To Summer at Eighteen

November 1994

Dear Summer,

Eighteen years ago I stood looking at you—fresh-born—through the big glass window in the hospital nursery, watching the nurses try to count your tiny toes. Minutes old, you were bright-red-screaming-at-the-top-of-your-lungs unbounded life, squirming and kicking in every direction—quite a challenge to those toe-counting nurses. How I wanted to reach through the window, to be closer to you as you celebrated your newfound freedom. From behind the glass, I breathed a promise: I would never stand in the way of your freedom.

When their counting was completed, the nurses managed to wrestle you into a little yellow sleeper (with built-in mittens so you wouldn’t scratch yourself). They swaddled you in soft blankets, then placed you in a toasty-warm infant bed. It comforted you. You became quiet. Then you fell asleep. Being born must have been quite a shock. How I wanted to reach through the window, to be closer to you as you slept your peaceful sleep of newborn innocence. From behind the glass, I breathed a second promise: I would always protect you.

It seems I took my eyes from the nursery window only a moment; now I look again, and you are a young woman. Eighteen years old, you are poised for yet another giant step into your future. And I, once again, find myself staring in awe, trying to fathom the miracle which you are. And I think back upon the promises made long ago.

Keeping those promises has proven far more difficult than I imagined. When I vowed never to stand in the way of your freedom, I had no idea how many ways we would be different, how many times your need to be yourself would clash with my need to be—as I saw it—a responsible parent. How was I supposed to know that you, barely out of diapers, would already have your own ideas about things as basic as what is hot and what is cold, and what clothing fits the weather. From age four you have dressed for warm weather when it is cold, and wrapped yourself in cold weather clothes for stifling heat. I had to curb my “better judgment” in order to give you freedom to choose what you wanted to wear; I comforted myself with the knowledge that no child ever died from wearing a sweater on the hottest day of the year, or a midriff top on the coldest.

I didn’t realize so few decisions would feel 100% right. Often when I supported your freedom, I wondered if I was abdicating my parental duty. And often when I exercised my parental authority, I wondered if I was crushing your spirit. Choosing when to offer you freedom, and when to lay down the law, has been exhausting work—and humbling. I have done the best I can. Sorry about those times I insisted on counting your toes when I should have let you dance.

When I promised to protect you, I had no idea what forms that protection would take. It was easy at first. You were so fragile; you needed me so completely. I enjoyed the feeling of being needed (except at 3:00 AM when I preferred to believe you needed your mother more than you needed me). There is a part of me that always wanted you to grow up, but another part of me that has always wanted you to stay little, so I could take care of you.

It was hard to watch you venture out beyond my protective care. On your first solo visit to our next-door-neighbor’s house, you came home proudly displaying the new haircut you gave yourself (with the help of the neighbor’s six year old). It was a reverse pony tail—shoulder-length everywhere except for a short blunt patch cropped off near the top of your head. A failed protector, I went momentarily berserk, but only because I hadn’t yet learned the most important of all parent maxims: Hair grows back. Of course I forgot all about this maxim ten years later when you emerged from the bathroom with your hair permed into oblivion and dyed black.

When I promised to always protect you, I didn’t realize that most of the time I would be protecting you from yourself—trying to help you understand the consequences of your choices. And then when you became a teen, I found myself not only trying to protect you from yourself, but also trying to protect you from your peers, whose zest for life often superseded their common sense. I’ve done the best I could to teach you how to protect yourself (and others around you). Much of that teaching you now carry inside yourself in the form of values, morals, and manners. If my too-long lectures had the power to protect, you’d have been untouchable. Sorry about the lectures—and especially for those times I failed to protect you from my own upset feelings.

When I watched you that first day through the nursery window, I desperately wanted to reach through the glass, so I could be close to you. The opportunity came. My eyes fill with tears of joy when I think back on all the wonderful moments of closeness we’ve shared through the years. But eighteen years have taught me that parenting isn’t just about being close; it’s also about creating space. I’ve had to learn to be happy looking at you through glass—contenting myself to watch you celebrate your freedom, without always joining your dance; standing by, always ready to protect you, but not always holding your hand.

Summer, you are a gift—the wondrous creation of a boundless grace beyond all words. A great man, Irenaeus, once said, “the glory of God is a person fully alive.” That you are, Summer; you are exuberantly alive. Whether holding you close or watching you at a distance, nothing in my life is more fulfilling than being your dad. I am deeply thankful for that privilege, and I look with excited anticipation to the next eighteen years.

Yours,

Dad

After her 18th birthday, Summer went on to earn B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in psychology.
Today, she works as a consultant to life science companies. Summer and her husband have one daughter and another on the way.

Please visit Steve’s websites www.centerformarriage.com and www.familyessayist.com where you can learn more about him and read more of his inspirational writing!

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2 comments to To Summer at Eighteen

  • Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story Steve! It really hit home for me as I am starting to deal more with the letting go side of parenting with my daughter. It can be a real leap of faith at times! I just hope I can let go as well as I hold on!

  • Xavier Ruiz

    I really find that interesting. Been browsing your blog for a few days now and I truly like what I see. Keep up the good work!

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