Friday, June 11, 2010

Words Dads Long to Hear

Meagan and I spent a day on campus at the University of Georgia, the college she hopes to attend next year. We toured the classrooms, the stadium, met with a few faculty members, and peeked into a freshman women’s dorm where I had to explain that the stack of menus on the foyer table were not for room service, but from the local restaurants that offered dorm delivery. After our tour we went to lunch at a café near campus and I entertained her with stories about how much fun my two cousins and I once had years ago while attending the same university.

Before long I noticed my staunchly self-reliant, independent teenager sat quietly across the table from me, fiddling with her salad. “Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Will you come visit me?” she asked.

“Of course I will,” I answered, “at least once a week.”

She started to choke on her Arugula. “Ah, that’s a bit much,” she managed to get out.

It didn’t matter. My little girl had just told me she would miss me when she leaves home. We would reach an agreement later about how often I would be “permitted” to come to visit, but for the moment I got something I had been hoping for – reassurance she did not think leaving home would also mean leaving me behind.

Over the previous couple of years as Meagan became more independent she also became less willing to turn to me for what she needed, and even less willing to accept my affection. I tried to convince her I should be permitted to hug and kiss her at will; I was, after all, her father. She didn’t budge and it took me too long to realize my persistence only solidified her conviction. The more I tried to maintain our affection, the less of it I received.

I’m not sure how I finally got the point, but eventually I did and my gestures of affection were replaced with text messages and occasional brief hugs. I preferred more, but I was learning to be happy with what I could get. Any affection was better than none.

By the time of this lunch I had begun to worry about what place I would have in her life after she left home. I thought she was eager to get away from me, a dad who all too often had been accused of hovering far too much.

I had this worry because just days before I had received an email from a twenty-three year old woman who admitted that although she only lives fifteen minutes from her parents’ home, law school consumes nearly all her time and she rarely sees her family. What little free time she does have she spends with her fiancée. She wanted advice on how to help her dad understand that things were changing between them; she loved him still but just couldn’t see him as often as he wished.

It seems her dad was having a difficult time dealing with the realization that within a year his daughter would graduate from law school, begin her career, get married, and live as an adult. I recognized his quandary - he thought he was losing his little girl.

Strangers, we were, that father and I, yet we had something in common – we do not want to go through the pain that seems to follow the distance all daughters eventually place between themselves and their fathers.

If the natural course of growing up ended with daughters boldly cleaving from the protective oversight of their dads, an act which to him feels like having his heart ripped out with a blunt gardening tool, fathers would probably do everything possible and anything supernatural to prevent his child from aging beyond her seventh birthday.

Fortunately, the inevitable quest for independence does not signal the end of the daughter-dad relationship. My friend, Dick, reassured me of this as he shared his memories of his own hurt and frustration as he dealt with Jenna, his determined and independent daughter.

He, like any good dad, tried to discourage his teenaged daughter’s willful behavior, rewarding good conduct and issuing consequences for the bad, including grounding her and denying her favorite privileges. She simply dealt with him in her usual determined way, which more often than not meant she simply ignored him and did what she wanted anyway.

Jenna entered her college years with great enthusiasm, and dad surmised it might be because she was excited about finally breaking away from his parental influence or attempts thereto. With mixed emotions, he drove his daughter off to college, convinced it was the beginning of the end of their tenuous relationship.

As he expected, Jenna’s phone calls home were few and far between. Some days he even wondered if his only role in her life was to pay tuition. Four years went by quickly and then one day he found himself back on campus, this time to watch his daughter graduate. It was then he noticed that something about Jenna seemed to have changed. She appeared happy to see him, and even touched him as they spoke. Afterward, she began calling home, sometimes with specific objectives in mind, other times just to talk about anything that was on her dad’s mind.

One day she asked for his advice as she launched her first professional job search. When she landed that dream job, she called her dad before anyone else to thank him for his advice and encouragement. Soon she began to say other things Dick thought he would never hear, but had held out hope for.

After she moved into her own apartment Jenna started talking with her dad more regularly than she did back when she lived under his roof. Some of her phone calls were just to say hello, others were when she shared news about her efforts to establish her place in the world. She started visiting home every Sunday night for dinner, and in time, she sent her dad an email thanking him for being her “best friend.”

His story gave me hope that one day Meagan, too, would send me such an email. My thoughts returned to the law student who had written me a few days earlier. She had said, “I will always need him, even though he is no longer the only man in my life. Actually, I need him now more than ever.”

“Then go tell him,” I wrote, “I’m sure there’s nothing else he’d rather hear you say.”

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