It’s been a long winter. I mean, we had a damn snow day just a few days before spring break this year. My kids have been trapped inside, driving each other crazy and having way too much screen time. My usual get-up-and-go persona has not been so excited this year to take them somewhere that’s winter-friendly, like the ice-skating rink, or Chuck E. Cheese.
So now that the weather has finally turned these past few weeks, my kids have been living outside. Last week, after school one day, I got a text from a neighborhood mom asking if Claire could come on a bike ride with her daughter. I said sure, and Claire’s friend showed up with her mother.
As Claire got ready, I said something like, “now remember, you have to always wear your helmet and you can’t go in the street. Really, you should just stay in the alley where I can see you.”
Claire looked at me with a face that instantly reminded me that she is closer to being a teenager than a toddler. “Mom,” she said in an annoyed voice, “I’m nine now. I think I can ride my bike around the house without you watching me.”
I paused. I’d been letting her ride her bike around the block last fall. I’d even pushed her to do it when she first felt nervous, and she had come home exhilarated that she had done something so independent. I know she had ridden around our house without me watching her many times last fall.
But things are different now. At least they are for me.
For most of my life as a parent, I was not overprotective of my kids. I think part of that is because I’m a teacher, and I have seen that pushing kids – and parents – out of their comfort zones usually leads to good outcomes for everyone. I loved sharing stories about the importance of letting kids play a bit dangerously or walk to school alone. I have never been a free-range parent, but I wanted my kids to have a fair degree of independence.
Freedom, however, has risks. Once when we were camping, I let my older kids explore a bit in the woods by themselves. Claire came back without Austin and we had a mad search before discovering him by a big rock pile. My heart was racing, but he was not scared at all. I had experienced that feeling that every parent knows – the one where your heart leaps out of your chest and you think, “my God, what if something has happened to my child?” The thought makes it almost impossible to breathe.
And yet, as parents, we have to push through that feeling every day. I’ve always considered myself a mom who did a pretty good job letting my kids have their freedoms. I was proud of myself for the way I did this.
But that was then, and this is now.
Now, when a parent in Austin’s class calls and says she can take him to a birthday party that’s a short drive away, I demur and take him myself. What if they got in a car accident? When Tommy wants to run around in the alley, I don’t just watch from the back yard. I’m there right with him. What if he bolted towards the street? And when Claire goes swimming with her friends, I never turn my back on them, not even for a second. What if she went under and couldn’t get back up?
I know. 9-year-olds who are strong swimmers don’t drown in 4-foot pools. But perfectly fit 40-year-olds don’t die of cancer either.
I’ve always understood in an intellectual way that there is no guarantee that everything will turn out perfectly for my family. It’s just that now I know – I really know – that bad things can happen to the people I love. That the worst can happen to my family.
This fear can be paralyzing. And it’s probably the exact opposite of what my kids need right now. But I can’t help it. Sometimes I look at my sweet kids and cannot get the thought out of my mind that if something happened to them I would be lost. Forever.
I want to protect them. I want to bubble-wrap them up and never let them go. I want to walk them to school and then make sure they get all the way inside the classroom even though I’m supposed to drop them off at the building doors. I want to text their friends’ parents 50 times each time they are on a play date. I know it’s crazy, and I know it’s not helpful for them, or really, for me. But God, that’s the overwhelming feeling I have almost every day. Sometimes I am able to fight it, and let them go. Other times, I just can’t do it.
The “what if?” fear was always there. It is for every parent. It’s just so much stronger now.
And it was certainly there that day when Claire wanted to ride her bike around the block without me. As she got ready for her bike ride, I followed her out to the garage. “Mom,” she said in that pointed voice that a kid of her age does perfectly, “I can ride my bike. I will be with my friend. I am nine. Nine!”
She’s nine. She’s barely seen anything of the world, and what she’s been given lately has been pretty awful. But that’s not how she sees it. She isn’t me, worried that the world will just dish out more horror. She’s a resilient nine-year-old who just wants to ride around the block with her friend.
I let her go that day. I actually sat in the back yard with the mother of her friend, and we chatted like everything was normal. It was hard, but it was great. For me and for her.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.