“He will be fine.” My husband gently nudges my shoulder as I stare at the small, tousled head of hair already bobbing away from me, my child’s enormous blue backpack shifting with his weight as he walks. I reluctantly close the garage door. I don’t like this. I leave my children all the time, but for some reason, it’s very hard for me to be the one left behind while he walks away, straight out into the world, without me.
Last spring, while I was away on a business trip, my husband decided to give in to the pleas of my then-7-year-old and fiercely independent third son and let him walk to school by himself, unaccompanied even by his older brother. It’s what he desperately wanted: to go to school under his own power, his own way, this child who seemed to come out of the womb telling the world, “Buzz off, I’ve got this.” By the time I returned home from my trip, he already had been making the short trek for several days, and the proverbial ship had sailed.
We don’t live far from the elementary school; it’s a walk of a little over a quarter of a mile, and there are two crossing guards and sidewalks the entire way. But it’s a busy road, and my son has to walk in front of a few office-building driveways and a convenience-store parking lot, and in 2015 we hear of every single bad thing that happens to a child, ever. Beyond all that, he’s still just plain little. Therefore, his newfound and treasured modicum of independence comes with not a small amount of maternal angst.
Parenting is incredibly wonderful; parenting is incredibly hard. For me, the worrying is one of the most excruciating parts of the entire endeavor. I am, admittedly, not someone who does especially well with uncertainty or danger in general: My third-grade teacher solemnly told my parents in their parent-teacher conference circa 1982 that I was “exceedingly cautious” and “risk-averse.”
I’m not sure what I expected parenthood to be like. I think I dived into it without really considering what it would entail past diapers and bottles, which, though contrary to my usual instincts, was probably for the best. If I had known what I was really signing up for, I likely would have avoided pregnancy, too — because, as it turns out, parenting is any adrenaline junkie’s dream come true.
We’re past diapers and bottles now, and instead, we’re neck deep in the rest of this adventure: the first days of school and anxious, excited, intimidated creatures clutching their new notebooks and lunch boxes, the failed tests and the speech delays and the occasional orthodontic procedure, the unrequited crushes, the friendships that fade away unexpectedly, the last picks for the schoolyard flag-football teams, and the pressure of possessing a high school transcript. It turns out that in those moments when they were infants and I wondered if I would ever sleep again, the answer was no, not with the abandon I ever did before.
Parenthood isn’t all heart-stopping moments, of course. Sometimes it is warm, soapy baths and bedtime stories under quilts. It’s toothless smiles and footed pajamas and handwriting paper and Halloween masks that don’t quite fit. It’s unexpected heart-to-hearts on a car ride home from a party and ice cream on a Wednesday afternoon just because. It’s remembering how exciting an old school-playground carousel can be, or how thrilling that first ocean wave is that knocks over little legs. It’s watching the light bulb go on when a child finally realizes he can read. It’s catching a profile at a certain angle and realizing you are seeing the face of a future adult — and maybe an echo of your own parents. It’s so many snapshots of completely perfect moments when I least expected them, the memories I never knew I would have that now sustain me when my teen and tween declare me the worst and so annoying.
On so many days, though, parenting also means I’m thrown into the depths of an ocean, and I have to swim. I’m crossing bridges that stretch farther and higher than I can see. I’m diving down hills on roller skates with no brakes. I’m jumping out of airplanes and hoping my parachute works. This is what parenting is: It’s the most breath-stealing thrill ride you can imagine, demanding we make what seem like enormous, game-changing decisions armed only with the knowledge we have at any given moment, depending on the faith we have in our instincts and hoping it is well placed. I lay my head — like every other parent, I suspect — on my pillow each night weary from the sheer weight of it all, convinced I’m mucking it up right and left.
But that weight is a force, and the act of parenting — of loving a child — changes a person. It pushes me out of my comfort zone. It forces me to be brave. It compels me to be compassionate, to soften my edges, to allow for gray areas even when I want the answers to be in simple black and white. This is the kind of love people write songs and poetry about. If someone wrote a love song about parenting, for me, it would be like a Simon and Garfunkel song: intricate and sometimes quirky, with lyrics that are purposeful and elegant in their construction, even if I don’t notice at first. It’s not showy or brazen, but strong, pulsing, enduring, soft-spoken but fierce. Parenthood is a story. And it makes me better.
Letting my son walk to school by himself is the most loving thing I can do for him right now, and so I will do it, even if it means that I live with that rush of anxiety as he steps off our driveway each morning. After all, while “risk-averse” is a reflex I have fought myself, it’s not how I hope my children spend their one “wild and precious life,” as the poet Mary Oliver names it.
So I find a way to push my heart back down my throat to its rightful place in my chest, and I kiss my son’s head. I stand there while he pulls up his socks and puts on his shoes, his 8-year-old body impossibly big and sturdy and still somehow heartbreakingly delicate and fragile. My chest swells with the pride of a mother whose child has made a decision and follows his own will. I pray because I cannot control everything — I can’t keep the unpredictable from happening no matter how much I hover, no matter how much I love him — and because I have to let him go anyway. Then I tell him goodbye, because that’s my job: to teach him how to go out into the world on his own and be OK with it, even when it feels just a little bit scary.
Allison Slater Tate ’96 is a freelance writer and editor and the mother of four children. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and at allisonslatertate.com.