Editor’s Note: Philip Lerman is a freelance producer in Washington, D.C., and the author of “Dadditude: How a Real Man Became a Real Dad.”
Two separate events occurred on our family’s beach getaway this summer.
One, my 13-year-old son rode a Jet Ski at 60 miles per hour.
Two, I did not have a heart attack.
Taken separately, neither of these events would be of particular significance. The fact that they occurred simultaneously, however, is a minor miracle.
It’s not that I am one of those neurotic fathers who is constantly living in fear that something terrible will happen to his child.
It is that I am the poster boy for those neurotic fathers. I am the guy who made a 3-year-old wear a bicycle helmet to go on the swings, who hid outside the preschool yard to keep an eye on his kid, the dad who refused to let his son play catcher on the Little League team because oh my God, right, like I’m going to let you stand next to people swinging baseball bats. Kill me first, so I can turn over in my grave just thinking about it.
There’s much talk these days about the concept of free-range parenting – of letting your kids wander free, outside your supervision, the way we did when we were kids. I don’t like the idea of free-range parenting. I’m not even comfortable with the idea of free-range chickens. Who knows what trouble they could get into?
The day Max went to kindergarten, there were many, many tears.
Mine, not his.
So how is it I went from that place of fear, to this place where, in the immortal words of David Bowie, I’m learning – slowly but surely – to let the children boogie?
It was, as it turned out, a birthday gift I gave to myself. And to my son.
It wasn’t, technically, my birthday. But that didn’t matter.
What mattered was that I needed it. He needed it more.
Under siege by a dark force
About two years ago, Max began calling up from the school nurse’s office, complaining about stomachaches and begging to come home. The situation got worse: Morning after morning he’d be curled up in a ball on the couch, unable to go to school, barely able to speak.
He missed 20 days of school that spring before we figured out what was going on. Max was diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder. His fears had broken through the emotional-physical barrier: they were literally making him sick. Almost overnight, our fun-loving, outspoken, cheerful, full-of-life boy was under siege by a dark force that attacked, almost daily and without warning.
As time went on, the bouts of anxiety became less frequent. But they became no less severe. And to be perfectly honest – and selfish – they were as hard on me as they were on him. His anxiety attacks sent an electric, icy fear through every nerve in my body, a fear that held me in its steely grip, a grip that I was certain would stay with me all the days of my life. And of his.
Thanks to high doses of good therapy and low doses of medication, Max is doing much better these days. The anxiety isn’t gone – it probably never will be – but Max has learned to breathe through it, to insert positive thoughts, to calm himself. Bouts of anxiety that used to last for hours – even days – are now gone in a minute or two. (I have built a shrine in the living room to Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy.) Max’s easy laugh and stunning smile are back, stronger than ever.
He didn’t miss a day of school last semester, and just missed getting straight A’s on his last report card.
But while Max’s anxiety was under control, I came to realize that something else wasn’t.
My anxiety about Max, and about his anxiety disorder, certainly wasn’t doing me any good – but I could live with that. However, I had to face the fact that my anxiety was making Max’s worse. Had possibly been one of its causes, in fact.
And that’s something no father can live with.
So I set about letting it go.
Untying his fears from mine
I grew up at Rockaway Beach, where we splashed in the waves all summer but never went more than chin-deep in the water. You couldn’t: If you went in over your head, the lifeguard would start blowing his whistle and everyone would turn to look at you and my Grandma Fagel would scream “Oy Gevalt!” – Yiddish for “holy crap!” – until you were back, safely, with your feet on the sea floor. So I come about my terror of water honestly.
Max has taken swimming lessons since he was 5, and last summer reached something like Advanced Super Duper Lifeguard Level. But when we went out on a boat, I still made him wear a life jacket when he jumped in the water and hold on to a rope the entire time he was paddling around. The other kids found this strange. The other parents found this strange.
I found it quite comforting. Then.
But now, not so much. Now I know that that rope isn’t just holding him to the boat. It’s tying his fears to mine.
And so I learned, for his sake, it’s time to let that rope go.
And the funniest thing has started happening. Max’s anxiety seems to be dissipating even further. What’s surprising is my anxiety seems to be dissipating, too.
We were invited to stay at a lovely country cottage a few weeks ago, and I came out one morning to see Max standing atop a 20-foot stone wall, his headphones on, his toes dangling over the precipice.
And I stopped. And I looked. And I contemplated how much he would hurt himself if he fell.
And I waved and walked on.
I don’t cherish the thought of my son letting go of the rope, crashing a Jet Ski, falling off that wall. I know how much a teenage boy can hurt himself.
But I’ve learned that protecting him from those risks comes with its own, more insidious risks. And while I may not be able to protect him from his own fears – that’s something he has had to learn – I can protect him from mine.
Last week, even though I think it’s one of the most dangerous thing you can do in the city, I bought him a skateboard and took him to one of those half-pipe things, where he promptly fell and nearly broke his leg.
Inside, I was thinking: Oy gevalt.
Outside, I said: You’ll be OK. Get up. Give it another try.
Because hey. Once you start practicing The Art of Letting Go, you have to see where it takes you.