Last week, in a formidable and sometimes brilliant treatise, literary critic Terry Castle bemoaned the current state of dependent students at her elite university, suggesting that contemporary college students are missing an important stage of development by not separating (or ‘hating’) their parents. This weekend, in addition to three book reviews on the subject of motherhood, the New York Times Magazine featured an article about a mother whose nine-year old son may be a psychopath. Happy Mother’s Day.
How did I spend my day? Eschewing the traditional brunch or chocolate chip pancakes in bed, I curled up on the couch alone with the Times and a pile of new novels, eating a bagel with lox. My husband had gone out in search of our eight-year old daughter, who had taken a bit too long to return home from a bike ride around the block.
My daughter is very independent; she has always been the child who strays furthest away from adults. I stopped going to story time at the library because she never stayed in the circle, preferring to walk up the immense staircase or run down the carpeted hallway. She has no trouble focusing, she just likes to explore the maximum amount of space allowable.
My husband and I admire her confidence, her energy, and determination. But my husband is made more nervous by her pushing the boundaries. Ironically, I read a lot of "domestic thrillers" --narratives of kidnapped children, horrible violence, and tragedy – yet I am less fearful about my daughter’s safety. Perhaps these narratives provide a catharsis for maternal anxiety or maybe, in the economy of marriage, my husband’s anxiety allows me the luxury of remaining calm.
We are lucky to live in a wonderful neighborhood where parents look out for each other’s children. Once, when my husband observed a colleague’s son (aged 11) walking alone to the park, he called me and I immediately texted my colleague to make sure his son was allowed to walk alone. Some elementary-school children are allowed to walk to school on their own, many are not. (One neighbor told me an amusing story: when her oldest son, 8, was ready before his three younger siblings she handed him his lunch and said (jokingly) "well, you're ready to go, see you later." When she turned back around he had walked out the door and was briskly marching down the block. By the time she got the other three kids into her mini-van, he was one block from school.)
When do you let your kids walk to school alone? This seems like a trivial question, but it represents the hardest part of parenting: the letting go.
As a child, we moved several times before I was ten. Some neighborhoods were quiet, some noisy, some friendly, some creepy. Mostly I was afraid of other kids, especially the slightly older kids who marked their territory by intimidating newcomers. Although I walked to school at a young age, I was never physically harmed until I was around 13. Walking back after lunch time to a summer music program through a nice enough neighborhood, two older boys, teenagers, were standing on the sidewalk and I had to pass them. I considered walking across the street, but that act would have drawn more attention to my fear. At first they walked alongside me, teasing and taunting me in a way that was both flirtatious and scary. One held a lighted cigarette and I was aware of how close it was to my arm. When we approached the school building, I quickly turned and ran inside. Home-free; I felt safe between the two doors. Suddenly, one boy was beside me. He grabbed my shoulders and shoved me hard, slamming the back of my head hard against the wall. And then he was gone.
As violence goes, it’s pretty minor. What I remember the most was how embarrassed I felt, how I didn’t think I should have been scared by kids not much older than myself. I was oddly relieved when my mother told me the younger guy was later picked up for pulling a knife on someone, and put into Juvenile detention.
When my husband and daughter returned she was crying and they both had scrapes from a bike accident. She threw herself into my arms and sobbed with unselfconscious abandon.
A few minutes later, she was out the door again.