A siren split the air on New Year’s Eve. I exchanged an uneasy glance with another middle-aged parent. We both had children in their twenties who were in town, staying in their old rooms. Naturally, they weren’t with us. They were out on the town, celebrating somewhere else.
“It’s easier,” he said, “when they’re not around. I don’t worry about them as much.”
He’s right. When our kids go back to New York or Lawrence or Cambridge, it’s easier. We don’t kid ourselves that we have any control. But when they’re in town, under our roofs, we all lapse back into parental vigilance mode. We can’t help ourselves. A siren? A wreck? Flashing lights? We expect the worst.
When your kids are young, you always know where they are, who they are with. Over the years, you gradually cede control and omniscience. The first time you see one of your children heading out of a driveway in a car commandeered by a teenager you distinctly remember when he was in diapers or day care or with a pacifier stuck in her mouth, you realize you have entered a new stage in your life as a parent. You have lost control. If you think about it too long or too hard, you might possibly lose your mind and begin to froth at the mouth.
So you find yourself repeating the same warnings. “Drive safely.” Or, “Call Dad or me if you need a ride home.” Or, “Did you read about the cheerleaders who had a wreck in New England? The driver was text-messaging. Remember how you promised me you would never text-message when you were driving?” And so on. Sure, they roll their eyes. But it’s all like a mantra you have to repeat again and again.
(That middle message, by the way, led to a successful end one time. You and your husband were called to pick up one of your kids and three friends after they had gotten thrown out of a restaurant where one of them drunkenly vomited into a potted plant. Driving them home, your husband reported later, he had to stop the car every few blocks so one or the other could step outside the car and get sick again. But, hey! You were the kind of parents your kid could call, could trust. Even the later knowledge the four of them had exhausted every single name and phone number of all their friends before calling you did little to diminish your satisfaction.)
But again: They grow up, kind of, and they leave town and you don’t worry every minute of the day, because you would have to be institutionalized after a few weeks, and you stop hyperventilating every time you hear a siren. You might still think of yourself as a canary constantly sniffing the air for danger — but the fact is, you’re off duty. You can’t sniff the faraway air where they’re now living. You can just fluff your feathers and fall asleep more easily.
Until they come to town again. That’s when you realize some things about you changed when you had children and they will never change back. You’ll always turn when you hear some kid say, “Mommy!” in the grocery store, no matter how old you are. And you’ll always flinch when your kids are in town and you hear a siren. You’ll never, quite, rest well until you know where they are, that they’re safe and sound. You may be obsolete, but you’ll never really believe it when you’re all sniffing the same air, alert for danger, ready to do whatever it is you have to do.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)