“Happy Fifth Birthday, Daughter Julia!”

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April 14, 2012

Dear Julia,

Happy birthday, my love!

Today you turn five years of age. How well I remember the fear and excitement I felt around dawn of the day of your birth as your mother prepared for the final stage of delivery – the “calm before the storm.” That morning of April 14, 2007, as well as the weeks and months that followed, were so full of adrenaline, anxiety, fear, love, wonder, and exhaustion. We were all very new at this, you and I and your mother. We were just beginning to get to know each other.

It is now five years later. We know each other much better now. And you have already passed through many developmental stages – infancy, toddlerhood, pre-school. You learned how to talk, and then you learned how to read. You are potty-trained. You can swim. This coming August you will start kindergarten.

Let me say this bluntly: it has been a long five years for me, daughter Julia. Maybe you will only understand this when and if you become a parent someday. Five long years of sleep deprivation and financial strain. In extreme moments I have been as frustrated and angry with you (and your baby sister) as I have been with anyone in my life.

julia-2012Don’t misunderstand me: I never lost sight of the great luck I have had in two healthy daughters, and I always delight in tussling your hair or carrying you on my shoulders. But if parenting can be enriching, fulfilling, and life-giving on a spiritual level, on a day-to-day basis it often proves to be not much “fun.” As an adult, I can only play blocks for so long. Playgrounds are boring for middle-aged men, beyond any delight they might give their children. Often I count the hours until bedtime when I can finally have some time to myself. I see much less of my friends; interests and hobbies have languished. In the 80 or so years a person is alive, it seems 10 or so of these are given to us to take care of babies and young children – and in those years we have not much life of our own. We change diapers and pay the mortgage; we parent and we work. Our time is much less our own. And so it has been much more “you” than “me” since April 14, 2007, daughter Julia.

Since I became a father I have thought often of my mother in a similar stage of her life when she was a full-time housekeeper with three young children taking almost all her time and energy. At the time she lived in the frigid snow and cold of Milwaukee, Wisconsin far from family and friends. Although my case is not so severe, I can see she was simultaneously thrilled by the physical presence of her children while stretched by the demands placed on her, and depressed at being so isolated from the adult world. My dad enjoyed this stage of parenting much more than did my mother, but even he now freely admits that he looked forwarded to going back to the office on Monday morning. He could get a break from the unremitting demands of young children in the relatively stress-free job of a lawyer. I find myself in the same position now.

Again, Julia, it has been a hard five years.

I have always been a believer in giving full attention to something new at the beginning – especially difficult things. “What is well begun is half done,” goes the saying. Julia, you (and your sister) have had my best hours and my full attention these past five years, and I feel like I can see you clearly – when you are just a bit off, when you are sullen and wanting to fight, or happy and dancing and full of smiles – I can sense when the mood changes, and I can sometimes know what will happen next. This understanding has come from five intense years of watching and listening to you closely. In fact, Julia, I look at you today on your fifth birthday and I strongly suspect I can already see your strengths and weaknesses in high school – I might be wrong, but I doubt it. I will not rule out formative influences from your mother, myself (or other caregivers), but you were born with a temperament all your own that will change only so much and no further. That is how I see it now, at least. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. You have changed as you have grown and matured, but your core personality remains the same. Or so I seem to see it.

And I am so excited to move forward! I have a whole closet full of famous children’s and young adult literature for us to explore together. This summer you start tennis lessons, and I foresee hundred or even thousands of hours of tennis between us. (I have so many happy memories of time spent at the tennis club with my father!) I imagine listening to you opine on the characters of Elizabeth Bennett and Jo March. We shall journey through the Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and Little House on the Prairie series. How exciting to look upon these stories with fresh eyes, eh? I shall live in literature vicariously through you.

julia-eyesIn some ways you have already grown so much easier as a child than in earlier days. You put your own clothes on now unassisted. I open your door at bedtime, you get under your sheets, and I then I turn on a Harry Potter audiobook for you to fall asleep to. Then I kiss you goodnight (“I love you, my darling! Sleep well, and I will outside watching out for you all night! Relax, relax, relax! Go to sleep! Night, night!”) I walk out, close the door to your room, and that is that. This is so different from the bedtime battles we used to have when you were an infant and toddler. You can occupy yourself at home with your invented games and toys; we don’t have to watch you every minute, as used to be the case (and still is with your younger sister, Elizabeth Anne).

Historians talk easily of “change” and “continuity” over time. So it will be with our family, too. Stages of development will start and end; things will always change, yet remain unchanged. Elementary school, middle school, high school. Adolescence and then young adulthood. “Little children, little problems; big kids, big problems,” veteran parents remind me. They ominously warn the following: “Enjoy their childhoods, for it will go quickly!” So far the days have passed slowly and sometimes even painfully – but the months have flown by. In baseball as in tennis, they warn you to never take your eyes off the ball – to watch the tennis ball even before you take it out of the can.

And so, daughter Julia, for five years I have not really taken my eyes off the ball. I have watched you – I have come every time you cried in the night (or cried more than a few minutes, at least). I put you in timeout when you had your tantrums. (“I need to get some peace of mind!” you sometimes proclaimed through tears, showing masterful self-awareness, I thought.) I taught you how to swim. I taught you how to hold a tennis racket. I laid there in the dark next to you until you fell asleep at night for two full years (you would howl in outrage if I tried to leave before you were fully asleep). I taught you the alphabet and how to read. I wiped your behind and changed your diaper. I left work to make surprise visits to your preschool class just to watch you in action (and you glowed with happiness when I did).

I would argue this is what it means to be a “father” – not the mere biological fact of impregnating a woman.

And when you act out in adolescence, when you become willful or test the boundaries of family rules, this is why I will have the authority to say “no” and mean it.

But we can deal with these challenges as they arise in the future. You sometimes overwhelm me by wanting my time and attention so often – you put your arms up to be held by me and proclaim, “Daddy time! I want daddy time!” After a long day of work, sometimes I just want some peace and quiet. But I have never told you to go away and leave me be – never told you I had to grade papers or pay bills. (I would do that after you were asleep.) I remind myself that in future days when you are a teenager and I have become the epitome of “uncool” I might look back fondly on these early days – the times when you actually wanted to spend time with me…

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s enjoy the days of your childhood as they are upon us.

Happy birthday, daughter Julia!

Your Father

“Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body.”
Elizabeth Stone