Before I find myself in the semi-finals for the Bad Mother of the Year Award, let me be absolutely clear: My children use seatbelts, wear government-approved safety helmets when riding their bikes, and I do not allow them to climb 30-foot pine trees just to see the view from the top.
I am, of course, willfully ignoring the fact that my sister and I sat on the floor in the backseat of the family Ford from Sacramento to southern Oregon, using the seat as a table for our art supplies, all of which would have become fatal projectiles in the event of an accident. We routinely walked and rode “around the block” (which in our rural area was a two-mile trip) without helmets, cell phones, or cans of Mace. And while I was not technically allowed to climb that particular tree all the way to the top, I never once fell out of it.
After the obligatory new-mother panic, I found myself settling into a more easygoing approach to parenting. Part of it is because I realized that there’s no definitive rule book that enables you to protect your kid from everything – I dutifully strapped my son into his carseat and held his hand when we crossed the street, and he managed to break his arm by falling less than three feet out of a swing in our own backyard. It’s also partly because you just run out of energy after a while. When I’m at the park lying in the sun half-reading a book and half-not, and the kids are laughing and screeching on the jungle gym, my default answer to “MOM! Can we … ?” quickly fades from a snappy “Absolutely not!” to a sun-soused murmur of “OK, whatever, just don’t land on your head.”
One of the main reasons I’ve loosened up, though, is that I’m not exactly a Safety First girl myself when it comes to things I really, really want to do. Especially if I’m taking pictures with my beloved little camera, my approach to rules gets a little … flexible. A quick flip through my favorite pictures triggers a stream of memories: “I was holding onto a tree and trying not to fall into Mill Lake when I took that!” “Haha, I was TOTALLY trespassing when I took that shot – had to climb over two fences to get it.” “Oh man, I came SO close to sliding off that cliff. Good shot though, huh?” And when my daughter has watched me look both ways for cars and stand right on Highway 101 to get a better shot of the Coos Bay Bridge … well, “Don’t cross the street without a grown-up” loses a little of its punch.
So when Ellie came home with a vague assignment from her middle school cooking class to “cook something”, I vetoed her hesitant suggestion of pancakes. I was planning on making clam chowder, and I figured she might as well learn how to do it right. I showed her how to peel a potato, handed her the vegetable peeler, and said, “Don’t peel your skin off. It hurts.” And she didn’t. I got out my cherished Wüsthof chef’s knife (which cost more than everything else in the silverware drawer and could take a finger off if you’re not careful), showed her how to dice a potato, and said, “Don’t cut the end of your finger off. It hurts. Your uncle did it once, so don’t do that.” And she didn’t.
Everything went fine until it was time to add the bowl full of diced potatoes to the merrily bubbling mess of scallions and melted butter in the stock pot. Ellie wanted me to get a few pictures of her culinary adventure, so I talked her through the process of tipping the bowl of potatoes into the pot while I watched through the digital viewfinder. I snapped the picture just as she dropped the bowl and jerked her hand away from the hot butter, which I’d forgotten to remind her about.
She ran to the sink and put her burned finger under a stream of cold water while I rescued the potatoes. I said, not without a certain amount of sympathy, “Well, I guess part of being a good cook is learning how to treat a grease burn.” And in that moment, my daughter made me proud: Instead of whimpering and moaning, blaming me for her burned finger, or complaining about the mess, Ellie sniffled back her tears and asked, “Did you get the shot?”
Rule book or not, I must be doing something right.