I try to help her clean the cupcake icing from in between her small and sometimes uncoordinated fingers. "I want to do it," she says as she grabs a wet wipe and gets to work.
She grunts as she attempts to pull Legos apart, blocks that I attached rather well so we could build the tower taller.
"No, Daddy. I want to do it." I watch as she struggles until she relents and whimpers, "Help!"
Putting on her pants is no longer my job. It's her exercise in independence.
"I want to do it," she tells me and she stabs one leg in and then the other, often down the same pant leg.
And so it goes with most of our daily routine. Opening the pack of crackers, turning on the TV, choosing a book for bedtime reading, lining up buttons, buckling her seat belt, cleaning up a spill, getting into her stroller, putting a clip in her hair - these are all things that she now wants to do.
Yesterday, we were coloring and she spotted some stickers. I asked her if she'd like me to take one off the page and give it to her so she could place it on her shirt.
And then she hit me with it: "No, Daddy. I need to do it."
And she was right. She did need to do it. It was time.
This is what growth looks like. It's letting people do what they need to do so that one day, when they're on their own or miles away or all grown up (or all three), they can play with stickers or clean up a mess or eat lunch or go for a walk without your constant oversight, meddling, or touch.
And while it takes the wind out of me sometimes to think about her not needing me, I know that ultimately, my duty is to teach her that she only needs herself. I'm not supposed to wipe her mouth forever. I'm just supposed to wipe off that milk mustache until she's figured out how to do it.
As a parent, I am the teacher who's fighting against the end of the semester. While traditional educators look forward to the summer break, I don't want to stop giving lessons, demonstrating how something is done. I crave her mastery, but I don't want to lose the intimacy that comes from being the ever-present helper, cleaner, teacher, and guide.
Of course, the truth of the matter is that the only way I can ever be always there is to teach her something she'll take with her forever. She'll always know me not because I'm within earshot to help wipe her fingers after eating a cupcake. The best I can do is that when she's grown and big and strong and eating a cupcake, she'll think of me and our icing faces as she takes a napkin to dab in between her slender fingers to get all the gooey sugar goodness that likes to hide when you're eating a cupcake after a long walk with someone you love.