knew. She’d gotten snarky with her mother. Her mother told her to watch it. She pushed her luck. And it all went downhill from there; a tired kid and an exhausted parent at the end of a long day, both exercising understandably poor judgment. It had happened before – usually with me, not her mother – and it will happen again. Asking her to rehash it would only reactivate the Sarah Bernhardt routine.
“I listened to My Favorite Things on the way home,” I said, subliminally informing her that whatever happened was over.
“The version with the boy singing?” she sniveled.
“Actually, this was a different version with no one singing,” I said, happily introducing the Coltrane rendition.
“How do you know what song it is?”
“Well, there’s a saxophone and a piano and they both play the melody. I can play it for you tomorrow if you like. I’ll bet you’d recognize it right away.”
She lay silently with her head in my lap, looking up at the antique light fixture that hung unfittingly from her ceiling. I could see her mind working.
“Were you popular when you were a kid?”
“Did you have a lot of friends?”
“I had friends. I don’t know if I’d say I had a lot. About the same as you, I guess.”
“I don’t feel like I have friends.”
She began to cry lightly.
“Honey, what about…?” I listed four or five kids that I knew she played with every day at school.
“But I don’t know if they really like me,” she said thoughtfully.
“What do you mean?”
“I feel like I have to be someone else when I’m with them. Like I have to pretend to be someone I’m not.”
I looked down at my nearly-nine-year-old daughter, not knowing whether to honor her feelings or offer her platitudes.
“You know, Sweetheart, I visit your school a lot and it sure seems like the other kids like you. I think they like you because you’re your own person, because you don’t try to be like everyone else.”
“But it doesn’t feel like that.”
“I’m sorry. But I have to tell you that you are an amazing kid. You’re smart, you’re beautiful, you’re funny, you’re athletic, you’re kind, you’re a good big sister, you like to be outdoors, you like to try new things, you like good music, you like to read, you’re one heckuva kid.”
“Then how come no one outside of my family thinks that?” She fought back tears.
I didn’t have an answer for that.
She slowly got to her feet and climbed the ladder to her top bunk. I sang her special song and did the thing we do with the magic wand.
“Does it make you happy that I like that song?”
“My Favorite Things?”
“Oh, Sweetie. I’m glad you like it, but you don’t have to like my things just to make me happy.”
But I wasn’t sure that she did.
I rested my hand on her head and she closed her eyes. In the darkness of her room, I thought of all the books I’ve shared with her. All the healthy food I’ve tried to make her eat, all the music, art, hiking, plays, vegetable gardens, baseball games and a hundred other things that I value. She has tried them all. And with each one she tries, I tell her how proud I am.
But pride is a sin, as I recall, and a deadly one at that. What if what I’m doing is not exposing her to the things I value, but, in fact, preying on her desire to please, and to be liked, in order to shape her into something she might not have chosen. What if, just like with her friends, she feels like she has to be someone she is not? And what if the only difference between me and her friends is that I tell her I love her for it.
I’ve told myself that I love my children unconditionally. And in the strictest sense, that’s true. But is it possible that that is not how they’ve experienced my love? If I’m honest, I’ve made all sorts of judgments about my children. I want them to like what I like. I want them to value what I value. Have I not subtly told them, “I’ll love you no matter what, but I might love you more if you were more like me?”
What if our children are not lumps of clay to be molded? What if they can’t be shaped and sculpted? What if they are born kiln-fired? What if the pressure applied by our loving hands is more likely to cause them to crack or shatter? What if our job is merely to give them a protective glaze and hope for the best?
What if all my loving encouragement can sometimes feel like judgment?
In the weeks since that night, I’ve made a conscious effort not to judge my daughter. This has not come easily, in part, because I have become aware that I am always making assumptions about who she is and how she should be. And when she fails to meet those assumptions, I’ve allowed my love to be replaced with judgment.
Now I am trying to replace my judgment with love. I am letting go of my assumptions. My approval no longer has conditions. At first, I feared that I would become one of those parents I dread; the type whose children can do no wrong, who don’t correct or discipline their children even as they are poking puppies’ eyes with sticks.
But it turns out that I don’t have those kinds of kids. It turns out that my kids return kindness when they receive it. They forgive when they are forgiven. I’m not sure why I expected my children to be more generous with their love than I was with mine. I’m not sure why I expected my daughter to give herself unconditional love when she wasn’t receiving it from me. It turns out she is not unique. It turns out she is just like everyone else. She just wants to be loved for who she is.
I still make mistakes. I still miss my mark. I get short and impatient. I bark at her when I shouldn’t. I try to get her to see things my way, to care about what I care about. But more often than not, I catch myself. I remember that she is not me. For the first time in nearly nine years, I am seeing my daughter for who she is; not for who I’d like her to be. Not a jazz-loving, vegetable-growing, baseball-throwing, nature nugget. Instead, she is becoming the one thing I’d always hoped for (even if I didn’t realize it).
She is becoming happy.
People say that our children teach us more than we teach them. This has always sounded trite and hopeful; the kind of thing you write on a graduation card. Now I’m beginning to believe that it may be true.
My children are teaching me every day. If I am willing to learn.
They teach me never to make assumptions.
They teach me that expectations are the enemy of joy.
They teach me that judgment sometimes masquerades as encouragement, and that unmasking my judgment helps me unveil my love.
Parenting exists in the space between the experience you thought you were supposed to have and the experience you're actually having.
I am slowly learning that the joy of parenting resides in that space. It does not lie in happy memories, hopes for the future, or fulfilled expectations. It exists only only in the moment, in acceptance of your children as they are in the present.
My daughter is teaching me. I am becoming the father she deserves. And I am trying not to wonder if she appreciates it.