“When I grow up, I want to be a waitress.”
No, I’d never heard anyone say these words either. Most of the time, the what-I-wanna-be-when-I-grow-up statements involve exciting or glamorous –or at least rewarding– professions, like an astronaut, actress, doctor, or teacher. Exciting careers that capture the imagination and inspire the dreams of children. Or at least, most children.
My daughter wants to be a waitress.
When I first heard this, I assumed it was just a passing idea – kids change their minds and their moods with alarming speed, and this was surely just an idea that she got once and would last a short time. But she has held on to this idea –this want– for a while now.
She first said that when she grows up she wants to work in a restaurant.
“That’s great,” I told her at the time. “So you want to be a chef?”
She replied simply, “No.”
Assuming, I said “So do you want to own your own restaurant then?” I immediately knew that wasn’t it either, because what seven-year-old dreams of owning anything as a career? Kids want to do stuff, not own stuff.
“No,” she said again, “I want to be a waitress.”
I tried to keep an encouraging look on my face. “Oh” was all I could manage to say at first, followed by, “Really?”
“Uh-huh,” she said.
The word “flabbergasted” doesn’t get used much these days, but it certainly describes how I felt at the time — overcome with surprise and bewilderment. A waitress? Really?
Images of the “struggling waitress” filled my head, along with thoughts of the challenges experienced by those in that line of work: Minimum wages and a dependence on tips; insensitive, rude, and belligerent customers; irregular schedules and the insecurity of working a position that is so easily and immediately replaceable. I did not want that for my little girl.
“What makes you want to be a waitress?” I asked, as neutrally as I could. I thought perhaps she thought the waitress was the one who prepared the food, in which case I could guide her back to the whole chef idea. I was wrong.
“Because I want to bring people food,” she said, as if it was the most obvious answer to a question, ever.
It was a perfectly acceptable answer, and at the heart of it was a certain beauty – a desire to be of service – but at the time I could not get past the idea that it was not a career goal but a temporary stop on a career path; something one did while going to school, or between auditions or performing gigs.
To me, the idea of a career as a waitress seemed less like service, and more like servitude. I thought that she should be aiming a little higher for her life goals (as though a seven year old has a concept of “life goals”).
Perhaps this was just one of a couple ideas she had in mind. She has demonstrated such a strong love for animals — I thought surely there were some veterinarian aspirations in there. Or perhaps her fascination with birds could yield some ornithological leanings, even though she is too young to understand what ornithology is. Or artistry – she loves to draw, and while there is still great potential for an artist to starve as much as a waitress, the soul of an artist is nurtured by the work; I don’t know how much waiting tables nurtures the soul of the waitress.
“Is there something else that you think you might want to do when you grow up?” I asked hopefully.
Her response was prompt and simple. “No,” she said contently.
I sighed, and checked my Best Father Responses list for what was appropriate to say here. I found it fairly quickly.
“Well, sweetheart, if that’s what you want to be, then I hope you’ll be the best waitress you can be,” I said, kissing the top of her head and letting go of my judgments of her chosen (at the moment) profession.
I thought of this for a while, and of course I know that as she gets older she will discover other passions and other desires about how to live her life. This is just where she is today, and it’s okay. But even if she did, in fact, choose waitressing as a career path, could it be okay? The truth is, if she is happy with it, then it is most certainly okay. Her happiness, after all, is all I want.
I realized my potential to be one of those fathers who disapproves so much of his child’s chosen path that he lets his own dissatisfaction destroy the child’s relationship with him. I was grateful to be shown this. I hope I can remember it.
Even at the age of seven, my daughter is her own person, with her own will, her own life path, and her own destiny. As her father, I can be an example, I can model behavior that works, and I can support her in her growth. But if I try to force her to be something she is not, then I am not loving her unconditionally. And unconditional love is the greatest gift a parent can give a child.
If nothing else, I have a reminder that I can go back to again and again – a reminder that, regardless of what I think or feel, my daughter has always seemed to know what she wants to be when she grows up. I have a photo from a couple years ago that I’ve shared here before; a photo that I will keep until I die, one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It is also a reminder that sometimes, the best thing a dad can do for his child is just sit back and watch the blinking lights.
As I type this, I’m curious to see what today’s answer would be – if it would still be “waitress” or if it would be something else. I just called my daughter into my office and asked her:
“Mak, real quick – what do you wanna be when you grow up?”
Her response — immediate and without hesitation: “Me.” Then a second later, with a quizzical look on her face: “Why?”
I smiled with utter joy and pride in my little girl. “Just curious,” I said.