Since the day we moved into our house, I have regularly snuggled my daughter Sophie for about 10 minutes before she goes to sleep at night. When she was younger, it was to help ease her fears over the creaks and rattles of her room when the lights were off. As she got older, this routine turned into an opportunity for the two of us to catch up on our days. I found out about how school was for her, and Sophie asked me questions about my job. For the past year I have tried to end this nightly routine. Whenever I expressed this to Julie, my great wife admonished me by saying, “There’s going to come a time when she wants nothing to do with you. Enjoy this while you can. Generally I pooh pooh this comment; I can’t imagine my daughter not wanting her dad around.
I vividly recall dropping her off for the first time at daycare when she was just two months old. It happened to coincide with my first day at a new job, so I was already a bundle of raw nerves. Letting her go and placing her into the care of people I barely knew was one of the worst things I ever had to do, and after I left the daycare, I had a meltdown in my car before finding the strength to start the car. I felt like she was already moving on.
In 2002, my son Jacob was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. While Julie stayed with him down at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, I took Sophie to preschool and went to work, then would pick up Sophie from preschool and we would drive all the way into the city to see them. It was a long, stressful week and I leaned on Sophie’s tiny shoulders (she was three at the time) to support me. She cried, missing her mommy, while I tried to put on a brave face so as to not scare her. I’m ashamed to admit that I lost my cool with my three-year-old. Amazingly, when I would hug her, apologizing for raising my voice, Sophie would pat my back and say, “It’s okay, Daddy.”
We got through that time together, though I was lucky to have the music of Badly Drawn Boy’s About a Boy and Patty Griffin’s 1,000 Kisses to free my mind from dwelling on things. If there is a moment when I felt like I made a unique connection with my daughter, it was during that time.
The end of the baseball season is my favorite time of the year. Sophie and I huddle on the couch to watch our favorite teams battle for a spot in the World Series. As I pace the room, anxiously waiting the result of every pitch, she’ll ask a hundred questions about the rules of the game, the players, the players’ numbers, the lingo, what an umpire does, strategies and the team colors. When I throw my arms up in frustration from her bombardment of inquiries, I quickly apologize and she responds, “It’s okay, Daddy.”
Last week, most of her classmates went on a weeklong camping trip, and Sophie didn’t want to go. She’s always had trouble sleeping over at friends’ houses, so a week in a strange cabin was too much for her. Still, she felt left out, and decided that come next year, she wanted to go on the school trip. Julie felt that in order for her to do this, she first had to conquer her fears of having a sleepover with one of her friends. What this means is getting accustomed to going to sleep alone and putting an end to our nightly snuggles.
I didn’t expect the pangs of sadness that filled me when she told me her plan. I thought I’d be happy that I didn’t have to help her settle and that we could have a normal conversation each night while sitting on the couch rather than lying in her bed. This was my first dose of separation anxiety: My little girl is starting to grow up.
Puberty looms on the horizon. I’ll be honest; I’m scared to death about the changes she’s going to go through as she grows into a teenager. It may be a couple of years away, but soon she’s going to start liking boys, and they’ll pass her notes and maybe (gasp) she’ll hold hands. I don’t even want to talk about what comes after that. I know how guys can be; I’m one of them. I broke hearts, and made rude comments, and wasn’t always the nicest guy. I wish I could protect her from all the bad things, but the best I can do is tell her I love her, comfort her in her low times, raise her up during her triumphs and always — always — tell her how much I love her. And maybe I’ll continue slipping songs onto her iPod when she isn’t looking, like this gem from 1,000 Kisses. Sophie may never realize that I think of her when I hear this song, but that’s fine.
Will we maintain the bond we’ve had since the day she came home from the hospital? Will she still want to hang out and watch baseball? Will I someday get to take her to a Springsteen show so she can finally scream out “Big Man” during “Dancing in the Dark?” Will she still draw me wonderful pictures that I can hang above my desk at work? Will she still ask me to snuggle her on occasion when the creaks and rattles of the house have stirred up some old fears?
I can only hope.