Chiara and I were walking with the boys in the bulky double stroller (the double snap-n-go; it’s like pushing a small fleet of shopping carts) and we came upon our neighbor and her dog. I don’t know where she lives, but I see her walking her dog all the time, a little black and white pixie dog. I usually see them on their evening walk when I’m putting out the garbage bins. The dog has this fancy collar that emits a blue light. Very handy in the dark.
We stop and talk and I point out the fancy collar to Chiara. We discuss its uses.
“When it’s nighttime, the collar shines a light and then his mama can see where her dog is.” (I might have called it a “doggy.”)
The owner and I make jokes about the day the twins will be running around and I might need a similar kind of collar for them. We smile and nod see-you-later. My entourage and I turn to left; the owner and her dog keep walking straight ahead.
Halfway down the block, Chiara gets mad about something or other. It doesn’t matter what; something that’s fueled by her empty stomach, in spite of the almonds we brought along to stave off the tantrums. She stomps her foot and takes off running.
Takes off running.
I am 100% sure that she is going to wait for me at the corner. She turns the corner, still running.
Oh no, you didn’t.
I know that even if I could leave the boys and run after her, that would be a mistake. I have to call her bluff and wait for her to come back to me. She’s on the short side of the block right now, the width, not the length. There are no driveways on this part of the block, so I can let her run and still know that she is safe.
I wheel the twins to the corner and stop with my hands on my hips. She is still stomping away. When she sees that I am following her, she turns to me, shakes her fists in the air (this was actually kind of funny) and turns and runs again.
I am 75% sure that she is going to wait for me at the next corner. I am wrong.
Why, you little . . .
Now she is running down the length of the block. I’m hoping to follow as closely as possible without being seen. She stops from time to time to look for me. Then I make a tactical error—I inch forward just enough so that when she turns around, she sees me. She shakes her fists at me some more and takes off running again. Now my heart drops.
Oh my God.
I am 50% certain that she will not try to cross the street by herself, which is to say that I have no idea what she’s going to do next.
The streets in our neighborhood (and this street in particular) are very narrow with speed bumps every 30 feet. We are close to the BART station (subway). It’s the hour before dinner. In other words, this is the time when commuters are walking home from BART, walking to Market Hall, walking their dogs, their strollers. Little people are crossing the street to their ballet class. Big people are trying to fit in a run before dinner. Pedestrians are legion at this hour and the cars creep by to let the walkers have the run of the road. This is probably the safest time of day for a runaway preschooler. I just don’t know where my preschooler is going run.
When I was eight weeks pregnant with Chiara, I thought we were going to lose the baby. I had cramps; there was bleeding. Matt and I were headed on an overseas trip and we stayed up all night worrying about what might happen.
So this is parenthood, I remember thinking. Worrying about another human, knowing that there’s only so much you can do. Trying to find faith and hope in what you can’t control. I’d better get used to this feeling, I thought, because this is my new life.
And so here I am again, worrying about another human, knowing that there’s only so much I can do. I am watching my daughter challenge my authority; she is flaunting her independence in the big wide world of a single city block. From my vantage point, both literally and metaphorically, I can see the world beyond, the other blocks, other possibilities, other dangers. This is my new life: dancing the balance between keeping my daughter safe and close and letting her run free even if it means she falls.
Before Chiara gets to the end of the block, a neighbor I do not know sees her, tries to stop her and ask her where her mommy is. Chiara backs away from the stranger. I’m relieved because it slows her down so I can catch up. Chiara turns the corner AGAIN, but this time the neighbor is keeping an eye on her to make sure she doesn’t run into the street.
The neighbor and I talk. She assumes that Chiara is acting out because of the twins. Chiara is walking very slowly now, watching me, pacing on the sidewalk in front of the corner house. The neighbor and I are on the side of the corner house. We are separated from just enough bushes for Chiara to feel like she’s far away and for me to feel like she’s close.
And then it happens. The woman and her dog are coming back from their walk. The little dog has scampered ahead, very fast. And into the street. A car comes. The woman screams. There are a handful of witnesses in various stages of walking, running, commuting, and chasing children. We all freeze. For a moment I think that Chiara, at the tender age of three, is going to see something that I myself, have never seen.
I try to anticipate what she will see. Will the dog be thrown into the street? Will there be blood?
The car slams on its brakes and the little dog scuttles to safety. The woman runs after her dog. Chiara runs back to me. As fast as she can.
“Mama, Mama! I was so scared!”
Me, too. I tell her. We talk about what happened to the dog who ran away from his Mama. We talk about fear and trust and how next time that Mama will probably put a leash on her dog. It transitions nicely into a discussion of how I was a scared Mama, too. What I might do next time.
Matt joins us a few minutes later, an opportunity to retell the story.
It is suggested that maybe Chiara shouldn’t be allowed to spend the night at her friend’s house tomorrow night. What if she runs away from her friend’s Mama? How do we know she will stay close so the Mama knows she’s safe?
Nooooooooooooooo! Chiara begs us. She points out that she did not try to cross the street by herself.
We decide to give her a second chance: we will walk to the market and back and Chiara will show us how she can stay close.
“I will walk right behind you the whole time!” she promises.
That’s what supposed to happen. You watch your kids; you teach your kids; you give them the tools to stay safe; you hope they use them. And then you let life happen. I can’t shelter her; I can’t keep her on a leash. I can only prepare her, support her, and dance the balance.
As she pouted and pitter-pattered around the block, several ideas had crossed my mind—from yelling at her to running after her to giving her the beating of a lifetime. I had to keep reminding myself: I know my neighborhood. It’s safe. I know my kid. She’s not going to do anything dangerous. Running after her is not the way to teach her to stay close. Rationally, letting her run was the right thing to do. And yet, it felt like a gamble. An irresponsible gamble on my part.
Today Chiara and I talked about the event. She calls it, “When I got lost.” She said she dreamt about it last night—she’d run away from me, run toward me, run away from me, toward me. Over and over. How’s that for metaphorical?
I’m so happy with how everything unfolded. Chiara tested the waters, misbehaved and in the end, redeemed herself. And best of all, she saw firsthand the real reason you stay close to your Mama—because it’s safe. (On second thought, best of all is probably the fact that the doggy made it safely across the street).
I’m so happy, too. Because I don’t know what I would have done if she had tried to cross the street. I don’t know what I would have done if I had gambled and lost.
© 2010 Janine Kovac