I left home when I was 18. I had enlisted in the navy reserve and I was headed to boot camp. It all happened pretty fast and I wasn’t really ready to leave home. My mom definitely wasn’t ready to have me leave; she cried quite a bit. My dad, as always, radiated a confident silence throughout the entire experience. I’m sure he felt heartache and trepidation at having his oldest son leave home, but he never showed it. In fact, once I got to boot camp I began receiving letters from both him and my mom on a regular basis. The first letter I received from him, and every letter thereafter, while I was in boot camp, was folded like a paper airplane.
My dad explained to me, in that first letter, that the greatest gift a father can give his child is roots and wings. Roots, he said, were the teachings, traditions and examples that a parent sets for their children. It gives a child something to rely on; it is a foundation that they know is unmovable, unshakable, and unchangeable. Wings, he said, are the freedom given by a parent for a child to act in a way that they feel is appropriate. It gives a child the ability to act, with confidence, as they grow into their own lives, their own talents, their own goals. They are free to act as they see fit because the parent has given them a foundation from which to base their decisions and actions. My father showed once again how truly wise he was and how fearless. Roots and Wings. A philosophy for the ages.
And now here I am. A father. With two daughters who are nearly the age I was when I first left home. I have spent all the years of the their lives trying to give them roots. I have taught them everything that I hold dear, everything that is important, everything that I believe one should build a life on – trust, love, kindness, forgiveness and open-mindedness. These are the things that I want my children to base their lives on. Their roots are sturdy. They are good people who are intelligent, sensitive and spiritual. They are ready for the world. But I’m not sure I’m ready to let them go. I look over the edge and into the open air and I want to hold them back a bit. I want to keep them in the nest a bit longer. I want to teach them just a few more things before they go. I want to make those roots a bit thicker, a bit more deep, a bit more unmoving. What I really want is for those roots to wrap themselves around my kids ankles so they never leave. I find I’m a bit stingy with the feathers when it comes to doling out wings.
You see I was fine until they started to actually grow up. I don’t mean grow older, that is always cute, and fun and entertaining, I mean actually become adults. Maybe it’s because I teach psychology and I am more aware of developmental patterns, or because my dad pointed out the best way he thought to let a kid go out into the world, or because I just think about this stuff way too much, but I notice these little landmarks that move the kids further away from needing roots, and closer to needing wings. As they begin testing their newfound wings it makes me nervous.
In the past few months my daughters have begun thinking and talking about boys and friends – and sometimes the two combined. Not about their dad, but about people outside the home. They’ve found the value in being with people that aren’t their parents. And this is good. It’s good for them, it’s just not good for me. I want them to stay home and stay safe. The first boy that really hurts one of my daughters won’t have my wrath. Because that would be wrong. I wish I could be there to face him down, explain what he’s done, smack him up side the head. But I won’t. I will let her deal with him, explain to him what he’s done, and she will live her own life and learn her own lessons.
Lately my daughters are wearing makeup; they’re planning their own lives, thinking about life after high school. They’re talking about college and maybe not college. They’re talking about marriage, and what it would be like, and who they want to marry, and how they want their lives to be. They’re not talking about this seriously, but jokingly with friends. As a pastime. They are wearing bras and using tampons. They aren’t girls anymore, they’re young women. My life is changing right along with theirs. Because all these things indicate that a change is coming. Soon, my cute, shy, silly little girls will be smart, funny and beautiful women, ready to head out into the world.
People, upon finding out that I have all girls, sometimes ask if I wish I had sons. I have to honestly say that I don’t. At this time, in this place, I really think that girls have it better than boys. Here’s why. I’ve been able to raise my daughters in any way they want. If a girl is interested in football, hockey, wrestling, dancing, dresses or makeup, it doesn’t matter. A girl can be feminine and masculine at the same time. They can look beautiful and act tough; they can wear a dress and be interested in snakes. Girls have the freedom to be whoever they want to be. Girls can tie knots, throw punches and hike in the mountains. But boys can’t be cute, sensitive, cry when they’re sad, play dress up or have tea parties – or they run the very real risk of being labeled something ugly and hurtful. My daughters are who they want to be, they are brave, and bold and beautiful. They are perfect. Perhaps they’ll talk their husbands into keeping their family name rather than taking his – but regardless of what they do, they’ll do it in their own way.
Now all I have to do is gain the courage to give them the wings that they deserve. I have to be willing to allow them to fall from the heights that they sore to. I know the story of Icarus – the willful and prideful man who gave himself wings and tried to rise above where the gods believed he should. I know that my kids suffer a very real risk of falling and being hurt if they soar too close to the sun, not with wings that they themselves have made, but with wings fashioned by their father. So as I get ready for them to leave our home I have to make sure those wings are worthy of great heights; I have to make sure that they know how to fly; I have to make sure that those wings can withstand the weather of a world that sometimes can be too hurtful. I have to make sure that they know they always have a home they can come to. They have a place where they can feed their roots while their wings heal.