My dad was brave but I didn’t know it

I started babysitting when I was ten years old.  I was left in charge of children younger than me and paid with a pile of coins on my dresser.

When I was fourteen, I rode a twelve-speed bicycle from Seattle to San Francisco.  (My stepmom accompanied me, my brother and a sister.)  For vast stretches of Highway 101, I was utterly alone, pedaling on the shoulder of the road as cars and trucks whistled past, sometimes blowing gravel into my face.  We slept in sleeping bags . . . and didn’t even bring a tent along.

When I was seventeen, I spent a night alone in the Miami airport while waiting for my connecting flight back home to Seattle.  (I’d been in Jamaica on a missions trip.)  I can’t imagine my boys in the same situation.  (I do remember some scary moments encountering overly-friendly men, but I simply set my chin and strode away as if I had somewhere important to go and something important to do.  Seventeen.  Imagine.)

So, I suppose it’s no wonder that when I was eighteen, my dad bought me a bus ticket and drove me to the local Greyhound station and sent me off to college.  I rode that bus for days and nights, traveling totally alone to Missouri from Washington state. I’d never even seen the college before I arrived.

I can’t believe how loosely my parents held me as I grew up.  I was allowed to circle my neighborhood on my banana-seat bike from the time I could ride without training wheels.  As a teen, I had a curfew but also  the freedom to ride around with my friend, Shelly, in her old yellow Volkswagen bug whenever I wanted to go.  I rode public transit into Seattle.  I rode my bike miles and miles and miles without ever telling anyone where I was going.

Now that my own kids approach the age of eighteen, I have no idea how to act.  My own upbringing offers no helpful hints.  I would never have allowed the young me to have the freedom that I was granted.  (Or maybe no one ever really noticed me since I was never any trouble.  That’s a possibility.)  On the other hand, nothing bad ever happened to me.  Aside from a few scares from weird people and a lot of catcalls from passing cars, I was able to navigate the world without harm.

How do parents do this?  How do you know whether to throw your kid into the pool and let them thrash around or whether to cradle them in your arms as you inch slowly down the steps into the shallow end?  When do you let go?  How do you let go?  Clearly, there is some middle ground and that’s where I’m trying to stand.

But it’s hard.

Hard to let go, hard to hold on, hard to imagine my kids in the big wide world without me right there whispering suggestions in their ears and reminding them to flush the toilet and brush their teeth.

I don’t know how my dad did it.  He gave me the gift of independence.

He was brave to let me go.  (I didn’t know until much later how much that cost him but that’s a story for another day.)

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My dad was brave but I didn’t know it

7 thoughts on “My dad was brave but I didn’t know it

  1. Middle ground is, I guess, that you help them learn to swim when they ask to do so, watch them while they try a few lengths, with advice when asked, then hug them close and wave them goodbye cheerfully when they dive into the ocean to swim to the other side…

    Letting go is the very hardest part of parenting, in my experience. Forget terrible twos and teenage hormones… those are passing phases, and eventually they outgrow it. I found I had to trust my instincts, listen to my children’s ambitions and desires, advise when asked, point out pros and cons (if relevant)… and then encourage them gently to fly the nest. Two and a half years after my ‘baby’ left home, I still think it’s the most difficult part of parenting. I have grown accustomed, I have found new pursuits, I have learned to live with just my husband and cats once more. But a little piece of my heart is elsewhere in the world, only complete when we’re together as a family. My firstborn is getting married in a few months; it’s another whole new phase when another woman is more important to him his mother…

    But I’m glad I didn’t cling; I’m proud of their achievements, and the way they’re making their way in the world. I’m also thankful that they stay in touch, and want to come ‘home’ from time to time. Each new parting is painful, but not as bad as the first times.

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  2. Allie says:

    omg. I cry just thinking about this. Sue your post is beautiful. Mine are still young 9, 11, 13. Sometimes I cannot wait for them to grow up, but reading these makes me wonder how I will handle it. I already see my 13 being more independent along with each of the kids. Another person will be more important than me???? say its not so!
    My protective parents let me and a girlfriend travel around California, camping, without knowing where we would be each day when we were 18. Like you, some of the people we met were SCARY, looking back on it. Clearly we had some angels protecting us.

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  3. Susan says:

    I think about the same thing quite often. My kids are 7 and 10. I started babysitting at 10 as well, for kids on my street and my parents were home in case anything happened. I went to my first rock concert with friends (no parents) at 11. Before cell phones! My parents just dropped us off at the entrance to the arena and said, “Pick you up here at 11!” When I was 11 my mother, sister and I took the train to Chicago and stayed downtown. My mother let me leave one afternoon and go to Carson, Pirie, Scott to go shopping. Alone. It was only blocks from the hotel, but really! When I was in college I used to drive cross-country from New York to Missouri alone.

    It’s hard thinking about letting my kids do things like that. But I will. And I will be nervous and it will be hard. But I will.

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  4. Oh Melodee – posts like this just rip my heart apart! I am SO sorry you were left so alone. (And that I was no help at all to any of you kids. You must know I will always regret that…) You were trusted, though, because you were wise beyond your years.

    Just look at the confidence those trying times built in you. Re-read Proverbs 31 to see a picture of yourself – all the things you have built, bought, created, fixed, cooked, planned – the tears you have wiped away, the things you have taught, the empathy you have had for others, the giving of yourself to so many & in so many ways – you are a great example for your children.

    Your dad would be so proud if he could know you now. He would love the “you” that you have become – the smart, independent woman, wife, and mother of 4 brilliant children.

    They will be fine. They have two parents who have set the bar high, and although their first steps away may be awkward, they’ll make it. They, too, will soar. But they will always have you to fall back on – they are so fortunate!

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  5. Your description of riding around town on a banana-seat bike made me think of the story my mom tells about how she had my older brother ride his bike to the store, a good mile away, to get eggs and milk – when he was six.

    My kid’s almost seven, and I can’t imagine letting him be in the front yard by himself for fear an 18-wheeler will veer off of the interstate, recklessly find its way to our street and run over him.

    Times have changed. There was quite a bit more expected of kids at a younger age then, I think.

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  6. There are two sides to that coin. I was given quite a bit of freedom, and not enough rules, and did not behave properly. I have been strict with my kids with rules, but allow them a lot of freedom, and I check up on them.

    My 16yo dd, at this very moment, is wandering around Old Town Pasadena with a girlfriend. She will “check in” with me a few times. She’s then meeting a guy friend (who is a college-aged boy, whom we have known for several years, and who I trust; he treats her like a sister) to go to a movie. If at any time I find out that any of these things didn’t happen like she told me, all bets are off. So far, she has observed the rules. Of course, I strike the fear of God into her when, every so often, I just show up while she’s with her friends. 🙂

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