After a lovely afternoon of swimming with the kids this afternoon, I was driving "the long way" home around the lake. The sunroof and windows were wide open, and the kids took notice of all the sounds they were hearing-the waves, the breeze in the trees, the sounds of people laughing as they walked. Most intriguing of all was the "clink clink" of the ropes and lines on the sailboats moored by the east shore of the lake. Although they were both tired from swimming all afternoon, they wanted to sit by the shore and listen to the boats.
Happy to prolong our picture-perfect afternoon, I parked along the road, and we got out, still in our damp swimsuits. We walked across the road, crossed the grassy "boulevard" between the sidewalk and the road, and planted ourselves on a park bench about, oh, 100 feet from the car. We cuddled up on the bench, hunkered down together, watching the boats and the frothy water, a chilly breeze coming off the lake.
"I'm shivering," L said.
"Let's go to the car and get our clothes on, then we can come back here to this bench."
"Noooo!" she protested, "I want to wait here and watch the water."
I sat there a moment, thinking. The car was so close. I knew they were both tired and would most likely stay right there on the bench. But there was no barrier between the bench and the water, and J is after all, only 2. L, I knew, would stay put. And I could be to the car and back in less than a minute. It was literally just across the road. Then we could all be warm and cozy and stay a while.
"Please go get my clothes, mama!" She implored.
"Can you stay right here? Don't get off this bench for any reason. Stay right here. I'm taking J and we'll be back with sweatshirts to warm us all up."
I scooped up a shivering J and we shuffled towards the car. We'd gone maybe 25 feet when I got to the edge of the grassy boulevard, and I heard this from behind me:
"That's really not a good idea, ma'am."
I turned to see two women, one probably in her 60's, and one who looked to be about 10 years older than me, standing together on the path, shaking their heads, looking at me.
"Excuse me?" I said, surprised.
"That's really not a good idea." One of them, I don't know which, said again.
I was totally flustered. I had no idea what to say. "We'll be fine!" I spat, and practically ran to the bench, yanked L off without a word, and rushed both my kids to the car. I was shaking and kind of frantic, a mixture of anger, shame, and fear rushing through me.
I had the following thoughts, all at the same time:
Who do they think they are, questioning my judgment as a mother? Do they really think I'd put my daughter in harm's way?
What was I thinking? How could I be so stupid? What's wrong with me?
My God, what if something happened to her?
When we got home, I watched her little-kid body, her damp, stringy hair, her tanned legs as she hopped to the back door, singing a song about sunshine and boats. My eyes filled with tears. What was I thinking? What if something had happened?
But here's the thing: I try to let my kids have some of the basic freedoms that I enjoyed as a kid. I don't believe in living in fear. I want my kids to feel safe and secure, and not be worried that the boogyman is going to get them, or that nature, or their community is a place to be afraid. I had a highly anxious mother, and spent a lot of my own childhood worrying and being afraid of things I couldn't quite define.
To me, at the time, this decision to run to the car seemed totally reasonable. Middle of the afternoon, me less than 150 feet from her, for maybe a minute, and within eyeshot the whole time. That didn't seem so risky to me.
Now, I'm not so sure. Circling back around the lake on the way home, when I saw the two ladies walking on the path, I considered stopping the car and asking them what they had thought was going to happen. Why, exactly, it was such a bad idea. Were they thinking she'd jump in the lake and drown? Get abducted? Molested?
My mind is reeling. And I feel horribly, horribly guilty for even considering leaving her there for a minute. Ashamed. What if they were right? What if I had left her and one of those things had happened?
Was I (almost) negligent? Where do we, as mothers, draw the line between being OK with a small amount of risk and being stupid? And which of those things was I, today?