"What I really want to tell him is to pick up that baby of his and hold her tight, to set the moon on the edge of her crib and to hang her name up in the stars." -- Jodi Piccoult, My Sister's Keeper
As a 30-something woman whose biological father is no longer living, I admit that I cry easily and openly at weddings when it's time for the father-daughter dance. I get to witness the pure, unconditional love of a father for his daughter. I can tell you that this vulnerability is a beauty unlike any other. It's touching and sweet, and this dance, for me, is a metaphor of the relationship that's been around since her time in the womb.
When I watch these dances, I also mourn for the loss of my own father, who passed away from colon and liver cancer in 2005. However, I lost him emotionally a long time before that. So, in those moments when a father is out there dancing with his daughter on her wedding day, I say these things over and over in my head to fathers of little girls everywhere:
1. Let her paint your toenails.
Or fingernails. Or, let her do your hair. Or, dig for worms in the backyard. Whatever's her shtick. Do that. Letting down your guard for a little while might be uncomfortable, but she will love you for it, and you'll get a sense of how she likes to play and have fun. Once you understand this, you will understand this little creature in ways you wouldn't otherwise. You'll build the foundation for her teen and early adult years.
When she's a little older, cook a meal with her, or have her take you to her favorite stores at the mall. Go to the park and practice some basketball or softball. Offer to be the parent who drops her off at her friend's house for a sleepover, or pick up your daughter and her friends after the movies. Be involved in her social life.
When she's a young adult, try to be patient with her. Be interested in her job and her hobbies. Let her teach you something. Let her know it's okay to make mistakes and that it's okay not to be perfect because, I guarantee you, she's definitely going to make mistakes, and she's definitely not perfect. Share some mistakes that you made at her age, not necessarily so she doesn't make the same ones, but so she can see that it's possible to make mistakes and negotiate life at the same time.
2. Show up for her.
And not just in her infant and toddler years. Yes, by all means, please read her books and tell stories, camp out in the backyard, take her to the zoo, and buy her ice cream, but don't disappear when she starts to look like a lady. She's not really a grown-up yet, even though her body is changing and it may certainly freak you out. If you're freaked out, admit it. Educate yourself and read about parenting a pre-teen, a teen, or a young adult. You didn't get instructions when you became a father, so it's okay to look this stuff up.
Your daughter needs you now more than ever. She needs you to care about who her friends are, she wants you to show up at her soccer games (and be excited to be there), and be there when she's getting ready for school dances and proms (and tell her how wonderful she looks). By showing up, you are telling her that she matters. You are telling her that she's still important, even though she's not a 'little' girl any more.
Show her you are not just a "fair-weather" dad. Because when she's older and she's going through a tough time negotiating friendships, having difficulty with a college class or a new job, or experiencing a bad breakup, etc. she will have an ally in you. She'll want to come to you and have you listen without judgment. Make this easy for her by showing her often -- and early -- that you are there. Period.
3. Respect her mother. And women in general.
Please, I beg of you: respect her mother. It's one of the most loving things you can do for your daughter. No material gift you give her will ever, ever measure up to this one. Even if you and her mother are no longer together in a relationship, at one point in time, you cared enough about this woman to father a child with her. Your daughter will be looking to you -- and starting much earlier than you think -- to learn how men should treat her. If she sees you yelling at her mother, or hurting her mother in any way, she will learn to fear you, and simultaneously learn that it's okay for a man to treat a woman this way.
Not everyone can get along all the time, and it's important to model how to disagree respectfully, but like John Mayer says, "Fathers, be good to your daughters. Daughters will love like you do." How she sees you interact with her mother will set the tone for the relationships she creates in her adult life. I'm not saying it's impossible for your daughter to overcome memories of abuse, hurt, and shame. It can be done, but that's not the path you dreamed for her when she was a baby, so why would it be different now?
Watch how you talk about women and their bodies. Your daughter is always listening. She will remember every word you say about women on TV, in the movies, and in magazines. Remind her that it's important for her to be healthy, and that those images glaring at her from the media are twisted reality. Take care of yourself, so she'll see you're not just all talk. Exercise and eat right. Be a good example she'll want to emulate.
4. Share your own childhood memories and your dreams with her.
Find time to tell your daughter about what life was like for you as a child. Create a clear picture in her mind about what your family was like. Talk about where you grew up, and describe to her what your favorite memories were as a kid. Share good memories, and also talk about some tougher times you experienced. You'll help make it easy for her to relate to you, while also helping her create memories that she can pass along to her children, and their children. You'll live on in her heart long after you leave this earth.
Let her see your emotions. Worry more about letting your true self shine through, instead of being so tough all the time. Don't be afraid to tell her you love her. You probably told her this all the time when she was an infant, a toddler, and a young kid, but she still needs to hear it when she's an adult.
While I don't have my biological father any longer, I have been so fortunate to "adopt" a surrogate father along the way. That is truly a gift I did not see coming, but for which I am eternally grateful. I've had the honor of watching my friends with their fathers, learning what a nurturing father-daughter relationship looks like, collecting tiny gems of knowledge and placing them into my pocket for safekeeping. And, I try to take comfort in the fact that, one day, if I am lucky enough to have a daughter, I'll get to watch my husband dance with her on her wedding day.