From the time he could walk, he could climb. From the time he could climb, he climbed as high as he could go. He didn’t have that first-born cautiousness thing I had heard about. He never went through a separation anxiety phase, never shied away from a stranger at the grocery store or the big kids at the park. He was daring from the beginning, fearless and resourceful in his never-ending pursuit of adventure. Our neighbor nick-named him Evil Knievel, and it fit.
When he was still just a toddler, not quite two years old yet and not able to follow instructions very well, this posed a challenge for us. My days were a string of get down from there’s and that’s too high’s and every synonym for no that an exhausted mother can think of. I hated having to say no so often, feeling like we were constantly in a battle: him wanting to go higher, faster, and bigger, and me wanting to avoid a trip to the E.R. He was a formidable opponent, relentless in his ability to climb one rung higher before I could get to him, unconcerned about the list of injuries that I threatened could befall him.
Eventually, I noticed that he’d occasionally stop climbing before reaching the very top of whatever apparatus he was currently scaling, a tentative expression on his face and his little foot hovering in the air for a moment before reaching back down instead of higher up.
He was discovering his own limits. They were still far beyond what I felt comfortable with -- still too high, too risky, too precarious -- but for the first time, I saw him understand that there was a reason to stop beyond my admonitions. He found his uh-oh feeling.
The term “uh-oh feeling” originated in my own childhood, when my dad taught me how to ski when I was about six years old. He started by tying a rope -- an actual hardware store rope -- around my waist, taking me down the bunny hill like a person takes a dog for a walk. After I graduated from the rope and got to take a few runs on my own, I excitedly recounted the thrill to him on the chairlift ride back to the top.
“I was going so fast! It was so awesome! I almost fell once, for a second I felt like… uh-oh, but then I didn’t fall and it was so awesome!”
“The uh-oh feeling is what you pay the money for,” my dad responded, probably understanding the idea in the way that only a child’s question can cause one to do. It was an idea that made sense for an adult skier -- someone paying money to literally careen down the side of a mountain -- but of course it didn’t make any sense to me at the time.
Nevertheless, I understood that there was an uh-oh feeling. I felt it that day on the bunny hill, I felt it when I had to give a presentation in front of my class, I felt it when I was about to get caught in a lie or when I tried to rollerblade down the hill my grandparents lived on. Uh-oh. I might get hurt here, or embarrassed, or in trouble, or worse.
I feel it now as a parent, too. I feel it for myself when I have to make big decisions or draw a line in the sand, and I feel it for my kids when they’re at risk of injury or rejection, or worse.
I feel it when I’m watching him climb the play structure at the park, still determined to climb much higher than what seems reasonable to me. I feel the uh-oh, the idea that he could get hurt, that the easiest way to prevent an injury would be to intervene and attempt to impart my uh-oh feeling onto him. There’s an instinct in me to run to him, to grab hold of him and whisk him down to safety. I fight this urge. Instead, I call out to him, “listen to your uh-oh feeling, buddy!”
And he does, usually. I watch, ready to rush in, as he attempts new things, scary things, stupid things. Sometimes, he pulls it off. Sometimes it ends with ice packs and bandaids. But sometimes, the attempt is as far as he gets. He stops short, overcome by his uh-oh feeling and wise enough to listen to it.
As I watch him learn his limits, when to listen to the uh-oh feeling and when to try anyways, I think about my own uh-oh feelings, my own limits. I remind myself that sometimes it’s good to listen, that sometimes these feelings are our inner compass and we have to trust them. But sometimes, it’s better to put them off for a bit, like how I did when I waited to say “I love you” to my husband for the first time, even though I’d felt it for weeks. I ignore my uh-oh feelings when I want to rescue my son at the park because I believe that it’s good for him to get to his own fear sometimes, instead of just mine. Maybe that sounds reckless, but for me, it feels brave.
It’s funny how it works out that way -- that in my desire to raise kids who are brave, I have to find my own bravery first. In my desire to raise kids who can make smart choices, I have to discern when to intervene and when to let them listen to their own gut feelings. This mothering business rarely feels easy or safe. It’s risky and hard and demands that we rise to the occasion, over and over again. It is fraught with uh-oh feelings, and as we learn when to listen to them and when to ignore them, we become wiser and braver and more in touch with who our kids really are. We become more in touch with who we really are, too. Ultimately, hopefully, we become better versions of ourselves. Sometimes, like a skiier flying down a mountain, the uh-oh feeling is where the magic is.