When I was in first grade, all of the kids in my neighborhood were in the same gymnastics program, which was held at the high school in our town. My floor routine that year was done to Phil Collins' Sussudio (totally my choice). I was growing out my bangs that year so I would wear them in a little ponytail on top of my head and another longer ponytail for the rest of my hair. Hey, it was the 80s. It was a look.
That is me on the top left there in first grade. I was lucky to grow up in a neighborhood where we could ride our bikes wherever we wanted, by ourselves or in little kid gangs. I would cruise around my neighborhood with no fear. We walked to and from school on quiet, tree lined streets. We went to friends houses and played in backyards till it got dark and we were called in. When we sold Girl Scout cookies we went door to door by ourselves and would walk home finally at dinner time. It was different back then.
When I was in first grade, at the gymnastics program, we were having our "show" one late afternoon. But there was one boy that didn't show up, his name was Brian. And soon they found out that on his way down the street to the high school, Hickory Avenue, just one street over from mine, he was hit by a car and killed as he rode his bike.
Brian was a year older than me, a friend and playmate of my brother. He had been in my house and in my backyard and we had all played together, and to this day I remember his haircut and what he looked like and I remember us all sitting there on the gym mats Indian style (criss cross applesauce now) and hearing them tell us that Brian had been in an accident. They decided to still have the show, and as I cartwheeled my way through my floor routine I thought about the accident and what had happened and what it all meant. And it stayed with me for a while, but I had mostly forgotten about it over the years. Until I had children.
When the older children were little, I had the usual panic about baby stuff. I would creep in to make sure they were still breathing. I would worry they were too hot or too cold. But for the most part, I felt like I had control over their little lives, I was always there to catch them on the playground and I knew what they were eating and drinking and doing and seeing. I oversaw it all. And that helped ease my anxiety.
When my oldest son started to ride his bike though, the anxiety started back up again. It actually engulfed and colored the entire experience, because here I was, a child again, knowing that this little boy was hit and killed all those years ago, and the idea of letting him ride his bike down the street absolutely terrified me.
We live in a quiet neighborhood, similar to where I grew up. For the most part, people are respectful of the fact that this neighborhood is full of kids and they drive slow and watch out for everyone. But on those first bike rides where Finn would ride ahead of me and stray ever so slightly into the middle of the empty street, I would scream at him to slow down, panic rising in my chest and strangling me with fear and blotting out all common sense or self control. There were times that I would just make us turn around and I would cut the bike ride short, it was just too stressful for me. There were too many variables, it felt so wildly out of my control that I couldn't handle it. I was scared.
And then that fear started creeping into more aspects of our lives beyond just bike rides. It seeped in like a poison, and I would start to worry about swimming and choking and falling or rough housing or school shootings and it spiraled. I realized as a parent that I now had all of my love and all of my life and all of my being wrapped up in these small little helpless beings that I had to send into the big bad world and all these things could happen to them and that it would destroy me entirely.
It was paralyzing.
The first time my oldest asked if he could ride to a friend's house though, I said fine. It was around the corner and down the street. I could sprint there in a few minutes (I actually thought this at the time as a comforting thought). I told him that he had to call me when he got there, and he had to be home at a certain time. It was a test for him. A test to help him build responsibility. And it was a test for me. Could I let this control go and let him go out into the world (okay the little world of our neighborhood, which was a big world for his age). I kept myself busy, and told myself that I needed to let him do this stuff. It was going to happen, he was getting older, and it wasn't right to hold him back because of my own fears.
The time came that he was supposed to be home, and it passed. My oldest child isn't the most punctual person on the planet, so I tried to stifle the panic that was rising up in my throat and burning my cheeks. I started pacing the floor staring out the front windows, scanning the empty street for his bike coming around the corner. I told myself: I am not going to call yet, I am not going to call yet. I am going to let him make this mistake of being late, and we are going to learn from it. He is fine. I don't hear sirens (yes I thought this too), and wouldn't I hear sirens if something really bad had happened? Someone would have called me? But what if he was snatched off the street? No one would know he hadn't made it home. I never told his friend's parents I would confirm he came home so they wouldn't know.
Pretty soon I was consumed entirely by panic and anxiety. But I was home alone, and the baby was asleep, I couldn't hop in the car that easily and drive over there. I was in tears, I was shaking, I had totally lost control. And when he did finally ride his bike up the driveway almost an hour late I ran outside and yelled at him for being so late, didn't he know I was waiting for him? Didn't he know that I was worried? What was he thinking?! Why would he do that? WHY? I told him I was never going to let him ride his bike alone again, he wasn't ready. He just wasn't ready for it. I didn't mention that I was the one who wasn't ready.
His face showed how stunned he was. He told me he was so sorry, he lost track of time. He didn't know why I was so upset, why was I crying?
And I realized that I could choose to either put my fear into him, or I could keep my fear from him, and I was the only one who could make that choice. I could tell him all of my worries and fears and make him scared to ride his bike alone and he would stay home safe with me, afraid to try it again. And maybe he would skip other experiences too. Maybe he would grow afraid, and would stay home. Safe.
Or I could make sure he knew how to ride safely, and I could let him go, and ride. And explore. And grow up, beyond my reach.
Was it that easy? No. But that's where it started.