Something miraculous happened to me recently: I realized my kids, ages 9 and 7, are now old enough to walk the three blocks to the bus stop by themselves.
Maybe other 80s and 90s babies remember the classic PSA that used to air before the 10 pm news, asking: “It’s 10:00 — do you know where your children are?” I usually watched it with some amusement next to my mother, slowly internalizing the message that the most basic parental responsibility is to know where they are. And up until they started riding the school bus, that was easy — they were either at a location where I’d dropped them off, with a designated adult monitoring them, or they were at home with me. But once they started riding that bus, I had a window of time every morning and afternoon when I didn’t know exactly where they were.
I mean, I certainly had the option of knowing. Those 90s moms could only dream of the sorts of surveillance tools at my disposal. I could slip an AirTag into their backpacks, buy them a Gizmo watch, or hand them a cell phone. But I resisted these solutions. Instead, I decided to pretend like it was the 1990s, when we simply didn’t have the technology to watch every single minute of our children’s existence. I forced myself to answer the question honestly, if not precisely: I knew where my children were — they were on the bus. They were on their way home from school.
Please don’t get the idea that I am some sort of hippie free-range parent. I am not chill. My love languages are nagging and hyper-vigilance. This isn’t some sort of political statement about cell phones and kids, either. This decision wasn’t even fully about my kids. Yes, I like the idea of them being independent, meandering at their own pace home, stopping to watch a bug or climb a tree. I also knew that it would give them some real-world problems to solve, like “how long to wait for the bus before returning home,” or “what to do when the driver blows past our stop.” But as with so many parenting choices, it was really about me. I needed to practice not knowing.
If the rumors are true, as my kids age they’ll want to — insist on — doing more and more things on their own. They’ll gain more and more tools of independence — babysitting jobs, learner’s permits, friends with devastatingly chill parents. If things go according to plan, they’ll leave home. All of that will happen whether or not I’m ready for it, whether or not I track their location. The walk to and from the bus became my form of exposure therapy. I am building up a tolerance for gaps in my knowledge of their days.
Once I made this choice, I realized that knowing where my kids’ location was a salve on a much bigger wound, a much bigger fear. Knowing where they are doesn’t mean you know they are safe. It doesn’t mean you know they are okay. That’s the dirt in the wound — no matter what we do, no matter how much we control, we can’t outsmart the randomness of the universe. Babies eat rocks when your head is turned, toddlers sneak towards the street, kids skin knees, teenagers cavort around in three-ton machines before they go off to college and do who-knows-what with god-knows-who. No technology can protect them from all the things life is going to throw at them.
The alarm that goes off on my phone at 3:15 is the “oh s*it, the kids should be home” alarm. If it rings, I fly out the door, barely pulling on my shoes. I hustle down the hill to see if they are dawdling, scroll wildly through my phone to see which parents I can message to ask if their kids are late too.
That’s only happened a handful of times, panic always replaced moments later by self-mockery at the panic. What did I think had happened? The bus left school late; a new driver had missed the stop. Mostly, before the alarm has a chance to go off, the kids are banging at the door, needing to pee and demanding a snack, answering all my questions about their day with “fine” and “stuff.” And before the alarm goes off, I enjoy the quiet. I tell myself that the kids are safe, that they are making their way home. I think I’ll be telling myself that for a long time to come.
Carolyn is a writer, teacher, and editor based out of Seattle. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Lilith, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She has two kids in elementary school, an aging rescue dog, and way too many houseplants. Follow her on Instagram: @carolyn.abram