A Father’s Love: It’s Complicated, and Quite Simple

“Daddy, is there going to be music for us to dance to, or did you just trick me into coming to a party?”

It’s our first Daddy-Daughter Dance. In the corner of the gymnasium, one particularly stressed-out father is fidgeting desperately with an iPhone and the big speaker to which it’s attached. The speaker remains silent.

father's day

Photo Credit: GeorgeRudy (Bigstock)

Meanwhile, the rest of us dads stand in a ring around the gymnasium. We’d prepared ourselves for the awkwardness of dancing in front of other men, but it turns out talking to each other is just as awkward. While we pretend to be comfortable in our own skin, our daughters are turning the gym into a beehive of little girls and pink, popping balloons. Caitlin is right—it doesn’t look like a dance; it looks like a party. On meth.

Caitlin is seven and I’m 40. Yet, 33 years of additional life experience have left me no less confused than her about the nature of this night. She’s now wondering if it’s a dance or a party, but from the beginning of the night what I’ve been wondering is this:

What is my job here?

When your little girl goes out with her momma to get her hair styled for the dance and walks in the door, looking at you with a big expectant smile on her face, do you gush about how adorable she looks—because she does look adorable—or do you tell her that her truest, most enduring beauty lies on the inside, where time is powerless to make it fade?

What is my job here?

When she goes into her bedroom with her school clothes covered in five kinds of food and craft stains, only to emerge in a white dress with a shiny silver belt, looking like an angel with dimples, do you tell her how lovely she looks—because she does look lovely—or do you tell her that while her dress is pretty, she won’t be able to purchase worthiness or belonging or anything resembling a beautiful life in a department store? Do I act joyful about her dress, or do I tell her the truth? Joy doesn’t reside in the fabric of her dress; it resides in the fabric of her soul.

What is my job here?

When we climb in the car, do I open the car door for her? When we arrive at the restaurant, do I open that door for her, too? In other words, do I model the respect she should expect from a gentleman, or in doing so, am I modeling that men are strong and women are weak and men are the gatekeepers and she will always need a man to open the doors of life for her?

What is my job here?

As Caitlin grabs a balloon and joins the frenetic mob of girls, do I follow her and play along, or do I stand back and join in the awkward conversation with all the other dads? This decision seems to encompass all the others, because it harbors the fundamental question: as her father, am I here to make her feel like daddy’s adorable little girl, or am I here to encourage her to be a strong and independent woman?

What is my job here?

I choose to step back and talk to another dad, while Caitlin runs into the fray. But, at the same time, I make another conscious decision: while she runs free and plays, and while I’m doing something else entirely, my eyes will never leave her. While she is out there being her own person, she will be able to look at me and know that I’m still paying attention and I’m still interested, because she is worthy of attention, worthy of interest.

Surely enough, mid-balloon-pop, Caitlin suddenly looks over her shoulder, right at me. Our eyes meet. And her smile widens until she is all dimples. In that moment, all she needed was to know her daddy was watching.

What is my job here?

My job is to watch—to watch her become the young woman she is already becoming. My job is to rejoice in the beauty that can be seen on the outside of her and to remind her of the beauty that can only be found on the inside of her. My job is to help her when the doors are too heavy and to remind her that eventually, if she continues to believe in herself, she’ll be capable of opening any door a man can open. My job is to be right there with her and to step back and watch when she’s ready to play in the gymnasium of life all by herself.

And regardless of what she chooses to do, my job is to never take my eyes off her.

Suddenly, the speaker in the corner comes to life, and an anthem of female strength comes blasting from the speakers, beginning with the phrase, “Like a small boat on the ocean,” and concluding in this crescendo of lyrics: “My power’s turned on, now I’ll be strong.”

What is my job here?

My job is to love my daughter protectively, because she is a small boat on this big ocean called life, and my job is to help her turn her power on and be strong.

As the speaker plays its music, Caitlin runs to me, styled hair bouncing, white dress flowing, dimples popping, and she drags me onto the gymnasium floor, where we dance like no one is watching. Because she doesn’t care who is watching.

And all I care about is watching her.

* This post originally appeared in MTL Magazine (Summer 2017) and is published here with permission.

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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.

15 thoughts on “A Father’s Love: It’s Complicated, and Quite Simple

  1. Dr. Kelly, I love that you know how to help your daughter grow up with a solid feeling of self worth. As a father, you are doing such a great job in seeing that she will know to look inside her for her great strength and confidence, and that is where her beauty will shine from whenever she is willing to share that true beauty with others. This is something that has been and is so lacking in so many women nowadays. Without that, we try to get by by playing roles, but that is not being who we truly are. Underneath that false persona lurks so many women with a terrible lack of self worth. As parents, we just don’t know how to help our own children, we did not get that help ourselves. You are breaking the mould for us all.

