It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon. The grill sizzles, bottle tabs pop, children’s laughter bubbles through the air. I’m savoring the warmth of the summer sun as I watch my son play in the sandbox.
“Tell me something, when was the last time you played Ultimate?” my friend Kurt says, interrupting my thoughts.
“Hmm, good question,” I murmur. A lone frisbee sits on the deck railing, beckoning me.
“Wanna throw?” he asks, setting down his Corona. A challenge.
I glance over at my son Jack, who’s happily lifting a bucket. Normally, I wouldn’t stray far from him, but something about Kurt’s dancing eyes or maybe this perfect summer day convinces me otherwise. After all, I can keep tabs on Jack from the lawn. “Alright; why not,” I answer.
I knot up my flowy skirt and pad across his emerald green lawn. Kurt treads after me. I plant my bare feet in the soft grass, then face him expectantly. He flicks the frisbee straight toward my chest.
My hands snag the disc easily. “I’m not sure I remember how to throw,” I laugh, taking a step back. I scan the deck, dotted with busy little bodies and adults sipping beers and supervising. I spot my son, yards away, still engrossed in play.
“Sure you do!” he replies, grinning. “Jack’s fine; relax.” A second challenge—to relax.
I gaze out at Kurt’s easy smile and then back at the crowded deck and think: He’s right—everything is fine. I slip my fingers in the crook of the worn, white frisbee and cock back my wrist. “OK,” I say, letting go.
Confession: I am a hover mom. I know this because wherever we go, I cannot take my eyes off of Jack. He is my sun; I am the earth. I am always two steps away, orbiting.
At Jumping Beans, our local play space for children, I find myself crouching in a preschooler-sized grocery store as my toddler mans the cash register. The other parents stand off to the side or sit at cafe tables scrolling their phones. With burning thighs and sweaty palms, I watch Jack scoot around an unruly older child and snatch a plastic can of beans. At our neighborhood playground, I lumber up the play structure after Jack. My arms shoot out to block the railingless sides on his ascent to the slide. Even at Grandma’s house, my childhood home, I am on his heels, shooing him away from dangerous cabinets or shielding him from sharp edge of the piano bench.
When Jack was 15 months old, we vacationed with three other families in Indianapolis. We stayed in this historic home with a tall, steep staircase and a ground floor with three different drop-off points—all hazards for Jack, the youngest of the bunch. For what felt like the entire long weekend, I trailed my adventurous toddler, repeating “Watch your step, buddy!” and redirecting him from the staircase. The one moment I lost sight of him, he tumbled up the stairs (yes, up) and began to wail. I felt like crying, too.
In these instances, I know I look ridiculous, but I can’t stop hovering. Jack is my one and only child, he is so young, and this is my job as a mother, isn’t it? There’s so much parenting advice I wish I could follow: Be more hands off, let him play alone, allow him more freedom. I observe my friends with their children and wonder why I can’t be more nonplussed like them. Yet there are a million little ways children can die—choking, drowning, falling down a dramatic staircase, to name a few. I want to be a hands-off mama, I do, but my mile-long list of worries overrides my wishes.
Under a cloudless sky, Kurt and I flick the disc back and forth, catching up on work, home ownership and parenthood. For a moment I feel 22 again. College memories come flooding back—playing Ultimate at the Dunes, drinking jungle juice in the crowded halls of a frat house, rising early to finish another English paper. Back then I was equally concerned with what I’d wear to the next sorority formal and with earning As. Undergraduate me was a little more lively, fun-loving and idealistic than the weary mama on the lawn. What was it, I wonder, that made the difference?
She was free.
I love to be near my son, and I also struggle with it. At home, our roles reverse—my son orbits me. As I sauté ground turkey, he clings to my leg. I peel his fingers off one by one and kiss him on the head, pleading, “Buddy, go play with your blocks.” I make a beeline for the pantry, but he’s on my heels, screeching, “Up! Uuup!” I sigh, hoist him on my hip and pull the marinara off the shelf.
Later, I’m barely done with my spaghetti and my son is tugging my hand toward his playroom. He wants to mold snakes and snowmen with his play-doh. I sit cross-legged with Jack in my lap and roll the dough back and forth in my hands. I breathe in the comforting smell of his little boy hair and think, Jack won’t love me like this forever. He’s already outgrowing his 2T pajamas and scaling the edge of his crib. At bedtime, he still holds my hand through the slots of his crib as I serenade him with his favorites, “Happy Birthday” and “Let It Go.” Someday, when Jack’s 16, he’ll want nothing to do with me. Now, at 2, he wants me to hover, and honestly, I do too. So why do I feel so guilty about it?
I wonder what that carefree college girl would say if she saw me now.
“Hey stranger! Well, for one thing, you’ve been acting a lot like Mom—worrying all the time,” the carefree girl says, tossing the frisbee toward me. “Remember how that drove you crazy?”
