There are some parenting milestones that you celebrate with great pomp and circumstance. Facebook posts announce the first time an infant sleeps through the night. Hundreds of photos are taken on birthdays, first days of school, sports banquets, and so on. Even everyday bodily functions are elevated to the level of national holidays when you’re a new parent.
Other transitions sneak by quietly, unremarked upon until you look back and realize with a start that a season has changed without your noticing.
I am no longer constantly concerned for my children’s physical well-being when we are out in public.
This may seem like an odd thing to remark upon, but it’s actually pretty huge. When I take my kids out and about – whether to the grocery store, a music festival, or just a walk in the woods – I no longer feel the nonstop, low-grade panic experienced by mothers of very young children. When you are parenting a three-year-old, some part of your brain is always on high alert, ready to leap into action and prevent death at any moment.
This reality was brought into sharp relief for me a few weeks ago, when I went on an outing with a friend and our children. Between the two of us, we have six kids aged ten and under. I think of my children as high-spirited (and they are), but nothing beats the manic energy of a pair of four-year-old twin boys.
My friend is a fantastic mom, but I could feel the tension radiating off her as we walked together around a small lagoon. Her boys were everywhere, as boys are. They ran ahead, lagged behind, got too close to the water, got too close to a dog-walker, let go of her hands while crossing the street, ran too fast, and generally did all the things small children do to give their parents heart failure. All totally normal, all totally terrifying.
I can remember that feeling. It is visceral – shortened breath, tingling palms. The sheer physicality of keeping them safe. I remember the sensation of butterflies in my stomach every time we walked through a parking lot because what if one of the kids bolted and got flattened by a car backing up?
But somewhere along the line, the feeling faded. It went quietly, with no fanfare. I cannot pinpoint the moment that I stopped holding my breath all the time.
To be clear, I still occasionally worry that my children will be smooshed by cars in parking lots. My stomach drops every time they climb a tree or step on a skateboard. Other things are okay, though. I can let them ride their bikes to school or head off to sleep-away camp. And I no longer panic if I briefly lose sight of one of my kids in a crowd.
At the end of a big community parade a few weeks ago, my son asked if he could find one of his friends and I gave a distracted “sure” – assuming that said friend was nearby. After I had packed up the folding chairs, loaded the cooler into the wagon, and rounded up the girls, I looked around for my son. He was gone. Bystanders clued me in that he had headed up Main Street at a sprint and disappeared into the throng.
I was mildly annoyed, but not terrified, as I stomped up the street in search of him. When I located him a few minutes later, sitting placidly on the front steps of City Hall with a (different) friend and his family, my prevailing emotion was a rueful sense of pride at his confident independence. As we walked back to the festival together, I quizzed him on his thought process. He had planned to come back and find me. Should that prove difficult, he knew where we’d parked the car and was okay with waiting there until we appeared.
He’s eight and he’s smart and it was a decent – if not entirely foolproof – plan. Replay that entire scene with a missing four-year-old and you get mass hysteria and police involvement. Somewhere in those intervening years, the tide shifts. The ground stabilizes. Or maybe it’s just you as a parent who stabilizes.
In any case, I hugged my friend with the twin boys and promised her that it will get easier.