There’s a guy I see most mornings on my walk to work. He is always standing at the rear of his car outside the nursery smoking a cigarette while his tiny daughter sits alone on the back seat. He stares into space dragging on his cigarette while she waits patiently to be unstrapped and taken into pre-school.
At dinner my daughter says;
“I had a crisis in psychology today. We were doing these tests and I remembered seeing a girl on Instagram who is at uni posting about doing them too, and I remembered how much I really hate them, and how I’ll have to do them.”
“So is your crisis over now?” I ask.
“No. I don’t know if I want to spend three years and 30k studying something I’m not sure I want to do for the rest of my life”
I listen while her anxieties spill out over the pasta with wild garlic and roasted tomatoes. Her brother chips in occasionally through huge forkfuls with well thought through and supportive suggestion, but she wants to be worried and to express it.
“It feels like when I finish school in a few weeks they’ll just wave goodbye and that will be that.”
I can see she’s feeling overwhelmed and I remember having a similar conversation with her brother two years ago. Suddenly overcome with the impending end of something which had been so safe.
“You don’t have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life.” I say
“But I like certainty” she replies.
“I know you do, but there isn’t any. Not for any of us”
The conversation carries on and she manages to convince herself that she’ll end up living on the streets or going to prison.
“Don’t worry. I’ll bring you a file in a cake”. I tell her.
She smiles, briefly.
When my children were young I always tried to make time for them to talk to me but I’m sure I didn’t manage to do it often enough. They asked questions which were repetitive or impossible to answer, just like children do. Sometimes their constant string of “why?” was exhausting but I always remembered something my wife had told me early on when our son was digging holes in the garden where we didn’t especially want him to dig. “He’s just exploring the world.” she had said. It made a profound impact and, in the years which followed, I often heard her voice reminding me that they were just trying to make sense of things, in their own time.
Watching TV but still thinking about the earlier conversation I say, “I want you to know you can fail.”
She nods without looking at me.
“I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” I say
In a way, it’s the truth. After all the years I spent in corporate life I was bitter and resentful about the time I felt I had wasted, but it wasn’t a waste because it took me to the point where I needed to do something else and helped me develop the courage to do it.
Getting ready for bed I give my daughter a hug and remind her, “I haven’t got the answers but I’ll always look for them with you.”
“I know Dad” she says.
This morning I walked past the nursery and the man was there standing behind his car smoking. I wondered about the little girl and how it feels to be left alone, and I wondered about what the man was thinking, and what she was thinking. Most of all I thought about the cost of all the time we miss with our children when we could be exploring the world together.