Wednesday, June 26, 2013

That Intricate Dance

Twenty-five years ago the doctors placed upon my breathless chest, a boy who had just made his way out of the womb and into the world.  I felt his solid weight upon me.  He did not cry like most newborns.  Instead he stared up at me, silently.  We locked eyes and a feeling of primitive protectiveness like I had never known arose within me. 

The profound nature of this feeling was astonishing.  I had expected to feel deep love, but this feeling came from an even deeper place.  This was from the marrow of my bones, from the marrow of my ancestor’s bones.  It swept over me and at that moment, exhausted and wrung-out from childbirth though I was, I knew I would stand up and kill anything that endangered the life of this child.  

I was Woman Warrior and this was my offspring.  Back off.  Now.

At that moment I understood that there are emotions and then there are instincts.  Ever socialized and molded by a society that values conformity and meekness in girls, I had never felt such raw animal instinct before.  Protectiveness over one’s newborn has a biological cause and reason and except for a  few people, there is no choice or variation in the matter.  

And so the dilemma becomes clear.  As children grow, we have to balance that protectiveness with the letting go that growing up demands.  Ah, that is where we begin the intricate dance.  Step in.  Back off.  Hold his hand.  Let go of his hand.  Believe he can do it.  Know that he can’t.  Let him do it anyway.  Stop him from doing it.  Prevent falling.  Allow falling.  Pick up the injured.  Don’t.  Let him get up on his own.  No, help him up.  Say something.  Say nothing.

As parents we watch our children go out into the world and we gingerly touch the bull’s-eye that is now directly over our hearts, knowing we have so much to lose and yet knowing that this letting go, letting them take risks, is part of the bargain.

When he was in second grade, Sonny Boy wanted to walk to school by himself.  He begged.  He pleaded.  I walked him halfway.  That was not good enough.  He wanted to leave, shut the door with me on the other side and walk to school all by himself.  Finally, I agreed, but I told him I’d walk him out to the front porch and wave to him from there.   

“Then you’ll go back in?  You won’t follow me?”  I agreed.  

I waved at him, and then, when his back was turned, I went and made a dramatic slam of the front door from the outside.  I hit the concrete of the front porch immediately, squatting down and duck-walking over to hide behind the fern on the front porch.  I moved strategically around the fern like a crescent wrench on a bolt as he got farther and farther away.

As soon as he was out of sight, I sprang up, ran through the house, and into the back yard.  Our house backs up to the schoolyard, so I went to the corner of the fence, stood on my tip-toes, and waited the excruciatingly long thirty seconds it took him to get around the corner and then I saw him, swinging his Sonic the Hedgehog lunchbox, walking up the sidewalk.  He was so proud. 

I ducked down for a few seconds, walked a few feet and then bobbed up again.  I ducked down, walked a few feet and then I was up again.  By doing so, I could just keep him within sight until he reached the schoolyard. Anyone looking at the long expanse of fence would have seen my little blond head bobbing up and down-- a horizontal whack-a-mole. 

Over the years, that push-pull of protectiveness and letting go went on and on.  The debates over sleepovers, school parties, junk food, money, skateboarding, helmets, video games, movies filled the family airwaves. “You’re going where?”  “When?”  "Who are you going with?"  "Do I know this child?"

Then came the driving years.  

Yikes. Yikes.  Yikes.  

To the outside world, it seems so easy, so cut-and-dried.  You make rules and you stick to them!  Right?   However, when you are in the middle of the dance, it is anything but easy.  To complicate things further, even as our children push us away in their struggle for independence, they cling to us for support.  We are confused.  They are frustrated.  We feel that every decision means something.  Rules are made.  Rules are bent.  Rules change.  Independence.  Dependence.  Mastery over one’s environment, OK.  I get it, but at what risk? 

My boys, now 20 and 25, still roll their eyes at my not letting them see Titanic when it came out because I thought it would be too traumatic for them. (Spoiler alert: the ship sinks! People die!) I also banned “The Power Rangers,” The Brave Little Toaster, and a video game that had what I considered to be a disturbingly violent little monkey in it

Evan remembers with mortification when he was about sixteen and we were walking through a parking lot.  There was a car backing out slowly, and Evan saw no danger to himself, (and truthfully, looking back, there probably wasn’t any) but at that moment Warrior Mommy came out.  

