If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall. – Nadine Stair
I wish I could have a mulligan, a do-over, with being a father. I wish I could go back in time about 12 years and start again. I would have done it differently. I would have been a better dad.
Last week was spring break for the University of Kansas. Caitlin, who will be nineteen-years-old in May used her time off from class to accompany me to New York City. I attended meetings during the day, but my daughter and I were able to spend time together in the evening. It was a good six days. I hope Caitlin would agree.
When Caitlin was younger, my life was centered around my career. I didn’t want to be bothered with the details of everyday life like helping with homework or being accessible to love and discipline. I took good care of my family’s material needs; just not the emotional ones.
My daughter quickly distanced herself from me. She craved my attention and wanted me to love her and set boundaries for her. Caitlin had a simple and perfectly valid request – she wanted me to be an engaged and fully-present father.
When she was ten years old, Caitlin washed her hands of me. She was tired of waiting for me and she was tired of being disappointed.
The years that followed were strained and uneasy ones. She would get just so close, before pulling away. Her trust was limited and guarded. Time does heal most wounds, I would think, and given enough time she would come back to me.
Today, I have the benefit of looking at my past parenting mistakes through the lens of experience and humility. If I could convert the mulligan, if I were allowed to go against the rules and be allowed to take another shot, here’s how I would do it:
- I would stay at the dinner table 15 minutes longer and not felt compelled to rush to my office and dig into work. I would use those 15 minutes to ask one additional question about her day, to provide the nurturing she wanted and to offer my help in any matter my daughter requested.
- I would insist my parents, her grandparents, show her the same love and attention they showed my oldest child.
- I would set limits with Caitlin. I would remind her to watch her tone of voice with me and to show respect. I would clearly establish my authority as her father, but in a positive and healthy manner.
- I would volunteer to be her coach in soccer or softball. I would be the dad who would go from house-to-house collecting all of the other girls for practice and then go for pizza afterwards.
- I would sit next to her at night and review her homework. I would compliment the right answers and help her with the wrong ones.
- I would plan special times that only she and I would share. I would make myself available to show her that she was indeed just as special as the other children.
- I would tuck her into bed at night and help her dream and wish as we gazed up at the ceiling together. I would remind her to give thanks for the abundance in her life. I would kiss her good night and tell her how much I love her.
That was then. This is now.
Regret and shame keeps us stuck in the past. My time in New York with Caitlin was about moving forward; about how our relationship could improve and be defined using new terms and conditions. Our time provided a new start and hope for what might be next as Caitlin’s father.
The last night we were in New York, Caitlin and I shared a wonderful dinner together before seeing the Broadway musical A Spring Awakening. After the plates were cleared, I confessed to Caitlin that I needed to take responsibility for the conflict and strain that existed in our relationship when she was younger.
I made the commitment to continue to reach out to her and to make her a priority. I confessed to her I was looking forward to our father-daughter relationship as adults.
She smiled and said she would like that very much. My daughter granted me a mulligan: a second chance.
March is a month for new beginnings and the promise of hope springing eternal. The flowers that once lay dormant under the cold, hard earth are now finding the courage to re-establish their presence for the world to see.
I may have lost my daughter when she was a child. I refuse to lose her again.