The disc hits me hard in the gut and drops to the lawn. I look up and see her standing there with her hand on her hip. She’s dressed in a white tank top and cut-off shorts, showing off her tan, toned arms and legs.
I bend over to pick it up and consider this. “That’s true. But do you have any idea what’s it’s like to tend to a helpless newborn? Or chase after a bumbling toddler? To know that keeping your baby alive is your responsibility for the rest of your life? The only person you worry about is yourself,” I shout. I hurl the frisbee back and immediately realize I overshot.
The carefree girl sprints after the disc and leaps forward to catch it. Shel turns around and raises the disc in her hand, smiling defiantly.
“Nice grab,” I offer.
“Come on. You can’t honestly think you’re the only one he’ll need to rely on his entire life,” she replies, still holding the disc. “Furthermore, what’s wrong with worrying about yourself?”
“N-nothing,” I stutter. “Look, what I mean is: You’re young. You can do anything. You have your whole life ahead of you.
“So do you!” she retorts. “Can’t you see that?” I make eye contact with the carefree girl, who raises an eyebrow.
I want to believe she’s right. There’s a girl inside of me who loves roller coasters and waterparks and white water rafting, who dreams of visiting Sweden and the Grand Canyon, who’s always up for a little mischief. She runs simply to feel the power of her legs and the wind in her hair. She isn’t plagued by the past or preoccupied with the future. She sees every day as a grand adventure.
She’s brave and afraid. She’s rooted and restless. She boldly pursues what sets her heart on fire. And she’s still here now, aching for a chance to shine. All this time I spent consumed with caring for my son made me forget.
“Hey girl, are you done daydreaming?” Kurt’s voice snaps me back to reality.
“You caught me,” I chuckle. He lobs the disc at me and I sprint forward to catch it.
“Are you sure I can’t convince you to play rec league with us this fall?” he asks.
“You know what … I’ll think about it,” I reply. I decide to throw forehand, so I switch my stance and instinctually take a quick peek at the deck. Jack is not in the sandbox. My eyes sweep the perimeter. No Jack. I drop the frisbee and run.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting doesn’t have a chapter on the persistent fear that accompanies raising a human. It starts with pregnancy. Each OB appointment I awaited test results with bated breath, praying hard for a healthy baby. The day my son was born, his lungs were filled with mucus, and, as they extracted him from my belly, I remember hearing, “He’s not breathing!” The declaration made my heart stop. From Jack’s harrowing birthday to every ear infection, fever or virus thereafter, the fear of losing him became so strong it engulfed me.
By the time I reach the deck, my son is nowhere in sight. I see Kim, Kurt’s wife, and ask, breathing hard, “Have you seen Jack?”
“Oh!” she says, looking around. “He was here a second ago. Maybe try inside?”
Although I’ve slowed to a walk, my heartbeat grows faster. I stride toward the sliding door, then think better of it and jog to the side of the house. I peer around the corner. No Jack. There’s no way he could have toddled to the road, right?
Inside Kurt and Kim’s cozy home is a gaggle of people gathered around the pungent Mexican fare they prepared for their daughter’s birthday. I survey the crowd. No Jack. I bypass the guacamole, round the bend and encounter a room lined with books. And there, in the middle of the floor, playing with a frog-shaped lawnmower, is my son. My husband sits in the armchair beside him. I rush toward them.
“There you are!” I say, wrapping my arms around Jack’s tiny frame and kissing his cheek.
“Mama!” Jack yelps, pushing the lawn mower into the carpet.
My husband gives me a quizzical look. “Done playing catch?”
“I lost track of you two,” I say, standing up and smoothing my skirt. “I got kinda scared.”
“Jack go tired of the sandbox and wanted to come in here,” he explains.
My cheeks flush from embarrassment. I don’t want to keep living like this. I don’t want my son to grow up afraid.
Deep down I know I alone cannot protect him from all the harm in the world, but the illusion I can shields me from the jarring truth—someday, Jack will die. What if, in all my hovering, I prevent us from really living?
I used to think there wasn’t a place for the carefree girl in motherhood. Now I’m starting to believe I was wrong. Who better to teach my son what it feels like to run barefoot in the grass on a summer day? Who better to take him to water parks and on rollercoasters and white water rafting? Who better to show him there’s no shame in pursuing audacious dreams and simple delights? Who better to show him there’s strength in independence?
“That’s great babe,” I answer. My stomach begins to grumble. I pat my son on the head, turn my heel and float toward the guacamole.
Guest post written by Erin Strybis. Erin is a writer and editor based in Chicago who loves connecting with other moms through storytelling. As the mama of one strong-willed toddler, she believes the secret to motherhood is leaning into grace. Find more of Erin’s stories on Instagram and on her blog.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.