Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What losing my kids taught me about free range parenting.

Last week the boys and I met up with our friends and their new baby to walk at Shelby Bottoms. It was cold and muddy but the sun was out and it felt great to get out and connect with friends. Although, as soon as we started on our walk, I realized I had probably forced an unnatural dynamic.

While my boys love the park - we spend a LOT of time down there - they are sort of so-so about walking. At least, walking at the speed new parents with a stroller tend to walk. The boys like to meander. Take their time. Stop and smell the roses...

I was caught between two worlds. If I wanted to walk fast enough to claim it as exercise while catching up with my friends, I would be leaving the kids in the dust. But if I wanted to take the slow and steady approach with the boys, my friends would surely be wondering why we met up in the first place.

So when we came to a short cut - the Beaver Trail - and the boys begged me to let them take it, I had a lot to consider.

On the up side, splitting up made sense. The grown ups could walk like we wanted to while the boys could have an adventure. They're familiar with the park and know the trail pretty well. They'd be together. And they really, really wanted to do it.

But they're little. At least, Finn is. And it was wet and muddy and cold. They'd walked the path a lot before but never alone. It felt like kind of a big deal.

But also, not that big of a deal. I mean, to be honest, I don't really worry that much. I know this drives Bill nuts sometimes - I let the boys do way more stuff than he'd let them do - but I just tend to err on the side of they'll be fine. Free range parenting and all that.

"Pleeeeeeese, can we do it, Mama? Please?!?"

"But-"

"We'll be safe! And stick together! We can do it. I know we can!"

I thought about it for a minute and then said yes. We planned to meet at the Nature Center if we didn't see each other on the other side of the trail. They tore off down the muddy path, more excited than I'd seen them in a long time, and we went on our way.


We took the reddish circular path, they took the black cut through. 

As we walked, I only wondered a few times if I had done the right thing. What if one of them slips in the mud? Or gets tired? Are they really big enough for this type of independence? But overall I felt fine. No gut feelings telling me I should worry. No inkling suspicions I had done the wrong thing. No sudden worries about weirdos or wild animals.

When we got to where the two trails  meet, the boys weren't there. I figured they were just taking their time but walked to the Nature Center to check for them just in case. They weren't there either. So we walked back a bit and I hopped on the Beaver Trail to meet up with them. My friends took the circular trail back the way we came and we planned to reunite at the Nature Center.

As soon as I stepped foot on the muddy path, my stomach lurched into my throat and I started to panic. Where before I was confident the boys could do it, now I knew for sure they could not. The ground was so slick and muddy with patches of ice I could barely walk without falling. And yet, here I was, running, sliding, yelling their names, wondering why in the world I had ever let them go.

The longer I was on the trail, the more terrified I became. They just weren't there. I tried to convince myself we had missed them somehow but there just wasn't any way that made sense. If they were still on the Beaver Trail when we were walking to the Nature Center, we would have walked right into them on our way back.

Where were they?

WHERE ON EARTH WERE MY BOYS?

I got to the end of the path - muddy, panting, wild eyed - and kept right on running. I was screaming for them now but the only thing I heard was my panicked voice echoing back to me. I got back to the start of the trail and still didn't see them. I scanned the Nature Play area and the woods nearby. But no one was there. Someone at the Nature Center must have seen me looking frantic because he came out onto the porch to see if I needed help.

"Two boys!" I yelled. "I'm looking for two boys!"

I was beyond frantic at this point. I just couldn't figure out where they could be. I didn't let myself ponder this as there just didn't seem to be any palatable explanation. How could I let them go? What was wrong with me? What in the world would I tell Bill...

Just as I got back toward the Beaver Trail, still screaming their names, I heard something besides my own voice. My boys! They were walking toward me on the paved trail with my friends. And they weren't even crying!

"Oh my gosh!" I exhaled, running toward them. "I was so scared I lost you!"

"We were scared!" they said. They were smiling and running toward me. It was the best thing I have EVER seen.

Here's what happened: They got almost all the way across the Beaver Trail when they got a little scared. Things suddenly didn't look familiar and they worried that they made a wrong turn (there are no turns but I get it - sometimes things look different when you're out on your own). They weren't sure what to do so they stopped and looked around. Way across the field they could see the gazebo we often stop at on our walks (the "Observation Deck" on the map up there). It was far but familiar. They knew if they could get there, they would be back on the trail and could find their way to the Nature Center. So they took off across a muddy field to a familiar landmark. They ran into one person who asked if they were lost. "Um, sort of," Liam admitted. "Well, you're almost to the trail and then you'll be able to find your way. Right?" "Right," Liam said confidently. Once they were back on the path, they ran into our friends and they all walked back to me together.

At the time I was so scared and relieved and remorseful and nauseous that I just held my boys tight and got us all safely to the car. All I could think was that I shouldn't have let them go. Why did I let them go? It was a bad call. A mistake. I was overflowing with regret.

On our short drive home Finn piped up from the back seat. Muddy and smiling he said, "This is my most luckiest day!"

"It is?" I said nervously, still shaking. "Why?"

"Because we found you!"

It took me several days to accept that he might be right.

Nothing bad actually happened. It was awful - don't get me wrong - but only because what I thought might have happened. What really happened was pretty great. The boys had an epic adventure. They stuck together. They used their brains and their feet and they did what had to be done. They were beyond resourceful. Scared but brave. I honestly don't know how they did it without freaking out but they did. And honestly? I think they're better for it.

I, on the other hand, would just as soon DIE than experience that again. But I guess that's sometimes how it is with letting go. With parenting. It takes guts. More guts than we have sometimes.

My friends weren't worried because they never knew the boys were "lost". Nobody knew how scary the whole thing was until I showed up, insane with worry.

What would have happened if I had waited for them at the Nature Center like I said I would?

Or if they had ran into someone who thought two kids alone on a trail was cause for alarm. (You can do it is what I would have expected from a friendly neighbor in our neck of the woods. This is not always the case...)

Of course, there are always a million what ifs. And if this story would have ended differently? I mean, come on. But as it it, I feel proud of my boys and happy that they got to have the kind of adventure I used to have.

It's hard to let go. Hard to trust that they will do the right thing. Hard to believe nothing bad will happen. But what's the alternative? I would much rather spend my energy raising resourceful kids than worrying what if. As for the guts it takes to do it well? I'm working on it.

3 comments:

Alice said...

I know this feeling so well! My friend Brook and I tend to let our oldest boys run a lot wider radius from us than many of our friends. As a result, when our boys disappeared together and hadn't been seen (at Dragon Park) for a long while, we tried calmly looking for them. But, it didn't take either of us long to panic since we both realized that our all the time lack-of-tether was already panic-inducing to a lot of our friends nearby. When we found them, they were together, on a playground nearby that they'd gotten to by following a bike path...it just wasn't a playground directly part of that park. They were fine, happy and we learned a lot.

Jen said...

This has happened to me more times than I'd like to remember. I once lost my son in The Adventure Science Center and security had to shut the place down for 15 minutes until we found him. He was at the top of the play structure. Obviously.
There is SO MUCH FEAR inherently involved in being a parent and so much more fear foisted upon us by popular culture that it seems sometimes the best, or rather safest, choice is just to lock our kids up in a room with Sesame Street until the world is a safer place. But, as we know, 99.8% of the "dangers" out there are about as real as Elmo. So, in the end, it comes down to whether you want to live, and teach your children to live, in fear of the .2%. Good job brave Mama.

No Mommy Brain said...

Thankful to be in a community of parents who are fairly like minded and tend to value experience over fear. I think our kids will be better for it!