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Each Birthday Brings Joy And Sadness

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My oldest child, Grace, turns ten today. The clichés have flooded through my mind for days now. Yes, they really do grow up too fast. Yes, I really would give very nearly anything to freeze her in time. (No, I wouldn't. Yes, I would. That's a cliché too!) Yes, I look at my daughter and feel as if my heart might burst, even as I realize that the years ahead will be filled with conflict and sadness mixed with the joys and happiness. Gone is my little baby, and here in her place is a young woman in the making. If I could spare her the pain of adolescence, I would gladly take it on myself, and my own adolescence was miserable. Still I would go through it three more times if my children could avoid it, except that I fear that the conflict and pain is key to growing up, as breaking out of the shell is key to building strength in baby birds.

I have reached for analogies, struggling to find a way to explain the odd mixture of pride and joy and sadness that flows through me on this day, but all analogies fail to express it in ways I could have understood before I was here myself. Perhaps, like the pain the adolescence, this is part of growing up.

My daughter is an artist. She has the soul of an artist, an artist's eye, and real artistic skill. She can sculpt, paint, and draw, and she even has a good grasp of photographic composition. Her bedroom walls are covered with her works in acrylic, oil, watercolor, and pencil. Her "studio" corner is piled high with works in progress and items of inspiration. Most children spend time creating art when they are very young, in part because we encourage them to do so. Eventually most of us find other things on which to spend our time, and stick with doodles in margins. Grace has passed through the crayon phase and the pencil phase and the doodle phase, and now studies great artists and attempts to duplicate their styles, building a foundation from which she will later develop her own style. I enjoy seeing her new creations as she brings them home from art classes or finally brings them out of her bedroom, and I wonder what place art will have in her future life.

Artistic skill is something Grace seems to have acquired from her mother; I never moved beyond pencil sketches. Much of Grace comes from her mother, which is one of the most interesting things about parenting: I am responsible for the care of someone almost completely alien to me. Right now she is a combination of inherent personality traits that are probably genetic, habits and character traits she has developed as a result of our parenting choices, and pure randomness, or as near as makes no difference. She's a product of nature, nurture, and culture, all three working together to produce someone both familiar and unpredictable. I'm proud of my daughter, even though much of her has little to do with me!

Now she has spent a decade on this earth observing us, learning from us, and seeing our successes and failures as well as how we respond to both. At ten, she is developing some interests that are entirely her own, some of them because they're entirely her own, as a way to express independence from us. Yet she still depends on us for nearly everything, and hasn't begun to push against that — though I see the seeds already.

I know a girl with much in common with my daughter. She is 17, and her father is concerned. He thinks she isn't taking her college application process seriously enough. She accuses him of trying to micro-manage her life. I see that pattern unfolding in my own house, and I wonder: to avoid repeating this, do I wander into another trap? When did parenting begin to have so much in common with a minefield?

When a healthy baby is born in the United States, most people see unlimited potential. We usually cannot conceive of that child as a criminal, so we imagine lofty heights and great accomplishments. In truth, very few rise to that level, and quite a few end up exercising their potential in ways that hurt others. Most babies turn out to be like you and me, living lives worth living but not necessarily studying for centuries. Every choice that child and that child's parents make contribute something to the person that child will eventually be. We recognize this truth at some level at birth, but the full weight of it settles in over time, as we see our choices take effect.

As the impact becomes clear, we are caught up in the joys of parenting, and every years is better than the one before. A baby who crawls is more interesting than a baby who doesn't, and a toddler is more interesting still. When she can talk, and then when she can read, the delights just grow and grow. When she can actually participate in a conversation, providing her own unique view, it's fascinating. And yet, at some point you realize that the good is now mixed with bad. As she gains wisdom and insight, she no longer giggles with complete abandon as she once did. As her tastes and interests mature, she shuns the toys and games you once shared with her. Something is lost, but for a while you still see every year as better than the year before. At ten, that is where we are.

Soon will come the more difficult years. She'll naturally want more independence, and yet won't have the experience of my decades on earth to make wise choices. The protective instinct that has been healthy up to now will become stifling in years to come. The choices become more important, with lasting consequences, and yet the wisdom seems to trail behind. She'll make choices in part based on my reactions, or her guesses about my reactions, rather than based entirely on the facts. I'll want to protect her, but I'll know she needs to break out of that shell on her own, even if it hurts.

Ten is old enough to see how the things that are purely joyful now can lead to sadness later. Will her artistic sensibilities contribute to the failure of future relationships, or can an un-tortured soul ever create truly great art? At some point family dinners and American Girl campouts won't seem like the best way to celebrate another year. I won't miss the American Girl campouts, but I will miss the family dinners.

All of that starts tomorrow. Today my daughter is ten, and I'm meeting her for lunch, then spending the afternoon on a project I can't reveal here, in case she reads this article before I get a chance to surprise her. Today is a joyful day.

So why are there tears in my eyes?

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About pwinn

  • My niece turns 10 in a few months and while I won’t pretend that being an uncle comes within 10 leagues of being a father, it’s doing weird things to me for a host of reasons, not the least of which is because I met her aunt (now my wife) within 2 weeks of her birth.

    It’s also doing weird things to me because I’m witnessing a lot of what you describe from a safer distance but close enough to feel pieces of this. It doesn’t compare, but this isn’t really a competition then, either.

    Phillip, this is a marvelous piece and you’ve done a remarkable job of giving voice to something that isn’t easily expressed. Oh, and Happy Birthday, Ms. Grace.

  • Thanks, Josh. I can report mission accomplished: she was surprised by the announcement that I’m taking the afternoon off to reassemble her and her sister’s beds into bunkbeds, as she’s been wanting.

    No, no competition at all. It’s somehow radically different when it’s your own child, but I do think you can get an idea of how it all works. Amazing stuff, life.

    My wife says I ought not to write such sad things. I say life ought not to be so sad.

  • Nice article, Phillip. The answer to your dilemma, of course, is to have another kid. Then you can go through it all one more time. Then again, after you go through the adolescent years you may realize that there’s a natural balance to life.


  • Thanks, Dave. I have three kids, actually, so I’ll go through all of this three times.

  • That ought to wear you out, Phillip.