Have you ever watched your child climb a tree, heart in your mouth?
“That’s high enough,” you yell, trying to keep your voice steady.
“Just a bit higher.” The wind whips their voice away.
You dig your nails into your palm and take a deep breath and they edge higher. You want them to learn and test their own limits but your instinct to protect them overrides all logic until you order them down. You will take all the eye rolling and furious looks they throw your way simply because their feet are back on firm ground.
Kids take risks, they are hard-wired to egg each other on and do stupid things, boys especially. Boys take action first and think later.
As a mother of four boys, I have learnt this the hard way and have hovered anxiously beneath toddlers on the highest climbing frame; wiped away tears after tumbles from bikes; dragged a child out from a collapsed tunnel in the sand; been tossed off an out-of-control, jet ski with a pint-sized driver. I have even been persuaded to let a child jump off a riverbank into a river foaming in spate, attached to the shore by a rope around their waist.
I think I’ve done pretty well and have bitten my lip and tried to steady my thumping heart, while whispering under my breath, “they’ll be OK, they’ll be OK,” and, bar a few scratches and bruises, they invariably are. The worst injuries in our house are always caused by the most innocuous events: a push from a brother, a slammed door, a wayward ball.
But something has changed.
I can’t bear these moments now.
I used to be a risk-taker myself. I’d jump off bridges, white water raft, disappear with total strangers into the Australian Bush for days on end but, for me, that all stopped the moment I held my eldest son in my arms in the maternity wing of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. Somewhere, deep inside of me, a switch flipped and doing crazy things became part of my history and no longer part of my present. That little red-cheeked creature, squalling in my arms, needed me and in one fell swoop he took away all my desire to put myself in harm’s way ever again. In the following years, my husband would look at me in disbelief as I planted my feet and shook my head at his latest crazy suggestion. It didn’t matter if it was jumping off a cliff into sparkling waters or driving a camper van over a rickety old bridge.
“But you’d do it in the old days,” he’d argue.
I’d shrug and shake my head. “Not anymore.”
This change feels similar. It feels permanent, something to be accommodated going forwards. It’s not simply that the things my boys are getting up to now are more dangerous, as they branch off into their own lives, it’s more than that. It’s fallout from their brothers’ death.
When I see the youngest perched on the edge of a speeding boat, my hand snakes out to pull him back to safety. I can’t stop it no more than I can stop breathing.
“I’m not a baby,” he complains.
“But it’s dangerous,” I mutter.
He sneers at me and shakes me off and climbs back onto his perch.
I know he’s right but my hand hovers over the back of his t-shirt. Tendrils of fear coil round my body, making it hard to breath. I don’t understand why I can’t control it and then it dawns on me.
It’s simple.
I am terrified that the worst is going to happen, that he’ll slip and be chewed up by the engines. I can’t shake the image of his battered and bloodied body floating in the water, and the thought that I might have to watch another child of mine die paralyses me.
Here I am, suddenly unable to let my children take the smallest risks. I can’t seem to find the words to whisper to myself anymore: they have fled with my dead son and I have become the over-bearing, over-protective mother that I always swore I’d never be. All I can see is danger, everywhere, and I’ve lost the ability to see beyond.
I take a deep breath and force myself to pull my hand away. I feel sick. My son leans out further. I itch to grab him and shake some sense into him. I want to yell at him, to get him to understand that I couldn’t bear it if something were to happen to him, that I wouldn’t survive the agony a second time.
He glances over his shoulder and moves, against my earlier instructions, to dangle his leg over the side. His eyes challenge me. I stiffen, ready to leap. The boat rolls over the waves and he clings onto the rail and laughs with his older brothers as the spray hits him in the face. I am forgotten. I pull back my outstretched arm and shove my hand deep into the pocket of my shorts.
I am desperate to keep them safe, these remaining chicks of mine, I want to wrap them in cotton wool and fend off any harm that might come their way but as the boat bucks beneath me and their laughter rises above the roar of the engines, I realise that, though their brother is dead, they still need to test their wings and soar. I must not be the one that clips their feathers, even though I can feel the weight of the shears in my hand.
Somehow, I am going to have to learn, all over again, how to let them go.