A Daddy’s Letter to His Little Girl (About How Fast She’s Walking Away)

Dear Little One,

We have this unspoken ritual, you and I.

When we pull up to the curb at school, and you disembark for another day in kindergarten, we both know I’m going to idle there and keep an eye on you, until you disappear around the corner of the building. Some days, you walk briskly, never looking back.

Other days, you meander, turning and waving goodbye repeatedly.

Then, when we pulled up to the curb one morning last week, I said, “Sweetie, we’re here really early today; you’ll have plenty of time to play,” and you said something that squeezed my heart a little too hard:

“We have plenty of time for you to watch me walk away, Daddy.”

parenting

Photo Credit: erix! via Compfight cc

Oh, Sweetie, if you only knew: that’s what I have done, am doing, and will be doing for your entire life…watching you walk away…

I remember a summer morning at a playground, when, for the first time, you ran toward the slide and didn’t look back. I remember wishing you needed me, and sadly-gladly knowing it was good you didn’t.

I remember that first kindergarten morning, you disappearing into the big, cavernous school, teeming with strange kids. I remember losing sight of you in the hallway of crowded children and knowing it was the first of many times I’d lose sight of you in this crowded world.

I remember the first time you asked me to drop you off at the curb. I remember the purpose with which you walked toward the school, pony-tail bobbing, backpack bouncing, not looking back. Five years old, walking boldly around the corner, as if twenty-five was just around that corner, too.

Oh, Sweetie, I know I’m watching you walk away.

I just don’t feel like there is plenty of time for it.

A month ago you needed me in the pool with you. Today, I watched you swim from end to end with no help at all. You are walking away, and you are swimming away, too.

Three months ago you needed me to read you bedtime books, but something clicked for you recently, and now you’re reading Pinkalicious as if you wrote it yourself. You’re walking away, and you’re reading away, too.

A year ago, you depended upon me for lunches. Now, after school, you climb up on the counter and make a sandwich out of a holy mess of PB&J. You’re walking away, and you’re eating away, too.

Before long, that first date will knock on our front door.

And I’ll watch you walk away.

I’ll watch you grow up and look more and more like your mother—you have her chin and lips and cheeks and that same lone-spiraling curl which kisses the corner of your right eye on its way down. But unlike your mother, who seems like she isn’t going anywhere, I’ll watch you walk away.

First, down graduation aisles.

Then, probably, a wedding aisle.

You’ll turn the corner into jobs and paychecks and, if your current passions are any prediction of your future decisions, you will turn the corner into motherhood and nurturing and caring for children of your own. I’ll watch you walk away into your own season of parenthood, into your own season of letting go.

Then, I pray, one day as you’re idling at the curb and your little one walks away—turning one more corner into his or her own life—you’ll think of me. I hope you’ll pick up your phone and give me a call. I hope you’ll walk back home, so we can talk.

About how there is not even close to plenty of time for watching the walking.

About how we get distracted and forget to watch.

About how we wish it away and choose not to watch.

About how we can’t create more time, but we can cultivate the quality of our time.

About how we can watch more carefully.

Dear Little One, I pray one day you’ll walk back home, so I can let you know: I watched you walk away as closely as I knew how.

Yours then, now, and forever,

Daddy

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Kelly, I seem to have gotten something in my eye! I positively delight in my kid’s new independence moments and each new challenge he meets, because I know it’s important for him to see me celebrate who he is, who he is becoming, and the obstacles he overcomes along his way. And when we look back at pictures of the littler guy he used to be, I frame my stories for him so that he hears how much I have loved being his mama at every stage and every age, because it’s true and because I want to see him grow into each new age confident that this is an adventure I am glad to be his mama through. For this morning, though, with the stinging your writing has brought to my eyes, my heart with gratitude that he hasn’t decided he is too big to sit on my lap or hold my hand.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Shel, this is such an encouraging and wise reflection. Thank you. It is SO important for the kids to see us celebrating their growth and independence, and also okay for them to see a little of our sadness about the parting–it assures them they matter. Reminds me of a book my wife uses with kids in her psychology practice: Double Dip Feelings. So much of parenting (life?) involves double dipped feelings. : )

  • foundmercy

    Maybe off topic but your line where you said it SEEMS like your wife isn’t going anywhere stood out to me. This whole post, then, was a reminder to me of why the husband-wife relationship was described first in the Bible, and then later came descriptions of parent-child relationships. I am only just now expecting a child, but even as I feel my baby growing inside my own body, I know for a fact that this baby will grow up and become his own person and that my time to be ‘mama’ to him is limited. I will always be the woman who gave birth to him, but I don’t plan on raising him to be dependent on me forever. Yet, with my husband, there is no preparation for a future without us together. That was what our single lives were about: learning independence. We’ve both been responsible for the whole she-bang on our own before and while we both did OK we absolutely enjoy having each other to fill in gaps and enhance each other’s skills. He was there before my little boy and, God willing, will be there long after my little boy has become a man of his own. Although — I am super excited to become a mama to a human baby! I’ve been mama to my first baby kitty for almost 19 years and THAT baby never grew up 😉

    • Kevin

      I for one, off topic or not, am glad to hear what you said here. Too many couples split after the kids move away. Too many child-centered marriages fail, long before the children move out. Sounds like you plan on keeping your husband second to God. Your child(ren) will be well served.

