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Home, Home on the Free-Range

January 21, 2015

sick kid RockwellThis past week, all three of my kids contracted what I can only describe as the Pompeii of stomach flus.

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.

sick kids mom done

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.

sick kids crying

“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.

sick kids restaurant

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.

sick kids free range chickens

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.

sick kids danger

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.

sick kids run wild

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.

sick kids Gomez and Morticia

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From → family, love

29 Comments
  1. It is so hard to know where to draw a line. As both a parent and a writer I am in such awe of you, and yet I know we are of such different opinions/experiences.
    Surely a lot of parenting can stem from fear and past experience. When I was a teen a girl in the periphery of my circle of friends; very close, was abducted, and never found. When I reconnected with the friends of my teens via FB I learned that her remains were eventually found in another nearby state, I think things that touch us closely, inevitably leave psychological scars.
    I try very hard to balance a line between freedom and careful parenting… and at times it is hard not to lean towards being overprotective, that being said, it is true, that in general with loving parents in the end, we are all fine.

  2. I think that your parenting style is a pretty good model. I was probably too lenient in ways but my child who is now 37 not only survived my very relaxed parenting style but is quite the leader in his social circle. As a former child protective services worker I have seen all styles of parenting and “non-parenting.” I have seen what can happen to children with no boundaries as well as to children who are hobbled by their parents. My professional opinion is that the ridiculous expectations of parents in this day and age as well as the effects of helicopter parents are creating dysfunctional families, children and young adults.

    Parenting is hard work. We have to do what is best for us and our families. That doesn’t mean letting a two year old swim by her/himself or chaining a child to the bed but it does mean finding a balance that is healthy for the family as a whole.

    If you love your children and respect their autonomy then everything will work out in the long run.

  3. It’s so true, Catalna – and such is the glory and diversity of the human experience. My mom had a child die of the flu. She happened to call when we were out Saturday evening and she said to me, “Children need their mother – how could you go out when they’d been sick?” I told her I’d been with them 24/7 for days and just needed an hour to myself, but that didn’t appease her. I understand.

    • I absolutely agree with you, that evening I would have absolutely gone to dinner, but the couple in Silver Spring (an area I know well) should be more realistic at the extreme growth and traffic, as well as a bunch of medicated drivers… those kids were small, and the roads they were crossing solo, and park they went to? If that was a 12, 10 and 7 yr old, I could see it, but the kids in Maryland…. out of my comfort zone.

      • You may be right. I don’t know Silver Spring – except from the article. It just hit home to me because my kids play around our neighborhood all the time (a very different, quasi-rural neighborhood, mind you).

  4. Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had and commented:
    Such profound perspective on life and raising children. I hope I come to have as much when I become a parent. Thank you for a great read.

  5. Lovely article, and I agree with the last few lines especially 😉

  6. Why I love Vic,

    O I do not mean I am in love in her. I have never met her and she is old enough to be my mother in a parallel existence. Yes her writing has the noir imagery, the unspoken broad feeling of broken broads who have a certain glow to any man, but that is not the point. No really.

    What really draws me to her is a special way she combines the two basic archetypes. The slut and the Goddess. And she makes them work. She can at the same time write about her broken past from a world that is still, perhaps even more and more broken by the day, and the may- be- not- so- anymore-but still, glittering future of the American dream. And then she has the guts to criticize it. Gusto. With respect.

    Being born in country that does not exist anymore, namely Yugoslavia, living in a country that is for better or worse, stuck in time, the mythic time: I have a vague remembrance of the world that she comes from. Perhaps this is the connection, and the over protective parents who did their best to accommodate the realities or breaking socialism and the new brave world of capitalism that was being born added to the flame.

    I am really proud of the strength they have shown in breaking out of the box. I hope I can do justice to their effort as I stand on the fringe of slow decade of capitalism and a birth of something new. A daunting task, to look into the abyss of the upcoming catastrophe, with hope that I may find strength and compassion to see it through, standing tall and helping a fellow man or woman.

    Thanx Vic for the inspiration.

    God bless you.

    Samo

    • Wow. Thank you, Samo. I’m humbled. You also expressed what you called “breaking out of the box” beautifully. Thanks for reading and God Bless you, too.

      • For God sake keep writing. The lost souls of the Y generation need some mother-fathering. Either this or a revolution for a cheap i pod, cause the internet broke down and fb aint working. It would be a shame to have the knowledge and passion of our youth hijacked by the corporate ghouls who are aware that their time has come-time to step down, be humbled or be lost in history. Writers of the world unite 🙂 Especially women, I learn so much from them lately.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing. Really enjoyed reading it. Over the years I have also come to realize the reality of the words the technician spoke. As parents we make so many mistakes and often have really bad judgement concerning our children but in the end I believe that if they are loved – truly, deeply loved and they know it – they will turn out great – EVENTUALLY – despite our lack of parenting skills.

  8. I’m glad my own children turned out to be people I actually like being around and talking to, no matter our differing opinions about many things.

    I was inept, and just did the best I could with what I had. Guess I got lucky. 🙂

  9. I had a lot of freedom when I was growing up. I was raised by a single dad with a full-time job, and I refused a babysitter. I did some after school daycare and sports when I was in elementary school, but by the time I was in middle school I was taking the city bus to school in a rough neighborhood and taking care of myself. I loved it and I think I turned out okay. 🙂

    • Me, too, Britt. I was what used to be called a latch-key kid. Don’t know if that term is in use anymore. Both of my parents worked and it was up to me to walk home, let myself in, get a snack and do whatever I had to do. I loved it.

  10. Great post 🙂

  11. First of all, I would like to say that from your stories, it seems that you are a great mother to your children. As a father, I know how difficult times like child’s illness can be, especially when it becomes more serious and your children need you.

    Secondly, I’m surprised about the story from the Washington Post. Here in Europe, it is very common for the children to walk home from school. We even let them travel by a public transport without fearing that they would not come home for any reason. Recently, I traveled by a six year old in a train, who was put in it on one station by his dad and picked up by his mother on another.

    It seems to me that US is becoming a police state more and more. I’m now only expecting police drones to fly over your heads. It feels so dystopian. I hope that there is a way how to give children more liberty while not taking ours.

    • I share your concerns, John, but I do think it depends upon where you are. In the Chicago suburb where I grew up, children still walk home from school. I think a lot of this “helicoptering” is happening on the coasts – particularly the East coast. Being from the Midwest, it’s really strange for us and we raise our kids much like we were raised. Certainly, when I visit my European relatives, they leave their children home alone, they let their children play, etc. I’m hoping this is just a phase and will go away with enough resistance 🙂

  12. Excellent! Well-written – and full of common-sense and love. 👍👍

  13. Thanks, Kate. You know what, I can never figure out how to comment on your blog. Am I an idiot and is it plainly obvious, or do you only allow comments on some posts?

  14. Samo – we learn from you, too 🙂

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