I’ve never won the lottery, but I consider myself a very lucky man. Not only am a married to an amazing woman, but we’ve been blessed with four kids (at last count). Even luckier though, I have two daughters. Please don’t get me wrong — I love my sons dearly, and I admit that a father’s relationship with all of his children is vital. But there is something different about daughters, and not just different about them, but even the bond I have with them is inherently different from what I have with my sons.
As an example, I’ll freely admit that I’m more protective of my girls than my boys. And it’s not from some misogynistic view that girls are more fragile or weak. To me, girls represent all that’s beautiful and sacred in the world, and that makes them inherently more magical. Onyx and diamonds are both strong, but only the diamond sparkles. It’s like that for me. Little girls just sparkle, and not in a lame-ass Twilight kinda way. They radiate beauty, and I don’t want to see anything tarnish that. I want to guard all of my kids, but the tone of it is a little different. Hurt my boys, and I won’t like you. Hurt my girls, and I want to rip out your lungs and make kabobs out of them.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending one of my favorite events on the Hernández Family social calendar: the annual Father-Daughter Dance at our elementary school. Actually, it’s called the Knights and Princesses Dance since some girls don’t have dads available to escort them, and there is certaintly no need to throw that back in their pretty little faces. Anyway, as I danced away the evening with these two beautiful girls, I looked around the gymnasium and I was struck by two thoughts:
1. I am rich beyond my wildest dreams in all the things that really matter.
2. The majority of dads appear to have a different opinion as to what really matters.
Listen, I don’t pretend to be Confucious or anything, but I do know that Step One in making somebody feel important, valued, and special, is to pay attention to them. You know, invest your time in them. I know these men at the dance must know that, because if they didn’t they never would have been given the opportunity to reproduce in the first place, if you get my drift. As fathers, we hold our daughters’ hearts in our hands. Like it our not, we are the ambassadors of all masculinity in their lives. We show them by example what men are like, and we set the standard for how men should treat them. Their understanding of a woman’s value to men comes from us. Every day we shape how they see men, women, and themselves by how we interact with both them and their mothers. That’s an awful lot of influence we can have on the lives and in the hearts of these little girls. Here’s what I do: I think about what kind of man I would want my daughters to marry — how he loves her, looks at her, speaks to her, encourages her, laughs with her, comforts her, values her, compliments her, smiles at her, honors her, affirms her, protects her, cherishes her, and sacrifices for her. And then I try my darndest to be that man. My desire is for my daughters’ future loves to have to work hard to usurp my place in their hearts, not for them to merely fill a vacancy I left there. In other words, dads, set the bar high.
As fathers, we have that power, and we can use that power as a blessing to our daughters, or as a curse. But there’s a catch to the blessing; it is a limited time offer. Our time of influence is a very small window in their lives, and that knowledge weighed heavily on me at the dance. My oldest daughter will be venturing off to middle school next year, making this night somewhat bittersweet. This was our last Father-Daughter Dance.
For eleven and a half years, I have had the honor and pleasure of walking through life with this girl. And I have to say — and perhaps this is a bit of an understatement — in my eyes, she is quite possibly the most wonderful person to ever walk the earth. Since the day she was born, I have looked at her (stared at her is probably more accurate) with a deep sense of wonder and amazement. I’ve changed a lot during my lifetime, most of it gradual and steady from the influence of people and experiences in my life. Her birth, though, was like a cataclysmic meteor impact on my Cretaceous Life. There was no way to adequately prepare for it. First off, we had decided to keep our baby’s gender a surprise. Secondly, labor for my wife is less of an oppressive, grinding, arduous journey, and more of an insane freefall, like a cinderblock being thrown from a plane. And so, in what seemed like an instant (granted, I didn’t push a softball out of my privates without medication), I was a father to a tiny baby girl. As I held her in my arms, I remember feeling a little fear and a little awe. But those feelings were drowned out by a love so intense that I thought my heart had ripped open and the very essence of my soul was on display for the world to see. I felt raw and exposed, and oh-so unqualified. Who the heck was I to look after this beautiful girl? Then I spoke to her, and she responded. She knew my voice. In my doubt, it was she who reaffirmed me:
I know who you are. You’re my daddy.
Just like that, I knew I could do it. And I was going to be the best daddy you’ve ever seen. I was going to love her, and rock her, and feed her, and talk to her, and play with her, and laugh with her, and dance with her, and hold her hand, and brush her hair, and we’d have all sorts of crazy adventures together.
