I looked out of my kitchen window last weekend to see my six-year-old son poised on the brink of disaster. Somehow he had managed to maneuver a seven-foot-tall step ladder out of the garage – bypassing bicycles, lawn mower, and various pieces of sports equipment – and had partially unfolded it beneath a tree. He was holding a soccer ball under his arm and looking up at a Frisbee that was lodged in the tree about 15 feet off the ground. His game plan was clear: climb the ladder and throw the ball at the Frisbee.
He had one foot on the bottom rung of the (wobbly, unlatched) ladder when I sprinted out the door shrieking his name like a crazy person. He seemed genuinely puzzled by my distress.
When I became a parent, I anticipated that this life change would usher in many new emotions. Joy, frustration, exhaustion, insecurity. I never really considered how often abject fear would be the prevailing emotion of the journey.
Raising strong, independent, problem-solving children is absolutely terrifying.
There are a whole host of emotional and existential things to worry about – bullying, drinking, drugs, boys, girls, college, screen time, eating disorders, and body piercings to name a few – but right now I’m talking about the constant threat of actual, physical danger that accompanies parenting. The ever-present potential for broken bones and skinned elbows and paralysis due to ladder mishap.
My two ‘big kids’ have recently developed a fondness for climbing trees. They particularly love to clamber up a wonderful sprawling magnolia in the neighborhood. I hate it. Not the tree – it’s lovely – but rather I hate watching them climb. It makes me nauseous. I get a pit of sheer terror in my stomach as I look up into the branches and I can picture them slipping and falling.
Not that they ever have. That’s beside the point. The terror is still there. I feel it tingling in the palms of my hand and in the spike of my heartbeat as I wait for them to return to safety. I can remember the same sensation when each of my children learned to run – watching them stagger along the pavement, afraid that they’d trip and fall. My son learned to ride his bicycle without training wheels this summer and it nearly did me in. In my mind’s eye, I could see his little knees hitting the pavement and it was all I could do not to bubble wrap him.
Mostly it’s my son whose antics take years off of my life. I joke that I signed my daughter up for swim lessons because she was afraid of the water and I signed my son up because he wasn’t. As far as I can tell, he’s not afraid of anything. He barrels through life with a joyful and reckless zeal that is simultaneously endearing and deeply alarming.
When I bought my house last year, the number one item on the remodeling checklist was to enclose the second-floor railing that overlooked the entryway. A two-story drop protected only by a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired railing that resembled nothing so much as a built-in ladder? No, thank you. I love my son and would like him to remain a vibrant part of the family. I had my contractor put up a wall instead.
I know that I can’t actually bubble wrap my children, as reassuring as that mental image is. Bumps and bruises and even broken bones are a pretty normal part of childhood. I wasn’t a particularly intrepid child but I managed to break my leg in seven places in a freak backyard accident when I was three. Stuff happens. So I stock my house with Band-Aids and ice packs and kiss the skinned knees as they happen. I let them climb and ride and jump because that’s what it means to be a kid.