Say you've been a mother for roughly half your life. You've traversed the parental timeline, sometimes in baby steps and sometimes in staggering leaps — first tooth, first word, first (and last) piano recital.
Broken bones, tender hearts crushed and mended more times than you can count. But all in all, the three daughters have turned out well.
You’re a bit tired, yourself. About time for a rest, you think.
Well, think again.
Our 20-something daughter wanted to attend a wedding in Philadelphia. She’s living with us at the moment, saving up for graduate school this fall. A model of discretion, I stood back as she considered the various modes of transportation.
The plane was too expensive. The train, as every Clevelander knows, leaves in the dead of night and takes forever (though not as long as the bus). Renting a car seemed, to her, the best idea.
At 17, this daughter did volunteer work in a tiny Andean village. Since then she has taught English in Brazil and gone to Turkey on her own. So why, when it turned out that her boyfriend couldn’t go and she’d be making the drive alone, did her mother begin to feel nervous?
And why, when she decided to stay in a dirt-cheap hostel on the obscure outskirts of the city, did her mother get really nervous?
Old habit, I told myself. It’s the Turnpike in a Toyota for crying out loud, not a trek in the wilderness. This girl has eaten guinea pig and gone without hot water for months. She’s been stranded, out of money, chased by feral dogs. Her adventures are the kind a parent enjoys hearing — once they’re over.
And that was the rub. It’s easy to be proud of your child’s independence and strong will as long as she makes it home safe. But when she’s just about to leave, and the image of her all alone in some dark, forsaken part of a city — where, by the way, you have never been — rises in your mind?
You could still send regrets, I almost said. Regrets and a nice present.
I’m a hypocrite, I admit. I’m on record as wanting daughters who stand on their own feet, who become self-reliant women determined to follow their dreams. “Think for yourself,” I always told them. As everyone knows, nice women don’t make history.
But still. It killed me every time they got hurt, physically or emotionally. Even as I urged them to be bold, my deepest wish was to keep them safe. Never for a minute did I want them to turn out as timid and conventional as their mother — who never drives on freeways, married her first true love and only got a passport last year. Yet secretly, and sometimes all too openly, I’ve longed to protect them from harm of every sort and size.
Just before she left, I almost offered her money for a room at a hotel. A brightly lit hotel in a nice part of the city. But she was so confident, so excited, I bit my tongue. That day, I imagined her cruising across Pennsylvania, playing her Algerian rap music. What an adventure. What a girl.
Hours passed. I called, not really expecting her to pick up. Instead, she answered on the first ring.
“I’m lost.” Her voice wobbled like when she was 6. “Really lost.” She was roaming the edge of Philadelphia, unable to find a turnoff that Google Maps swore was there. It was dark. Really dark. All she could see were a few closed-up businesses.
Parental adrenalin, the most primitive variety, kicked in. My husband grabbed the phone and told her to retrace her route, find an address. We hung up. We waited. A long time. Why hadn’t I made her take that money? What kind of mother was I? Bad, foolish, naïve...
She finally called back. Her father typed the address into our computer and slowly, calmly, directed her to the hostel. I stared at the on-screen map, accompanying her as she made a right turn, passed a graveyard (!), crossed an intersection. In all the times we’d guided her, never had we done it so literally, not to mention by remote control.
At long last, she said, “I see it.” And a moment later, “Thank you.”
She was safe. I was a wreck. I’m much too old for lost-child anxiety. This is it, I vowed. Enough with the feisty, sassy women. From now on, GPS and Holiday Inn.
But the hostel turned out to be delightful — free pancakes! Hikers from Wales! Over the next days she cruised around Philly without a hitch and came back home bearing terrific stories. One dark night on a lonesome road didn’t faze her for long.
And crazily, I found I was relieved, even glad. So long as she and her sisters stay hungry for the new and unexpected, part of me does too. So long as their world is exciting, if occasionally tricky to navigate, so is mine. The paradox of parenting: Our children keep us young, even as they make our wrinkles deepen.