It was one of those days where I was doing everything right and everything wrong as a mom. I suppose that’s everyday since the day he was born. This day, the day I let my little boy learn a hard lesson, broke my heart.
I’m sure there are plenty of parents who think what I did was far too extreme. I’m certain there are many others who might praise my quick thinking. I know I’m still wrestling the events and the outcome and every time I see that photo I am still completely numb.
Basically, there was no pleasing this child from about noon on. When we decided to head out of the house on our lazy Saturday to try a new restaurant, he insisted the only reason we ought to be getting out of our PJs was if we were getting a new Lego set he wants. That didn’t happen.
Dinner was doable. He colored and ate and shied away from the servers who were trying to get his smile on. After, it was a back and forth battle of wills and his clear frustration that a five point harness didn’t allow him any freedom in the decisions.
By the time we pulled into the garage, he was telling me he just wanted to run away from our home. And, I might have brushed it off as the sass of a kid who still won’t put his own pants on, until I saw his eyes welling up and knew he was in a place of pain and true want.
The kind of want that hurts in every ounce of who you are.
So, I told him to head to his room and I’d be in to talk about his plan.
And then, I watched.
He had his Thomas bag in his hands in a matter of seconds. I watched as he dumped the contents and replaced them with toys he was selecting for reasons I’ll never comprehend.
It reminded me of all the times I just wanted to escape it all. All the times we look at our stuff and evaluate if something would be missed or won’t.
“I’m going to need food. Do we have any zip locks?”
I offered him an apple and a can of the soup he loves. He told me he’d need something to sleep on. He then said we could keep all his Legos and that Stitch wouldn’t fit in his bag so could I take care of him.
He packed the bag and I offered him a pillow to put under his arm. I told him I wished he would change his mind. That I loved him and couldn’t imagine him out there in the world all alone.
But he wasn’t budging.
“Could I at least walk you a bit of the way to start?”
So off we went.
I figured we’d get to the drive way and it would be over. I was very wrong.
I pointed to the left and noted how busy traffic was and he’d probably do better staying off the main road as he headed out. And then, he went.
My four and a half little boy was off on his adventure. An adventure I knew would end. But never could I have imagined how long it would have been.
Three steps away, then four, then a few more as I walked behind him when he wasn’t looking back. He looked back three times before he finally turned completely around.
He was never more than a few yards from me, never farther than he’d been on one of our family walks. He was inches from my sprint, but he didn’t know that. Truth is, there was a part of him that was farther than he’d ever been.
Then, after calling out his name with a gentle wave, he came rushing back with his stuff and grabbed me with both arms. He had changed his mind. He was worried about how little he was and that cars wouldn’t see him as he walked. He didn’t like the idea of meeting people who might ask him if he had a mom and him being made fun of because she wasn’t near him but back at home. He didn’t want to be apart from me after all. He said he thought he was starting to cry. I said my tears were pouring all along.
And now, he doesn’t want to run away from our home.
But he’s not even five so I imagine that feeling will emerge again at some point.
We’re a privileged lot, our family. We have more than we need and a lot we want. We take too much for granted and still wish for more than enough. And so, when I think about this child getting it into his head that independence and being on his own was all he actually needed in that moment, I’m okay with the way we wrestled through his emotion.
But I’m very clear that he’s not the only person who learned a lesson.
I’m glad I have a strong willed child. I’m grateful he tells me exactly when I’ve done something he doesn’t like or want. I’m so overcome with joy that he challenges the rules and strives to figure out exactly what’s going on. I wouldn’t change a thing about the personality of this kid I’m fortunate enough to raise.
I’m glad he seeks his independence. That the needy, longing, attached child of mine is searching himself for his place in our home and this world and all the roads he’ll eventually walk on.
His frontal lobe has a long way to go and there will be more defiance and power trips he’ll navigate as he grows and experiences more than a lazy Saturday where he didn’t get to be in charge. And that’s scary as hell as his mom. Because someday, he might actually run. Or he’ll walk. Or he’ll turn around and be done with his adventure because the road ahead wasn’t worth what he’d be giving up.
And I haven’t a clue how to prepare him for that.
Except to help him pack.
And hope I did enough of it right and not too much wrong.
And that he knows there is home.
While this story is about a child under the age of five and is used as an anecdote about strong willed children and parenting into independence, many many parents and children are struggling with a fracture of the family. Between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away in a year. If you need help, please, contact the National Runaway Safeline.
This piece published on Medium.