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Guest Post: How I Taught My Daughter To Fight

This is a guest blog post by best-selling author Brad Meltzer on his just-released book, Heroes for My Daughter.

I was sleeping. Soundly. And then my pregnant wife shook me awake.

“I think the baby’s coming,” she told me.
It was four in the morning. 
“Go back to bed,” I pleaded. “It’s too early.” 
God bless my wife, she actually tried to go back to bed.
 But my little unborn daughter had her own ideas. 
Believe me when I say, that wouldn’t be the last time.

At the hospital, the instant I saw my daughter for the first time, my heart doubled in size. My own mother told me at the time, “Now you’ll understand how I love you.”

After giving us a few moments with her, the nurses did their usual weighing and measuring, and then said they wanted to whisk her off for her first bath.
 “I’m coming with you,” I told them, determined to protect her.
 They smiled that smile they save for new parents and reassured me, “She’ll be fine. We have her.”

But as I looked down at my beautiful, teeny, amazing daughter…c’mon… No way was I ever letting her out of my sight. Thankfully, the nurses put up with me, and let me pretend I was some old parental veteran as I helped give my daughter her first bath. Later, as I sat there, rocking in the rocking chair they gave me and holding her close, I still remember all the dreams I was dreaming for her.

I didn’t want just one thing for my daughter. I wanted everything. If she needed strength, I wanted her to be strong. If she saw someone hurting, I wanted her to find the compassion to help. If there was a problem, big or small, that no one could solve, I wanted her to have every available skill - ingenuity, empathy, creativity, perseverance - so she could attack that problem in a way that no one else on this entire planet had ever fathomed. And that would be her greatest gift: That no one - and I mean no one - would ever be exactly like my Lila.

I still believe that. I do. I’m a mushy dad. And it was in those first moments of blind idealism and unbridled naïveté that I resolved to write a book for her.

Yes, I’d been down this road before. I started a similar book on the night my son was born. The goal was to write this book over the course of my children’s lives - that I’d fill it with all the advice they needed to be good people. I began that night:
1. Love God.

2. Help the kids who need it.

My plan was to add more ideas as she grew older, and eventually, on the day when I presented this book to her, she’d realize I was indeed the greatest father of all time (I had a parade planned for myself as well).

Thankfully, during your first few years, I realized my cliché, self-important plan was just that. It hit me after thinking about my own life and after my friend Simon Sinek told me this amazing story about the Wright Brothers: Every time Orville and Wilbur Wright went out to fly their plane, they would bring extra materials for multiple crashes. That way, when they crashed, they could rebuild the plane and try again. Think of that for a moment: every time they went out - every time - they knew they were going to fail. But that’s what they did: Crash and rebuild. Crash and rebuild. And that’s why they finally took off.

I love that story. I wanted my daughter to hear that story. I wanted my sons to hear that story. I wanted everyone in this world to know that if you dream big…and work hard…and have a good side-order of stubbornness…you can do anything in this world.

Soon after, my new plan was born. I wouldn’t give my kids a book of rules. I’d give them a book of heroes. And in that, I’d give them absolute proof that anything is possible.

Following birth order, I first wrote Heroes for My Son, which was published two years ago. At the time, I was simultaneously writing the book for my daughter, and not just because my daughter kept coming up to my office and demanding, “Where’s my book?” (which she did). Over the past six years, as I began my collection of heroes, I always knew I’d have to split them between a book for my sons and a book for my daughter.

For that reason, I worked hard to divide the heroes equally. My son got more male heroes; my daughter got more female (in the exact same ratio, down to the exact percentage, so there’d be no arguing about which “side” was better).

Think I’m nuts? Wait till you have more than one kid. Like Switzerland, my parental goal was to keep all parties neutral, so all my children would feel equal love, equal respect, equal life lessons. Am I insane? I have three kids. Of course I’m insane. But (to steal my mother’s phrase), for those three little blessings, I’d saw off my own arm. And so, feeling like a 21st-century parent (so progressive I couldn’t even see, much less acknowledge, gender differences), I began to write these two equal books filled with equally amazing heroes.

But here’s the thing. Along the way, something happened.

When I handed in the manuscript for my daughter’s book, the editor came back with a surprising reply. She noticed that I kept overusing one word throughout the manuscript.

What word?

Fighter.

By her count, fourteen of the fifty profiles had the word “fight” or “fighter” in it.

