The Challenge of Taking On New Roles and Searching for A Sense of Place
By Scott Beller
Daddying blog Editor
In 7th grade, I gave up a chance to reprise my role from the high school musical as Prince Chululonkorn in a local dinner theater production of The King and I to instead play offensive line for the Braddock Road Youth Club 135-pound Cowboys. Directly and indirectly, my father influenced that decision. He never came right out and told me to my face to drop my theatrical ambitions. Instead, he would casually mention how theater was “for pansies,” and worked behind the scenes persuading my mom that football was necessary to toughen me up. Two years later, I, like most other freshman boys in my class hoping to prove our required toughness and establish a meaningful place in a new school, would try out for the football team. With two seasons already under my belt, the decision was easier for me this time.
Our season began in the heat of August with two-a-day practices a couple weeks before school started. We endured hours of running, pushups, burpees, and various other modes of plebe torture. To this day, the memory of bear-crawling up and down the 30-yard incline known only as "the hill" in full pads and the words “drop and give me 50,” still haunt me. On that motley freshman team, there was no “Friday Night Lights” glory. We didn’t play in, much less win, any big games. I wasn’t a star player. In fact, the freshman football experience all but killed my love of the sport. I decided not to go out for the team the following year after I learned the freshman coaches would move up to coach the JV squad.
Hard pass. My brief, unpleasant high-school football career had few redeeming qualities that would merit me sharing this story. I bring it up because of the lessons, self-knowledge, and at least one lifelong friend I gained while churning within the crucible of that nightmarish season (what up, Dixon?!).
As I've witnessed my oldest daughter navigate her freshman year, strive to make her high school crew team, and seek out her own sense of place, I've found myself revisiting my own freshman experience. All these years later as a dad, I feel like I have finally been able to find the value in what I endured. And by contrasting my experience with hers, I've recognized some important things mine lacked. Her reasons for wanting to row were much different than mine for trying out for football. She chose to join winter crew workouts not because she had anything to prove to me or her mother, but because it was a unique, fun, and physically demanding team sport in which she hoped to make some new friendships with girls she may not have met otherwise. Going into it, she also had two important things I didn't have:
Self-confidence from having already proven her athletic abilities and value as a teammate. She earned her black belt in Tae Kwon Do at age 12 after eight years of studying and practice. Last year, she was invited to try out for a travel soccer team desperate for a goalkeeper, impressed the coach, and promptly helped her team go undefeated the rest of the way. They won their division championship and an end-of-season tournament in which she allowed just three goals in four games; and
The unwavering support of parents who believed in her. My wife and I try to make it clear to both our daughters that they are more than good enough and that they don't have to please or prove themselves to anyone else. Win, lose, or draw, as long as they enjoy and want to continue any activity, we're with them.
So, after 10 years of being by her side coaching, explaining, and showing her “how it’s done” on the playing field, we’ve reached the point where my oldest daughter doesn’t need (or want) us involved as much in those things anymore. This has been an adjustment for me, just as it is for all parents who’ve blinked only to find their children have morphed from helpless, clingy toddlers to limit-testing tweens to independent teens.
Lately, I’ve been consumed not only by the joy I feel as I watch my daughter grow into a powerful, amazing, accomplished young woman but also by the sadness that comes from this inescapable feeling I am no longer as essential in her life. While I perform this common parenting two-step, I’m trying my best to put what I’m feeling into the right context and to understand that, indeed, my daughter still needs me. It’s just that her needs are changing, therefore, my daddying role and the situations for which I’m required on-stage (or in the theater at all) are changing as well.
I’m scrambling to learn my (acceptable) lines and figure out exactly when and where I need to hit my marks. Right now, there’s a lot of improv involved. I do know that I shouldn't upstage her or her younger sister when they're doing their thing. (I hope I'm getting better at not doing that.)
While opportunities for me to be there for my girls seem to be fewer and farther between given their busy school/after-school schedules, here are some things I’m trying to do to let them know I’m still here:
Let them know (with minimal annoyance and necessary space) that I am still available whenever and in whatever way they need. Sometimes, I tell them directly, other times I'll shoot them a text with a funny photo or gif or string of emojis. More often, I'll just sit down in the same room with them to read or ask if they want to watch a TV show.
I try to ask fewer probing questions and instead ask for their input or opinion on something. If I get them talking, maybe they open up and let me know what if any support they need. Do they need a sounding board, a coach, a medic, a hug, a ride, a pep talk? Or do they just want to have a laugh while we watch Brooklyn 99?
Be there for them as their biggest fan and cheerleader – good times, bad times, no matter what. I’ve written about this before and I will continue to sing my kids’ praises as often as I can. Of course, we parents like to brag about our kids. It may embarrass them. It may annoy other parents. But we must do it anyway because it helps let our kids know that we BELIEVE in them.
This last point – showing that we believe in them – is especially important for our teen and tween. I hope they already know I love them unconditionally and I will always have their backs. But at a particularly chaotic time when they still are trying to find their comfort zones and likely grappling with believing in themselves, I want my girls to know they are self-sufficient, they are smarter and stronger than they may know, and they will succeed at anything for which they're willing to put in the work.
That brings me back to just how impressive it has been to watch my 14-year-old row with precision, power, and perfect rhythm as part of her freshman 8 boat; to hear her talk about the techniques she has been perfecting; and to learn some new things from her along the way. I've loved seeing her find a new source of joy and confidence, make so many new friends, and discover her place on the water.
She's been so enriched by this experience. I couldn’t be happier for or more proud of her.
Next week, while my daughter and her teammates travel to South Carolina for an intense, week-long rowing camp, my wife and I will take her sister with us to relax at the beach. It’s the first time we’ll be missing one of our kids for spring break. As the time to leave on our separate trips gets closer, it's been hard for me to think about that. Harder than I anticipated. But I realize my teenager will be exactly where she should be – bonding with her crew teammates and making lifetime memories. I have to keep reminding myself of this as a way to assuage the tinge of sadness I still feel.
This first crew season has given both me and my daughter opportunities to grow. Her expanding independence and self-confidence require me to take another step back into the wings and out of her spotlight. That doesn’t mean I should disappear. I wouldn't dream of it. It just means I have to cheer her on even more loudly than before. And maybe I give her a wave every now and then so she knows I’m still here.
Scott Beller is the proud, imperfect dad of two mighty girls, Morgan and Lauren, imperfect husband of rock-star mom, Elisabeth, former soccer coach, current soccer practice shuttle driver, Editor of the Daddying blog, and DCG's Director of Communications. He's a seasoned writer and PR agency veteran with more than 25 years of experience helping organizations of all sizes reach audiences and tell their stories. Prior to launching his own creative communications consultancy in 2003, he led PR teams with some of the world’s most respected agencies, including Fleishman-Hillard and The Weber Group. As a consultant, he’s helped launch two other parenting advocacy nonprofits with DCG founder Allan Shedlin. His first book, Beggars or Angels, was a ghostwritten memoir for the nonprofit Devotion to Children's founder Rosemary Tran Lauer. He was formerly known as "Imperfect Dad" and Head Writer for the Raising Nerd blog, which supported parents in inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and creative problem solvers. He earned his BA in Communications from VA Tech.