I am sitting in the kitchen late one afternoon, my head is buried in the computer. The double doors from the garden burst open and, with the cold, rushes in my oldest son, Oliver, flushed and looking pleased. A helmet sits slightly askew on his head. “Mom!” he starts, but my eyes have already flicked back to the screen. “Mom!” he tries again, “I can ride a bike!” Now he has my attention.
We had bought him a shiny new one for his fifth birthday, two years earlier. The bike was the next size up, because Oliver is tall for his age. Room to grow, that’s what the man at the shop had said, which made sense at the time. It was also a mistake. Oliver is tall, but he is cautious, and when we took to the streets with the thing lurching precariously, the training wheels cold comfort as we rounded the corners, he wasn’t happy. And there I was behind him, gripping the back of the seat in a mounting effort to keep boy and bike upright, despite the pull of gravity. Despite a fundamental lack of balance on the part of the rider.
A few more outings and we both lost interest. The rainy autumn gave way to a rainier winter and the bike was left for time and rust to run their course. As they did, Oliver became a big brother again, twice over. When spring rolled around, life looked different. In the months after the twins were born, I didn’t have the wherewithal to dress myself most days let alone teach someone else how to ride a bike. Oliver found other things to do outside, things that didn’t include me.
There is always a process of letting go as your children get older. Sometimes it happens slowly, naturally, the inexorable result of birthdays being ticked off on the calendar. Sometimes it is expedited by circumstance. Two new babies in the house is just the kind of circumstance that can put a little distance between a mother and her five and a half year old. Where once I knew the details of his every day, now there were nights when I would tuck him and hear the splinters of a story from last week. In my hands, they felt rough and unfamiliar. I wasn’t holding onto him the way I used to. And, loose from my grip, he was changing too.
Oliver made new friends that summer, which doesn’t come easily to him. Our house is part of a development that backs onto a parking lot. If you leave from the garden gate, there is a path that will take you directly to the back gates of the neighboring houses, several of which contain boys his age. They started calling for him to come and play and at first we were reluctant. Oliver was nearing six by then, was that old enough? To walk the 100 meters by himself to the next backyard? To run up and down the side allies unsupervised, building dens and staffing secret agent laboratories? The other parents seemed to think so. Ultimately, we agreed with them.
This gathering of kids became a regular feature. Oliver would come home from school and, with his brother, seek them out at every opportunity. If the weather was poor, they would congregate inside. But if it was fine, they would be racing up and down the stretch of unbroken sidewalk outside, taking it in turns on each other’s bikes. Between them, there was a commune: bikes of all shapes and sizes, different makes and different models. Some had training wheels, some didn’t. And some were “balance” bikes, which have no pedals at all. The point of these is that the child learns to ride by balancing himself. Unlike training wheels, there is no artificial sense of being stabilized by something—or someone—else.
It’s the perfect metaphor for parenting, isn’t it? In one version, we let them learn how to steady themselves on the path to adulthood, even as they tip from side to side. In the other, we prop them up as they go, which feels safer at the time but serves only to prolong—or possibly thwart –the ability to find their own center. The distinction reminds me of how I used to “encourage” Oliver to walk when he was 13 months old and showing no real signs of readiness. I would drag him around the room, taking the weight of his body for him as he buckled to his knees in protest. These marches were for my benefit not his, but I didn’t know that. Back then, I was always rushing his milestones. He was my first child: they felt like a test I was impatient for him to pass.
He took his first steps eventually, of course, and I was by his side when he did. And when he used the potty for the first time and buttoned his first button and read his first word. I was by his side and it was great to see the pride he felt at being seen. But there was a different kind of pride in his eyes when he burst through the garden doors not so long ago, beckoning me to witness, now, what he had managed to accomplish on his own. What I had allowed him to accomplish on his own, even if inadvertently.
What I lost that day in discovering I wasn’t the one who taught Oliver how to ride a bike was softened by the sheer pleasure he took in showing me that he had taught himself. In his own time, on his own terms. For a parent, this is what growing up is about, after all: the realization that while the milestones they hit when we are holding their hands are sweet, the ones that come when we aren’t can be sweeter still.
This essay was first published at Brain, Child Magazine