“Hush now baby, baby, don’t you cry.
Momma’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true.
Momma’s gonna put all of her fears into you.
Momma’s gonna keep you right here under her wing.
She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing.
Momma’s gonna keep baby cozy and warm.
Of course, momma’s gonna help build the wall.”
- Pink Floyd’s “Mother”
I was 19 the first time I saw Pink Floyd’s classic “The Wall.” While everyone, I’m sure, has their own takeaway from that film, mine was, “Please, please, please, when I have kids of my own, please don’t let me become Mother.”
At the time, I was a freshman in college, living in Salt Lake City, and scared of my own shadow. My fellow students, the folks in neighboring apartments, the guy passing by on the street, traffic, going shopping by myself, raising my hand in class, navigating life away from my small town and my family — all were something to be feared for the anxiety-ridden, painfully shy girl I was.
So, I told myself that, when the time came, I’d help to make sure my own kids were more confident, fearless, brave, outgoing — all the things I felt I was lacking.
And then I had kids.
Life since becoming a parent has been an endless back-and-forth between not wanting to be Pink Floyd’s Mother and truly understanding a quote by Elizabeth Stone. “Making the decision to have a child — it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
I don’t know if truer words have ever been spoken.
Reconciling the parental impulse to protect my kids, at all costs, while also not putting all of my fears into them has turned out to be one of the most difficult parenting challenges, which nobody ever prepared me for. I guess, really, how could they?
Especially in a word where it seems there’s always something new to be afraid of. Social media, online predators, school shootings, pandemics, murder hornets, climate change, that my next-door neighbors might hear me listening to bad disco, the collapse of civilization as we know it.
I’m not really afraid of murder hornets, by the way, but figured that really heavy list could use some comic relief.
The point is, I’ve spent the past 25-plus years of parenting trying to protect my kids and provide them with common sense and sensibility while also letting them make their own way in and discover the world. It’s certainly never been easy.
We let our eldest son travel to Europe while he was in high school. I don’t think I slept for the nearly three weeks he was away. I spent every night tossing and turning as an endless list of “what ifs” ran through my mind.
In all honesty, I spent every night for several weeks beforehand doing the same thing, but we chose to let him go despite my anxiety. Or perhaps because of my anxiety.
In my mind, I just kept thinking about that scared 19-year-old girl who had never been to Europe (and the grown woman who has still never been to Europe) and that I didn’t want our son to be like her.
This summer, as our middle child prepares to head off to college, we allowed him to take a nearly two-week road trip with his friends around the western U.S., traveling through multiple states to camp in national parks. Again, my parental instincts were at war.
What if they get in a car wreck? What if they get COVID while traveling? What if they get lost? What if they get attacked by a bear or bitten by a snake? What if they run into some nefarious bad guys? What if they just can’t stand one another’s company that long and end up in some ugly fight halfway through and are all miserable?
Given all of that, we could have simply told him he couldn’t go on this trip of a lifetime. We opted not to do that, largely because of my stubborn refusal to be Mother, putting all of my fears into him. We opted, instead, to trust that we’d raised him with the capacity to make smart decisions and then stand by them.
Truth is, they did have some bumps in the road that required some teamwork from a few sets of parents 1,000 miles away. There was some added stress we hadn’t anticipated, and a few tears of frustration were shed.
And then there were my own personal demons to deal with.
With my almost paralyzing fear of heights, the news that he and his friends won a permit lottery to climb Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park meant I spent an entire afternoon while at work trying to keep my overactive imagination from coming up with all sorts of disasters.
When he called from the top of Angel’s Landing, what he heard from me was something close to, “That’s awesome. I’m glad. Be careful going back down and let me know when you get to the bottom,” while in my mind I was screaming, “What? Are you sitting down at least? How are you paying enough attention to the 1,500-foot drops surrounding you on all sides while you’re on the phone with me? Isn’t there a helicopter that could pick you up right now so you don’t have to climb back down?”
That may be an extreme example, but it encapsulates the mixed emotions I feel almost daily parenting three children, as I’m simultaneously proud, terrified, exhilarated, envious, and, yes, relieved that they don’t seem to be letting fear get the best of them, as I’ve so often done.
You see, I sometimes look back at that 19-year-old girl, and the three-plus decades that have elapsed since then, and think about regrets. And I always come back to the idea that I regret very little of what I’ve done.
More often than not, I regret the things I didn’t do because I was too afraid to take a chance, seize an opportunity, get on the plane, raise my hand, sing or dance in public, speak my truth, make the climb.
My son says regrets are a good thing, as long as you learn from them, and I suppose that’s true. Though, in my case, my hope is that it’s actually my kids who benefit from my regret lessons.
It’s my hope that my regrets have influenced how they’ve been raised enough that they do sing or dance in public, do speak their truth, do make the climb, do seize the opportunity, do get on the plane, do find a world and a life of surprise, astonishment, wonder, and magic, including their own heartbreaks and lessons we all must learn outside of the walls we all tend to build around ourselves.
It’s that hope that guides me as my kids navigate this big, scary, breathtakingly beautiful world with the confidence I lacked, the courage I found difficult to summon, and, yes, with my heart in their hands, knowing I’ll always have their back. Not as Mother, just as Mom.