Its 10am and Im sitting at my favorite coffee-shop table trying to write. A woman standing in line a few feet away calls out my name. I look up and she says, pointing, "Your daughters over there." And she is there, sitting with a friend, both with headphones on, drawing pictures.
One of the many strange situations I regularly have to deal with in my life as a part-time father involves unexpectedly meeting my children on "off" days, often with people that I dont know. In this case Id met her friend and her friends mother at least once, though I knew neither of their names. Its not unusual, though, to meet them in the mall or grocery store with someone I've never met.
I dont fear for my childrens safety or anything like that-- they have a good, attentive mother who takes all the proper precautions. But I still find myself taken aback at being confronted by my six year old childs second (or perhaps third) life. It is perhaps a too-early taste of the feelings of protectiveness and strange awkwardness that will surely accompany my childrens adolescence.
I walk over to say hi to my firstborn. She is surprised to see me too. She hugs me, tells me about the music she is listening to after getting batteries for her cassette player; I kiss her on the forehead and tell her that I am here doing some writing and that I will see her after school tomorrow. Then an brief awkward pause and I retreat to my table to get some work done and let her play with her friend.
When a close friend goes through unexpected changes, I find myself unable to help being concerned and perhaps a little agitated. After all, wed all like to think we know what is best for someone and that our opinions really matter to them. Ultimately, though, we end up having to learn to live with the fact that our influence and knowledge extend only so far-- and hopefully keep the friendship intact while we figure such things out.
As my own children mature Im finding that a similar attitude is necessary. While I remain perversely thankful for the lessons learned from some rather traumatic and dramatic changes in friendships over the years, when it comes to my relationship with my own children it remains a process I am unsure I can ever full understand. Unlike even the closest of friends, I have a tie to my children that supercedes all else. And unlike dealing with friends, when the lesson to be learned is one of the limits of ones responsibility for others, accommodating my role with my children involves learning that while my responsibility has no limits, my control definitely does.
This paradox is one that all parents must learn (in their hearts as opposed to just in their heads) to accept when their children become young adults-- but it is fundamentally different when the need comes not as a result of a child taking charge of her own life, but other people taking charge of her life for you.
I cant control the beliefs my children will come to through their mother and Ive learned from painful experience the difference between actively opposing such views and presenting other alternatives by just being myself. I cant control who their mother chooses to have friendships and romantic relationships with and, thus, who my children end up spending a lot of time with and Ive learned-- again painfully-- not to attempt to meddle in such affairs. All I can do is try to be a good father when I am in that role and go on with my life when I am not.
The real difficulty is borne of the difference between doing something and coming to terms with the contingencies and realities which make that 'something' necessary. The former I am doing as best I can. The latter may always remain a trying mystery.
I watch my daughter, silhouetted in the window, talking with her friend and her mother. I resist the urge to keep trying to make eye contact, to play any kind of attention games. I admire her quick movements made with the effortless grace of the young child, realizing anew that she and her brother are part of the only perfect things I can ever hope to be a part of.
I try to work for the next half hour, but find myself unable to. I can feel the presence of my daughter and I become caught up in the primitive emotions that lead me to write this piece and the more complicated, but unashamed, pride as I see other people noticing her playing chess and smiling at her extensive vocabulary. It feels strange to have kissed her forehead and walked away, to be sitting across the room like another stranger, but I take comfort in the fact that this is my daughter, that I played a role in making her the beautiful thing that she is.
An hour later I'm still sitting, watching but not watching. She rises, still talking to her friend, and slips out the door without a glance in my direction, without even saying goodbye.