      • drkellyflanagan

        I’m with Kevin, all topics are fair game, and this one is a particularly important one. I used the word “seems” very intentionally, because in my experience, when couples assume their marital stability is a given, they start to take a lot of other things for granted, too. In fact, I decided earlier this week I might write a post on this idea. Thanks for the nudge to do so. More soon!

        • Kevin

          I would love to read it when you share it.

  • Beautiful. Well written.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Rene.

  • Patricia

    Oh my goodness, such a touching post! As a parent of an adult i can tell you that the process of watching her walk away continues. It has been a joyful, confusing, painful and privelege to see her through this journey. Thanks for sharing!

    • drkellyflanagan

      It is such an encouragement to me and others to hear the paradox of parenting described with such poignant words: joyful and painful. Confusing and privilege. And to be reminded it doesn’t end in childhood. Thank you, Patricia.

  • Kevin

    That was heart touching Kelly. I am a stay at home dad from day 1. I am father to five amazing kids, girls and boys alike. I have moments where the schedule is hectic, the kids are spent and on each other, and I feel I am on my last nerve and drop of coffee. Then, there are those moments. The moments where it feels calm. Where I can see the little child in each, doing the kindest, most amazing things, and I feel a smile from my heart. They range from 2-1/2 up to 11-1/2. They are acrazing (crazy and amazing at the same time) You captured that feeling in what you just wrote in a way I never could. Thank you

    • drkellyflanagan

      Acrazing! You just captured my entire experience of parenthood in a single word! Love it. Thanks for your example, Kevin, and I love what you say about the little child in each. It’s such a tender image. Thanks again.

  • Sue Ryder Scott

    Great post…. I am watching my “baby” walking into her 21st birthday….and remembering with gratitude every minute I watched … and every time she ran back and gave me the “best hug ever”…. and other things like the hundreds of nights I gave up my own books for reading “her” books (I would do it again in a heartbeat) …and the pride you describe when she crossed those milestones when she didn’t need me anymore…. Our children are indeed gifts….whom we are tasked with making independent ….. You wrote what everyone of us feels…. thanks for sharing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Amen, Sue. Gifts we are tasked with giving back. Thank you for wording the reminder in that way.

  • Shannon

    thank you for the reminder of impermanence

    • drkellyflanagan

      Shannon, you’re welcome, and thanks for perceiving that theme in this post. I chose the picture for that reason. 🙂

  • SM

    I loved this post! And all the letters you’ve been writing to your kids! I really marvel in them…and I feel the same in so many ways….
    But there is one little thing that bugs me… being a mother myself…. and it may sound stupid… but it’s when we are doing these future projections, we hardly ever think that they may choose very different paths… Maybe she will grow to be a lesbian (ok; whe can still get married -finally!), or a transgender, or not ever marry and be happily single, maybe she won’t have kids, maybe she will become a zen monk or a christian nun….or just do her own thing whatever it is on her own and not in the path that we’ve taken… I am always afraid that when they grow older and listen to us, or read us, they might think that we expected them to do the “expected” and that we will find it bad that they didn’t…

    • drkellyflanagan

      I am so on the same page with you. As a therapist who works with adolescents and young adults, I’m keenly aware of how normative assumptions can have a painful impact on the development of kids’ identities. So, for what it’s worth, I put in the word “probably” on purpose, as a nod to the statistical odds, and remembering that now, in Illinois, if she is not heterosexual she can still get married. And I also added the clause about her current passions influencing her future preferences. I took out a line about her having her own babies, because it’s possible she won’t be able to, and, if she wants to have a child, she may have to enter motherhood through adoption. And all of that trajectory she appears to be on might change in a heartbeat; hopefully, if we’re watching closely enough, we’ll notice and make the adjustment with her!

  • Catherine Martinez

    Gosh, that was so poignant and sad that it brought tears. I felt the sweet sorrow of life going too fast, of our children not needing us anymore, and it made me sad. It’s good that they grow up and become independent, but it’s sad because it’s another chapter closed and all the while becoming closer to our chapter of life ending. Well written, as always, Dr. Flanagan!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Catherine. “Sweet sorrow” is such a perfect phrase to describe this whole process. Thank you for that, too!

  • Jack Tacchino

    So true. But I must add that one day my wife died and I had to watch her walk away too. So hug that precious wife of yours every chance you have! I truly love your posts, they have helped me so much. Thanks.

  • Paul walsh

    There’s a song / poem in there somewhere! How sublime insightful and beautiful.

  • pianobeth7

    Breaking my heart….one daughter graduated and in college, another daughter graduating high school. My son taller than his dad, manly, 14. He was my little buddy just yesterday. My other son, 8, tall, handsome. We adopted him into our home at 9 weeks old. My other adopted special needs son walked away to Heaven in 2012. 4 1/2 years blessed to care for him. Letting go so hard.
    The Abba song, “Slipping Through My Fingers” often runs through my head. Thank you for vebalizing so well the walking away our kids do, the letting go us parents do (and our kids also – it’s hard sometimes to leave childhood to teenhood to adulthood)….Blessings!

