I think we can start with a basic premise for this post, and that is that I am not, as such, a laid-back person in general. I have phobias. I have neuroses. At all times, I have a small movie reel of worst-case scenarios running in the background of my brain. There is another premise, too, though, and that is that I really, above all other things, want to be a good mom. This means that I have to try as hard as I can, always and evermore, to make sure that Ruby doesn’t hear that little voice in my head that says: “Maybe it’s cancer. Maybe he’s a pedophile. What about guns? What about cars? What about germs? Oh, my God, what about preservatives?” and instead hears my actual voice saying reasonable things like: “Wear your helmet. Buckle your seat belt. Get a check-up. Eat some fruit.” I want her to be safe; I just don’t want her to be insane.
I recently found a post I wrote for the website in October 2009: “Ruby’s only 2, so of course I’ll go with her tomorrow when she goes trick-or-treating. But I can’t imagine ever being willing to let her go alone. I know I have to, and I know I will. I’m just glad it’s not this year.”
I can safely say that 2013 still is not going to be the year I let Ruby, now 6, go trick-or-treating alone. But it is the year that I have started giving her more independence. Over the summer, Ruby has lost her top two teeth; learned to ride a bike without training wheels; and channeled hundreds of chicken nuggets, Toaster Strudels and plums into a serious growth spurt of at least an inch and a half. Her smile is indescribably charming, her knees are constantly scraped, and none of her pants fit – she is just so perfectly 6 that I can barely stand it. When Ruby first realized she was pedaling her pink-and-purple Huffy all by herself, the look of pride and delight on her face was amazing. But I know my daughter well enough to know that as soon as the newness of the bike qua bike wore off, she would see the larger possibilities for freedom it offered. And further, I know her well enough to know that if she is not given independence in tiny age-appropriate bite-sized portions, she will attempt to wrest away huge unwieldy chunks of independence and it will all end in tears for everyone.
So last week, I asked her if she wanted to walk around the block by herself. Her eyes got wide. “By myself?” she said. “Do you mean it?”
“Yes,” I told her. “I know you’re going to want to start riding your bike around the block soon, but before I let you do that, I want to be absolutely sure that you know where the driveways are and where the pavement gets uneven. So go ahead and go if you want to. I know you’ll be careful.”
And she was off, just like that, confidently, chin up, blonde curls bouncing on her shoulders, pink shoes pushing against the hot pavement, off around the corner without so much as a look back.
Doesn’t it sound like I was casual?
I wasn’t casual. I stood on the porch biting my thumbnail for every second of the just-under-6-minutes that it took her to make the block. I scrolled through Facebook on my phone, looking nonchalant – but the movie in my head showed me being interviewed for CNN, red-eyed, lank hair stuck to my forehead, sobbing, “It was the first time I ever let her walk by herself!” I paced, and I drummed my fingers on the porch railing. I even tried to whistle.
And then there she was, rounding the corner, running full force at me down the last leg of her journey. I heard her before I saw her, and I went down the stairs to meet her. She flung herself into my arms, sweaty and exhilarated and pink-cheeked. “I did it,” she yelled. “I was scared, but I did it!”
“I knew you could,” I told her. “Do you want to try again?”
A few days later, I decided she had graduated to riding her bike around the block, and she did a good job at that, too. Now, just a week later, I am still sitting vigilantly on the porch and counting every second, but I have a glass of wine with me and I am texting a friend and watching Georgia toddle around and Ruby just pedals past me and waves and yells, “Going around again, Mom!” and I yell back, “OK!” I am very proud of both of us.
I know that this is a small thing in terms of independence, but it is also a huge milestone to have her out of my sight, even briefly. The what-ifs in my head have not gone away entirely, but I am forcing myself to see the big picture: The chance of something bad happening to Ruby is small. But the harm that could come if I didn’t give any kid – but especially an independent, spirited kid like Ruby – the freedom to trust herself and the knowledge that I have full confidence in her would be significant. For the rest of her childhood, I will weigh these issues. I will take a deep breath. And I will let her go.
It is my dearest hope that our first foray into freedom sets the tone for everything to come. Because that first solo walk around the block encapsulates everything I want for her future: I want her to be eager and fearless and confident as she sets off on anything new, chin up, curls bouncing. But I want her to be just as eager to check back in with me after every triumph or setback, knowing that I am waiting there, kneeling on the sidewalk with my arms out, relieved to see her, proud of whatever she has attempted – and always ready to provide a safe place to land.