I am still getting used to the fact that my daughters are now full-fledged teenagers, and soon will be actual women. It has been hard for me to accept the fact that they are growing into young women, even though it apparently has been going on for quite some time now, right before my eyes. I suppose this is just another adjustment I need to make, and hopefully soon, before they are out of the house and living on their own in New York City, working for an ad agency and calling me up to meet them at Union Square Café so they can introduce me to their latest investment-banking boyfriends.
Being a father was so much more, well, easy I guess is the word, when they were little. When my daughters were young I had much greater confidence in my fathering abilities. I knew I was a good dad, plain and simple. Not to sound arrogant or presumptuous, but it somehow seemed back then like being a father was more defined, more of a sure thing. I knew what to do.
There is a certain rhythm to parenting little children, even though you are mostly sleep-deprived and the house is always a mess and you barely have a minute to remember that you once had a vast expansive life all on your own. But I knew better what was expected of me then – especially how to talk to those little girls. They had their basic needs of course: food, bathing, sleep, a few toys and a TV; and then you had to make sure to keep them on the routines of bedtime and meal time and bath time and school time. The rest was filled in with playing and goofiness and adoration: tossing them into the air, holding their little hands as we walk through the park, carrying them on our strong shoulders, and tucking them into bed at night with a story and a prayer, placing their beloved stuffed animal just so.
And then there was the discipline – oh, how easy the discipline was when they were little! I was so powerful, with a full deck of disciplinary cards in my back pocket to hold over them, to keep them on good behavior. There was the time-out, the stern voice, the ability to swoop them up and physically re-direct them. And sure, they could scream and tantrum and embarrass you in the supermarket, but the bottom line was you were a lot bigger and you (hopefully) had a much stronger command of the English vocabulary, thus you knew you were pretty much in control of the situation. Plus they needed you.
I have so many fond memories from when my girls were smaller – before they had their periods – when they adored me and snuggled with me and laughed at all my stupid jokes. They obediently did almost everything I told them to do. There’s nothing like a precious, naughty little girly daughter for a dad to love. The memories of those days are etched forever in my mind. In fact, whenever I speak on the phone to one of my girls, I still picture them at the peak of precious childhood innocence: one is frozen at six years old, and the other at nine.
Even though they’re closer to fourteen and seventeen now, in my head, in my imagination, they are forever captured in the golden years of childhood. There was Lilly with her soft-as-a-pillow skin, her silky long black hair, and that cute little speech impediment. (She couldn’t make the sounds of s, f, j, l or r until she was in second grade. I loved it. I recorded her voice at age three as I made her say: “See the fox run.” “Hee da ha wung.” It was very sweet). And there was Sophie with her porcelain face, golden curls, and that innocent enthusiasm for exploring everything around her.
I used to make up stories and games, because the girls were such a great, adoring audience for my bizarre sense of humor. Sometimes I ended up laughing harder than they did. But, alas, these silly little games can only go on for so long before the girls start to think they’re completely ridiculous, even embarrassing.
Soon enough, the inevitable happens. They get older, smarter, opinionated, independent, and quite adept at text-messaging at lighting speeds. The parent is no longer the center of the universe, as the orbiting children are now pulled away by the enormous gravitational force from the massive cluster of peer-group friendships. These friends are now seemingly omnipresent, thanks to the accessibility of Facebook, instant messaging, texting and cell phones. In this new universe, the parent is no more significant than a passing asteroid that circles every 80 years or so. A quaint point of interest, but not relevant. Or so they’d like to pretend. The problem is that the parent hasn’t participated in this shift, and generally doesn’t see it coming. Our world hasn’t changed much, at all. We’re still the parent and they are still the child – they’re just a lot bigger now.
The thing I worry about most as a parent of teenagers is that I am no longer sure if we still have a relationship. Sure, I’m still their dad, but it has become so much more awkward and difficult to just simply talk with my girls. The other day I noticed that the bulk of our conversations are more like one-sided commands: “Clean your room.” “Get your homework done.” “Finish the laundry!” “Feed the dog!” Or, when you are in a gentler and more patient frame of mind, they are posed as questions: “Did you feed the dog yet?” “Have you finished your homework?” “How many times have I told you, no texting or computer until you’ve finished your homework!” “How in God’s name can you leave a wet towel on the floor every single morning no matter how many times I tell you to hang them up in the bathroom?!” Things can get out of hand quickly, because these commands must be repeated several times daily, or else the tiny speck of order and discipline we think we have will implode like a black hole. We just want them to learn to take on a few responsibilities, right?
