Danger

The mind is always seeking zones of safety, and these zones of safety are continually falling apart. Then we scramble to get another zone of safety back together again. We spend all our energy and waste our lives trying to re-create these zones safety, which are always falling apart.”  -Pema Chodron

Through my work, and my community, I am constantly in the conversation of motherhood.  And that conversation usually is:  Who is doing what to better the life and well-being of their child?  What book have you read?  What is your kid doing faster than anyone else?  Slower?  What are you, as a mother, doing wrong? right?   Recently, I noticed a theme.

Danger.

What is a healthy amount of danger?  Our own childhoods would be considered ridiculously dangerous now.  Sleeping on our stomachs as infants, riding in the back of pick-ups, wearing lap belts in the back seat, if at all.  We had teeter-totters, gravel filled playgrounds and death-defying, butt-burning, sheer metal slides.  It’s wonder we all survived. So how do we let our children grow and play, and keep them safe at the same time?  What kind of mother do you want to be?

Let me compare two moms (names changed of course):

Mom number one we’ll call Jo:  this mom is fun. Her house is full of toys, laughter, swings, home made slides, forts, rope swings and enough plastic light up toys to make a Waldorf mother faint.  She lets her kids play rough, she lets them get the chicken pox, she bikes them all over town in a Chariot.   At least one member of her family (often her), has a visible injury of some kind.  She is a tough, earthy, fun mama.

Jo and I were talking about choosing a day care for her daughter, and she described a place in her neighborhood.  An older couple run a play group in their back yard.  The woman there told Jo “This place is not for everyone, kids fall off bikes, get sun burns, we all pile into a big van… ‘ as Jo was speaking, I could hear myself saying, “whoa, I would never take my son there.” And although I should know Jo by now, I was still delighted and surprised to hear her say, “I just told the woman,  sign me up!”

Later in a conversation with a student, we’ll call this mom Kimmie, I felt much more kinship.  Kimmie was talking about how she doesn’t let her husband use the cell phone while her two year old daughter plays in a kiddie pool.  And the nanny isn’t allowed to have the girl in the  kiddie pool at all.  Kiddie pool use is mostly with Kimmie present, and on the rare occasion with Daddy. Hallelujah. These are my people.

But then I thought, where would my son rather be?  Falling off a bike in a fun back yard full of kids, or playing in two inches of water with me one foot away, staring nervously at him?  There is clearly no right or wrong here.  Just as my husband will inevitably play rougher with our son than I do (to my son’s delight!), there are many ways to parent.  But how do we remain diligent with our children while still letting them have a childhood?

Have we baby-proofed the fun out of their lives?

When I was pregnant, I pictured the sweet little baby girl I would give birth to.  I saw us taking trips to the library together, and coming home to cuddle on a safety-tested hammock, reading together in the dappled sunlight of an overhanging tree.  We would have tea parties, and play with stuffed animals, and bake muffins.  Instead, I am shocked to find myself the lucky mother of a highly physical, energetic, exploratory BOY.  When my husband wants to really get me, he’ll tell me stories of his childhood exploits using phrases like ”tree-climbing, rock-climbing, building-climbing’ and my favorite: ‘bicycle polo.’  The words immediately tie my stomach in a knot.  These are not things that little girls do!  We do arm tickles, back scratches, and maybe the occasional seance at a sleepover.   Not boys.  Boys have a ton of ideas, most of them terrible.

Watching my son play is a constant mixture of delight and terror.   My anxious mind is a projector of could-be horrors, all the things that could happen if. Other times, I am able to let go and really enjoy his play, his exploration, testing of his boundaries.  If he climbs to the top of a slide, one part of me fills with pride at his act of bravery, while another wants to run up there and slide down with him, just in case.  And often, I do.  Yes, I’m that mom, sliding down any new slide with him at least once, or maybe ten times before I let him do it on his own.  I don’t want to spend his childhood with an ulcer and a frown, only to see him graduate from high-school in the blink of an eye.

