It was a typical school day afternoon when I got a call from my daughter. “Dad,” she said in a monotone voice, “I’ve bled through.” I knew the seriousness of those words and I sprang into action.
“What do you need?” I asked like the head nurse of a MASH unit. She ran down a short list of items for me to grab out of her room and bathroom. “I’m on my way,” I said.
It was the first time anything like this had happened. Though she and I never had a formal conversation about the start of her “womanhood,” her mother notified me that it had begun days earlier. I was doubly conscious not to make a scene or embarrass my daughter.
Still, I drove to the school as though her life depended on my actions alone. Barely stopping at lights, and speeding through traffic like a NASCAR driver, I made it to the school in record time.
I met my daughter in the school office and handed her the double-bagged items she’d requested. “I’ve got the stuff,” I said, like a covert spy. “You go do what you need to do and I’ll wait here.” She quietly nodded in agreement, both of us trying to avoid drawing any attention to her “situation.”
A few minutes later, she emerged, handing me the bag of soiled unmentionables. We exchanged nods again and then quietly parted ways, her to her classroom and me to the car. I sighed a big sigh of relief. Crisis averted. Almost no one knew anything had even happened. I was proud of myself. It was a job well done, indeed.
Once home I dropped the bag of sullied garments on top of the dryer, dousing them with just a bit of hydrogen peroxide. I thought I would let them soak and then throw them in the washing machine later.
I was completely unprepared for what happened next.
I opened the bag to move the dirty clothing into the washing machine and let out an audible gasp. What I saw appeared to be nothing less than the slaughter of an entire innocent village, whose remains occupied a single Wal-Mart shopping sack.
“She’s been shot!” I yelled from the laundry room.
I dropped the bag on the floor and raced to the kitchen where I’d left my phone. My mind was reeling. I wasn’t sure if I should call her mother, or an ambulance to get her to a hospital. I paused. “How the hell is she still standing?!” I wondered aloud.
It turns out I was more traumatized by that experience than my daughter. I learned a lot more about “womanhood” than I ever knew before after conversing with her mother, who talked me down from the rafters. (Fortunately, I decided to make the “our daughter’s dying” call first.) I’d be lying if I said I don’t suffer from a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder to this day. But I guess that’s part of being a parent, isn’t it?
My daughter just turned 16. It’s a bit of a surreal moment for a parent when his child reaches driving age. Then again, not as surreal as the moment you realize they can reproduce, but let the hamster die because they forgot to feed him. At times, the sequence of responsibilities assigned to our children seems sorely out of touch with reality.
Then again, life is never really sequential, or linear for that matter. We teach our kids about responsibilities even when we can barely manage our own.
The funny thing is that I never wanted to be a father in the first place. Or at least I was impartial to the idea. After getting married, my wife struggled to get pregnant. I shrugged my shoulders month after month when she still hadn’t conceived. But the day my daughter was born something changed in me. I was instantly connected. I fell madly in love with her.
Yep, I became one of those doting parents who tells stories about his children to strangers who don’t want to listen, to single people who don’t care, and to other parents whose children are less attractive than his own. If she was a religion, I was her number one evangelist.
I still am.
The honest truth is that we parents really have no idea what we’re doing. We raise our kids based on hunches, what we think is the right thing to do, and our own dysfunctional upbringings. Fortunately, there is also that evolutionary inkling inside our brains that keeps us from eating our young. Sometimes I’m more surprised when I hear stories of good parents than stories of bad ones. The older my kids get the more complex the issues become. When I’m forced to make a decision I look their mother in the eye and confidently shrug my shoulders, offering a muffled, “I dunno.”
There is definitely more certainty when kids are younger. The goal is two-fold: keep them from getting killed and keep from killing them. Their daily choices are limited to what they eat, what they wear and which cartoon channel will occupy them the longest. I think this is all by design. It buys us a little more time to get our act together and come up with long term plans in the off chance they live to age 18.
The hardest part to learn wasn’t to trust my instincts, but hers. A bad grade, or a missed class doesn’t mean she’s disqualified for a college education, or that she’s given up my… I mean, her dream, to become a doctor. She knows who and what she wants to be more than I do. When I stop forcing her along the path I think she needs to take to get there, she seems to find a path that works better for her, and gets her to that place faster. Trusting people we love seems to be another one of life’s oxymorons. When we release control, instead of tightening it, they do better than even we envisioned. At least, that’s been the case with my children.
I adored my daughter’s smile when she was a baby and I adore her smile even more today. Not just because of how much money I paid for it, but because behind that smile is the same gentle spirit, compassionate soul, thoughtful human being and loving girl I held in my arms 16 years ago. Today, she is a young lady poised to take the world by storm and I couldn’t be any prouder.
For more stories, pick up a copy of Tim’s book, Everything I Learned About Management I Learned from Having a Kindergartner.