I was about to pull the covers up, and she looks at me and says, "Daddy, are all doctors daddies and all nurses mommies?"
Here we go, I think.
I've mentally practiced this moment, and dozens others like it. For some I even have a script. I know how I want her to think, to make decisions for herself free of outside influences. The trick is how to teach her that, how to make it part of the way she thinks, reflexive.
"No, baby" I say, because it's a fact but facts aren't at issue, I'm the Father and I have a responsibility to help her develop. Ok, look, I don't want her to be a nurse but that's not the point here, the point here is to teach her about choosing your identity. "Some doctors are women, and some nurses are men. You can be either."
Yes, if she was a boy I'd have a different answer. But she's not a boy, and the immediate issue today isn't for her to choose between being a doctor or a nurse, but to understand that she gets to choose.
"Is your doctor when you go to the doctor's office a man or a woman?"
"Sometimes it's a boy, and sometimes it's a girl."
"See?" I say. "It can be either one."
"Then how come you're a doctor? Is being a doctor harder or easier?"
"Harder." No sense in political correctness. "It's harder because you have to decide everything. You're in charge, you have to decide how to help people, what to do next." She needs to know that the difference isn't just amount of calories expended, but of responsibility. "And you make more money." I debate saying this, but I think it's important to introduce the real importance of money, and the relative value of things, and jobs. I'm not going to push it here, just introduce that it exists as a factor.
"How much money?"
"Like, a hundred." It doesn't have to mean anything, it just has to convey a feeling.
"Wow, that's a lot."
"It can be."
"And you put that money in your special place?"
Another opportunity. "Yes, you have to save your money, you have to save as much as you can. Sometimes, even if I want to buy something, I have to decide if I should spend the money or save it. So I save it."
"So we can save and go to Disney?"
"Yes, among other things."
"But nurses get less money?"
"Most of the time, yes."
"But if you're a nurse," she recalls, "you don't have to go to work. You can stay home with the kids and wear a bathrobe, right?"
I laugh. "No, no, if you're a nurse you have to go to work, too. Right now mommy is staying home to take care of you guys, she had to stop working for a while, and when you all get older maybe she'll go back to work." And then I add, "it's up to her." Excellent.
"Oh, so nurses have to go to work, too."
"Yes, if they want."
There is a pause here. She's working through it all. I think I've succeeded; if nothing else, I've taught her that the decision is hers to make. Nothing defines her.
"So I could be a doctor."
"Of course, baby." I'm winning, I see that I'm destroying barriers. Finally. This is what it means, after all, to be a good parent; seeing through the words and striking at the core issues, teaching your children not facts and information but wisdom, power.
Until her eyes fill up with tears, and she says, "I want to be a doctor."
"You can do anything you want." Something's wrong.
She's motionless under the covers, she doesn't look at me. She looks like I've spit on her. "I've already decided," she says, as if to euthanasia, "I have to be a doctor."
"Okay, baby, but-- why are you crying?"
"Because if I'm a doctor I have to work every day, except for I have only one day off, and when I come home I have to work on the computer, and I won't get to see any of my children. Unless they get sick."
And there it is. I've failed, again.
I'm teaching, teaching, but do I listen? Do I hear her, do I hear and see what's important to her, what questions she really has, what's really of value in her life? She just wants to play Lightning McQueen vs. Chick Hicks with me outside, meanwhile I'm trying to teach her that the way to truth is through the inside, or some other idiocy. I may as well leave my stupid aphorisms in a Moleskine for her and then go kill myself. What's she need me for?
Words are the enemy, they are always the enemy, they do nothing but mislead, deceive. If you have to say it, you never did it. What have my words done tonight, that my existence and behavior hasn't contradicted every single day? I'm a failed fraud who's beckoning others down the same path.
I wasted 15 minutes trying to con her that she can be anyone she wants to be, completely missing that she is already who she wants to be, the problem is I'm not who she needs me to be. Life, through its henchmen like me, only chip away at that original identity, making it harder to be satisfied and impossible to be happy. I've taught her that stereotypes are wrong, meanwhile she hasn't even learned the stereotypes yet; in fact, I just taught them to her by denying them. Maybe I should wake her in the middle of the night, grab the sides of her head and shriek, "there's no such thing as ghosts! There's no such thing as ghosts! There's no such thing as ghosts...!"
If I was so smart, if I had so much to teach, I wouldn't be so miserable. And this wouldn't have happened.
Being a good parent often means: knowing your limitations, and getting the hell out of the way.