Play and Freedom are essential to our kids.

There is research suggesting now that playing in the dirt actually helps children heal, builds their immune systems, and prevents allergies.  And here we are, Purell in one hand, baby wipe in the other, trying to sanitize their very existence.  Google ‘the Value of Play’ and you will be showered with articles about the importance of play, and Time last year featured an article on Helicopter Parenting and the ways in which we are stifling our children’s experience of the world.

So how do we learn to love our kids, and let them be, without panicking about their well-being every minute?

There is nothing safe about having a child.  To have a child is to come face to face with the tenuousness, and vulnerability of everyday life.  The minute we see two pink lines on a stick, we have signed a contract to risk complete annihilation.  The love we have for our children is immense, visceral, and heartbreaking.  Some choose to try to manage this love by reducing the risk of losing the object of the love.  There is no way.  Every mother wishes they could sign a contract with God, saying simply “Take me first.” But here we are, the imperfect world, watching our preciously perfect children step out into it, and feeling the lack of control.  There is no other path, no workshop, no meditation practice, that can help us evolve, and break down our anxiety like having a child.  I watch my son, with awe, with hope, with fear, and with the greatest love I have ever felt.  I see his little pinkish scar on his face from an incident with a dog leash (my fault, of course).   In that scar I see the lack of control, but more than that, I see that he can heal.  That his childhood may not, no will not, be without some bumps and bruises, no matter how good of a mother I can be.  But ultimately, we will both be okay.  We will live this life, day by day, and play together, for as long as we are so blessed to do so.  And hopefully, I can actually enjoy him, more and more, learning to let my mind be in that place of uncertainty.

And I will look to the other mamas, for compassion, and for inspiration.  I can see myself, as I watch Kimmie carefully play near her daughter.  And I will go to Jo’s house, delight in her wild kingdom, as a tourist enjoys a trip to Florida.  I may never be her.  But I can celebrate the fun she’s having, and the fun my son has at her house.  Oh wait… He’s climbing up the slide… I gotta go!

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Deb McNamara
    Feb 17, 2011 @ 18:52:03

    Katie – such a good reminder! Rowan ate dirt at a dog park last week to my horror (while having a BLAST I might add!) and had diarrhea after… It is a practice to let go while also working to be careful (i was right with him with NO idea he was going to put the dirt in his mouth!). Yes… boys, boys, boys… We have fun and crazy times ahead=)

    Reply

  2. Amanda Laban
    Feb 24, 2011 @ 21:04:10

    oh katie. thank you for this article. i confronted one of the scariest of dangers a few weeks ago when i left Leo in a room full of adults and two boys-7 and 8. when i returned leo was wailing and wouldn’t look at me. No one knew it at the time but he had hit his head so hard he fractured his skull. (yes, gasping at this point is more than approriate). I took leo home and he showed no signs of a concussion (he didn’t even fall asleep on the way home in the car). it wasn’t until a few days later that i felt the strange soft bump. And that eventually led to the CT scan which showed the fracture. Leo, of course, is being more than resilient. I, on the other hand, feel as if danger is breathing down my neck. whoa, yes, nothing in life compares to the challenge or the joy of raising a child.

    Reply

    • Katie
      Feb 28, 2011 @ 13:39:57

      Amanda, I’m so sorry to hear about that! I know that is the balance… how do we be diligent with their safety, and not make ourselves nuts in the process. I hope little Leo is okay. Each of these events is like a little initiation into what motherhood is all about. Wishing you peace..

      Reply

      • Amanda Laban
        Mar 31, 2011 @ 00:03:08

        Katie,
        I am just checking back on your blog! Thanks for your kind words. Leo is doing great these days; our follow-up with the neurosurgeons at Children’s was comforting: they said that kids this age are healing machines. Even at 6 weeks out form the accident they thought the fracture was healed: it was a very small and closed linear fracture. Thanks for your thoughts of peace–they have come and I feel better. Hope to see you and Phoenix and John soon. Best, Amanda

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