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The Day My Preschooler Stopped Hugging Me Goodbye

Our elaborate goodbye routine was reduced to a cursory lunchbox handoff, while she went to hold hands with a little boy. I was grieving the loss.

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Let’s face it. When you’re the father of girls, boys are your worst enemy. Or at least that’s what you’re supposed to think, according to everyone — from the media to your best friend, who jokes about how you need to buy a shotgun on the day of your daughter’s birth. Being 6’6” tall, I consider myself very fortunate to have a natural intimidation factor built-in. However, I still fall prey to the same insecurities that many fathers feel when it comes to their darling daughters.

You see, every day last year, I dropped off my own darling daughter at preschool. I walked her — hand in hand — to the top of the steps and initiated the “goodbye routine.” I would crouch down and bring her in for a tight hug, kiss her on the forehead (she always needed more kisses), and send her on her way to a day full of learning.  And then, she’d always shout, “One more hug, Daddy!” and run back to me for one last hug before finally going in the front door.

But it didn’t end there! The whole way to the school building, she’d yell, “I love you, Daddy! Have a good day at work!” I always hoped that she’d stop shouting once she stepped inside, but I’d been told by several teachers that, in fact, she did not. It was extremely adorable, and all of the teachers and administrators swooned when they watched the display. My heart swelled, and I was all grins as I went to work.

But then everything changed.

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One bitterly cold winter morning, she left me, nay, abandoned me at the bottom of the stairs. And why, you might ask, would my darling little preschooler break her father’s heart?

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A boy.

That’s right, folks. At just under 5 years old, my sweet, precious little girl had abandoned me for a boy. Now, I’m not one to back down from a challenge. I followed the two of them (hand in hand, mind you) to the top of the stairs. She chattered away with THE BOY the whole trip up the steps. But, again, I did not back down. I stopped in our usual spot, preparing for the usual “goodbye routine” like always.

But she didn’t stop.

My darling daughter continued on her way to the front doors, forgetting all about her poor, downtrodden, discarded father until the very last second. Suddenly, as she was about to enter the school, she yelled out, “Wait!” and ran back to me.

I smiled smugly to myself and nodded at the closest teacher. If I’d had a glass of Champagne, I would have toasted the imaginary audience: I’d still won the day, regardless of the audacity of the boy’s presence. My little girl still needed her daddy.

She ran towards me, arms outstretched and said, “I need my lunch!”

“What?” I asked, blinking in disbelief.

“My lunch,” she said, prying the My Little Pony lunchbox out of my hand.

I’d forgotten I even had it. “Oh, okay,” I mumbled, too stunned to think of anything else. “Have a good day at school.”

She turned to head back to the school, but at that moment the day was saved. As if my last words had turned on a light bulb, she said, “One more hug!”

We hugged and I even managed to squeeze in a forehead kiss before she bounded towards the school where THE BOY waited patiently. As I started my long journey back to my car, I imagined him wearing the same smug grin I had worn only moments before. There were no shouts of goodwill for my day at work. No kisses blown to me through the air. No waves goodbye.

On that day, all of the teachers bore witness to a heartbroken father.

Having since recovered from the traumatic event, I can look back at this moment for what it truly was: my baby’s first steps of independence. My little girl starting out on her own in this big, wide world. It can be incredibly terrifying to watch her grow up. I’ve been with her her whole life, and she starts needing me less and less. My heart breaks a little more with each step — until one day, she won’t need me at all. I’m losing her, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

At least, that’s the thought going through my head during an event like this. I’m filled with concern for my child’s well-being. I’m worried I won’t be needed. But of course, none of that is true.

Even to this day, I still need my own parents. They’re there to help me as I face life’s challenges. To listen to my heartache or help pay for expenses I hadn’t expected. No matter how prepared I might be, life has always found a way to throw a curveball.

Now that I’m a parent, it’s my turn to raise the next generation. In the end, that’s our job. We’re raising our children so that one day, they can head out into the real world prepared for whatever comes next. We teach them how to work hard, wash dishes, and, yes, even be friends with boys.

We’ll always be there when they need us. Instead of being heartbroken, we should be proud of them (and be ready to accept all the hugs and snuggles while they’re still willing to give them). We should look at their steps into the real world with pride. Look at what they can do! And why can they do this? Why can they tackle the world?

Because we taught them how.

Bryan Zollman is the father of two daughters in South Carolina. As a writer and a father, he has accumulated a wealth of My Little Pony lore, detailed knowledge of Big Hero 6, and the ability to spot a terrible kids’ show from a mile away.