I quickly pulled him away, walked toward the car that was still backing out and started pounding my fist on the trunk as if that would make the machine stop.  I yelled, “Hey!  Hey!”   Evan was so embarrassed.  “Mom!  Stop!” he said.  “What do you think you’re doing?  Jeez!”  He walked quickly away.  To him I was not Warrior Mommy.  I was Mom the Freak.  Take her home and don't let her out in public again.

I realize now why he was embarrassed.  I had taken away a bit of his maturity by stepping in the way I did, but I just couldn’t help it.  I saw a car coming towards my boy!  I acted! 

I give you these extreme examples of my behavior, but assure you that my boys were given plenty of opportunities to grow, to fall, to experience the world.  Independently they went on camping and ski  trips with friends and they explored our hometown on skateboards and bicycles.  As they got older, they made more and more of their own decisions, including ones that caused me to wince (inwardly writhe!) such as Sonny Boy's decision to get a motorcycle when he turned eighteen.  Intellectually, I totally understood what stages they needed to go through and for the most part I was pretty good at backing off and letting them go, but that protective gene still danced through my bloodstream.

When Sonny Boy was about 21 years old, he decided to sell that motorcycle on Craig’s List.  Three big, burly guys came over to take a look at the bike.  They met on the street in front of our house.  I went to the window and looked out, ready to go out there and throw all my 127 pounds at one of the brutes if I needed to. 

Sonny Boy’s girlfriend was in the room, working on the computer.  “How can you just sit there?” I asked. “Aren’t you concerned? These guys could be nut jobs.  They could rob Sonny Boy.  They could abduct him and force him into a van and drive him out to the desert!”  

She turned to me and said very calmly, “Sonny knows what he’s doing.  He can handle this.”  She was right of course and I admired her confidence and demeanor.  Still, something within my Mother Bones refused to let me leave. I stayed there, a sticky-footed frog, clinging to the window and craning my neck to see all that was happening, ready to go out, jump in my car and follow those maniacs into the desert if need be.

I know this feeling of protectiveness changes and morphs, as time goes on.  But does it ever truly go away?  As children get older, our ability to protect them wanes as they take over their own destinies. This is as it should be.  

Now that both of my sons are older and in college, I have very little say in what they do or don’t do.  While I trust both of them to make good decisions, the worry is still there. Is worrying what parents do after the years of actively protecting our children are past?  

And, just because they are gone, does not mean that active protective gene is gone from my bloodstream.   Vestigial, maybe, but there all the same.  

How do I know? 
Just ask the person riding in my car’s passenger seat when I have to make a sudden stop. You know what happens. The right arm automatically goes straight out as though with my one bony arm I can stop a human body from becoming a projectile out the front windshield. 

Perhaps that is what most of our protective actions are—just gestures against a world in which we have such little control and so very much to lose.  

The view from the fence, the fist on the car, the arm outstretched to catch the falling: illusory though they may be, we still need them.  

We do these things because we remember those babes in our arms.  

The weight of their bodies and souls never leaves us.


Nancy C said...

As a mom of two boys, I can totally relate Betty. We want them to grow up to be men, but want them to be safe. An oxymoron for sure. :)

Brian said...

That was just the best and Moms are so special too!

Anne Gallagher said...

Great post, Betty. I'm struggling with all these issues with my 8 year old Monster Child these days. And my friends keep telling me, "Wait until she turns into a teenager" (She's only 8)

I look forward to it.

Unknown said...

Guessing I'll be the only one who is shaking her head and thinking helicopter parent ;o)
But on a brighter note, this should help you understand when this type parent shows up at you office door.

Leah J. Utas said...

Excellent piece, Betty. I don't have children so lack the visceral understanding of your words, but intellectually you've helped me to get it.

Erin Janda Rawlings said...

