Thursday, July 2, 2015

Sweet Freedom Vs. Child Protective Services: (How Free Range Parenting and the System Scare the Bejeesus Out of This Run-of-the-Mill Mama)

She walked around the block...all by herself at five years five years old. She had her daddy's phone. She knows how to talk to Siri. She knows how to say, "Call Aidan" or "Call Mommy". There are no streets off of the block. That is to say that the block is self-contained.

But I worried...

She walked with resolution. Heading west. Her arms swung back and forth and her feet...her teeny teeny tiny feet were determined. She walked away--her small frame shrinking with distance. She didn't look back. Not once.

But I was scared...

As she rounded the corner, disappearing from sight, she remained here with us. Her essence swirled around my bedroom where I opened my window to listen for her. She was there in the living room, where her older brother fretted and talked to himself under his breath..."I don't know WHY they let her do that!!" She remained out in the front yard where her dad suddenly had the urge to mow the lawn, eyes squinting for the sight of her rounding the opposite corner.

We all held our breath...

Lately, she's had a wish for freedom, "Sweet freedom" she calls it. Earlier that day, when we left our local library, she ran way ahead down the sidewalk away from her dad and me. She looked back once, twice...but the determination was there. When she reached the end of the walk, when it was time to cross the street, she yelled over her shoulder, "I know how to do this. Look left and right and left again." I recognized the need. I understood where she was coming from, but the fearful mom in me took over at that moment and answered, "It is not an option to cross a busy city street without your mom and dad." She complied but was clearly disappointed. Her chin touched her chest and she scuffed her feet. When we caught up to her, my husband offered a consolation. "How about you do the looking and let us know when we can go. We won't' hold your hand. You can lead us across the street."

And while that seemed to appease the pint-sized independent, it didn't fully quell the need for that sweet freedom. As we were driving home she said, "Mom, you know what I really want to do? I want to walk around downtown all by myself. Just walk around. Look in the shops. Go to the library. But I want to do it all by myself." I gulped and swallowed the boulder that suddenly appeared in my throat and she continued. "You always say that you are here to help me solve my problems. How can I do that? I really want to be free."

The drama in that statement brought a chuckle from my husband, but a wistful smile to my lips. "I really want to be free." How I completely understood this statement. How many times had I uttered it over the last 20 years...Those amazing moments where it's just you alone with your thoughts and your ponderings and the wonders of the world around you. Being solitary is such a tightly woven fiber in me...perhaps it was something that had already started to weave itself into the marrow of my daughter's being as well.

Like all parents, we want her to practice independence, to WANT to separate herself from us in a healthy way. So we couldn't dismiss this moment, and instead came up with this let her walk around our block--6/10 of a mile--by herself. But even as the decision left my lips, the fear set in.

I am sure you think that my fear came from images of kidnappings or dog bites or bullies lurking in the bushes. I am sure that those things were the foundation of my son's nerves and surely her father's nerves as well. But the fear for me came from a seemingly even scarier place.

And while it wouldn't be the truth if I didn't admit that PART of my fear was the bogeyman and all that comes with those thoughts, it was "the system" I was afraid of...the "know better" humans who might report us as bad parents for allowing the independence-jaunt. I was more worried that at the end of the walk, Child Protective Services would be standing on my front porch accusing us of neglect. I mean, we've all seen the stories lately haven't we? The parents in Baltimore whose children were removed from the home because they were allowed to go to the park by themselves. How about the latest story about the Florida parents who lost custody of their two children for over a month because their ELEVEN year old son was playing basketball for 90 minutes in the driveway of their the afternoon...after school...waiting for his parents, who happened to be stuck in traffic and in communication with said son, to come home. Therefore, dear readers, I was afraid to lose my child over a decision to let her experience a bit of freedom.

After an agonizing 7 minutes 29 secs (but who's counting??) the pretend mowing became too much for my husband and he jogged down to the corner. She was there...rounding the bend and he sprinted back without her knowledge, turned on the mower and began to whistle. When she rounded the final corner, her hands went up Rocky-style, a triumphant 5-year-old experiencing her "sweet freedom." For a split second, all the fear fell away and we all reveled in her pride and satisfaction. The smile on her face was worth it all...for a split second. But then IT happened.

"Mama, when I was walking back there a nice lady asked me if I was lost..."


"I told them NO! Then she asked me if I wanted her to walk me home. I told her no again!"

My palms began to sweat...and then I heard my husband's voice through my window...he was talking to someone!! We peeked out the window..."Is that the lady who asked if you were lost?" I asked Ila. "Sure is!" she chirped.


I watched my husband's face...he was smiling. They shook hands and he came toward the house. I instantly called an emergency wife/hubby meeting in my bedroom and pumped him for details.

Who were they?
Did they think we were awful parents?
Did they call the police?
Did they call CPS????????

And while it seems as if they were just lovely neighbors wondering about this five-year-old they've never seen by herself before, it didn't quell the massive nerves. It's a travesty this screwy system, one that won't remove children from homes where there are drugs and alcohol that flow undeterred, but will take a child away for going to the park. It's the unpredictability of it all that has me and other parents fumbling for what's right...And sadly we aren't fumbling for what's right for US. No. And that's the thing...we have to seemingly figure out what might not be right for the powers that be, and adding that to all the other parenting dilemmas just feels wrong.

I don't have answers. Really I don't have any. I know that I spent the better part of the evening after Ila's "walkabout" waiting for the phone to ring or for a hard knock at the door. And I know that that was wrong...just plain wrong. It should have been a day of celebration for my daughter's new found independence. After all, when it comes right down to it ultimately we have done our jobs right mamas and papas if our children fly out of our nests to unknown trees bravely and confidently. And I know that they will only be able to take those long flights after many many many shorter trial flights. After a serious discussion, my husband and I aren't sure if we will allow that walk around the block again for awhile. We just can't be sure how the outside world would react to another and it feels too precarious. But we're determined to find ways for Ila to do things on her own. The world won't stop us from helping her find that "sweet freedom."

POSTSCRIPT--Tonight putting at bedtime our freedom loving daughter said, "Mama and Daddy, I can't wait to jump out of a plane someday!"

Oh. Boy. OH. SHIT!!