“I just have to remember that bringing you into the world was the easy part, and that all the work lies in preparing you to live in it. There is no greater feeling than creating something, and there’s nothing scarier than having to put it out into the world.”
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It’s amazing to think that it’s been four whole years since you came into our lives. A lot can happen in that amount of time. Presidents come and go (or get re-elected); students complete an entire high school or college career; and a temperamental, helpless baby can turn into a little girl who walks, talks, and does a ton of other things with little or no help at all (and can still be quite temperamental). It boggles my mind to think about how much you’ve accomplished in such a short amount of time. It also boggles my mind when I consider that the only things I’ve managed to accomplish in the last 4 years are acquiring a “dad bod,” completing a few video games, and finally watching all of The Sopranos. Maybe it’s time to start setting better life goals for myself … but I digress.
You’ve had a lot of ups downs this past year, which were mainly due to you’re transitioning from a toddler to a preschooler (a.k.a., “big girl”). You’re testing boundaries and pushing for independence, all while making sure we’re within arms reach in case you need help, guidance, or someone to blame when things like your socks “don’t work.” And let’s be honest here, it was less that your socks weren’t working and more that you didn’t want to do the work to learn how to put them on yourself. It’s the same situation with pants, potty training and mastering the Triple Lindy. Yet with time, patience, and a resounding armpit fart any time you needed to ease stress, you’ve gotten them all down for the most part. Now we just need to teach you a better, and more socially acceptable, stress management technique. Otherwise you’ll never get a job once it’s time for a face-to-face interview. But don’t worry, we’ve got time to work on that.
In the past six months there’s been a massive overhaul in our household since you started your journey toward pre-K. For starters, you had to be fully potty trained. It took a while, but we’re pretty sure you’re there. Granted, we still have to prompt you to try and go every day. You hold water like a camel who doesn’t want to miss out on any of the camel games its friends are playing, so it refuses to try to pee and curses your name out loud when you make it stop having fun. Every. Damn. Time.
Pre-K drastically changed our morning routine as well. It used to be that we could just roll into daycare whenever you had decided that enough of your energy had been spent fighting us to get up, ready, and out the door so that your mom and I could make it in to work relatively on time. We tried everything to get you motivated: taking away toys, revoking privileges, playing Van Halen’s “Panama” on repeat like they did to Noriega back in 1989. Nothing seemed to work back then, but with pre-K that has changed dramatically thanks to eight little words: “We’re going to be late for the bus.” Being late for our ride means you’ll be late for school, and we’ve learned that your new school doesn’t play around. If we’re late they’ll do things like lock the doors or make us to call to schedule a drop-off. And if we’re really, really late, they’ll make your parents pay the ultimate price by parading us through the neighborhood naked while a nun follows closely behind yelling, “Shame!!!” No, wait, that last one was from an episode of Game of Thrones. My mistake.
“I sometimes worry that I’m not best person to be your dad; I’m so very, very flawed, and I’m scared of how many of those flaws you will point out in me or will eventually incorporate into your own personality and then spend countless therapy sessions blaming me for.”
The transition from daycare to pre-K has exposed you to a tremendous amount of new things, both exciting and scary (mostly for me). Gone are the days where your world was contained to our apartment, the two-minute walk to the daycare on our block, and the nearby park. Your world has expanded to include public transportation commuters who either greet you with a smile or fight you for a seat, the bus drivers who can be really nice or complete assholes who barely let us off at our stop and, last but not least, the people driving in cars who break the speed limit, run traffic lights, and genuinely scare the shit out of me every time you get near an intersection. I really hope they invent teleportation technology soon, because people out there are cray, yo, and I don’t trust them around you. Well, most of them anyway.
