My youngest daughter just turned two, and I have to admit, it hit me harder than I had expected. I watch her wrestle with her sister, or hear her ask me questions in full sentences, or see her stubbornly refuse to let me put on her shoes for her, and I am forced to realize that she's not a baby anymore.
It's hard to let go. And when you think about it, it's understandable: so much of your time and energy as a mother—particularly in those early years—is spent worrying about how your children are doing, and what they are doing, and keeping them safe.
But when you get right down to it, that's what parenting is all about: the gradual letting go of your children as you empower them to be independent individuals. Teaching them how to make their own decisions, and giving them the skills and strength they need to succeed on their own.
That's why I struggle with stories like the recent one about the South Carolina mother. If you haven't heard it, here's the gist: she worked at McDonald's during the day and often brought her nine-year-old daughter to work with her. But, not surprisingly, the daughter got bored of sitting in a restaurant all day and wanted to be dropped off at a nearby park. The mother left her daughter at the park while she worked for several hours, on several occasions. Now, she has been arrested for "unlawful conduct towards a child."
This story makes me sad, for several reasons. The woman—who is clearly a low-income earner—will most certainly lose her job. She will probably also lose custody of her child, who is currently with the Department of Social Services. And that means that her daughter—who is fine, by the way—will also lose her mother.
Did the mother make a wise decision, leaving her daughter at the park alone while she worked? Well, no. But what if the child had been 11 or 12 instead of nine...would it then have been okay? If it had been just once, instead of several times? If it had been for an hour instead of several hours?
I don't know what choices this woman had—whether the father is in the picture, whether she has any family or friends who could have helped out, or whether social childcare programs were an option for her.
But I do know that every single day of parenting is full of decisions that can either minimally or profoundly affect your children and your family—and you don't always know which one it will be, at the time.
I'm not looking forward to the day that I have to make decisions like whether my eldest is old enough to walk to school on her own, or when it's okay for her to take her sister to the park on her own. And that's partly because I'm afraid of making the wrong ones—What if there is a degenerate in the park that day? What if there's a distracted driver when she has to cross the busy street?—but also because I'm afraid of how others will judge those decisions.
As a society, we are quick to blame and punish parents for their failures. But the reality is that parenting is a series of choices, and we've all made choices that didn't go as planned.
Of course, it's our job to keep our kids safe—as much as we can control that, anyway. But it's also our job to gradually let go of that control. Because that's how our children will grow up.