“Don’t ever grow up. Promise you’ll always be my little girl,” my dad told me one day when he pulled up in our driveway after a long day at work. I had just opened the driver’s side door for him and gave him a big hug.
“I missed you!” I said.
He told me that same phrase on numerous occasions that I can currently think of. I’ve blogged about another time before. Yet, no matter how many times he said it, I’m not a little girl anymore. I don’t run out to the driver’s side door to greet him when he comes home anymore. In fact, he is often home before me. I’m usually out at school, the gym, with study group friends, or on a date with my boyfriend of three years. I honestly cannot recall the last time I left my friends during a game of tag, sprinted down the street, and jumped into his arms to greet him when he came home. I remember those days fondly though, and my heart is saddened a little by the fact that though I am still the same in some ways, I am different now in other ways.
I’m grown up.
If you’re reading this now, it probably means that you’re grown up too. The things you loved as a child are in the past. Even if you still love them now, it’s likely that you have a job, school, or other responsibilities that keep you from going back to doing the things you used to do in those good old days like playing a game of kick-the-can, tag, or hide-and-go-seek while mom and dad were inside cooking dinner or tending to that little sibling of yours. Or maybe you don’t go back and do those things because your joints won’t let you! Whatever the reason, we all grow up; it’s just a fact.
When you look at the grand scheme of things, the years of childhood are in reality, very short.
I started thinking about this tonight when I was sitting in a rather high-end Japanese restaurant with my family, celebrating my grandmother’s birthday.
It was the bright red stiletto pair of heels I saw first. “Click, click, click.”
A little blond girl of about 7 years old waltzed down the aisle to the private room at the end of the hall where they could be seated on traditional tatami mats or pillows to eat their dinner Japanese-style. Her bright blue dress had sparkles embedded in it, and when she turned back to verify that her sisters and friends were in tow, I was taken aback by the amount of makeup and sparkles caked onto her face. Each of the six little girls to follow were dressed the same. Some of them had their hair professionally styled and pinned up, some had their hair curled in ringlets with bows, and almost all of them, except for the littlest, probably only about 4 years old, had makeup on. They had more makeup on than I had on, and I’m twenty.
Behind them followed three men dressed in expensive suits, presumably their fathers. Except for the one balding one, they had their hair greased and slicked back and removed their outer coats before taking seats side by side across from their daughters. “No mothers,” I noted. At first, I thought, “How, sweet, a father-daughter night,” but as the evening carried on, I couldn’t help but listen to the faint snippets of conversations that their voices carried across the room. The men were talking business the entire time. They were obviously way up in the food chain at some money-making company.
Then I thought, maybe they’re all divorced and have the girls for the weekend and decided to take them out to dinner.
The wedding rings said otherwise.
One of the fathers, who had been deep in conversation about business the entire evening, ignored his daughter attempting to get his attention. He ignored her for about the bazillionth time. Finally, he whipped his head over in her direction, raised his voice, and exclaimed, “STOP IT. I am talking about business here. You know you aren’t supposed to interrupt.” He made eye contact with me before he turned back to his co-worker. I felt bad for watching that happen.
The little girl slinked back in her chair. It would be one thing if she had been saying, “Dad, dad, dad” the entire evening, but she had been unable to capture his attention just once that whole night. Why take your daughters out to dinner if you were going to ignore them the entire time?
When he found a breaking point in his conversation, he turned to her and, in an exasperated voice, exclaimed, “WHAT? What is it that you have to say that is so important?”
She motioned to some item on the table, and I thought back to the many times I’d been so excited to show my dad what I could do bending a straw or folding the napkin or wrapper a certain way. It probably, in the grand scheme of things, seemed like nothing important at all. But I sat back and thought about it, and I realized that those were the most important moments those men could be a part of in their daughters’ lives. They wouldn’t be little girls forever.
For the rest of the evening, she didn’t bother her father again. She and the other little girls found safety, friendship, and comfort in each other, and I could see that a bridge was set ablaze in her heart that, if things continued on their course as they were in that moment, would lead to what might be a permanently damaged relationship with her father, if it wasn’t already.
It occurred to me then, as I began imagining, that the wives of these wealthy businessmen probably pestered their husbands enough times saying things like, “You don’t spend enough time with your girls,” or “Your girls miss you,” or “Why don’t you and the guys take the girls out for a father daughter night,” and because, a happy wife is a happy life, and because these men seemed like slaves to their women and to their jobs, they agreed to do it, figuring they could just spend the evening talking shop with their buddies.
It harkened me back to a time early in my childhood where my dad was offered a high-paying management position for a company he worked with at the time and he turned it down. He later explained to us that his family was more important to him than the money. He understood that I wouldn’t be a little girl forever, and that more money translated to more time away from me to earn it. He was more than happy to sacrifice that job position and many more that would be offered to him in the future, to take me in my shorts and my t-shirt (as opposed to a dress, high heels, professionally styled hair, and makeup) to a local diner to eat dinner with me and watch with amazement as I turned the scrunched up paper straw cover into a wriggling worm with a little added water. He was more than happy to spend his weekend at an eight year old’s soccer game rather than on a business trip so he could buy a bigger house or better car. He was more than happy to spend his income on private education for me so that I could have almost any chance to accomplish whatever it was that I wanted to accomplish. He was more than happy to spend his evenings after work playing mancala by the fireplace, quizzing me for a test, going on walks with me while I chattered about fourth and fifth grade drama, or to make a funeral for the family cat when she died. He was more than happy to do all of those things, and as a result, when I grew up and encountered more adult problems, there was an open communication between us, and I knew that I had a friend in my father, a counselor in him, and safety in him. I could talk to him about anything.
It was the small moments, coloring a picture, reading a story before bed, going grocery shopping with me, taking me out to ice cream or a surprise breakfast, going on walks with me, playing a board game and drinking cocoa with me on a rainy day, showing up at my soccer games on his weekends, or being engaged in what was going on in my school that counted. It was those moments that mattered most, much more than a nice gift he and my mom bought me on Christmas, a new pet or haircut.
There is nothing a parent can do can stop a child from growing up, but a parent can be there along each step of the way as that child grows.
As for those little girls at the restaurant in that wealthy city tonight, I have to wonder if they will always be their daddy’s little girls. Somehow, I think not, and I sure hope those dads see that at some point in the near future before it is too late. I can recall many business lunches I attended with my dad. I met some of his bosses’ daughters, or the bosses’ bosses’ daughters, swam with them in the pool, played at a carnival with them, etc., and I was always taken aback by the disrespect they gave their parents. I could never relate to their lifestyles and when I mentioned to my parents how mean those girls were to their parents, how their parents gave them everything they wanted, and how I was troubled by it, my parents took the time to explain to me the difference between quality time and earning money.
Money leads to temporary satisfaction, quality time spent with family leads to long term satisfying relationships. You can’t buy a relationship with your offspring. It simply can’t be done, and that’s what makes it one of the hardest jobs, I think, being a parent. A relationship with your child is the one thing that people cannot buy and it requires total investment and personal sacrifice. It is the culmination of all of those simple, seemingly insignificant moments that reap long term reward.
If you have a child, be it a 3 year old or a 12 year old, it is never too important to hear what he or she has to say, or to take a pause in your busy schedule (busy schedules will always be there no matter what) to play a quick game of basketball, a board game, or show them around at your office. You can never be too busy for a cup of cocoa and reviewing a book report, or too tired for a bedtime story.
You can never be too busy for those things because if you are, you’ll blink, and those moments will have disappeared forever.