I once gave a friend a basket of gifts for her new-born baby that included Burt’s Bees body lotion. She refused to use it because she heard that honey was bad for babies under the age of one. I tried to explain that using lotion with honey was different than ingesting it. But she was convinced that the lotion would harm her son. Each person has her own sense of safety.
My own ability to foresee potential danger is so acute that I could work for OSHA. Here’s how it goes: Whenever I walk into a room, cross the street, or pull out into traffic, I subconsciously assess the safety hazards and act accordingly. In my own home I worry about my kids slipping on the wet bathroom floor, burning themselves by pulling a boiling pot from the stove and a million other little things. When my older son was a baby, I paid two thousand dollars to have professionals come in and “earthquake-proof” the place, which consisted of tying heavy furniture to the wall studs with straps. I knew it was just a matter of time before one of the kids got hurt on the damned travertine floors; sure enough, my younger son tripped on the stairs and chipped a tooth the day after he turned two.
It should come as little surprise, then, that when my 9-year-old boy was invited for a day of Go-Karting with his friend I began to worry. I immediately googled “Go-Karting Dangers” and up popped an article with all the stuff I was expecting – including head injuries, internal bleeding, even death. The family who issued the invitation emailed me a waiver to sign, required by the Go-Karting facility, and my stomach started to hurt. And, as if that weren’t enough, the father of my son’s friend drives a Jeep Wrangler, the last remaining vehicle in America without rear airbags. After mulling it over for several days with my husband (who, of course, thinks everything will be “fine”), I am at a conundrum. If I do not allow my child to ride in a vehicle with no rear airbags on an eight-lane freeway, is that being overly cautious? If I say he can’t go Go-Karting is that unfair?
“What do you think, sweetie?” I say that night as I am tucking him into bed and padding the sharp corners of his nightstand with pillows.
“I don’t know,” he says.
I then pose the rhetorical question, “I know you want to go Go-Karting, but isn’t your life important?”
“Yeah. But so are friends,” he says.
That one really gets me. I am quiet for a long time. Eventually, he falls asleep and I vow to make my decision tomorrow. Wednesday is the last acceptable day to cancel for a Saturday, I tell myself.
But Wednesday comes, and I am still unsure of what to do. I call my best friend, the godmother of my children, whose husband has a Wrangler. She confesses that sometimes they drive it on the highway with their daughter in the back seat. “He’ll be fine,” she says, echoing my husband’s opinion. Chances are, they’re both right and he will be fine in both the Jeep and the Go-Kart. But, what if he’s not? How can I live with that? I try to think logically about my options. I could insist that they take a different car. When I really analyze my fears, that’s the part that concerns me most. At least in the Go-Kart he’ll be wearing a helmet. I am now starting to worry about what the other parents will think, which could be a sign that I’m being hyper-vigilant. If I express my concerns, they may think I’m nuts. Will they retract their invitation to have us over for dinner? Adults need friends, too.
At the eleventh hour, I send an email to the dad saying that a Jeep on the freeway makes me uncomfortable. No apologies, no excuses. I offer to loan him my Volvo SUV (with eight airbags!) for the ride. If he’s offended, it wouldn’t be the first time. I can live with that. I cannot live without my son. Maybe, when we get to know this family better I can explain that I was raised by parents who were too wrapped up in themselves to think about my safety, who often left me alone, with inadequate caretakers and that’s why I am slightly overprotective. But I probably won’t. After a couple of excruciating hours waiting for a reply, the father of my son’s friend emails me back saying that are taking the Range Rover since it’s a long journey, but thanks for my “helpful solution.” I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet.
I know I cannot protect my children forever. In ten short years my 9-year-old will be in college, making his own decisions about whose car to ride in. Will he choose to do the safe thing, or the exact opposite? Will he be a teetotaler like my husband or will he be like me, engaging in all sorts of risky behavior not limited to automobiles? (Full disclosure, I owned a Jeep Wrangler and it remains my favorite car of all time. My husband and I actually considered buying one, until we found out about the lack of rear airbags.) I also know that most of the things that make me feel safe – seatbelts, airbags, burglar alarms — are limited in scope. Complete safety is an illusion. Indeed, there are a whole host of things we can’t control like earthquakes, tsunamis, drive-by shootings, home invasion robberies, terrorist attacks, brain tumors and more. So what’s the answer? Should we pack ourselves in bubble wrap? Or live it up while we still can?
“Always watch out for drivers who aren’t paying attention when you’re crossing the street,” I say one day on the way home from school.
“Why? Do you think we’ll die?” my 6-year-old asks from the back seat.
“We’ll all die eventually,” I say. “But until then, let’s be safe.”