A Dad's Valentine Story: When Boys and Love and Heartbreak Enter the Picture

A single father reflects on his own relationship pitfalls as his tween daughter navigates the uncharted territory of romance

There are now boys. Boys are now in the picture. The picture has boys. There are many pictures, and these pictures have boys in them. My daughter is on Instagram scrolling through pictures. She’s 12. The boys are, well, boys.

“I mean, isn’t he hot?!”

I don’t know! I’m a grown man. Is Justin Bieber hot? I really have no idea. “Totally hot,” I say, driving her back from school, her in the passenger seat telling me about boys. Showing me pictures of boys. Relaying the trials and tribulations of being around boys, of boys being too far away. Of boys.

These boys have names. I will not divulge them to protect the innocent. We will give these boys middle-school boy names — Carter and Niles; Kennedy and Josiah. These boys are stupid. Or they’re hot. Or they’re stupid hot. These boys are lame. Or are amazing. Or are amazingly lame. These boys are popular. Or are total nerds. Or are popular nerds. I don’t understand the categories. I can’t keep track of the names. “Now, Carter. He’s stupid hot?” “NO DAD! GEEZ! YOU NEVER LISTEN!” She keeps scrolling through Instagram.

Of course I listen. I am her father. I listen to everything she says. We’re both now, however, entering some uncharted territory. My girl burbling with hormones. Her heart is full in a moment. Empty the next. Her heart is working on its own now. She is becoming powerless to its every beat. And me, her dad, unable to fix all her problems now. Her life, her own. If a boy breaks her heart, a boy breaks her heart. I can do nothing to stop it. All I can do is after, listen. By trying to understand her. “NO DAD! DUH! PAY ATTENTION!” I am, my beautiful child. I am.

It’s not the boys that concern me, or the fact that they like my daughter. Of course they do. She’s awesome. It’s that if she hurts, and she will hurt, I can do very little. Listen and give her whatever advice I can give that seems sound, or just, or right.

How would I know what’s right, my beloved daughter? Your whole waking life you’ve never seen me in a successful relationship with a woman. You were so young when me and your mother crumbled. Parenting styles and financial strain and the drift of a marriage sank us. You were such a good swimmer back then. Better than I ever was.

I could, I have, told her the pitfalls and troubles of romance. Told her about how mending works. Told her about resilience in the face of adversity. About the little shards of optimism that shines in the darkness.

After the divorce I jumped into a challenging relationship that was, in ways, rewarding. But you could see it in me — if not my unhappiness, then my unease that I couldn’t love someone right. That I was doing something wrong. You saw in me that romantic relationships were hard, that relationships made people compromise to the point of compromising themselves. What sort of lesson is that? You’ll struggle, sweetheart, until you utterly fail. What bright love exists in that?

But what if I could show my daughter what love was by practicing it? There’s a love I know that exists. If not for me, for others. That couple at the counter is happy. That one over there is content. That one. That one, too. My daughter and I spent a weekend on a Canadian island recently. It was a prize package I won in a contest. It was supposed to have been a romantic vacation for two. My girlfriend didn’t want to go with me. I took my daughter instead. What sort of lesson is there in that?

What sort of advice can I give my blood-hearted child? She asks questions: "If a boy does [such and such], does that mean he likes me?” I answer them. “Yes.” She aks: “If I said this to a boy how would he react?” I reply: “He’d like you.”

It’s hard to know who to love. What trust you put in another! Sometimes love works. “Look, Dad!” It's a picture of her and a boy she likes. “Isn’t that cute?” It is.

Sometimes love doesn’t work. She, crying in my arms in a heavy rain. “I’ve never been sadder in my whole life.” I can’t say it wasn’t a beautiful thing — us hugging like that. Her, raw and exposed to me. I hugged her as hard as I could and told jokes until she smiled again. What can I do for her other than to try and make her hopelessly happy?

Of course, wouldn’t it be something if she could see me happy?! A sad clown, me, always laughing at my own expense.“I’m OK,” I would say to her when she asked how I was. We both knew the lie.

I can tell her about the pitfalls and troubles of romance. And about how mending works. About resilience in the face of adversity and the little shards of optimism that shine in the darkness. How things might work out in the end if you try hard enough.

But what if I could show her what happiness was, manifested in me? Make her think Oh — look at dad! Love is possible even when it seems like it isn’t! My dad’s smiling, more, laughing! What a thing to see. As her father, I have never been able to show her the positives in a relationship, only how one tries to overcome the negatives in a relationship. How to rebound from a cracked heart.

“I love him,” she cried recently. “I do!” I know you do, my child. As much as you can. And now go ahead and talk to me about boys and hearts and love because, the thing is, I’ve felt it a little myself again. For the first time in your life, my daughter, I love. You’re now feeling it for the first time. I’m feeling it again for the first time in a very long time. Some rare bird in some rare tree in some dark forest.

As much as she tells me about boys — so many boys — I start telling her about the woman I love now. The woman who likes the poetry of Anne Sexton. The woman who is smarter than me, better looking than me. The woman with the tiniest little hands. The woman who has a daughter of her own. Another bird in another rare tree. Such rare treasure.

How wonderful for my daughter to look in my face as she struggles with the minefields of romance, and see a smile upon it after having gone through the minefields and been a casualty of it time and again. It’s still there, of course, the minefield. There’s no finish line. But to be content and assured in that lovely battle? I hope it helps her to see me now in a glow over a shadow.

“Everyone hates me, Dad. I just want someone to be on my side.” Lord, child, those by your side are legion. It may not feel that way. Carter may have said something mean. Josiah might have done something totally uncool, but you’ll get through this battle, and the next, and the next, and the next. Look at me for proof. Battle scarred, I am, and feeling triumphant for the first time. Even in the loss, it’s like I’ve won something. My heart. Myself. Look at me for proof that rare and beautiful things can happen.

See?! It’s possible to love in the impossible. Now take a look at this picture of this woman I love. “Isn’t she beautiful?!” “DAD! COME ON!” She shakes her head in disgust but smiles anyway because I’m smiling. The first of its kind she has ever seen on my face.

It can’t be all that bad, I hope she’s thinking after whatever tears she sheds. There are rewards to this beating heart. My dad’s beaten heart beats still. I’ll now take a picture of my goofy love-nut dad and post it on Instagram for my friends to laugh at.

There is sweetness in being human. There’s a joy in the spark and crack. Even in the jungle of a middle school and the jungle of adult love, too. Scroll through Instagram and like picture after picture — a little heart pops up each and every time.

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