    • Beverly, thank you for your kindness. One of the things I’ve been saying a lot lately is, we can only take our kids as far as we’ve gone ourselves. We have to reconnect with our worthiness before we can help our kids maintain their existing connection to their own worthiness. I hope I can do that for Caitlin. I know some days, I don’t do such a great job. Hopefully the good days outweigh the bad!

      • And that is the other thing I appreciate very much in your, your great honesty and transparency in sharing where you may feel you have not always done a good job. In other words you are not afraid to take responsibility for all your actions, decisions etc. But also important not to beat oneself up about it. These are all things I have been learning over the past 10 years. What a shame we are not usually brought up that way from the beginning, and can’t blame our parents, they knew no better also.

  2. My opinion…How I’ll continue to raise my daughter…
    1. Tell her she’s adorable like I do all the time (not leaving out times when I let her know she’s stinky, grumpy, irrational, or otherwise not so lovely)
    2. Tell her the dress is lovely (not leaving out that she needs to take care not to get the outfit messy showing respect for her things and how I think modesty is best and she needs to respect herself too)
    3. Open the car door and the restaurant door and the school door (ensuring she understands that those are just doors and she’s NOT just a girl but someone so worthy that any person capable of recognizing her worth will be the one holding those doors seeking to give all their effort to show their adoration for her) – Besides, if I’m not there opening doors for her now, how will I ever encourage her to be there opening doors for me when I’m old?
    4. Grab a balloon and show her how to dominate at balloon war (because that’s what I know and that’s me sharing myself with her)
    5. Show her how to dance without any music and possibly how to march to the beat of her own drum
    6. Always watch her
    7. Tell her how sometimes I’m scared to see her grow up and sometimes worried about how the world will try to harm her, how sometimes I need her smile and her strength to get through a moment.
    8. Always share my love and pride and hopes for all the good I want her to have in her life.

  3. Happy Wednesday, Kelly.
    The best compliment I’ve received in regards to parenting (besides raising kids that have become awesome human beings) was from my Mom. “You avoided the mistakes we made; you made your own!” 🙂 At the time I thought “I can live with that”
    Sounds like you’ve discovered the secret: Your job here is to be Caitlin’s dad. It is super-stressful because; not only are there no good “how-to books”, even if there were there is no one else on the planet with this specific task.
    Fortunately, you have lots of help. All you need, actually. You’ve got a good partner in Caitlin’s mom. You also have great instincts that serve you well. Especially since you’ve done the work to let go of the things from your own upbringing that get in the way of those instincts. I suspect you’ll “make your own mistakes” and that you’ll be ok with it. For those of us who truly desire to be a good Dad there is nothing better.
    Trust your help, trust your kids and trust yourself – especially in those moments when what your heart tells you seems to fly in the face of conventional parenting wisdom.
    Keep rocking it,

    • Mike, I feel like you just did some really good parenting of me. I’m touched. Thank you for taking the time to do that. Thank you for being you. Thank you for doing the hard work to become you again. Here’s to making our own mistakes…

  4. That was beautiful! I have a son rather than a daughter but thank you, I think a lot of that can carry over to him too; and to me, hoping that I’ll be enough of a father to allow him to grow up to be the right kind of man.

  5. I love every bit of this, as usual. Thank you not only for asking the questions, but also for your own thoughtful answers. And thank you, too, for not fearing to acknowledge awkwardness for what it truly is.

  6. So I have a daughter – a bit older than Caitlin – my Sydney is now 14 going on 15 – or is it 25? Somewhere between where you are with Caitlin and where I am with Sydney there is a change – one that I anticipated but didn’t know how exactly to prepare for. It is/was the time when she doesn’t need me to be watching and she doesn’t want me to scoop her up in my arms like she is a little girl. Watching her become a young woman is incredible to witness. And becoming a dad to a young woman is my journey now. I a trying to grow with her – and not to keep her as daddy’s little girl. It is easiest when I get out of my own way – and embrace the new role that I can play. Perhaps I am now a sounding board – that would be my dream – that she would trust me to be a source of perspective and – perhaps – wisdom? Every step of this journey as a father is joyful. Perhaps it is because it forces me to keep changing and learning.

    • I love this, Glen, and thank you for that encouragement from a little farther down the road. And I think you may have hit on the key to being joyful as a parent: if you like being challenged, changing, and learning, it’s about as good as it gets.

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