Lessons Learned From a Little Girl

Actually, she’s not so little anymore.

My oldest daughter had a birthday recently. Not just any birthday. A 16th birthday. It has been more than a decade and a half since I became a parent. In more than a decade and a half you should be able to learn something, so after her birthday I sat down to reflect on what I have learned since I picked up the title of "Dad." Here are some of the things that came to mind:

I feel like I know a lot less about being a parent now than I did then

When my daughter was born it seemed kind of easy. I figured that my wife and I both had great parents, so we had good examples to follow. I had trained a few horses and dogs, so raising a child seemed like a pretty straight forward deal. Right?

Sixteen years and six living children later I have a much, much different opinion. In fact, the longer I am a parent the less I seem to know. I know a lot more now about what I don't know. Worse, I have a much better idea about what I should know that I don't. I hope I wasn't overly prideful or self-assured sixteen years ago (but I am sure I was), but I am definitely much more humble and aware of my parental failures now.

All those people back in 2000 who gleefully told me that "Boy, your life is going to change, it will never be the same!" were right.

But not in the way they thought. When people informed me that my life was going to change when the baby came it was almost always said in a tone that implied my life was going to get a whole lot worse.

Well, my life did change, but it got unbelievably, incredibly, and wonderfully better. In hindsight it was more like what happened when I got married. My life sure changed, but I have less than zero interest in being single again.

My life changed when I first held my brand new baby girl, but in that very instant I realized that I never wanted my life to be the way it was before she was born. I'm sure something must have gotten worse, but so many other things were, and are, so much better that I haven't had time to be concerned about what got worse.

That whole bit about being worried and dreading each new stage is ridiculous. 

The parenting advice I received as a soon-to-be-dad and as a new dad was usually divided by gender. Men were usually the ones who would tell me that my life was about to change. Women have their own unique advice.

Before my daughter was born women would share their very worst childbirth story with my wife. Why anyone would think it would be helpful to terrify a first time mother with stories of childbirth gone wrong, or childbirth gone much more painful than usual, or even stories of normal childbirth pain is beyond me, but even perfect strangers would be motivated to approach my wife in public and share these stories.

After the baby was born women would almost always do one of two things. If the baby was asleep, or awake and not crying, they would say how cute she was and then solemnly assure us that we had better enjoy things now because whenever she reached the next stage things would get really awful.

If the baby was crying or fussy they would nod sympathetically and then solemnly tell us that this was nothing, things would get much worse at the next stage. This advice has not been limited to just my daughter’s baby years, but it has continued through every stage of my daughter’s development. For three years we have been hearing grave warnings about how terrible teenagers are, and now we are told that driving teenagers are even worse. After that? Well, apparently there are almost unspeakable terrors during the college years and then they never, ever leave home.

The reality has been far different in my experience.

Every new age and every new stage has been better than the last. Having a baby was cute and fun. Watching her walk and talk was so much fun I missed all of the supposed problems of the toddler stage. I was thrilled when she learned to read and proud when we took the training wheels off of her bike. I got choked up at her tenth birthday party.

That whole teenager thing? Watching a little girl turn into a beautiful young lady is too precious for words. Were there any tough times in all those stages? Plenty, but it's funny how I don't remember the details anymore.

People told me that time would fly. I believed them and held on as tight as I could and you know what? Time did fly, faster than seems possible and I can't believe how fast it went. 

I never ignored this warning. I always took it seriously. I tried to hold on to time as tight as I could and enjoy every moment, and yet, here I am with a sixteen year old daughter and all I can do is utter the exact same phrase every parent who has ever lived must have said: "I can't possibly have a sixteen year old daughter! What happened to my little girl? I can't believe how fast it has gone!”

The only thing I have gained is this thought: Time will go past faster than I think and there's nothing I can do about that. The crucial thing is to figure out what I am going to do during that fast disappearing time.

Being a parent has taught me more about God and relying on God than anything else ever has. 

I don't know that I really understood faith, or what it meant to trust God, or what it was like to be forced to my knees in prayer because there was nothing else to do, until I became a parent.

Reading and discussing God's Word with my children helped me to understand God in ways I had never understood before. Watching their faith mature helped me grow in mine. Answering their questions about God led me to find answers to many of my own questions. Being a parent has given me a front row seat on miracles and blessings that happen every day, making God seem more real and more present that I ever noticed before.

Nothing has made me appreciate and love my wife more than watching her be a mom. 

I may not be able to remember the details of all of things that went wrong and what has been difficult over the last sixteen years, but I can definitely remember the vivid details of all of the things my wife has done, and continues to do every day, that allow me and my children to have that kind of selective memory.

The sheer magnitude of the physical work, and the complexity of the teaching, training, and instruction is daunting. The depth of love required to do what my wife has done, and keeps doing, is breathtaking. She accomplishes tasks, deals with crisis, and adjusts to changing circumstances with a skill and excellence that would put a battlefield commander to shame. I see this played out on a daily and hourly basis. The thought that this person who can do all of these things chose to marry me never fails to humble me, and makes me think I better get going and do something worthy of that love.

Nothing has caused me more fear and terror, made me as sick with dread, caused me to lose sleep and worry all night as parenting.

Nothing has given me so much intense joy, profound happiness, and given me a better reason to wake up in the morning than parenting.

I wonder how much more I will learn in the next sixteen years? I wonder how much more I will realize I don't know?