The first time I had a relationship blowout of epic proportion was in the spring of 1991. I had a baby bump, the sort you'd expect to see or maybe not see at twenty weeks. There's a particular vulnerability in early pregnancy that isn't quite like any other time. This is a state which is heightened by anything the old brain perceives as a threat. Lying on my back in the tub under the shower rain and I have never been so utterly aware of my nakedness as those last few minutes before I shook it off and got out of the tub.
My husband was still screaming and I was still crying. He went away and I got dressed. I had no idea what to do with myself. Staying on the property wasn't going to cut it. I needed to get the hell out, at least for a couple of hours. I packed up my four and half year old and got in the car. I didn't know where I was going until we were twenty miles south. I pulled into the first metro north station and unbuckled the boy.
We're going to ride the train, what do you think, kid?
Yup. You bet.
It didn't occur to the kid to ask where we might be going; the train was more than enough. It occurred to me that making a call from the phone booth would be the humane thing to do. I wasn't feeling particularly humane. Also, I was running away from home. I wasn't going to get very far with the cash in my pocket, but I could put a solid eighty miles between us.
It was a beautiful day in New York; I can't think of a better day since. The weather was perfect, not a cloud in sight, and for a change, the spring winds were quiet. I walked him up Fifth Avenue and he saw FAO Schwartz before I did. I don't know how he caught that business because that store was an unknown in his life. In retrospect, I'm awfully glad we got there when we did. It was before much changed and a kid could vanish into a could of joy just like that.
FAO Schwartz did not market to my demographic and he seemed to understand. I don't believe he asked for anything other than permission to touch the giant lion. When he was sated I found the beanies. They were triangles of primary colors with a propellor on top. They were just big enough to stay firmly planted on your head, assuming the wind didn't gust. We walked out of that store, side by side, hand in hand, with matching shit eating grins to go with our matching kickass beanies. We walked through Central Park and people took our picture and we laughed about that too.
Thirty years later, that day still lives in the top ten. But four year olds, you know, four year olds. They get tired just like anybody but they haven't learned how to handle that sort of tired. Some of them have immediate meltdowns, some grit their teeth and suck it up until the very last minute, and some go completely off the wall bonkers. First time he did that he was in a stroller. He was nine months old. We were in a fitting room and I was, of course, naked. He was out of that stroller, under the wall, and into the next stall before I could get more than his name out of my mouth. The woman next door was NOT amused. So, this is a thing I know about Mike. He does his very, very best right up until he doesn't and then he's a runner. He's not running away, he's running toward the thing that just caught his eye. His sister doesn't run away, she wanders off. I'm not sure which is more unnerving. But they're grown now and not even remotely my problem.
Mike bolted and a stranger caught him at the light before he could fling himself into traffic. The stranger was nice. He didn't yell at me but I was pretty sure I wasn't going to keep the kid from slipping off again. Even carrying a four year old doesn't guarantee they won't wiggle from your arms.
Also. I was REALLY tired and just a little bit panicked.
It didn't take very long to find the leash and harness. I hadn't seen one in years; I thought we'd done away with them. I explained the harness and the reason and he understood completely. He just wanted to make sure he could keep the beanie. We made our way to Grand Central stopping at one light after another. I thought about a cab but wanted the remaining cash for food.
We were standing at a light, hand in hand when a man to our right ripped into me out of nowhere. I wasn't sure what he was yelling about but I was damn sure I'd been tried, convicted, and hanged in about three seconds. Mike, on the other hand, understood him perfectly. When the man stopped shrieking to take a breath, Mike looked up at him and said:
Don't worry, mister. I have to wear this. If I don't, I'll run into traffic and be dead and my mommy will be pretty unhappy about that.
He had the sweetest smile. The man shut up and then Mike lunged. He shot right to the end of the six feet and fell on his ass. The man said nothing. I said nothing. I resisted the urge to drag him back to the sidewalk by the leash. I was already in mommy hell and destined to remain in mommy hell, possibly for the rest of my life.
Truthfully, I did learn to suck it up and take the beatings, but I never did fall in line with my generation's style of parenting.
I was the first of the true, honest to dog, latchkey generation. My brother and I were home alone after school from the time we were nine and eleven. I'm not sure I was meant to be responsible for Jack. I think he was meant to be responsible for himself. It could have been a lot worse. The neighborhood kids ran in a pack and we ran with them. For the most part, they were all well trained and we did fall in line with the crew. This does not change the fact of benign neglect. We were already pretty self-sufficient and reached a whole new level by adolescence. Honest to God, I have no idea how we survived, but we did.
I was pragmatic, but the modeling my parents laid out wasn't going to work. I didn't want my kids to get hurt, but more importantly, I didn't want them raising themselves. That's not what kids are supposed to be doing. Culturally speaking, I am aware of enough conflicting methods of parenting that my head spins when I think on it much. I also know there isn't any right way to do anything, but a community, just like the pack of neighborhood kids, would like very much to keep the collective parenting on par. I have opinions on that, but it's too far off topic to touch at the moment. I'm going to talk about what I see and have seen in the last thirty-five years.
