First, he loves her tenderly.
From the moment he lays his eyes on her, he promises to be the first man in her life, the most stable man in her life, the most consistent.
He looks at her. I mean really looks at her. He sees her ten miniature toes, the creases of her tiny palms, the color of her eyes, still so sleepy and unsure. He listens to the way her cry sounds, the coos and giggles she makes when she’s happy. He holds her little body in his hands like she’s fragile, but so complex. So astounding, this small being he’s created.
He loves her from the moment he sees her, before he even begins to know her.
Then he starts to discover her.
He is there for as much as he can be.
Even when it’s the middle of the night, he opens his eyes and drags himself out of bed to comfort her back to sleep. When work drains him, he finds the strength to show up to her ballet recitals and t-ball practices. He gets up early on Saturdays just to eat breakfast together, to sit next to her, even if the two of them aren’t saying anything.
Just so she knows he’s there.
He’s there for the little things like dress-up days at school, and there for the big things, like fifth grade graduation.
He greets her with a smile, encourages her with his words. Shows her that what she does is important, that she is important, that these young years of her life are something he will hold close to his heart forever.
Because they will pass more quickly than he realizes.
Then he loves her patiently.
Loves her through the temper tantrums, through the sassy faces, through the repeated questions of ‘why? why? but why?’ He answers her silly ponderings as best as he can, and takes her places to learn about the world on her own. He holds her hand on a fishing pole so she can feel the weight of a catch. He brings her to a soccer field and lets her feel the grass under her bare feet.
He opens the world to her, and they discover it together.
He is excited about the little papers she makes him, scribbles with lines of glue and tiny cut pieces along the bottom and hundreds of stick figure daddy-daughter drawings. He hangs these pictures on the fridge, or in the corkboard of his office desk. It might not look like she notices, and she might not say anything, but these little things mean a lot to her.
Then he fathers her from a distance as she starts to find herself.
These are the years of transition. From a young child to a tween to a teenager—the years of middle school, of gossip, of pain, of puberty. These are the hardest years, the years she will begin to push back against his rules, challenge him, and sometimes, as hard as it might be, not want anything to do with him.
But he still loves.
He knows that this isn’t personal, isn’t because she no longer loves him or because of something he did. She’s starting to become an individual and developing her own sense of self, and this is something he simply cannot do for her.
Instead, he finds a happy medium between distant and present.
He is always there, but somewhat in the background as she begins to look more like a young woman than a girl. He gives her rules and boundaries as she tests the limits. Together they find clothes that are both cute and appropriate, and friends that are fun, but safe.
He lets her stay out a little later and wear shirts that no longer look like ads in a children’s magazine. He doesn’t freak out when she starts to giggle about boys or has her first crush or even if he catches her playing with lipstick in the bathroom mirror.
He is a father figure that’s supportive and understanding, helpful but not embarrassing.
She might fight with him, and he lets her. She will come back. He knows this. And he knows that she wants to be her own person, wants to be ‘cool’ in front of her friends. So he allows her to be that, within reason, and he stays the loving father in the background.
He doesn’t hold onto her too tight so that she starts to struggle against his grip.
He finds places to compromise—a short skirt if she wears it with leggings, a little lip gloss for the movies on Saturday but not for school on Monday.
He remembers that small battles are just that, small battles.
What is more important to him, is that she believes he love her. That she knows he isn’t keeping her from some of the things she so badly wants because he wants to ruin her life or because he doesn’t want her to be who she is, but because he cares enough to be hard on her when she needs tough love.
He makes sure that in any decision or reprimand he gives, he reminds her of this: That no matter what happens, he loves her so very much.
He isn’t overprotective, but he isn’t absent.
He monitors what she’s doing to ensure that she’s safe, but he isn’t too intrusive. He gives her the space she needs to grow on her own. Lets her make her own choices, even if sometimes they don’t end so well. Gives her freedom. Then he takes a deep breath, and trusts that she will do the right thing. If she doesn’t, then he makes it a lesson learned with a fair consequence.
He doesn’t balk because he sees tears, but he doesn’t ignore them. He is firm when she breaks his rules, but always circles back with his love.
He is an authority figure that is consistent, that she can trust, even when she pushes all his buttons. Because she will at times. He realizes that she is imperfect, and so is he. So he isn’t too hard on himself, and he doesn’t see every bad choice she makes as the end of the world.
He celebrates the good and finds fun activities for just the two of them. He makes sure the time they spend together isn’t solely focused on rules and consequences.
He is a father and not just a disciplinarian.
Most of all, he is sensitive.
He is an open door for her to talk. She might not, especially not right away, and definitely not if he pushes her to open up to him.
So he is just there.
He is open to talk about anything from boys to friends to period cramps. Even if he cringes inwardly at the thought of those sorts of things, he listens, nods, and is there. Her opening up to him is HUGE. It means that she trusts him, values him with the biggest, most important secrets of her life.
So this is a bond he will never break.
He lets her cry on his shoulder, if she will.
If she won’t, he lets her know that she always can.
He knows that she has feelings, emotions, and pure female craziness spinning around her brain and he tries to understand this the best he can, even if it doesn’t make any sense.
And finally, he listens.
Listens when she talks to him, listens to her silly rants about her days, listens when she sits in the kitchen and talks to her mother.
He is a present figure in her life, simply by being there.
And he offers to be around as much as he can, but takes no offense when she wants to be around her mother or her friends or her boyfriend. As she becomes a high schooler, a college student, he supports her decisions. Listens as she stresses over the ACT’s or the list of college applications she has to fill out. He talks her through them, but doesn’t make her decisions for her.
He gives her advice on friends and boys but doesn’t point fingers or express anger towards them, even if they don’t treat her as they should.
He tells her about love, about how it should be, about how a man should treat her. And is an example of that in her daily life.
He doesn’t tell her who to fall in love with, who to stay away from, but he does promise to be there every step of the way, even for the painful heartbreak.
He is there for every high school dance, every concert, every awards banquet, every basketball game he can be.
He is present. He is there. He is her father.
And she’ll push back, she’ll drift away, she’ll become distant at times. But she’ll come back. She loves him so very much and he will forever be the most important man in her life.
She will always be his little girl.