My Daughter, The Waitress

“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.

Super Girl

I went to pick up my kids tonight after work, leaving the office and getting on the freeway with the onset of a headache. It had been a long day, and to be honest, I was not looking forward to the ordeal of cooking dinner, getting homework done, showers taken, lunches made for tomorrow… I wanted nothing more than to just go home and lie down and make the headache go away.

I pulled into the driveway of their mom’s house, and cut the engine. I took a deep breath, let it out in a long rush, my head bowed and my eyes closed, hoping that this was not the start of a migraine. I said a quick prayer for patience and willingness. I opened the car door and stepped out.

As I turned to walk toward the porch, I stopped in my tracks. A completely unexpected smile started to form on my face as my weary brain began to register what it was I was looking at. My fatigue was gone in an instant as I took in the vision before me.

My seven-year-old daughter, Makena, was strolling down the driveway toward me. She wore a bright orange pareo – knotted around her neck so it flowed behind her – as a cape. Beneath it she wore a blue t-shirt with little yellow chicks shown beneath the words “Hanging With My Peeps”. She wasn’t wearing any pants, but instead wore a pair of her brother’s underwear briefs. And on her feet:  a pair of brown suede pumps – her mother’s shoes, several sizes too big for her little feet.

She walked like a newborn colt or a barfly at closing time: unsteadily, shakily, but with utter pride. The look on her face was a combination of intent focus (on walking in heels), utter glee (in her outrageous attire), and pure delight (to see me). I could not help but laugh out loud with the same glee and delight.

I met her halfway across the driveway and gave her a big hug, and asked her with a chuckle, “Makie, where are your pants?” to which she calmly replied, “In my room.” Question asked and answered.

I kissed her, hugged her again, and took another look at her outfit. “You look fantastic, honey” I said, and she replied, “Thank you.”

“Go get your brother,” I said, and off she went, her cape flowing behind her like capes are meant to. I noticed she was already getting the hang of the heel-toe, heel-toe, heel-toe method of walking in those shoes. They grow up so fast. 

Minutes later, she came back out, the cape and pumps gone, replaced by grey sweatpants and no shoes. She and Hayden both loaded their backpacks in the back of the car. Hayden was the first to cry, “I call D.J.!”, which meant that he got to control the iPod on the drive. It also meant that Makena got to ride “Shotgun!”, because that is the fair trade: whoever gets to be D.J., the other one gets to ride shotgun. I don’t remember exactly when that treaty was brokered, but it tends to keep the peace so I don’t mess with it.

On the drive to my place, as Cee Lo Green was singing the very family-unfriendly but unbelievably catchy song “F**k You”, I reduced the volume, turned to Makena and asked her something. “Makena, when you came outside dressed in the cape, who were you supposed to be?” I asked.

She was looking out the windshield, not at me, and she said, “Whadda you mean?”

I had thought she would have some funny name for her character, the way kids do – something made-up and spontaneous and silly. “When you were dressed in the cape and stuff – were you supposed to be a superhero of some kind?”

She looked at me funny, as though I’d opened my mouth and said the most ridiculous thing. The look said lovingly, “Oh Father, you silly man, I adore you but you do struggle so…”

What she actually said to me was, “No. I was supposed to be me.” Then turned to look out the window again, and said “Can you turn the music back up please?”

I turned the music up and we drove along, going from the funky refrains of “the F.U. song” to the disco beats of Lady Gaga admonishing her boyfriend for telephoning her while she’s at the club. Jack Johnson followed shortly thereafter, and eventually there was some Sia thrown in – Hayden is a very versatile D.J. 

I realized after five or six songs – my headache was gone.

As we drove, I thought about Makena’s comment, and my heart swelled up with love. The kid marches to the beat of her own drum, and that is so awesome. I was reminded of an assignment she’d done while in Kindergarten two years before. We were at Open House Night near the end of the school year, and I was walking around her classroom, looking at all the art work and papers posted on the walls by all the students. One of the assignments was to write “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up.” I looked for Makena’s paper, and when I found it, I had that same feeling of my heart swelling with love for my little girl. Her answer was so beautiful, so simple, so honest.

“When I grow up, I just want to be me”, the paper read.

I wrote at the time that I hoped her answer would never, ever change. I am so happy to see that, two years later, it hasn’t.