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.

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.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.