I don’t write too much about my life as a parent on this blog, because it was never really intended to be that kind of blog, and because I like to keep my kids at a very low profile when it comes to the public internet. This blog essentially exists to chronicle my life as a writer and an expat.
But lately my thoughts as a parent have begun to divide and multiply at a frenetic rate, and threaten to spill out of my head and onto the floor any day now. This must be what happens when you reach that stage of parenthood when your children start the long exodus away from being just your children, and into being their own individual selves.
I came to fatherhood late in life – 50 when our first was born, and 53 when the second was born. If my life has been a pattern of anything, it has been a pattern of blooming late. I was nearing my mid-30s before I even got on a decent career track. I was 40 before I finally chased my dream of experiencing more of the world by picking up and moving to places I’ve always wanted to live (NYC, California, abroad). I married at 45.
So I spent a whoooole lot of years hearing friends and family talk about how quickly their kids grew up. I nodded my head and did my bachelor-dude best to understand. But I never really understood it until recently, within the past couple of years.
I had always viewed it from this perspective: Before you know it, your kids are out of the house and off to college or the world at large. I’m sure that’s true, and thankfully we still have another several years before we experience it as parents.
But what I have also learned is that the phase of detachment happens a lot sooner than the actual physical detachment.
Two years ago, our oldest daughter was still a little girl. She would run downstairs and hang out with me in my office, ask if I wanted to play a game (usually chess or poker), try to keep me in her room longer when I said my long goodnight.
Then, out of nowhere, around the age of 11, it all seemed to stop in a flash. She was no longer a little girl. She no longer wanted to play the same games, or hear the same jokes. She no longer came downstairs to hang out. She often seemed very anxious to be alone.
I was not prepared for this, and took it kind of hard in the beginning. I asked other parents about it, friends of mine. Did they experience something similar? How did they handle it? What messages did they take from it?
Well, they had all experienced it. Because that’s the cycle of life, and it’s the same pretty much everywhere, and for everyone. I was advised to not take it personally, to not wallow in self-pity. Be a parent, be a father, but adapt to the change and accept it.
So that’s what I’ve tried to do. Give her space. Adapt to the change. Be a parent – but a parent of an older child who had moved onto the next phase of life. Accept that they are only little kids for so many years, and then they stop being little kids forever.
It helped to click on my own personal way-back memory machine, to when I was 11 or 12 years old. I remember how it felt to want to be left alone, to carve out my own place in the world. I still needed my parents – but more on my terms than just theirs. To this day I still need my parents. I still seek my father’s approval, still want to hear his voice an ocean away (our mother passed on several years ago). When Dad said he really enjoyed my novel, the thrill I got from hearing that surprised even me. Like most men of his generation, he was not given to laying on the praise.
Not too long ago our oldest daughter got the COVID vaccine. She’s not crazy about shots, and it was an ordeal for my wife to get her to do it at the clinic. I was with our youngest daughter at the time, playing games in an arcade because it was her birthday.
Anyway, our oldest daughter got the vaccine. But it freaked her out a little. The nurse was obligated to let my daughter and wife know about the potential side effects. We told our daughter she’d be fine, the percentages are very, very low that anything could go wrong. She’s a math and science whiz, so we figured this would calm her, using math and science. But it might have had the opposite effect. She is someone who likes to process things logically and rationally – and the logical part of her brain told her that when a nurse runs down a list of potential side effects, well…
She was afraid – and she almost never gets afraid of anything. She remained that way through the day and night. She was uneasy about even going to sleep. I laid in bed beside her and told her I’d hang around a little while. When it seemed like she’d finally dozed off I gently tried to tug myself up and leave. But she woke up and asked me to stay.
“Do you want me to stay all night?” I asked.
She said yes.
So, I agreed to stick around. It reminded me of when she was still in the crib. I would have to lay outside the crib and hold her hand until she fell asleep, then gently tug away so I didn’t wake her. Because if I woke her, she’d cry for me to stay.
Same thing this time, all those years later, only without the crying. I tried to slip away around 3 in the morning, but she woke up and said don’t go, stay. I stayed the night.
A couple of months later she is back to pushing me away when she doesn’t want to be bothered. She’s nearly a teenager now – thisclose. Do you remember when you became a teenager? A weird and magical place, but mostly weird.
But this I know: She still needs her Daddy. She hangs out more with her Mom, which is great to see, a near-teenager who hangs out with Mom. But she still needs her Dad. Every now and then she’ll hug me out of nowhere, and the tides shift, my friends.
That’s a terrific blessing. Yes, it is.
Our youngest daughter has been much more of a Daddy’s girl in many respects. She likes to bounce around with me, jump on my back, toss the balloon back and forth, play catch, run and laugh and goof and call me names.
Now she’s approaching the age when she seeks more time by herself, when she is developing her own worldview, and needs her space to absorb it all. She writes, draws, watches videos, makes her own videos, sings, conjures up her own world. She won’t be a little kid much longer.
I’ll know what to expect this time. Back off, give her space, adapt, accept, etc.
The clock ticks on and on, and we are helpless to stop it.