Storytellers Lost

While most of my writing is focused on what it’s like being the mother of a son who is profoundly autistic, I am also mom to Zach - Joshua’s typically developed big brother. So along with the all the strange and wonderful things Josh brings to my life on a daily basis, Zach brings me back to the place the rest of the world lives, the world he’s growing up in.  

On a somewhat regular basis, I find myself lamenting the fact that things are so much less safe these days for our kids.  Then I catch myself - are they really less safe or do we just feel that way because the media has changed so much since I was little?  This is not a new topic and, in fact, a fantastic article was written last May about an entire book on the subject http://www.salon.com/life/feature/2009/05/04/free_range_kids .
Now whether you would allow your 8 year-old to ride a New York City subway alone is really not the issue.  It’s more this overall feeling of our children being in constant danger and how that leads us to behave and make decisions as parents.  

I grew up in the 70’s.  My parents were/are intelligent, educated, conscientious people.  They were (still are!) great parents.  But I have to tell you, that if we time-warped what my siblings and I and all our friends were doing as kids to today, I’d bet you a million dollars that our parents would all be under investigation by CPS.  Which is ridiculous, because they weren’t doing anything wrong by allowing us the freedom to be kids.  

I loved my childhood. I really did!  The only regret I ever have looking back on it is that I can’t do it again.  I had adventures.  I got in to trouble - nothing serious, but enough to be interesting.  I explored.  My friends and I went places.  We walked, we rode our bikes, we took buses, we hunted for Big Foot.  The older siblings took the younger ones to the movies.  We went swimming, we went skiing, skating, hiking...and all of it, without our parents watching over us.  I was able to take a bus by myself when I was 6.  I was skiing by myself when I was not much older than that.  Where I lived, we walked to and from school through a forest, which I was doing by myself at the age of 5.  There were usually other kids around, but sometimes not.  Didn’t matter though.  Did I ever get scared?  Absolutely.  Do I wish my mom had walked with me or driven me to school instead?  No way.   

I think back on this and can’t believe that I have become essentially the antithesis of what I was and what I wish my son could be.  I think that in my case, there have been a few extenuating circumstances leading to how protective and sheltering I’ve been with my kids.  With Josh it’s pretty self-explanatory - he cannot be responsible for himself in any way, so his safety is entirely up to me.  With Zach though, I think it’s been a combination of things.  He has a long list of allergies, especially food allergies, that caused him to have a couple of anaphylactic reactions when he was very little.  He also had asthma that was a significant issue for a while.  So I had a need to be careful with him.  The food allergies particularly made it difficult to be comfortable letting him go places without myself or his dad, primarily because he always needed an Epi-Pen near by.  Zach is also extremely small for his age and this has contributed to serious concerns about bullying as he has gotten older.  There is also his brother.  I do think that we have ended up somewhat isolated because of Josh and his issues.  Josh was and can still be very difficult to take places or for other people to be around without attracting attention, primarily the negative kind because many people don’t understand.  Particularly when he was younger, it was so bad I literally only went out anywhere or had people over when it was an absolute necessity.  There were also the endless trips here there and everywhere to various therapy sessions, evaluations, special stores for special food, yada, yada, yada, and Zach had to come along for all of it.  

So I am truly sad for him and it’s pretty much my own fault - his childhood has been safe, sheltered, predictable, and, frankly, boring.  Here is the part that just hit me though: apart from the things that seem obvious as far as what many children today don’t experience the way we did when we were kids, is something that is not so obvious.  The stories.  Every parent tells their kids stories about their own childhood, from the classic “I had to walk 10 miles uphill in the snow” to “the firemen scooped me up, drove me to my house in the firetruck and carried me up the driveway into the house” when they found me after I broke my arm walking home from school one day through that forest.  Zach LOVES my stories.  I can go on and on for hours and he never gets tired of it.  I think this is partly because he doesn’t have any of his own. I certainly have a lot of them.  I tell him that when I was only a few months older than he is now, we were living in Paris (my father worked in France for a year when I was 13) and his uncle Pete and I used to walk through the city on our own to museums, parks, take the subway...you name it.  My brother was only 8 at the time, I was not quite 14.  These are some of the best memories I have and yet I know that if Zach ever suggested that he go explore a city as big as Paris on his own or with someone a few years younger than he is, I would laugh for about an hour before telling him he was insane if he thought I would actually let him do that.  My blatant hypocrisy has not only left him with a somewhat un-interesting childhood, but no stories to tell.  What is he going to tell his kids?  I mean really, the best that he’s got right now are the crazy conversations we have in the car every day.  There have definitely been some story-worthy ones, but it’s not the same.  

I imagine I am not the only parent in the world who feels this way.  Longing for those childhoods we had yet not feeling like we can let our own kids have that because we believe it’s not safe.  As Zach is getting older I am feeling more like I can let go (hell, he’s even more obsessive than I am about the food allergies and ingredients these days!) and I wish nothing more for him than to go out there and start having some adventures of his own.  

One of these days, I’d like him to be the one telling me a story.