A delicate dance is the best way to describe the process of letting go. My kids are only 4 and 7, and I am constantly balancing my maternal reactions with the need for them to develop independence. It's exhausting, really.

The Girl Next Door Grows Up said...

Wow. What an amazing post. It's so true. I have done the duck and dodge thing too. My oldest is 13 and I don't know how I am going to handle all of the driving years but I do know that I will have every tracking device imaginable on her!

Katie said...

my girl just started college last fall, and even though she's just 10 minutes away, i worry more about her than my son that still lives in the house with us. this is a wonderful post about mothers and children and all we do as parents to protect them.

and you look great today, too! ; )

MomQueenBee said...


Olga said...

All I can say is, "Wow!" This is a beautifully done post.

marlu said...

What a great piece! Two boys (now 54 and 51!) here and the concern doesn't end....

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

That was so beautiful. I don't think anyone who doesn't have children can understand that fierce need. My kids lost their cousin to an auto accident so they're pretty understanding about my worrying a lot.

Cranberry Morning said...

What a beautiful post! About the letting-go part, I am reminded of lines from the movie 'Shadowlands':

'The pain then is part of the happiness now.' (applicable to moms whose children will soon be moving out)


'The pain now is part of the happiness then.' (applicable to moms who are now in the process of letting their children go.)

I have never forgotten those profound sentiments.

Thank you for your beautiful post.

jenny_o said...

Oh, yes! I had that moment after birth that turned into years and years, too ...

A dance - yes, it is. You've described it very well. Wonderful post, BB!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That was beautiful, Betty.
I'm not a parent, so I can't understand that bond. But my wife will attest that I am overprotective when it comes to her. The real Ninja Warrior would emerge if anything ever threatened her.

Tabor said...

No wonder we are schizophrenic when we are done (are we ever?) in raising our children. I think making sure you child makes it to school safely is your most important job!

My Mind's Eye said...


When I take Madi to the Vet....of course she is in her carrier BUT
I also put the seat belt around her and keep my hand on the handle until we arrive....
Madi's slave

Brian Miller said...

smiles. you are a cool mom...and we do want to have a bit of control in the world and keep our kids of my greatest fears is something happening to my boys...but i also know i have to learn trust as well...

Ms. A said...

I know this feeling all too well and would never have been able to express it so perfectly. My children are grown and I still feel the same, protective need to mother them. Their children are in the process of being raised, so I doubt they can fathom the same feelings I'm having... until they feel them for themselves. I hope I live long enough to witness it.

Ann said...

It's so hard to watch them grow up and yet so rewarding at times

Gigi said...

Oh Betty! You brought tears to my eyes. You expressed motherhood so eloquently. Although mine is a few years younger than yours (only 18) - I know exactly what you mean. And I'm pretty certain that feeling never, ever goes away. And if it did? Well, then I'd be sad.

Connie said...

This is such a well-written post, Betty. I can identify with all that you have to say here. If I could pin five shiny gold stars on this blog post, I would! :-)

I hope you are having a good week.

Hilary said...

You express the feelings of motherhood so well. As difficult as it is to watch them become independent, we know that it's the measure of our success as parents.

Happy Birthday to your boy. He has one amazing mother.

Lin said...

Lovely. I can so relate. :) There is no job harder than being a mom--not for all the work (there is a TON), but for the dance we have to do. Can't do too much, but you can't do too little. Where do we start? Where do we stop? Should we? Shouldn't we?? Ugh. It's so hard to know what to do... and when.

Happy Birthday to you and your boy--who will remain your boy forever--no matter how old he gets. :)

faye said...

A great post !!!

Ami said...

My son got engaged this week. And is moving out tomorrow. It's hard to just.. smile and wave. But that's what I'm going to do.

Thank you for this lovely post.

Baby Sister said...

Such a beautiful post, Betty!! It's apparent that you are a great mom.

Shan said...

Love love love this. <3

Pat Tillett said...

Very touching and really well written Betty. We've managed to bring five of them into the world and later send them back out into it as adults. It's hard to describe the connection we have with them. I know how it is for me, but I know it's not the same as with a mom though. Great post!