Home, Home on the Free-Range
I spent my week cuddling, medicating, holding back hair so it didn’t get barfed on, doing laundry, obsessively washing my hands, tracking diarrhea footprints all over the house, taking temperatures, dispensing Popsicles, rubbing tummies, detoxifying bathrooms, and wrapping blankets around shivering, feverish 2nd, 5th and 7th Graders.
I’m not asking for sympathy here. Not much, anyway. As a parent, this is what I do, and it’s both a responsibility and a privilege.
There’s a sweetness to caring for my sick children. It’s not just their helplessness and return to calling me “mommy” again, even after a significant reprieve. (Although that does hold a certain allure.) Somehow, they’re at their most beautiful when they’re really sick. Their pale faces glow like the full moon, their lips are pink, dry and swollen and their eyes glassy, sleepy and filled with love and need.
I could stare at them all day.
Of course their breath is deadly and their body fluids disgusting; they’re also crabby and demanding and milk the whole sick thing for longer than is necessary – not to mention making it damned near impossible for me to get any work done, and prompting me to post a picture of Sylvia Plath with her head in an oven on my Facebook page. Cheap laugh – I know.
Finally, after eight days of this, I put my foot down and refused to cancel dinner plans my husband and I had made some weeks ago. I’d been looking forward to this date all along, as it also involved friends with whom we can have great conversations without having to edit the content, you know what I mean? And by the time last Saturday rolled around, this date wasn’t just something I wanted to do, it was something I needed in order to stop myself from running away from home.
I knew that leaving for a couple of hours was iffy. Not in terms of my kids’ safety. They were over the hump, and my oldest son is extremely competent and just a month shy of turning thirteen for heaven’s sake.
But although they were definitely on the mend, my middle child was still weak and weepy.
She begged us not to go.
“Honey, I’ll do what you want,” my husband said. “But she’ll be ok. We’re just down the street and all she’s going to do is lay here and watch TV anyway.”
I knew he was right. I’d been at her beck and call day and night for what felt like a light year at this point. There wasn’t anything left to do but wait this out.
So, I tucked my little girl in, put the phone by the couch, stuck a movie in the dvd player, kissed my youngest, who seemed to be thrilled we were going out (God only knows what she had planned), and gave my oldest instructions on what he needed to do if Mt. Vesuvius began grumbling again.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” he said.
It took my husband a full ten minutes to talk me down once we got into the car. He’s great at that and has always been a huge champion of maintaining the integrity of our relationship. He’s made me go away for weekends alone with him while I was still breast feeding, dragging my breast pump along like a third wheel, pulled babysitters off the street if need be so that we could get just a couple of hours together, and never had one qualm about being the bad guy when it comes to separating me from the fruit of my womb.
I love that about him. Even when I’ve hated it.
And overall, it turned out to be a pretty good night. We actually got through dinner until the inevitable call came. My daughter wouldn’t stop moaning and my son was back on the toilet. So, we said our good-nights, thanked our friends for their understanding, and left just before dessert and espresso.
Once home, we nuzzled, kissed and put to bed our babes. It was all much ado about nothing.
Until today, when a friend of ours sent us a story from The Washington Post.
In it, a couple who practices “free-range parenting” was being investigated by DFS for allowing their children to walk home from a local park unaccompanied by an adult. The kids (ages 10 and 6) had been working up to this with short jaunts to the 7-11 and a neighbor’s house. They were neither scared nor in danger of any sort when they were picked up by police, who were responding to a call from a local who voiced concern about seeing unattended children on the sidewalk.
The parents were outraged.
As young children in the 1970s and 80s, they had walked well over a mile to and from school every day. The father, a physicist, asked the social worker in charge of their case how it was possible to criminalize a parenting style, simply because it favored giving children freedom within a framework, allowing them to work their way up to responsibilities and liberties – much the way he had as a child. Is it illegal for children to walk home from a park less than a mile away in a safe neighborhood? Especially when they knew the way, could recite their address and telephone number and even had the self-awareness to tell the police officer who picked them up, “We are free-range kids and we’re not doing anything illegal.”
