My daughter places a paper in front of me on the kitchen counter, looking up at me expectedly. My eyebrows lift in question before reaching down to pick up the wrinkled sheet. Next to an empty line awaiting my check mark reads: My child has my permission to attend the field trip.
The child is my kindergartener. The field trip is on a school bus. The school bus will travel into the city. Over an hour away. Without me.
Two steps to my left sits a pink and yellow backpack. Next to it, a sequined lunchbox. The lunchbox is making a victory lap this year, somehow in pristine condition after preschool. I remember sending her to school for the first time. She marched into the building, her backpack swallowing her whole. Her feet treaded just a little too confidently. Wasn’t she supposed to cling to me and whine about how much she would miss me? But not her, not my confident girl. I watched from behind as she held my husband’s hand—hovering—just in case she needed me.
My child has my permission to . . . to grow up? To walk away? To not need me? The possibility of a check on that line feels like a stack of bricks on my insides. Or the school bus on my shoulders, its seatbelt tightened across my stomach. A check is a snip in the string I’ve tethered to her—frayed by decisions made long before today—weighed down by each time she needed me less.
I reach for my phone and open my group chat of mom friends, launching into a series of rapid-fire texts. “They are babies!” I type. My fingers find the red helicopter emoji and sprinkle it freely. I slam down two helicopters in the first line before adding a third for good measure. My sarcastic reference to myself as a “helicopter mom” is a vulnerable summation of my near-hysterics. Deep down, I am desperate to hold on to the child I feel slipping from my protective grasp.
“That’s crazy, right?” I ask, willing my friends to agree with me. “A bus. No seatbelts! On the interstate!” My thumbs pound red helicopters into the screen as the texts appear one after another, leaving no time for them to respond. Helicopter, helicopter, helicopter.
I never predicted I would be a helicopter parent. And by today’s definition, I’m not. The truth is, after five years of staying home with my daughter and the joy (and angst) of watching her grow, I am ready to watch her fly. I know I have to give her the freedom to put into practice what she has learned within the walls of our home. But my heart feels better hovering.
That night, my husband and I search for school bus accident statistics after putting the kids to bed. Because, of course we do. My chest heaves as I scroll through headlines. I sift through the data and statistics, nausea stirring in my throat. Dropping my phone onto our gray-striped duvet cover, I let out an exacerbated groan.
“She’s still in a car seat!” I tell my husband as if he is unaware. “How the heck is she going to sit on a bus with no seatbelts?!”
“Busses drive safe,” my husband attempts to reassure me, leveling his tone against mine. His voice rests somewhere between sympathy and reason. “They coast in the right lane and drive way under the speed limit. It’s fine.”
My fists clench in defense of both my opinion and my child.
“This isn’t five minutes up the road. They’re driving far.” I curve my shoulders into myself as if the eight-pound, four-ounce baby I pushed from my body were sitting there now, protecting her like a mother bear protects its young. Keeping my child safe is heckled by her entrance into her school years. The instinct to protect her leads me to believe I should—and can—fight against anything that would do the opposite. Problem solved, no check. If only it were actually that easy.
I’m sitting on the worn brown sectional in our living room, coasting into nighttime neutral after the kids are finally in bed. My daughter detours to the living room for her 15th post-bedtime bathroom trip. I take a deep breath and prepare for whatever excuse she’s about to give me as to why she isn’t in her room, much less asleep.
“Is a bad guy ever going to kill me?”
I snap my head in her direction, my eyes a cocktail of shock and horror. My heart heaves at my 5-year-old using the words “kill” and “me” in the same sentence. Attempting to gather my composure, I respond with an abrupt and slightly confused, “No? . . . No!”
I launch into a brisk series of, “Where did you hear this? Why would you think that?” My desire to protect my child is primal and strong. But the knowledge that the days she needs my permission to do so are dwindling. My heart knows keeping her from riding a school bus on a field trip doesn’t guarantee her safety or innocence.
My son is obsessed with all things transportation and recently received his first set of Duplos. Inside the box was a bright red rescue helicopter with a string and hook attached. He spends much of our mornings together scurrying around the house, attaching the hook and string of this helicopter to anything he can find. Dangling his contraption in the air across the room, he shouts, “Look, Mommy! The hela-topter
is saving the truck!”
I watch as my son shifts the plastic “hela-topter” before setting it down. He flashes an
accomplished grin after a successful landing on the brown leather ottoman. I think about how badly I want to be the helicopter, my string securely extending to my children, able to carry them away from danger at a moment’s notice. If I can just keep my string attached to them, I can still tow them to safety. If I can just keep it hooked on, we can land together.
My daughter is almost seven now and in first grade. She went on a bus last week for a field trip to the nature center. She caught two fish and from her smile in the picture, you’d think she had reeled in gold. Over the last few months, I’ve realized we are in a new stage of parenting. We are in the beginning stages of release—a time to trust the work we’ve put in.
The string is starting to fray. I didn’t expect this chapter to come so soon. I knew it’d happen, eventually. Now feels much sooner than I expected. There are so many things in this life—motherhood—beyond my control. I realize this more as they grow. Releasing control doesn’t mean I’m protecting them any less. I wish I could guarantee their safety, my string tethered tightly. But can I? Actually? Can I absorb
her thoughts and fears—the things that plague her at night? Can I hover to prevent her from experiencing the things that cause her to stretch and grow? Nothing prepared me for the desire to be both the helicopter and the place it lands.