My eldest daughter turned 18 last month, a milestone loaded with implication and emotion. As her father, I felt an intense (self-imposed) pressure to mark the occasion appropriately, to acknowledge my genuine love and pride as openly and honestly as this emotionally repressed East Coast WASP could manage. Certainly, this was the moment to pull out all the stops and come up with something more meaningful than a handshake and a slap on the back.
My wife has said that having two daughters (before a son) was karmic balancing. She believes there were important life lessons I needed to learn: I grew up in an apartment full of brothers and attended all-boys’ schools.
My brothers and I were physically energetic, rough, and competitive. Our favorite indoor games were Gladiator, Five Fingers of Death, and the Blob. These games took place within the concrete confines of the largest bedroom. We all suffered our share of bumps, bruises, some blood, and a few broken bones. When one of us was hurt badly enough to summon my mother, she would inspect the wound calmly and decide whether stitches were required. Usually, she advised us to take an aspirin, admonished us not to get blood on the carpet, and pleaded with us to “please calm down before someone gets really hurt.”
So, empathy is not my strong suit. It was never modeled. Feelings were seldom expressed in my family and rarely considered. We did not tell each other “I love you,” and crying was an option, but only in cases of extreme anger or pain—never as the manifestation of feelings.
Throughout most of my marriage and the lives of my kids, I have been emotionally evasive and rarely available. If I had feelings—loneliness, sadness, even joy—they were repressed. The problem over the years was that I sought to stuff everyone else’s feelings as well, because they made me uncomfortable. Like a lot of men I know, my instinct was “Let’s not talk about it. Let’s just fix it.” You can get away with that when you’re single or in the boardroom, but not when family comes into the picture. Especially girls.
My wife was right about the karmic balancing. Gradually, my two daughters’ loving, demonstrative natures did chip away at my bunker. I learned to tell my kids that I love them—first as a response to those words that came so easily from their lips—but eventually unprompted. I learned to allow them to cry, no matter how unbearable it was for me, reminding and assuring myself that it wasn’t my job to wave my magic Daddy wand to fix their emotional wounds.
It is only recently, though, because my marriage was forced into crisis, that I have started the hard work to locate my own heart, daring to expose it ever so slightly and allow some old, raw feelings a chance to breathe. I am evolving but have a long way to go. I am still emotionally awkward and suppress much of what affects me. Certainly, I shy away from overt sentimentality.
Back to my eldest’s birthday. How does this emotionally stunted dad express his deep love, respect and gratitude to his daughter at this seminal moment in her life? I know many parents (given the wherewithal) cover it with an extravagant gift like a car or a trip (“See, that’s how much I love you. Enough said”). And I can relate to that instinct, but (a) I am not Mr. Gotrocks, so Christmas in Zermatt isn’t going to happen; and (b) call me old school, but I am of the belief that a gift made with imagination, by hand, is a thousand times more meaningful than one that is bought. (Not that my daughter wouldn’t appreciate a new car.)
In the end, after consulting with her wise mother, I did only as much as I could: (1) I told her I love her and am so proud to have her as a daughter; (2) I put together enough cash to buy her something really nice; and (3) I hugged her for as long as she could stand it.