Yesterday at dusk, my daughter wanted to ride her bike up and down our driveway. She is well trained and stays within the boundaries of her cement confine. As I was cleaning the house, with the front door wide open and all the blinds up for maximum exposure, I kept poking my head out almost every minute calling for her response. I am sure she smelled my fear. Sometimes she would ring her bell and other times she would cheerfully reply, “I am right here”! She didn’t question why I kept calling. I reminded her not to talk to strangers. She said okay. After about 10 minutes, I think she gave up. It made me think of the freedom I used to have, riding around with my friends, without ever being called home, without a single parent on guard. I wondered if she felt annoyed, or thought she did something wrong. But I felt better after she was inside and promised a bike ride the next day, together of course. With my eyes peeled for any danger, for creeps in cars and backyard prisons.
I never aspired to become a helicopter parent, on the contrary I wanted to be autonomous and supportive, without being over-bearing. I try to give her space, I try to keep my nose in a book at the playground, letting her figure out the social scene and the scary slide on her own. But I can never concentrate as I am worried about every moment she plays. This is not enjoyable, but I am a terrorized mother, thinking about predators, bombs, rapists, gunshots, basement dungeons, girls chained up, pedophiles with cameras, stabbings, snatchings and killings.
This week I have hit the close button of a news story more than once, reading about the horrors of the poor women held captive in Cleveland for 10 years boggles my mind, makes angry and wounds my heart. I find no pleasure in horrific details. This afternoon, a friend posted something about a man making a soundproof dungeon like some torture chamber from a Stieg Larrson novel. Apparently, this would be child torturer was caught before he committed a crime. I skimmed but caught too many scary details, they made my heart race. I know there is an argument that being aware of such things, reading details and understanding the mind of predators is valuable information for parents. More than once, I have been called a wimp by family members who say it’s essential to know how sick people work so we can stay on guard and keep our children informed. But I feel it’s my job to keep my child a bit protected from horror, to filter out as much negativity as possible. My husband and I believe she should enjoy the world and know that a very large portion of society is kind and just (even though her mother is still afraid). We are not shielding her from reality, we will always tell the truth. So I try to suck in fear for her, keeping a vigilant eye. The details don’t help me stay calm and collected. Children have a perceptible sense something is wrong. Memories of my parent’s hushed whispers talking about The Night Stalker or The Hillside Strangler still freak me out.
Recently, my preschooler asked me if a shooter killed little kids in a school. I took a deep breath and said yes. Obviously she heard something about the Newtown tragedy from someone at school, since I tried to keep a tight lid on any whispering at home. Lying was not the answer, she would know the difference. I held her in my lap and promised she was safe at school. Then we talked about all the nice teachers and John the principal. I said they were always here to protect all of you. She smiled and agreed that her teachers loved all the kids. They would not let a shooter come into the school. We hugged for a long time. I wasn’t sure of the total truth of our heart-to heart. It’s mostly true, but not really a “promise-promise”. This is a tough conversation to have with an astute 5 year old, as she will press on with more questions, despite her own fear. But this is where I stand, trying be as honest without totally freaking her out. I am here to let her know that there are some bad people, but all the good people in her life work hard to protect her from harm. This I know is true.
But what I truly wish is she could ride her bike outside with a pack of kids, laughing and screaming. It was at this age, around 5 that I wandered about all day long, with my 3 year old sister in tow. Now maybe this was not the best idea, but nothing ever happened to any of us. On the contrary, we had adventures, used our imaginations, got exercise, scraped our knees, lost bikes, got in scuffles and ran across busy streets to buy candy with change we swiped from our parents. It was the time of our lives, the stuff of golden memories. And there were evil things happening in 1978-1985. I recall a story about a missing Asian girl, her body found stuffed in a garbage can. I lived through the McMartin Preschool trial, the longest running child-molestation case in US History. My mom told me that the evil people at the pre-school used puppets to trick the kids into doing bad things. I didn’t understand but was very bothered by this image. As an adult, I learned about the coerced testimony of the pre-school accusers and I mourned the wasted moments lost to fear. We were told never to go into anyone’s house, a rule we rarely ever broke. Inside a house was a boring place, made only for rainy days and sleepovers. We wanted to play outside, squeezing every last ray of sun, ignoring the flicker of the streetlights, delaying dinner for as long as possible. We rode for blocks around the neighborhood, hours of freedom before dreaded homework and bedtime.