It started out slow. I was coaching Mike's soccer team; this is youth soccer, not travel team, not anything else. They were seven. I was also a board member which put a number of big decisions in my lap. At the end of the season we met to discuss end of year budget, trophies, and 'The Dinner'. We'd managed to raise a fair bit of money that season and the surplus was good. We had enough to purchase a desperately needed equipment shed. All equipment owned by the league was stored in the back of cars and vans and we were starting to lose stuff. We almost got that shed but lost it to a single deciding vote. This is what we got instead:
A trophy for each and every member of the league, no exclusions, no differences. It was 1993 when 1st, 2nd, and 3rd vanished from the trophies. I placed the order for one hundred and thirty-eight identical six inch blue and plastic chrome pillars with identical plastic chrome soccer players on top.
I gotta tell ya, that was one unhappy pack of kids at 'The Dinner'. A bunch of them didn't come back, but we had a new crew the following year and they were different. Their parents were different. It was weird and I didn't know what to do with them. It was also OK, because, how badly can you fuck up youth soccer (don't answer that)?
Fast forward eleven years. I thought I might be the lone renegade in an ocean of parental control. I probably wasn't, but how can you tell if you don't find your tribe? I didn't have time for a tribe. I had time to go to work and take care of my kids - and THAT WAS IT. I was weird though. I didn't see any reason to give my kids a cell phone until they actually needed one. Need is a very subjective word. It came down to what my need, not theirs. Mike got a cell phone when he started driving and it wasn't because he was driving. It was so I didn't have to pick him up at 2 AM following an away band competition. I was AT all of those competitions but I got home way before 2 AM. I didn't want him to have to drive himself home if something happened. 2 AM is way too late for a seventeen year old to be dealing with car trouble. Am I right? Maybe not. Having that sort of parental control was still very new. Having cell phones across the board wasn't quite a thing yet but it was close.
Lucia got her phone on her fifteenth birthday. Why? Peer pressure finally broke me.
Elizabeth had a track phone at eleven. Why? Because she got off the bus by herself, changed into her leotard and tights and got into the waiting taxi. Same guy every time, that was the deal, but still. We wanted three phone calls:
- when you get off the bus
- when you get in the taxi
- when you walk into the studio
Shit. My parents had no idea where I was at any given point in time and I'm hyperventilating four days a week. Had the other mothers processed the fact that the kid got out of a cab four days a week, I'm sure I would have been toast.
Elizabeth got her first smart phone at thirteen because I just could not deal with it anymore. It took another year before I caught up with how much the culture had changed. I didn't have to like it, but I did need to look.
I don't recall when I found out about the car trackers, but it was definitely before Elizabeth started driving. I found out that parents had trackers installed on the vehicles driven by their children and my heart rate went through the roof. It took a couple more years before I figured out why. It was the same reason as the trackers on their phones and the excuses for reading their text messages. It was same reason for rifling through your kid's stuff. In the name of good parenting we have broken through our children's boundaries as if they were never there; let me tell you, learning to set and maintain personal boundaries as an adult is a bitch. In the name of good parenting, good safe parenting to keep good safe children, we have resurrected the leash. The kid in the photograph above is probably twelve. The metaphor below is an extraordinary admission of a very ugly truth.
I should not have to explain this illustration. I should not have to explain why it is wrong, but apparently I do.
This is what I see as a result of leashed children. There is a lack of trust. We might think we don't trust our children, but it's not about them, it's about us. We don't trust our ability to parent in such a way that our kids will survive, and that could be literal or figurative. When we track the children we have permitted to leave the nest unescorted, we are telling them we don't trust them. They don't trust themselves either. The message is pretty clear. When we read their text messages, go through their closets and dresser drawers, we are exhibiting a level of control and a violation of trust and privacy that is, well, beyond the pale.
They aren't human beings. They're pets. I started not hiring them in about 2010. It wasn't until 2017 that I started to see a difference. They were finally growing up.
If I haven't pissed you off enough yet, this next bit should do it.
Owlets. Look it up yourself. Better yet, when you do look it up yourself, read about it. Read the statistics. Read what the pediatrician has to say. We're on the edge again and this is what I see coming, wrapped up in a single sentiment.
If you do not learn to understand your child beginning at birth, you will have failed. If you are so scared that your child will die if you don't have his vitals continuously monitored, you have missed the point. If you cannot trust yourself to get through parenting, do not do it. Just don't. It takes fortitude. It takes trust. It takes the willingness to allow for shit hitting the fan because shit will always be hitting something. Most importantly, in raising a human being, you kinda have to let them grow and there's no growth in a controlled environment.
In 2018, there were 1,300 SIDS deaths in the United States. If that is the rationalization for what's essentially an implant in an otherwise healthy infant, our collective perspective is shot to hell.
Yes, I am outraged. I know, you too, different reasons.