Robert Conway’s daughter is away at college. He needs to let her solve her own problems in her own way. And yet, there’s always love.
My daughter is in her first year at college. She made Dean’s List her first semester, and she’s doing well in all of her classes. That’s amazing, and I’m very proud of her. But she’s also crying a lot, and questioning herself constantly, and missing her home and her boyfriend and her friends from high school. That’s also amazing, and I’m very proud of her. It reinforces what I’ve always known, which is that my daughter is a sensitive, serious, and thoughtful young woman.
When we speak on the phone (her college is 5 hours away from home), she does her best to hide her pain and sadness. But as ever, her mother and I can hear her heart behind her words. It’s clear that she’s in the midst of an identity crisis, which is of course completely natural. Mostly, I think she’s disappointed with herself. She went to college with the expectation that she was going to wring every ounce of value out of the experience. She had visions of making dozens of new friends, and joining a bunch of clubs, and doing endless activities, and being excited and challenged by every single class, and going to amazing parties. Basically, she bought into the fiction told to us by every college movie ever made.
The reality, of course, has been different. She is still serious and quiet. She still has a hard time extending herself to new people. She is still preoccupied much of the time with what other people think of her. She is, in short, still herself… and this disappoints her. So she is isolating herself further, and it feels like she may be giving up already on having the college experience she wanted for herself.
As a father, this has been very difficult to deal with. The hardest part for me has been that I understand fully that I cannot solve these problems for her. I have to allow her the space to linger in this state of limbo. She is not my little girl anymore; she is a grown young woman. So I have to bite my tongue and not tell her specific things that she should do today, tomorrow, and the next day. I have to stay my hand and keep myself from signing her up for activities, from sending her endless research on all the amazing things she could be doing with her time at college. And so I’ve been left feeling somewhat impotent, knowing that it is not my place any longer to try to solve her problems for her (and maybe it never was, but that’s another article.)
Lying awake in bed last night, long after the rest of the house was asleep, I had a sudden realization that although I can’t do her work for her, and I can’t deliver her to the door of happiness, I do still have value to offer her during this phase. I can remind her of what I believe makes for a good and satisfying and rich life. If I can’t tell her what SHE should do, I can at least share with her some of the things that I believe EVERYONE should do. So I reached for my phone, and tapped her out this message:
Daughter, here’s what I believe you should do: Give love like it was on sale and going out of style. Get that tattoo you’ve always wanted. Laugh easily and way too long. Play your music LOUD. Get pierced if you want. Spend a little of your money and don’t regret it. Study another culture. Read taboo books. Watch art films in foreign languages. Go to a museum. Draw stuff. Write a journal. Sleep in. Forgive someone who hurt you. Then another. Then another. Take insane chances. Fuck conformity. Stop criticizing yourself. Rock out. Get in a fight if your reasons are just. Worship whatever you feel is divine. Read more. Work harder. Eat what makes you happy. Feed your soul. Dream crazy dreams. Piss someone off. Do whatever you’re avoiding. Underline passages in books and poems. Stay up late. Visit art galleries. Advocate for peace. Eat a donut now and then. Watch censored movies. Sweat often. Get dirt under your nails. Get over yourself. Kick the shit out of a fear every chance you get. Dance alone. Stay focused. Screw your expectations, and everyone else’s. Earn your money and save some of it. Set difficult goals. Pamper yourself. Love someone like your life depended on it. Honor the past. Create the future. Do your chores. Play with a dog. Avoid negative people. Vote in every election. Drink plenty of water. Smile at cashiers and waitresses. Introduce yourself to strangers. Make someone’s day. Be okay with being weird. Donate to charity. Forgive yourself. Tell someone a story. Sing for no reason. Notice the sky. Touch trees as you pass. Keep your belly flat. Walk barefoot. Stretch your spine. Get out of bed. Travel every chance you get. Don’t wait, create. Touch people often. Drink good wine. Order something off the menu you’ve never tried before. Play games.
Appreciate beauty. Have lots of crazy hot sex. Write poetry. Listen to good music. Drink tea. Learn a few good jokes. Abandon judgment. Ask good questions. Care about the answers. Observe. Shut the hell up and listen. Stretch every morning. Memorize at least one poem. Admit your fears, but never admit defeat to them. Make kids laugh. Notice the outsiders and give them love and acceptance. Never fear to be ridiculous. When driving, slow down. Wear flannel and slippers. Never own a scale. Know your own worth, and accept nothing less. Take long hot showers. Eat vegetables. Teach yourself a trick or skill or craft. Never pass up a chance to see the ocean. Be honest, but be loving first. Wriggle your toes. Rest when you’re tired. Stay clean. Give love when it is the hardest thing in the world to do. Never say no to chocolate. Get your heart pumping. Listen to your instincts. Do some pushups. Accept and respect others. Take breaks. Follow your lust without regard for gender or orientation. Deserve trust. Remember that the natural enemy of depression is motion. Skip the drama. Turn off your TV, laptop, and phone. Never regret a lesson. Cry freely and without shame. See a doctor if you’re sick. Bake cookies. Give gifts for no reason. Be soft. Give praise. Keep other’s secrets, but divulge your own. Give awesome back rubs. Seek kindred spirits. Study religions and philosophies. Talk with the elderly. Take walks at night. Constantly refine your bullshit detector. Figure out what heals your heart, and then do it. Ask for help and support when you need it. Leave love notes. Notice the sun, and the rain, and the snow, and the wind. Encourage youth at every turn. Embrace diversity. Hug people like you’ll never see them again. Watch someone you love while they sleep. Give approval, don’t seek it. Speak your love. Speak it again. Speak it still once again. Inhale. Exhale. Let go. Release. Persevere. Thrive. This is your life. Live it.
Learning to love and support a child who is struggling to make the transition into adulthood feels a bit like letting go of the steering wheel at highway speeds. I’m scared for her, and I’m scared for me. But beneath and behind that fear is also a sense of exhilaration. Look at her. She’s on her way. I wonder where she’ll go?!
Photo of author and his daughter used with permission. Photograph by Marty Ness.