Until reading that article, I’d never heard the term “free-range” in this context, but it was impossible for me not to draw a connection between the philosophy behind the movement and my own attitude towards child-rearing.
My husband and I have tended to be consistently ahead of the curve when it comes to letting our children ride their bikes to a friend’s house, or be responsible for themselves and even a younger sibling while we run some errands…or slip out for a dinner date.
We get as many raised eyebrows as we do pats on the back from like-minded parents or simply friends from a slightly older generation who feel all this helicoptering has gone too far.
“We’re raising fearful adults who lack basic competencies,” one of those friends observed.
He has a point.
Statistically, the world is a good deal safer – in terms of crime, at least – than it was twenty, thirty, even forty years ago, when a kid had mastery not just of his backyard, but his whole neighborhood. Back when it was common for a child, usually a boy, to wake up at 0 dark thirty every morning from the age of eight to work his paper route…alone, and during the winter months, in the pitch darkness.
Pulitzer Prize Winning novelist, Michael Chabon, was inspired by his own “free-range” childhood to write “Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and has said he would not have nearly as many stories to tell had he not been allowed to roam his home town and discover the world without interference. Through his wanderings, he created a vivid interior life, and earned the confidence to write several spectacular books about it.
My own childhood was filled with mystery.
I spied on creepy neighbors, walked a frozen creek alone for at least a mile, never once trick-or-treated with an adult, rode my skateboard down steep hills, played flashlight tag after nightfall. I remember being terrified, exhilarated, and bathed in utter abandon.
It was glorious and I knew it, even then.
I learned who to avoid and what intersections not to cross – all on my lonesome, or in the company of peers. And it gave me trust in my own abilities. I don’t know if I would have had the guts to move to a foreign country or endeavor to become a writer had I not indulged in those tender-age freedoms first. Would I have earned the self-assurance and good judgement to fall deeply in love – as I did with my husband – and give my life over to the pursuit of our collective dreams? Hard to say.
Have I been in danger? Probably, yes. Maybe more than I realized sometimes.
I’ve lived in bad neighborhoods, traveled alone taking night trains, and met some bizarre, shady characters. Once, while visiting a friend at her college, my girlfriends and I chased down a notorious serial flasher with mocking taunts. He’d been plaguing the school for years and our performance made the cover of the school newspaper. I remember the headline read something like “Depravity Rocks Benedict Hall” and the student reporter posed as a classic flasher – complete with raincoat and sock garters – while the girls and I feigned looks of Puritan horror.
I wonder, if in today’s world that headline would have read, “Parents of Victimized Sophomores Calling for Investigation of Sexual Malfeasance at Local University.”
But maybe I’m being too harsh in my assessment.
The fact is, we’re all just trying to do our best, and parenting is a long, exhausting, joyful and sometimes frightening trek. Whether you are “free range” or a “helicopter” in your style, your kids unwittingly become the focal point of your life. Your own happiness and well being hinge both in the short and long term on their successful journey from child to adult.
And I’m sure kids from either type of home will probably turn out just fine, thank you very much.
So, I’ll wrap up with what I think back on whenever I worry if I’m being too lenient or too interfering. It was something a hearing technician said to me in the hospital some seven years ago.
My youngest, who had been born with cancer, was having her hearing tested. A possible side-effect of one of her treatments was hearing loss, so I was waiting with bated breath as the technician finished his exam. He’d been having problems getting my infant daughter to respond on one side.
Finally, he looked up at me and said, “Don’t worry, she’s going to be ok.”
I practically gasped with relief. “So, she can hear?” I said.
“Oh, I have no idea – the test was inconclusive,” he said. “She’s going to be ok because she has loving parents.”
That was all I needed to hear.