Monday, May 3, 2010

As Their World Grows, Mine Becomes More Terrifying

In the beginning, there was the womb. Picture that most traditional of heartwarming images: Mom and Dad-to-be lying in bed, both of them holding the distended belly in their hands, lovingly, speaking in hushed tones about hopes and dreams for the unborn person in there, waiting to make him or herself known to the world. You do that most imaginative of empathic leaps, as you try to picture what it must be like for him in there -- so dark, so moist, so comforting.

So safe...

After uterus comes the crib. Although the bars reassure you that your child will sleep safe and sound, they are comical at first... until the climbing begins. Then your imagination fills with images of escape, and what that could entail for your toddler's cranium. And so their world gets a little wider, with the introduction of the "Big Boy (or Girl) Bed." This purchase gives way not only to your child's new sense of self-esteem and maturity, but also to those nights when you wake with a chill down your spine as you see two little eyes peering at you through the peppered darkness from just above the edge of your mattress: for a moment, you think of the toy clown in Poltergeist. But no, it's just your little one, not so little any more, come to ask you for water, or if you could shove over and make room...

Eventually, there is the backyard or playground, and you marvel at how they run and play, throwing and climbing, running and falling, with no apparent regard for personal safety. A far cry from the womb, this space still affords a modicum of safety, you believe; it is self-contained, surrounded by fencing on all sides.

It is only a matter of time, however, before that front door must open up, and your child must be allowed to blink in the sun of the Outside World, replete with all its wonders and dangers. Being a dutiful parent, you purchase the vehicles that will, by increments, take your child farther and father away from you as time goes on. First, and briefly, it's the tricycle. You shoot video and marvel as your child propels himself in tiny circles, monkey-like. Then comes the bike with the training wheels. You watch as he rides down the street, making his way to cul-de-sac, and you become aware of how far away that circle seems to you now -- farther, in fact, than it has ever seemed before. You call out your child's name: "Watch out for cars!" And your child gives you the "duh" look, one side of his mouth moving downward, as he rolls his eyes.

Then comes the Big Moment, the one you remember well from your own childhood -- the Removing of the Training Wheels. Your heart fills with ambivalence, because you know what an exciting moment this is for your child, while, simultaneously, you were nowhere near prepared for how squarely it would throw all your fears right into your face. You hear his cries of "Let go, Daddy! Let go!" and, despite all those ancestral voices whispering in your ear to the contrary, you comply. One hand comes off his sinewy shoulder, the other releases the bicycle seat, and you are suddenly alone, all alone, in that island of parental joy and terror, and, as you watch him recede into the distance, you are amazed at your ability to hold two apparently contradictory emotions so solidly in your heart at the same exact moment in time.

And you yell, "Go! You're doing it! Go, go!"

It's then, as you hear your own words coming out, strained a bit by a catch in your throat, that you realize that this push and pull, this excitement and fear, is what your life will be all about from now until the very end.