Actually

I recently came across a video of my daughter at age two. She was playing with a children’s laptop, working on her alphabet. Whenever she got the letters correct, she clapped and shouted with joy, following it with laughs and cackles. That video happens to be one of my favorites of her. As I’m unlikely to have another child, I will probably never again get to experience first-hand those beautiful moments marking the unabashed joy of early childhood. Between pictures and videos, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years looking back to remember the past. There’s a comfort in it.

However, now that my daughter is almost twelve years old, there has been an incredible shift in the timeline. I’ve begun to see the future. Hints of the woman she will become. Looking into the future does not offer comfort. As a father, it’s a little scary. Whereas reliving the past fosters no surprises, the future is nothing but. Still, there is something wholly more potent and satisfying in witnessing the whispers of this unknown woman I had a hand in raising. I don’t know her yet, but those times she has peeked into reality have caused me to feel pride, humor, and just a bit of wonder.

Certainly, milestones occur when our children are very young—holding their own bottles, rolling over, crawling, teething, walking, etc. But these milestones are all physical in nature. They represent the growth of all animals. What separates humans from the others is the blossoming of the soul, articulated by the forming of personality. Like sunlight through clouds on overcast days, I saw brief hints even at age three, when my daughter began using the word “actually” in abundance. As in, “Chicken nuggets are my favorite. Actually, pizza is too.” At the time, I thought it was simply an adorable quirk that made me giggle whenever I heard it. A tiny girl playing dress-up in adult attire and accessories.

Because she was still a baby in my eyes, I failed to recognize that her regular use of “actually” was one of my first glimpses into the crystal ball. My child was not playing dress-up. This wasn’t makeup covering her true self. It was her brushing her own hair—guiding something seemingly unkempt and wild into something beautiful and refined. It wasn’t new. It was always there. My daughter today is incredibly calculating and reflective. Like one of Tolkein’s Ents, she rarely decides or acts quickly (abundantly clear when trying to get her ready for school). She looks at the big picture. She weighs her options. She sees both sides. There is this. Wait…There is also that. Actually.

Small intimations are coming more frequently and discernably now.

Months back, when picking Madison up from school, she hustled out to the car far behind the other children. Granted, she’s rarely at the front of the group when school dismisses (if she ever joins track as a sprinter, my head will explode in surprise). However, that day she was further behind than usual. After tossing her bag into the back seat and plopping down winded into the passenger seat, she sighed as though utterly exhausted while putting on her seat belt. I asked if she was okay. The tone of her voice when she responded that she was “fine” set off alarm bells in my mind. I am a grown man and have been in plenty of relationships in my life. That “fine” is never a good sign. Unlike with women in past relationships, I can play the dad card and call her on it. She explained that she had gone to her locker to gather her things, had made it most of the way out before realizing she’d forgotten something, had to run back to get it, and then dropped papers on the way back out. A junior high student’s equivalent of a shitty end to the work day, just when it should have all been looking up. The exasperation in her voice and body language wasn’t that of a pre-teen girl. Sitting next to me was the specter of a woman telling her friends or loved ones why she needed a glass of wine this evening. And just like that, she evaporated while the girl talked about the comic she was working on with her friends. I heard little of the comic discussion. I was still in awe of the strong woman with whom I had just had a conversation.

Shortly after the beginning of the year, my baby girl asked me one of those questions that breaks the hearts of most parents. Is Santa real? Out of the blue. No warning. It wasn’t even much of a question. It was a challenge. A career in interrogation techniques seemed plausible for her at that moment. Naturally, I stalled. That’s a weird question. Why would you ask that? On the other side of the coin, if being interrogated for criminal activity, I would be doing hard time very shortly. The answer to my question came matter-of-factly in the form of evidence. Presents from Holly the Elf on the Shelf had accidentally been purchased in her presence. A big present from Santa had been placed unwrapped in a closet where parents had the strange intuition to check Christmas morning during everyone opening. Santa’s presents at Mom’s house and Dad’s house had different handwriting. It wasn’t feasible for a fat man to fly everywhere in the world on a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer in such a short period of time. Likewise, how could one person (even a fat one) eat snacks at every single house without getting sick? And, clearly, all the Santas at all the different places were different guys.

These observations were offered not with pride or malice, but with a quiet reservation. They stated, “I believe I have discovered the truth and I would appreciate you being honest.” Thus, I explained that Santa was real, but not in the way that had been portrayed for her and every other young child. There was no fat man producing toys via indentured labor. No reindeers galloping through the air, spitting in the face of physics. No one creepily breaking and entering to devour pastries. Rather, Santa is a spirit carried on through tradition. I am Santa. Her mother is Santa. Her step-father is Santa. And our parents were Santa, much as theirs before them and so on. Santa is about the spirit of Christmas—giving and sharing joy. When children come of age, they too graduate and are welcomed into the secret society. Now that she knew the truth, she was also Santa, just as her older brother had become Santa when he found out. Her job now was to help her mother keep the secret and to share in the magic with her younger siblings. And that one day she will have children of her own and fully appreciate the wonder of what being Santa really means. Throughout my abstract and probably awkward explanation, she never broke eye contact. She nodded in solemn understanding of her new duties. Whereas I had dreaded taking away the magic of belief from my only child, she instead took a little of that magic into herself with a quiet grace. There again was the woman. A woman who wasn’t hurt by the truth, but rather required it. A level of childhood wasn’t lost. Instead, a miniscule part of adulthood was embraced by this exquisite lady.

