Bungee Cord Parenting

When Emma was 4, I made the monumental decision to let her play in our fenced-in back yard by herself. I stayed in the kitchen where I could see her.

I can still feel the panicky flutter in my chest, the tremor in my hands when I took my eyes off her for more than 10 seconds. The words “bad mom” flashed across my vision in red neon. But at the same time I was giddy about my perceived accomplishment, for letting out the apron strings a bit.

It may sound odd for a work-outside-the-home mom to be so uptight. After all, since she was 2 months old, Emma was in the care of someone else — her grandma; a mature, trusted baby sitter or the day care staff — at least 40 hours a week.

But I also nursed her till she was 2, co-slept with her, made ALL her baby food and felt guilty if I didn’t spend every second with her when I was home. (Yes, she’s an only child at home — her half-brother is 15 years her senior and didn’t live with us.)

I was trying to create the perfect synergy of attachment parenting and free-range parenting styles. Perfectly impossible.

The apron strings were bungee cords. Keep her close, let her go, keep her close, let her go, with brief moments of blissful weightlessness for both of us during the pivotal moment before switching directions again.

Dear Lord, I hope that’s not how Emma describes her childhood to a therapist in 20 years.

I felt I was doing the right thing, of course. There are some instances where keeping your eyes glued to your child is paramount, such as at the pool or ocean when the littles aren’t yet strong swimmers. But it was hard for me to relax even, say, during a family vacation when I needed to rest and Emma was hanging out with other family members. If I was in proximity, I felt she was my sole responsibility. I rarely even split that responsibility with my husband except on Wednesday nights and a few weekends a year when I had pipe band practice or performances.

To my dismay, I admit I wasn’t only worried about Emma and her safety, but also about how she was acting and how others reacted to her. She was — and is — a spirited child. Don’t get me wrong, she is fun and smart and silly and helpful. But I worried when she was younger and left with family members or friends: Would she be disrespectful? Whine and cry because she get didn’t her way? Disobey? If I was there, I could deflect these behaviors, absorb them, keep everyone happy. If I wasn’t there, what might people think of her … and me?

As much as I read about helicopter parents and as much as I didn’t want to be one, I realize now that I hovered with the best of them. I imagined my goal to be both to keep her safe and to keep others from forming bad opinions about us. The safety thing is forgivable, but the other is, well, sad. Trying to keep other people from thinking anything is a foolish and vainglorious pursuit.

I’ve tried to teach Emma she doesn’t need to be concerned about what others think, but I didn’t model that value very well. Oddly, though, she doesn’t seem to care what others think of her — particularly me! It’s an excuse not to brush her hair or be helpful or polite. I chagrin and bear it.

I always liked the idea of free-range parenting, which is why I let her climb trees and jump off walls and spend the night at friends’ houses. But I was too chicken to implement it fully. Today’s finger-pointing society groomed me to be a nervous wreck of a parent, always worried I was doing it wrong or at least could be doing it better. I basically was raised free-range, and despite a few drawbacks, I think it’s a better fit for both Emma and me. I have found that as Emma gets older and I get wiser (I hope), the bungee cord elasticity has played out. My goal is less drama, more stability.

We went on vacation with friends two weeks ago to Lake Erie, and I didn’t feel I had to watch her every second at the beach. Granted, she was with a friend and the beach wasn’t crowded. But as I lay there, eyes closed, book splayed on my chest, completely relaxed, I thought, wow, times have changed. I like it.

Emma still calls me a hovernaut. But you expect a pre-teen child to complain if you so much as look at them. As she enters these critical teen years, I want her to know I care more about her than about what people think. I want her to know I trust her to make her own decisions (which won’t always be good ones but that’s how we learn). And I want her to know I’m still here when she needs me.

The key is to accept she will be needing me less and less.

Betsy Bethel is the Life editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register and the editor of OV Parent magazine. She can be reached at bbethel@theintelligencer.net.