My children are terrible back-seat drivers.
"Care-fu-wee!" Pie will call out as the car rumbles over a set of train tracks. I wonder whether she envisions the car losing its footing on such treacherous ground, all of us holding on for dear life as it stumbles down and skins its knee.
"That was a close one!" Bub exclaims every time I turn left in the path of an oncoming car.
I always feel a little thrill of pride when he says it.
My children are no daredevils. They’re the ones who sit at the top of the slide, contemplating the downward slope in their still, unhurried way while the line-up of impatient bystanders squirms in frustration behind them. Neither has ever climbed out of a crib or defeated a child-safety mechanism. Though prone to running away on the beach or at the mall, they are both cautious in the face of physical dangers – a trait I’ve always met with gratitude and recognition.
Before now-husband and I began dating, during that prolonged courtship of being "just friends," we once went tubing with a group of friends. Not white-water tubing, but the snowy kind – we climbed up the hill and piled into a big rubber inner tube, large enough to hold three or four adults at a time, then spun down the hill shrieking like six-year-olds, mittened fingers clinging to the hand-holds. As we lined up for hot chocolate, he turned to me in his shy, off-hand way and said, "I’ve been trying to figure you out. Do you think of yourself as an adventurous person?"
I pretended to consider this for a moment. The honest reply – "I’m probably the least adventurous person you’ve ever met" – was clearly out of the question. "I’m emotionally adventurous," I said at last. "I seem to lack ordinary caution when it comes to emotional risk-taking."
That is true as far as it goes – but it was also a convenient way not to talk about how I took diving lessons in grade six, stepping up to the board every morning, envisioning myself doing a perfect tuck or jack-knife, only to repeat the same clumsy manoeuvre time after time – a kind of modified front dive, with no upward movement – basically, I fell into the water headfirst, as carefully as possible.
Physical courage is not my strong suit. I sometimes liken falling in love to diving off a cliff – I adore the sheer free-fall of it – but when it comes to literal cliffs and literal dives, I’m more comfortable with my feet planted on terra firma.
Mad’s recent post on courage, adrenaline, and adventure has got me thinking about how my own aversion to risk-taking has affected my parenting. I am, as Mrs. Chicky puts it, a "helicopter mother." At the playground, while the other parents are chatting on park benches, barely glancing up as their three-year-olds swing from the monkey bars, I’m the one clambering up plastic rock-walls in pursuit of my errant children, guarding them from all the sheer drops that have always made playgrounds seem like giant death traps to me. At the beach, while the other parents are sunning themselves on beach towels, I’m the one splashing around in my maternity bathing-suit like some ungainly whale, always within arm’s reach of my children, always seeing a potential undertow in the gentle waves lapping at the shore.
My children have lived their lives accompanied by a constant chorus of "Be careful!" "Hang on!" and "Stay on the sidewalk!" When I read posts about parenting fearlessly, or encouraging fearlessness in our children, my first reaction is always a blank stare. Fearlessness is just not on my radar. I parent with Gandalf constantly looking over my shoulder whispering urgently, "Keep it safe!"
I feel surprisingly little guilt about this. I’m not afraid to be the smothering mother renowned in children’s fiction. In children's adventure stories, parents are supposed to be the blocking figures. Like Peter Rabbit’s mother, they fasten their squirming children into confining jackets and administer prohibitions. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t leave the path. Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.
But for all that, mothers are an essential part of the adventure. If Mrs. Rabbit didn’t fasten Peter’s jacket just a little bit too tight, what motivation would he have to cast it off? And if she were not there to tuck him into bed at the end of the day with camomile tea, how would Peter muster the courage to face the dangers of the forbidden vegetable patch?
I’m not a mother bird, ready to push my children out of the nest. I hedge them round with rules and warnings, knowing that someday they may choose to defy them. And if (when?) they do, I’ll be waiting for them to come back, bedraggled and jacket-less, with a dose of tea and a warm bed waiting. Like Mrs. Rabbit, though, I’ll save some blackberries and milk for the good little bunnies who find adventure enough within the confines of the ordinary, who dwell, like me, in the complexities of the village rather than the simple oppositions of the wilderness.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
My children are terrible back-seat drivers.