I believe every female has a secret garden. This is the space that every woman holds for only a very few men in her life. This is the place every father occupies for their daughter when they are very little. Dads are the first men that their daughters fall in love with and it happens right away. The secret gardens of little girls are wide open play grounds of innocence where she will welcome you with open arms. It is this way only for a short while and then it begins to close up. As it should. The world is a cruel place and the secret garden is not a space where just anyone is welcome. I would never try to define this space, it is much too sacred and unique to the soul responsible for it’s tending. Young girls learn how to tend this space based on how they witnessed their mother tend to her own secret garden. Lessons all unspoken though witnessed on a level that will remain a mystery for all time. There are three kinds of dads as I see this tender situation.
First are the dads that have the innate gift to grow this garden space with their daughters seamlessly. I admire these men and I want to know who their parents are and tell them well done! I like talking to these guys and learning from them. It is almost as if I am probing them for advice but they have no idea. I guess it’s the humility necessary to shepherd children in such a loving way.
Second are the dads that struggle with their daughters with access to this sacred space. I am squarely in this group of dads. The good news is that most of these dads realize how important a good father daughter relationship is for their daughters well being and will provide “the bones on which to sharpen her teeth.” Thank you Mr. Ustinov for that dose of wisdom. This part of the process is painful for dad if done correctly but as I know from my own experience, the relationships that mean the most are with the people that we have been through the most with. Our daughters need to know this. The question for these dads is how are you going to walk through the fires of adolescents with your daughter. If not tended to with pure, sacrificial and unconditional love, the crops will either rot in the fields from over watering or burn out and die as a result of drought. The crops planted in a secret garden require the perfect balance of care, be good to yourself though, no man does this perfectly. The most important thing is that she knows you are always putting her first and always, always, always, always, listen. Listening is the #1 way to help our daughters tend their secret gardens. This is also how we get to witness the magical moments between mother and daughter where unspoken wisdom, truth, and pain are passed on from one generation to the next. When I engage with my girls, I always try to make sure that I lift them up and I don’t put them down. This is hard to do, when kids think they have let us down, it feels as if their world is crashing. I remember learning this when one of my girls came back from a Lenten fish fry carnival game with some ill gotten tickets as a result of the game operator miscounting. She was very happy to have the extra tickets in her hand but like all other 8 year olds, had not thought about the 2nd level of consequence and how it would feel once she realized that her gains had been ill gotten. I asked what she thought about the fact that she had not received the tickets for her ring throwing or whatever the game was. The look on her face was one of total devastation. She clearly thought she had made a much larger infraction than what was really happening. As adults, don’t we find ourselves frequently overreacting to similar situations, game tickets are the world to an eight year old. I let her know right away this was a totally age appropriate mistake to make and that these are the lessons we all continue to learn throughout life. I share this only as an example of how to lift up our little ones when it could be easy to let them carry an “icky” feeling from that moment and not learn the lesson of what to do when you find a proverbial wallet. In these moments, we earn the keys to the gate of her secret garden. There are also the moments I have handled like a total jerk. There was a moment my same daughter spilled and entire box of Rice Crispies in the back of our minivan after 36 hours of rubber meeting the road from Missoula to Chicago and I screamed so loud the trout in the stream running through the rest area poked up their heads to see what the ruckus was all about. This is one of my least proud moments as a dad and I still apologize for it from time to time. This whole thing is a loving grapple that we are training our daughters to engage in with their partners. Dad’s that walk with their daughters through these developmental days sometimes will walk ahead, sometimes behind, and sometimes she will need you to just walk next to her, hold her hand and listen. Isn’t that what you want for her relationships in the future? Teach her to hold the keys to her heart close but that if it is safe, truly safe, it is so worth it to love and let those closest to you, into this special space. It is what I call parenting for the long haul. How do I want my grandkids to be raised? What kind of partner do I want my daughters to consider when choosing whom to have children with? What will their metrics be? It is a day in day out journey that has moments of darkness to move through that are more than worth the effort.
The third group of dads just miss the whole thing and never realize what they missed. This makes me sad and it happens more than I care to think about. From the dad that went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back to the workaholic that thinks a FaceTime appearance at his daughter’s birthday is adequate, there is no shortage of sad stories about dads missing the very best parts of raising little girls. Every little girl needs a strong farmer to show how to tend the crops of her heart.