I was worried at first about how you’d deal with leaving your daycare and the people you were comfortable being around five days a week, but I’m so glad to see that you’re fitting in just fine. You’ve made fast friends with other students who commute the same time as us, speak fondly of the other kids in your class, and absolutely adore your teachers. You like your teachers so much, in fact, that you tend to come home and pretend to be them. You’ll round up a bunch of toys, dolls and stuffed animals, sit them down and conduct class throughout our apartment. Sometimes you’ll even let your mom and me be in the class or be teachers ourselves. It makes me happy when you want us to play with you, but it can also be completely frustrating because you tend to complain that we’re not playing the right way. We’ll start doing what you ask and then suddenly you get upset and we hear, “WRONG!!!,” like we’re in an episode of The McLaughlin Group.
The truth is, we’re all caught up in a world of frustration and emotions lately. You’re learning how to verbally express the way you’re feeling, while we’re learning how to speak to you so that we can help you convey those feelings, understand your needs, and help to manage your sensitivity effectively. Your mom found a good book full of really helpful tactics to help us through all of this, but it’s a work in progress and is going to take time to be successful. We’re used to talking to other adults who, generally speaking, will tell you what’s wrong if you ask them with at least some semblance of empathy or put enough alcohol in their system.
But you, on the other hand, are a game changer. You shut down when we ask you what’s wrong, thinking that maybe you’re in trouble or that we’ll punish you for feeling like you do. It’s up to us to make you comfortable enough to express how you feel, but to do that we have to learn how to approach you differently. We have to let you know we’re listening, prompt you with the right words, and, hopefully, make you feel safe enough to want to say them to us. There is irony here, because the day will come when you will use those words in an effort to try and push us away from you. In fact, to a degree, you’re already doing that a bit with me.
I wish I could say I didn’t know where you inherited your knack for shutting down and lashing out when you feel like you’re being wronged, but there’s this giant neon arrow pointing at me, glowing with the fire of a thousand suns, that is not going to let that happen. You and I continue to have our differences, mainly because you tend to favor your mom over me, and I react by shutting down, fading into the background or, sometimes, just leaving the two of you alone altogether. There are times when it seems like I’m the third wheel, and it hits me like a truck when you act like I’m not around, don’t respond when I talk to you, or you just flat out say that you’d rather do something with just your mom. When this happens I tend to hear the same thing: “She’s only 3. She has no idea what she means.” But this is the time in your life when you build these kind of associations. If you see me shut down in emotional and frustrating situations, why wouldn’t you take that as an OK to do the same? If you see that I’ll leave you and your mom alone when you say you don’t want me around, why wouldn’t you want to say it more if you truly felt that way?
I wish I had my shit together so I could be a better parent for you, but my guess is that most parents feel the same way about their relationships with their kids. Having you in my life has been the most demanding thing I have ever encountered. You’re testing me constantly, which I know is your job and, oh, how I wish that was something the government would pay you a decent wage for; it would be great to have more money in your 529 account. I sometimes worry that I’m not best person to be your dad; I’m so very, very flawed, and I’m scared of how many of those flaws you will point out in me or will eventually incorporate into your own personality and then spend countless therapy sessions blaming me for.
But then I think about how there’s no way I could ever NOT have you in my life. I will always think about you, whether it be five minutes after I need a break from one of your tantrums, after I’ve dropped you off at school, or after we’ve left you in the care of someone else so your mom and I can enjoy a well deserved date night together. The words, “I wonder what Olivia is doing now?” will always be on my lips, although I have to admit that there may be times when they follow three other words: “Another round, please.” I am truly amazed at the person you are becoming and that I helped create you. I just have to remember that bringing you into the world was the easy part, and that all the work lies in preparing you to live in it. There is no greater feeling than creating something, and there’s nothing scarier than having to put it out into the world. I take that back, knowing that you’ve screwed your child over by passing on your own hang ups about life is pretty fucking scary too. See that? It looks like I just came up with at least one life goal to start working on.
You are forever in my consciousness, like your mother was before you got here, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So please do your best to share that space with her, keep her comfortable, and try not to hog the covers. Happy birthday, baby girl.
A version of Birthday Letter to a 4-Year-Old first appeared on Our Little Mixtape.