Walking toward the school door, my ten year old daughter hooks her arm through mine and squeezes me close. Bright green eyes open wide and nose scrunched, she squeals through her teeth, “Are you excited for the dance?”
Honestly, it’s been a long week and I’m worn out. Plus, I always feel a little weird about going to Daddy Daughter dances. The sentimentality of Valentine’s Day mixed with the father-daughter relationship is uncomfortably Freudian and cheesy. But I look at my girl in her pale blue dress. She is so happy. Elegant. Special. I suppress my unease and answer, “There is nowhere else in the whole world I would rather be.”
The music is loud and pop-y. Colored lights circle the gymnasium, illuminating raised basketball hoops and balloons taped to walls. Gymnasiums weird me out. Growing up as an uncoordinated and introverted kid who didn’t care about sports, gyms were often a place of failure and shame before my peers.
My date sees her girlfriends and takes off in a flurry of extroversion. I am left standing among the other abandoned dads. Hands in pockets, we orbit the perimeter of the dance floor, unsure of what we’re supposed to be doing.
When is this thing over?
A slow song comes on and my daughter races back. We dance, only occasionally stepping on toes as Taylor Swift sings, “Oh darling don’t you ever grow up, don’t you ever grow up. It could stay this simple…”
My daughter leans in close and sweetly whispers in my ear, “They’re selling ice cream.”
Cash in hand, she bolts to the ice cream line with her friends. Watching her animated conversation from a far, she looks like a small teenager. She starts middle school next year. How can it be that she is already at the end of girlhood? Is she ready to begin the impossible task of figuring out how to be a woman? And then there’s boys. I am the blue print for how men are supposed to treat her. Have I done enough? Any daddy issues she is going to have are due to me. And what about Snap Chat? And sexting? And…
Spoon in hand, my daughter interrupts my parental panic attack with, “DAD, YOU HAVE GOT TO TRY THIS! …But not too big of a bite.”
The ice cream is pretty good, but puberty still weirds me out.
The MC announces, “I need all the girls to come to the middle of the dance floor. It’s time for the Daddy-Daughter Dance Hula Hoop Contest!” Translation: This thing is almost over.
Hula hoops weird me out. The ability to use isolated hip movements to rhythmically spin a plastic circle is something my body refuses to do.
I ask my daughter if she’s ready.
She replies, “I’m nervouscited!” (nervous + excited, a word she made up when she was five)
The competition begins and the room is immediately filled with little wiggling hips. One by one, hoops rattle to the ground.
My daughter does well.
The contest is down to three finalists, and my daughter is one of them. While hooping, the MC has the girls walk forward, then backward. Jump up and down. Stand on one foot. Eyes closed. No matter what he throws at them, they keep going with barely a wobble. Aware of the time, he then utters two of the most terrifying sentences I have ever heard.
“Girls, drop your hoops. Let’s have your dads come up and hula hoop to determine the winner!”
Pulse pounding and an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach, I walk to the center of the gymnasium. Surrounded by a circle of well-dressed dads and their sparkly-dressed daughters, I stand with hoop in hand, next to my two blank-faced competitors. Barely containing my desire to flee, I look at the exit.
And then I look at my daughter, who is now biting her lip.
My eyes settle on my daughter and for a moment, time stops. I hear a quiet voice deep inside say,
You are running away from this moment because you forgot why you are here. Tonight is not about you, your hang ups, preferences or insecurities. You are not the point. It’s the little girl in the pale blue dress who you love more than anything. You get to be the most important man in the world to her for a brief time. And this is it. This is your time. Stop running away because you’re scared. Stop running away because you’re uncomfortable. Love isn’t about running away. Love is about showing up and trying, over and over and over.
I take a deep breath and loosen my tie.
With a smirk on his face, the MC yells, “Go!” We gyrate and shake with ferocious, middle-aged desperation. We hula not for god or country, but for the love of our daughters. And within two seconds of starting, all three hoops hit the floor in unison.
The MC announces, “It’s a three way tie!”
My daughter walks over and calmly says, “That. Was. Terrible.” My heart sinks. She continues, “I CAN’T BELIEVE I WON!”
During the last dance of the evening, my daughter asks, “Isn’t this so much fun, Dad?”
Having gone down in a blaze of glory in an uncoordinated introvert’s nightmare, I pull her tight and look into her bright green eyes and say, “There’s no place in the whole world I’d rather be.”
And this time, I mean it.
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