The sad truth is that our teenage children generally don’t want to talk to us anyway. When I make an attempt to take an interest in my daughters’ lives, asking a few innocent questions about what’s going on in their world at school or with friends, what I mostly get is rolling of eyes, a deep sigh, and a snap back with a one-word answer, like they are too bothered to spend the energy it takes to respond. That’s probably the biggest disappointment in raising teenagers: they don’t want to talk to us anymore. We are no longer relevant to their lives. We are not cool. They don’t need us anymore.
It hurts sometimes.
But despite those dark moments of doubt that have overshadowed my fathering abilities, thank God, at least my wife is there to reassure me. I hope she’s right. And to my girls’ credit, they at least will write some very thoughtful notes in the cards they get me for birthdays and Father’s Day, telling me how much they love me, and how wonderful they think I am. Well, I guess it is true that I do spend a fair amount of time carting them around, if that means anything. And Lilly will still let me scratch her head when she goes to bed sometimes. We all enjoy watching an episode of The Simpsons together occasionally. And we can still get to laughing real hard from time to time when I do those stupid tricks with the dog.
To further reassure my worried self about my deteriorating fatherhood skills, I have created a new file in my brain called “Reasons Why I am A Good Father.” I fill it up with memories, images, and conversations. These will become evidence of my competent fatherhood skills, as if I am preparing for the day when the Dr. Dobson police will break into my house and interrogate me.
Compiling the Dad brain-file, I recalled an event that, upon reflection, stood out above all the others as the pinnacle of sacrificial love of a father for his daughter. “How could I have missed this?” I thought to myself. Yes, I reasoned with newfound confidence, this is the stuff that myths, legends, and Dreamworks movies are born from, and it’s been going on in my household all the while! This surely sets me apart from the rest, and signifies that I have passed the ultimate test of fatherhood – at least for those of us with daughters.
It is called the “Period Purchase” test.
This is the one where the dad has to be willing to run out to the store upon emergency request and purchase his daughters’ maxi-pads, tampons, and other feminine gadgetry without complaint. The reason I know I’m a good Dad is that last year I went to the grocery store with my twelve-year old daughter for the sole purpose of helping her pick out the right pads.
I don’t remember where my wife was at the time, or why I was chosen for that moment. But there we are at Safeway at 7 on a Tuesday evening, staring at a huge wall of feminine hygiene products which offered a cheerful array of colorful selections. It’s overwhelming. We slowly began to make sense of the vastness, narrowing down by category, attempting to decipher the correct choice. She reaches for a box.
“No honey, not those – they’re not the right colored box. Remember? It’s blue and green?” She puts the box back and reconsiders the wall.
“These, dad?” I examine the packaging closely.
“Oh, no, not those… those are overnights. You don’t need all that padding. Hey – look at these. Here it is.” We hold up the package and study the color, the cartoon depictions of its contents, and the secret-code product description.
“All right, honey, I think we’ve got the right one here. Okay?”
“Oh – and don’t forget to get the tampons, too. You need both.”
I honestly don’t know why they need both, but for some reason they do. We pick up a couple of other items, since we are at the grocery store, before making our way to the register. Now, only a truly experienced man of the world such as I can boldly approach the cash register with feminine hygiene products and not show the least bit of self-consciousness or humiliation. I do not flinch.
I get in line and glare at the shoppers around me. “What the hell are you looking at?” I am focused, determined. I am the proud father of a beautiful young teenage girl!
I imagine the women standing in the lines nearby, watching me as I confidently pull out the Always package from my shopping basket and casually toss it on to the moving belt.
“Awww, look at this, Sheila!” one would whisper to the other. “He’s buying pads together with his daughter! I’ve never seen anything like this before!”
“What a fantastic father!” the friend replies, as the virility of her own husband diminishes in her eyes.
“Not just fantastic,” I reply to my imaginary admirers. “I am Dadtastic!”
The cashier rings us up. Batteries (bleep!). Light bulbs (bleep!). Snickers (bleep!). Maxipads (bleep!). Tampons (bleep!). Sixteen thirty two? Here ya go. It’s just another trip to the grocery store for me, ladies.