These incidents stand out as only a few among many. Her mannerisms while holding casual conversations with her friends as they walk through the doors of the school. Judging and unamused looks when I blame rogue farts on the cats. Tranquil chuckles while watching something amusing on YouTube. Determined focus while writing the next chapter in her story about the cat clans. Pleasant absorption in the pages of a book.

The world hasn’t met this woman yet. But in select moments, she briefly introduces herself to me. I don’t know her well. But I think the world is in for something special.

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The Greatest Man I Never Knew

Are you ready to hold your little girl?

Eight words that signaled an unprecedented shift in my life. I was no longer just some guy. I wasn’t going-to-be-a-papa. Those words meant that I had joined the league of Fathers.

I didn’t join a fraternity in college. I was never part of any clubs in high school. Being a member of a group never particularly appealed to me. However, sharing the name “Dad” with millions of other men was all right in my book. I try to steer clear of the term “daddy” due to disturbing connotations from adult films and creepy old men with money in their pockets and young models on their arms. No thank you.

The third Sunday of every June is Father’s Day. In just a few weeks, I will be celebrating my eleventh. Strangely, there isn’t much hoopla surrounding the holiday. It didn’t become a national holiday until 1972. Mother’s Day, on the other hand, has been a national holiday since 1914. This is no surprise. Mothers become just that as soon as they learn they are pregnant. We dads often (even in our own eyes) don’t become fathers until we hold our children for the first time. To put it simply, we’re behind the curve.

There has been a shift over the decades in a positive direction, I suppose. The push to celebrate Father’s Day was originally proposed by a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd who was raised, along with her five siblings, by a widowed father. She recognized back in 1909 that a father can do whatever a mother can. I’m not saying we can do it well, but we can come close, by God. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I can braid my daughter’s hair. Granted, the braid falls out in roughly thirty-eight seconds, but there is a braid there for most of a minute.

With that said, there is a disturbing trend that still exists today. Go to any public men’s restroom in a restaurant or store. Look for the baby-changing table. I promise you, if it is not a federal building that must have one by law as of October 2016, you will be hard-pressed to find one. More times than I can count, I had to change my daughter’s diaper as a baby by first wiping up the disgusting bathroom floor in the handicapped stall and then laying down a mat I had to bring with me. Whenever I would ask these businesses why they didn’t have changing stations in men’s rooms, they always responded with an off-hand comment about them not being necessary in both bathrooms. Translation: Men are not deemed caretakers.

Likewise, taking my young daughter to run errands often resulted in receiving some semblance of a question from at least a couple women: “Oh, so Dad has to babysit today, huh?” I am far from some “snowflake” who needs a “safe space” from hurtful words. But I will admit that this question always irked me. Would that question be asked to a mother? No. A mother is watching her children. Caring for them. A man is seen as babysitting his children. The same rings true for fixing a child’s hair. My mad braiding skills notwithstanding, I legitimately rocked a pony tail like no one’s business (back when my daughter didn’t insist on having her hair down in her eyes at all times—now I know how my parents felt during my Grunge stage in high school). Women would look honestly surprised and tell me that I had done a good job “learning from mom” as though I could never have figured out how to pull strands of hair through an elastic band on my own without somehow decapitating the child. Translation to both of these examples: Men are not deemed caretakers.

I used to take great offense to these things. I used to ask myself, “How, in this modern day, are fathers seen as less than nurturing?” Seen as incompetent and uninvolved with child-rearing. Why?

The answer is simple: We need to do better, gentlemen. How many children are raised wholly by single mothers? How many fathers walk out of their children’s lives? How many fathers make other plans on the days they are supposed to have custodial visitations? How many fathers insist on being at war with their exes who happen to be the mothers of their children? How many fathers can’t list their children’s favorite colors or passions? What are the names of your children’s best friends? What size shoes do your children wear? What are they learning in school? How do you lower your children’s fevers?

A brutal reality was evident to me a few months ago. My daughter’s school held its annual Father/Daughter Dance. It’s an event that allows little girls to put on beautiful dresses and corsages to be taken on a date with the first man they truly love—Dad. As I stood in the gymnasium, I observed over a dozen fathers looking at their phones instead of their daughters. A little girl’s first date. A father standing with his face cast down into the technology in his hand instead of at the young lady who only wanted Dad to “see what I can do.” All around me, I saw fathers failing without even realizing it. To be there and to be present are very different things.

I am certainly not a perfect father. I could do better. I rarely take my daughter with me to pick up prostitutes or rob banks, but I could do better. Can you?

Happy Father’s Day, fellas. Let’s earn it.