As she pointed out, “Some of them, like Abigail Adams, Winston Churchill, Hannah Senesh, Thurgood Marshall, were literally fighters, so of course the term should stay there.” But I also used it with Audrey Hepburn, Helen Keller, Teddy Roosevelt, Nancy Brinker…even with Lisa Simpson and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama! Even in the pacifist, I sought a fighter. And yes, that probably highlights my lack of descriptive ability. But it also raises a vital question.

Why?

After years of trying to keep this book for my daughter perfectly equal to the book for my sons - after years of trying to teach them the exact same lessons - why did I focus so intently on making sure that my daughter knew how to fight? Why did I keep using that word? Why, subconsciously or not, was that the lesson I kept coming back to?

It’s not a complex answer. Part of it’s because I’m still trying to protect her (even if I don’t like to admit it). Indeed, when my daughter was three, and first learning to swim, she used to jump in the pool, sink down to the bottom, and then pop up and shout, with a huge grin on her face, “I’m okay!” We used to laugh at it, especially as it became her personal catchphrase every time she went underwater: I’m okay! I’m okay! I’m okay!

But looking back, why did Lila keep yelling, I’m okay? Because someone (read: me) kept asking, “Are you okay?”

Yet the other part of the answer is because my dreams for my daughter today are different than the ones on the day she was born. Sure, I still want everything for her. I always will. But - and I’m just being honest here - I do want my daughter to learn how to fight.

It’s the dream that links every single hero I picked out. In this book for my daughter, every hero is a fighter. And as I tell my daughter, no matter what stage of life you’re in, when you want something - no matter how impossible it seems - you need to fight for it. When you believe in something, fight for it. And when you see injustice, fight harder than you’ve ever fought before.

To see the results, I picked out the story of Marie Curie, who never stopped pushing science forward, even when she was dying from the radiation she was studying…or the Three Stooges (yes, laugh if you want), who were the first ones to make fun of Adolf Hitler onscreen, nearly two years before Pearl Harbor…or the story of Billie Jean King, who challenged (and beat!) the pig-headed man who told her that women were weaker than men.

Women are not weaker. It was perhaps the most important lesson in there. I needed my daughter to hear that: Women are not weaker. They are just as strong, just as resolute, just as creative, and are filled with just as much potential as any man. Yes, as her father, my instinct is to protect her (like that first day with the nurses). Other people will want to protect her too. But she needs to know that she is not a damsel in distress, waiting for some prince to rescue her. Forget the prince. With her brain and her resourcefulness, she can rescue herself. And when she has her doubts - as we all inevitably do - she’d have this book, full of people who were wracked with just as much fear, but who also found the internal strength to overcome it.

From Amelia Earhart, to Teddy Roosevelt, to every person I picked, she’d have the stories of women and men who were no different from any of us. We may lionize them and put them on pedestals. But never forget this: No one is born a hero. Every person I picked for my daughter had moments where they were scared and terrified. Like you. Like me. So how did they achieve what they achieved? Because whatever their dreams were, big or small - for their country, for their family, or even for themselves - they never stopped fighting for what they loved.

We all are who we are, until that moment when we strive for something greater.

Is that schmaltzy and naïve? I hope so. Because I wanted my daughter to learn those things too.

As for the most important hero in the book, yes, I included my wife. And my grandmother. But for me, the most vital hero is my mother, Teri Meltzer, who died from breast cancer three years ago. On the day my publisher was shutting down, and no one was there to take over my contract, I thought I was watching my career deteriorate. So I called my Mom and told her how scared I was. She told me, “I'd love you if you were a garbage man.” It wasn't anything she practiced. Those were just her honest feelings in that moment. And to this day, every day I sit down to write, I say those words to myself, soaking in the purity of my Mom's love. I’d love you if you were a garbage man. My hero.

Yet for you, dear reader, the most important page in my daughter’s book is the last one, because it's blank. It says “Your Hero’s Photo Here” and “Your Hero’s Story Here.” And I promise you, you take a photo of your Mom, or Grandparent, or teacher, or a military member of your family, and you put their picture in there, and write one sentence of what they mean to you; that will be the most beautiful page in Heroes For My Daughter. And the best present we can give all our children: the reminder that it is indeed ordinary people who change the world. That’s way stronger than any upper-cut.

Today, my gift is complete. I’ve finished my daughter’s book. The book is my dream for her. And when my daughter has doubts, there is strength in the book. When she’s ready to give up, there’s motivation inside. And when she has questions, there are answers inside. But I hope, as every hero proves, the best answers will always come from what’s within herself.

Brad Meltzer is the #1 bestselling author of The Inner Circle and the host of “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” on the History Channel. Heroes For My Daughter will be published April 10th. This article originally appeared in Spirit Magazine by Southwest Airlines.

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