When my wife and I married, I wasn’t a big fan of children. They were ok. Over there. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them, I just wasn’t around them enough to know if I liked them. When my wife said that she wanted to have a baby, I was ok with it. We were a good team. Together we could do anything. So we consummated our love by bringing a new human into the world who was a combination of our genetic code. And it was good. So good, in fact, that we had another. I would have probably started much sooner had I known just how fun it was to be a father.
We have two daughters. They’re both beautiful and funny and smart and good human beings. No, they’re not perfect. And no, ours isn’t a perfect life. But we love each other pretty hard, and I’ve learned over the past 14 years that that’s the most important thing about family. Everything else is just for show.
As she was growing up, our oldest was like my shadow. Whenever you saw me, you usually saw her. Our youngest has gravitated to my wife in that way. It’s a good, natural dynamic. And, as it turns out, personality-wise, our oldest is a lot like my wife, and our youngest a lot like me. Funny how that works out. Anyway, things were good. As good as they could be. And life moved along like life does.
Then one day last summer, our oldest woke up as a different person. My doe-eyed golden child with the friendly disposition had changed into a cynical, sharp-tongued fiend who could cut with her eyes. She was 13.
What had I done? Who was this new person? Where was my little girl?
As the weeks wore on, I endured wave after wave of attack. Summer thankfully gave way to fall, and she and her sister went back to school. And things died down a bit. But now, instead of being ok with a pair of Nikes and a hoodie, she wanted fancy pants from American Eagle, and boots with laces. Oh, and a commercial-grade straight-iron for her curly mane.
I kept my distance for the most part. Making small talk whenever it felt safe. But whenever I’d resort back to the fun-loving Dad who wrestles his kids and sometimes picks on them like a big brother, there was a 50/50 chance I was going to get ripped to shreds.
And I don’t handle that well.
I grew up in the Deep South (below I-10) where children didn’t speak out of turn. A lot of that rubbed off on me as a parent. And it’s a good thing too, because my wife grew up in New Jersey and is pretty liberal about raising children. This is what makes us a good team.
But it doesn’t help with the fact that I’m literally surrounded by hormonal women right now. And when our youngest starts to change, I may take a dog and move to the mountains. Because frankly, she scares the shit out of me now.
Still, I love my family more dearly than words can describe. Which is why it breaks my heart every time our oldest heads to school and I see a look in her eyes that says, “I’m leaving.”
Then she comes home, and sometimes the conversations go like this:
Me: “I wish you could hear yourself. You sound like a teenage cliché.”
Her: “Well you sound like a cliché too. ‘I’m an angry writer who hates America.’”
Her: “I’m sorry, did you just blame me for something that I wasn’t even here for?”
And sometimes it’s not even spoken words.
And then there was a conversation that took place a couple of months ago which I’ll never forget. We were in the kitchen on a Saturday. I don’t even remember what we were arguing about. Probably me not letting her go to a sleepover or something.
“You don’t know what you’re doing as a parent!” she said.
I paused. I didn’t really have a comeback for that.
She sensed that she had me. She leaned on the counter and took a hard bite of an apple as she casually looked out the kitchen window.
“You’re right,” I said, finally. “I don’t. But you want to know something? None of us do. Your friends’ parents? They don’t know what they’re doing, either. That’s the thing about parenting, you just rely on your intuition and make the best decisions you can.”
She didn’t expect that response. And for a second, her eyes softened and I saw my little girl. She loved her Daddy again. And just as I thought we were going to meet in the center of the room in a loving embrace, her head spun around on her shoulders and she shot back, “Well, you made a bad decision.” Then she turned, marched into her room, and slammed the door.
God help me.