Seventeen years later, it’s time to let go

I had a big event last Sunday where, for the first time in my 17-year-old daughter’s life, I gave a big speech in front of a few hundred people — and she wasn’t there to hear me.

Instead, she went sailing.

And that’s okay with me, even if I can’t begin to count the number of games, performances, recitals, tournaments and who knows what else when I had been there for her.

She learned to sail at camp years ago and almost never gets the chance anymore. So when the invite came Friday, I didn’t flex my fatherly muscles saying she couldn’t go. I didn’t use any heavy handed guilt either, telling her to enjoy herself, “but I’ll sure miss seeing your face when I look out at the audience.” Nope, none of that. I let her go because it was what she wanted to do.

You might think this was a “Giving Tree” moment. You know the famous book by Shel Silverstein about the tree that gives everything to “the boy” until it is just a stump in the ground. Should I drop all my needs and wants when faced with the slightest whim of my children? No. I loved the story as a kid, but have come to see it as an ode in favor of self-denial and masochism.

So why did I let her go when I’ve forced her to attend her sister’s performances and soccer games? When she’s been required to spend vacations visiting family even though a better offer was on the table from a friend?

Because she’s 17 and has to make her own choices. Because she’s 17 and as she prepares for college, I need to find my own life. Because she’s 17 and I would rather have a tired and happy daughter ask me how it went than a sulky and resentful creature glaring at me during my moment in the spotlight or ignoring me as she texts her friends.

This is my dilemma, how to reinforce the importance of family — caring, supporting, encouraging each other — without making it a four-letter-word or an onerous duty. Yes, it’s important she show up for dinner and be present at Thanksgiving, but I understand in so many ways she’s already moving away, looking towards the great, wide world and not her little home and cluttered room.

So I’ve started implementing my recovery strategy, laying the groundwork for the day she emerges from adolescence and finds she’d like to spend time with me and come visit her mother, sister, and dog.

The best way I can do this is keep showing up at her softball games and performances, taking her on college tours and finding the things we can enjoy together while giving her more and more latitude to get out of town, so to speak. She needs to break away without breaking the bonds between us.

So she missed my speech. Our life as a family will be much longer than one night if all goes according to plan.

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