  • Susie

    Really touched ♡Kelly…adore your sweetness and tenderness and ♡LOVE-ing heart……definitely “Sweet sorrow”

  • Maria121212

    Beautiful post! Your writing brought to mind a song I used to listen to when our boys were young–Turn around slowly- http://youtu.be/iyh1k50NvR0 I hope others enjoy this song as much as I have enjoyed it.

    Thank you so much Dr. Flanagan for creating this beautiful blog and creating a space to build a community of others striving to live a life of gratitude, presence, and love.

  • Maria Tablon

    Beautiful and bittersweet. I am a mother of four. My third child just moved out…talk about letting go. I, myself, can remember clearly the time my son no longer looked for my face in the crowd for reassurance in one of his taekwondo tournaments. It always breaks my heart to cook his favorite dish and realize he’s not home to enjoy it. Thank you for putting all these feelings into words.

  • Dave Hortin

    3 beautiful kids, grew up and moved away…900 to 1000 miles away in 3 different directions. I’ve seen two of them once in 5 years, the other once in 6 years. Don’t tell me of “a Broken Heart” we encouraged our kids to live and be brave, there is a big beautiful world out there. They took our advice, and moved away from Utah the day after graduating from college. Knowing how MUCH they DID NOT WANT to live there lives here. It was so sad seeing them leave. Had to hide my broken heart, and swallow my pride… remembering that there are only two everlasting gifts we can give our children… the first is life…the second is wings…………..

  • Gill Raker
  • MKS

    Thank you, Kelly. One of the greatest joys of parenthood is watching your children grow into beautiful, amazing adults with lives and families of their own…but ,at the same time, one of the most heart-wrenching and difficult experiences of parenthood. I have 4 adult “children” (you are very familiar with my youngest, Kelsey), ages 39 to 31, and although I rejoice in the adults they have become, and the grandchildren they have given me, it is still so hard to watch them walk further and further away from “needing” me.

  • disqus_nutj2xaWU6

    Supremely touching. One of the most difficult situations of parenting.

  • Patricia Kazim

    Lovely words. My daughter flew away but thanks to technology I can see and speak to her daily and my grandchildren – and it is them that walk away now 😢 I did a great job – I did it right

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  • Christie

    All of your posts I’ve read, Dr. Flanagan, have been so uplifting, insigtful, and practical in reminding me to slow down, unplug, and be in the moment. When I experience my girls (5 and 7 years) discovering new skills and self-confidence I am filled first with satisfaction, and then with a hope that the way I support and nurture them keeps pace with their growing independence. I am sure I feel this way because of my own upbringing (thanks mom and dad!) because I don’t feel as if I’ve flown away from my parents or no longer need them. I’ve always depended on support and guidance from them (in various dosages), from the first PB&J to navigating the challenges of transitioning from child to adult, and eventually through the leap into parenthood. So, despite having moved out, navigated college, married, moved away and started my own family I’ve never felt like I walked too far away from my parents. I’ve just needed their support and guidance in ever evolving ways–in fact, now as a fully-fledged adult I’d say we have a reciprocal relationship in many ways, but that I still have the comfort of knowing whatever challenges I face as I age they have already lived through their own decades of family life and will certainly have a sympathetic ear, if not sage advice. So, when my girls surprise me in their suddenly too small pajamas, or with a clever solution to a problem, or because they don’t need encouragement to leave the safety of my side to explore someplace new, I know our relationship is evolving much in the same way mine did with my parents and I hope I can cultivate a close relationship with them that withstands the time and distance they walk away.

  • Pepper

    Yes, it’s true. We raise our children to be independent. Then, for my hubby and I, we are surprised when our child moves across the country to pursue her future. Now, a mother herself, we travel 7 hours by plane to see them. Our time together is joyous, but it’s so hard to leave them.

  • Melanie Werni

    There was a day when my Son was ‘down in the dumps’ and I asked him what was going on. He told me, with tears in his beautiful eyes, that, “All I want is to be a better Father than I had.” My Son won. He is a GR8 Daddy to his awesome Daughter and wonderful Son. They are who they are because he won. This year BOTH his KIDDO’S graduate from college. He’ll be turning around slowly for quite some time. Fortunately for him, both will be sticking close to home and he’ll be ‘keeping it all in perspective’, knowing with PRIDE that he won…he is better for it. AND, his KIDDO’S were lent to a well deserving man.

  • Kim McNulty

    Sitting in the car with my daughter (age three) in her carseat in the back. This song comes on the radio, and the moment becomes one of those indelible memories for this Mama, tears rolling down my cheeks while watching my little girl singing and playing. I wanted time to freeze as she grew, but it flew by. She’s grown now, living far away and thriving in her life. I’m blessed that we have a close loving relationship, and each of us have times of tears running down our cheeks… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLyGae5mYoo&nohtml5=False

  • Grace

    Weeping, lovely, thank you!

  • Magnolia Slimm

    I’m going to keep this for the future. My little girl is 5 months. Beautifully written piece.

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