For the first few months, I would just hold her and stare at her constantly. Every night, my wife would feed her and then go to bed for some much needed sleep. Being a more natural night-owl, I would stay up and give her a bottle for the next feeding. How I cherished those late night hours, just me and my baby girl. We would play and talk and giggle together, and try to be quiet while my wife and 11 year old son slept on. As she got a little older, her head would move like a bobble-head doll while she looked at the world over my shoulder. So that’s what we would call her — our Little Bobble-Head. After her maternity leave, my wife went back to work part-time as a NICU nurse. She worked 12 hour shifts, so she went in early and came home late. That meant it was my job to take Little Bobble-Head to daycare a couple of days a week, and let me tell you, that was one of the most heartwrenching things I’ve experienced. I can’t adequately express how much I hated dropping her off at somebody else’s house when I went to work. I would drive to the office with tears in my eyes and a knot in my stomach. If my wife worked on a weekend, I got a long day with my little girl, and we would play, and go on walks, and run errands together. One of my favorite things was setting up action figures on the floor so she could play the hysterical role of Giant Mutant Baby attacking the Justice League. When she was 13 months old, her daycare provider gave us a three month head’s-up that she would be unable to keep us on so we had time to find someone else. As luck would have it, I knew the perfect person, although he was a bit of an idiot sometimes. So I quit my job as a staff graphic designer, and went freelance, because there was no way in hell I was going to keep leaving my sweet little girl with anybody else.
That’s been my self-employed life for almost eleven years. Since then, we’ve added two more kids, moved to a bigger house, and faced the challenges and complications of life along the way. Through it all, I’ve been there every step of the way for all of them. And it’s all because of a daughter’s grip on her daddy’s heart. I was there to meet her at the bus stop in kindergarten and first grade. I was there when she rode her bike down the sidewalk without training wheels — and I felt the combination of pride and heartache as I watched her ride away from me. I consoled her after countless “break-ups” with her best friend across the street, all the while shaking my head at the emotional drama that only girls can create. But that’s part of their charm, even though frustrating at times. As a man, I get boys. This may come as a shock, but I actually used to be one. So I understand them. I know what makes them tick. But girls are not intuitive to dads. They’re a bit mysterious to us, kind of like their moms still can be even after years and years together. Truly, I’m grateful for those differences, because I’ve learned so much about life in general that I would never have known without daughters, like:
1. How to do a basic braid.
2. Baby dolls are kind of creepy.
3. The Barbie movies are terrible.
4. I can’t friggin’ hula-hoop to save my life.
5. How to spell barettes.
6. Wipe front-to-back.
7. $$$ for American Girl dolls > $$$ Cocaine Addiction.
8. Who the hell Taylor Swift is.
9. Skipper is prettier than Barbie.
10. Nothing on this planet comes close in sweetness to the hug of a little girl.
I’ve also learned a lot about myself with daughters, namely that I am a big ball of mush under my “rugged” exterior. So at the dance, when the time came, my first grader excused herself to get a snack, just like we had discussed. I had told her in advance that the last dance was reserved for her big sister, and she would get me all to herself for the dance the next five years. Then I danced with my now big girl. Our last dance at our last dance. I held her tight and I thought of the little girl who would dress as a princess. I thought of horsey and piggie-back rides. I thought of butterfly and eskimo kisses. I thought of footie pajamas and Dora the Explorer. I thought of zerberts and uncontrollable giggles. And I thought that the next time I dance with her like that will probably be at her wedding. My little girl is no longer a little girl. She is growing away from me. I held it together and escorted my lovelies home. After tuck-ins, and after everyone had finally gone to sleep, I went downstairs to my study, sat down at my desk in the dark, and wept.
There are those who will say, “Get over it. She’s not yours. You don’t own her. She’s not your property to give away to another man one day.” They clearly don’t have the faintest clue of what a father’s love is like. I know I don’t own her. In fact, just the opposite is true. My daughters own me, to the very depths of my soul. And I understand what that role entails. They are entitled to take every last bit of my love and my life so long as they want it. But from the outset I knew that they would eventually outgrow me, little by little, until they moved on to chase their dreams elsewhere, like Emily does to Jessie in Toy Story 2. And one day, they’ll briefly return to me, and I will walk them down the aisle, and then I’ll find my place in their donation box. On that day, they will give me away, not the other way around.
So the years went by, I stayed the same
And she began to drift away, I was left alone
Still I waited for the day, when she’d say “I will always love you.”
Lonely and forgotten, never thought she’d look my way,
She smiled at me and held me, just like she used to do,
Like she loved me, when she loved me
When somebody loved me, everything was beautiful,
Every hour we spent together, lives within my heart
When she loved me.