There I was, holding my daughter in my arms and walking out across a hotel courtyard to breakfast. As she softly pointed out things that she found interesting and tried to mimic the names of each object as I told her what they were, I was suddenly overcome by an intense love for her and a desire to just hold her close to me.
Babies, of course, don't understand those feelings in others, only themselves. A nature walk is no time to go running into daddy's arms for comfort, so she was mostly oblivious to my feelings. She simply kept pointing out interesting objects and trying to name them. My fatherly emotions were flying right over her head.
This underscored for me the fact that this stage of her life - and of mine - is fleeting. In a few short months, she'll be walking around by herself. The opportunities to scoop her up in my arms and carry her around will be sparse...
For a brief moment, this felt so unfair to me. How could my time holding her so closely and loving her like this be so brief? How could it be so near to its end? How could I prolong it as much as possible? How could I hold on to her - and this feeling - for as long as humanly possible?
At that point, I reached the following conclusion, naive as it may be, as I am still only a new parent. I concluded that this wonderful time of holding her close, carrying her around with me, loving her like that must necessarily end, but that it will be replaced by a new stage. That new stage will require that I spend less time just cuddling her, and more time actively playing with her. I'll be teaching her games, taking her on hikes, answering her questions. I'll be allowing her to play a more active role in deciding what we do together next. I'll be including her in minor chores and helping her learn skills that she'll need for the rest of her life.
That stage, too, will end sooner than I want it to. That stage will likely be replaced by a stage in which she wants to spend less time with me. She'll push me away, roll her eyes at me, test my patience, learn the boundaries of her independence. I'll have to find a new way to love her, rather than showing her amazing things or cuddling her. I'll have to forge a new kind of bond with her, one that fosters our mutual trust of each other and sets the stage for the last round, in which my job of rearing her will be over and we'll both settle into an adult relationship.
I can't help but think about people I have known who resisted this evolution. Some chose to keep having babies rather than evolve beyond the cuddling. Some refused to treat their young children as anything other than babies, eventually losing interest in their own children just as the children were developing interests of their own.
Some made it to the second stage, but then resented their children for "growing up" into teenagers who wanted to be adults. If those teens wanted to play, then the parents were interested; if not, the parents became distant and receded into their own minds, unable to relate to their teenage children.
It must be difficult to watch your children turn into adults. I'm inches deep in that ocean of emotions, and already I feel the first pangs of loss. But a true, loving relationship between a parent and a child requires our embracing the fact that, from the moment a child is born she is slowly aging.
As my child ages, so must my relationship to her. That, at least, is my conclusion.