It was dusk, that time of day when drivers first turn on their headlights though it’s not yet dark, when the landscape loses its depth and definition and faces become shadows. I stood on the beach, squinting against the orange glare of the just-set sun and saw the shape of my barely-six-year-old daughter running at me through the half-light. She was alone.
Less than a minute later, my husband came charging down the beach behind her, and it was then that I saw, even from a distance, the panic on his face, the pride on hers. And I knew; she had left our friends’ condominium without him, and she had crossed the street by herself. When she was only steps away, she opened her mouth to tell me, “Mommy! Guess what I did!” I didn’t guess. I yelled. Oh, I yelled. And her eyes took on a different kind of shine; their radiance disintegrated into fear. I’m not sure what I said, exactly, but certainly words like dangerous, killed, and don’t ever do that again. Ever. Things that made no real sense to her. So she mistook my terror for anger and hid her face in my pant leg, crying, “But I looked both ways! Left, right, left!”
When I stopped yelling, I grabbed her and held on. And after a few minutes, she caught her breath. (I still try to catch mine every time I think about what might have happened.)
Sure, maybe I was overreacting. Gulf Drive is only a double-yellow-line road with a speed limit of no more than thiry-five miles per hour. But it was Anna Maria Island on a holiday weekend, and a child that isn’t yet four feet tall.
(And, really, how am I to know if I was overreacting? I’ve never had a six-year-old before. I don’t know what age kids are supposed to be when they start crossing busy roads by themselves. Hell, I didn’t even know six-year-olds got molars until I looked into her mouth recently and saw them breaking through.)
What’s even more telling, I think, is that after the yelling was over, there might have even been some part of me that was proud of her; she had had enough trust in herself to believe she could get herself across that road successfully. And she did. I guess I should have, too.
Maybe this kid-raising business is about allowing them to put themselves out there, even if they might get hurt (physically, emotionally). But that means that we, as parents, have to be willing to be risk-takers, too.
We become so worried that we’re going to “mess them up” that we end up suffocating them with protection. We have an innate desire to soften each landing. But some landings are supposed to be hard. Because the human condition is not (always) a safe condition.
I think of my littlest, who is learning to walk (an obvious comparison). He crawls across the concrete at the splash park downtown, scraping the skin from his knees. I could pick him up, but I don’t (mostly because my back needs a break — his sister refers to him as “Baby Chubba” for obvious reasons). So he sticks his butt up high in the air and crawls on his hands and feet. Or he tries to stand and comes crashing down. But he’s one step closer.
So if we can let go of their little fingers when they’re learning to walk, what happens as they grow older?
I remember becoming a bit obsessive when my oldest was in pre-kindergarten about where she was going to attend kindergarten. I went crazy filling out applications for charter schools, entering lotteries for all of the “good” schools. It was enough to make my head explode. And then, when I learned she hadn’t gotten in to any of them, I realized that it was completely out of “mommy’s” hands. We found out the Friday before school started (on a Monday) where she was going to school. And she’s fine. Better than fine, even.
I have a friend who, after looking at a picture of my kids, said to me, “You let them climb trees!” I don’t know if she knew, exactly, how much of a compliment it was.
Sometimes we just have trust in ourselves, and trust in them. Even if we have to hold our breath while we watch.
When it’s all over, when they’re all grown up and I’m letting them go, I want to know that I’ve taken risks as a parent, and that I’ve encouraged them to take their own risks. Did I let him fall down enough to learn to walk on his own? Did I let her write her own essays and do her own science projects even when I could come up with more than a thousand ways to “improve” them? Did I let her continue to play soccer even after that boy punched her in the stomach?
Did I let them climb trees?
Did I let her become a writer, even though I knew what was ahead? Did I let her love who she loved, even though I knew the way her heart would break?
I hope so. Even if it meant I had to hold my breath through the heartache (hers, mine).
After all, she looked both ways. Left, right, left.