I hear a lot about our loss freedom. Blame taxes and big government and Bloomberg’s nanny state. There are terrorist plots from foreign invaders. Religious zealots and their hatred for our ways. We worry about marathons, malls, schools and crowded places. True these are targets for maximum impact. Yet terror has already reached its stealthy tentacles into our homes. We choose to shuttle kids around in cars that are more prone to accidents than riding a bike in a park alone. We need websites, like www.walkbiketoschool.org to give us resources and tools for something we used to do without much thought. It’s a great idea, but we only stopped walking to school in one generation. Have we actually forgotten how to do this? We live in a free country, a democratic society and our kids don’t walk to school any longer. Instead I worry about the quiet houses on the block, who are they? Even the friendly neighbor, the one that could do no harm, may be the one. We have lost the battle in our own neighborhoods—chalk one up for fear.
As a parent, I live in constant fear and I don’t see a way out of it because it’s a validated emotion time and again. Am I going to be the first parent to let my child walk across the street to the park on her own? Go on a play-date with less than a one-to-one parent child ratio, absolutely not! I have experimented at the park, and every time I’ve pulled back another parent will start intervening, a cue I better get my nose out of my book or be deemed negligent. So there is no way my daughter will find that pack of kids running around our neighborhood. They don’t exist anyhow. She has been raised to find me standing right next to her so she can show me every new flip on the jungle gym. There is special triage for every tiny scratch, the type we would have ignored until they scabbed off our bodies. Tattling for every indiscretion is de rigueur. I’m the one who taught her not to use the words like-dumb, stupid, or hate–so I get to hear about every instance. She points out my own dalliance with harsh language. She is on guard too.
Then I think about the good stuff. I know my child better at this age than perhaps my parents ever have, they still struggle to understand me as an adult. I see how she interacts, trying to negotiate with other kids with her bossy ways and take charge attitude. Her trepidation is wrapped around the highest slides and the whizzing speeds of the merry-ground. But she has no fear walking up to little kids introducing herself with the confidence of a mini-senator. When she is older, I will “get it” when she has a leadership role, or says she is frustrated because she hasn’t been promoted to manager. Listening to her worries, I can remind of her innate personality to lead, the one I saw forming on the playground. Watching her climb higher on each rung of the twisty ladder, a huge improvement over last year, is moment we celebrate. Yay! You are a big girl now, look how high you can climb. The smile I see on her face are snatched nanoseconds of pleasure I will savor forever. The trust she has in my judgment is all I need. I am here for her, yes for every tiny little bump, using Band-Aids needlessly, I am always around.
But it does enrage me to think that I am a bit terrorized, mainly by insidious homegrown evil. Its like we have lost freedom at a very micro level, in our own streets and parks and homes. We seem to be wary, there is little trust and connection with the community at large. This is damaging to our society, not having support further exacerbates isolation, extending the cycles of violence. And then I worry, I should to do more than just being there for my child, focusing on her trusting smile. I try to foster connections wherever I can, but it takes a concerted effort, it’s not there for the taking. I am very grateful to my community of friends and family, but I am not sure if it’s enough. To think of solutions, feel so out of reach. Getting the neighborhood together, patrolling the streets, allowing our kids to cry over a boo-boo. I know I can start with little things, like getting over the past. It’s simply a bygone era, where a jumble of worn out kids dragged their bikes home under a dusky California sky, soothing their own scrapes and dreaming up silly games to play in neighborhood streets. Without a parent on watch. Such times are lost forever.