Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!Dr. Seuss
By the time Sydney was born I knew firsthand how quickly babies grow up. The journey away from their mothers and towards their own becoming begins with the first breath. I knew that my job as a mother was to guard my children’s safety while guiding them to autonomy; to teach them self-reliance and then . . . let them go. Never again could I protect her as much as when I carried her within my body, umbilical cord intact. I knew my little one with Down syndrome would need extra protection; what I did not know was that she would need independence and self-assurance just as much. And she’d need me to teach her, then stand back and let her thrive.
I’ll never forget the first time I lost Sydney. One moment she was standing by my side, the next she was gone. Vanished. Panic doesn’t begin to describe the altered-state of vertigo a mother feels on losing sight of her toddler. I felt I wouldn’t breathe again until I found her.
Wandering is a common behavior for children with Down syndrome — I read that early on somewhere in the considerable pile of literature we’d amassed. But, I didn’t get it until it started happening though I definitely wouldn’t call what Sydney did wandering. wan-der v. to go aimlessly, indirectly, or casually; meander. There was nothing aimless or casual about her meanderings; they were purposeful and confident. e-lope v. to leave without permission or notification. run away v. to depart quickly; take to flight; flee or escape. These are more accurate words to describe my daughter’s exploits, occurring with what came to be exasperating frequency.
She’s an escape artist
She was about 2 ½ when she mastered the art of a stealthy escape. Watching for an opening when my attention was diverted, she’d make her getaway, leaving me turning in circles, frantically, uttering “Where’s Sydney?” repeatedly. I lost her in the grocery store, in the mall among the clothes racks, in Walmart with its endless aisles. I lost her outdoors in crowds, at schools, at parks, at festivals and events. I lost her at parties. I’d find her off in someone’s master bedroom digging through their drawers (she even climbed in someone’s bed once), or getting into a cupboard in their laundry room. Upon entering a new environment, my first priority was to secure the perimeter.
I even lost her at home. One spring Saturday when Sydney was nearly 4 and I was pregnant with her sister, Haley, the whole family busied themselves with preparations to sell our house and move. My husband, Steven was in our vast backyard, tending to an acre of walnut trees and gardens. Inside, boxes in various stages of packing lined the walls.The open doors let the cool air circulate; our high-schoolers, Melissa and Jeremy ran in and out.
I thought Steven had Sydney with him as he worked in the backyard, so when he came in the house alone, I said, “Where’s Sydney?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I thought you had her.”
I couldn’t breathe until I found her
My stomach dropped. “I don’t have her. I thought YOU had her!” I shot back at him.
A cursory search of the yard yielded no trace of her and with increasing urgency we spread the search in an ever-widening circle. I turned back to the house thinking maybe she’d snuck inside. I combed every room, closet, nook, under beds, calling her name.
Twenty minutes went by, a veritable lifetime. We called the local police and sent the kids and their friends in all directions to look. My perception of time warped and stalled out. It seemed interminable, yet I willed it to stop. “Just WAIT!” I though, “until I find my child, safe and sound. Then the world can resume.”
I tried to shake the images that flooded my mind, but my gut churned, my heart raced and my throat locked down. I started hyperventilating as my fear overwhelmed reason. Steven tried to calm me down; the likelihood of kidnapping was low in our small town, traffic was light — and slow ,and she couldn’t have gotten as far as the railroad tracks yet. But anxiety crowded the edges of his composure, too.
After thirty minutes, I heard Melissa yell from the next-door neighbor’s house just 20 yards away the words I’d been desperate to hear for a half hour.
“I found her!”
Though relief flooded my system, the chemicals in my bloodstream shifted and nausea threatened. I quickly recovered and ran towards Melissa, calling as I went, “Where was she?”
“She was in the neighbor’s house.”
In small towns, people don’t always lock their doors and Sydney had headed across the road, up the back stairs and let herself in. While everyone was out looking, including the police chief, she was at our friends’ house, having a fine time by herself.
Her disappearing act continued, but once she discovered the enormous amount of attention her antics garnered, the ante was upped and she started bolting. Instead of surreptitiously gliding away, she’d make a quick break for it. She was smart and fast! For a child who’s cognitively impaired, she was nothing short of cunning. Despite having hypotonia (low muscle tone), she ran far enough and fast enough to evade capture unless a significant chase ensued. And so the game was on.
Laughing hysterically, hair flying in the wind, little legs pumping like pistons, and completely oblivious to danger, she looked over her shoulder to be sure we were pursuing. The more we followed, the faster she ran. The more she ran and we followed, the more the behavior was reinforced. And we didn’t have a choice; we couldn’t not run after her.
If I, her mother, couldn’t keep tabs on run-away bunny, how was I to send her out in the world and trust anyone else? She started school at only 3. The early childhood special education program, held in a local church, featured a playground in the back parking lot—with no fence. We warned, “She’s a flight risk. You’ve got to watch her constantly.” Within the first week, I got a phone call from a neighbor telling me Sydney had been found walking along the highway. The school didn’t even know she was missing. She has eluded watchful eyes at every school since, taking side trips down hallways, foraying into other classrooms and even out into the woods once during recess.
She managed to get away from babysitters during the rehearsal dinner for my sister’s wedding. Already uneasy to leave her, we cautioned the couple in charge–adults, a mom and dad themselves: “You have to watch her really closely. She’s is an escape artist.” Sure enough, Sydney slipped out the side door of the guest house where we were staying, crossed the street, and through the grand entry into the hotel. No one saw her go and she wasn’t missed until one of the kids pointed out that she was gone.
We installed locks, gates and alarms but she continued to foil her captors. We ultimately used a harness and a leash in exceptionally risky situations. It was the only way I knew she was safe—if she was physically tied to me.
She needed me to let her thrive
The umbilical cord re-instated, my protective instincts were finally satisfied. As the terrifying challenge of holding onto her became our way of life, a pattern was formed: a habitual and unconscious sense of control I attempted to exert over the environment and my child’s relationship to it. I became so accustomed to reining her in and holding her close because of my own fear that I forgot to notice when she no longer needed it.
I never want my children to suffer and the desire to shield them from pain is as strong as my love for them is deep. But, I’ve had to ask myself when does sheltering my growing babies from life experiences no longer serve them in the journey they’ve undertaken? When does buffering the natural consequences of their own choices become detrimental to the instinctive objective they were born to; that of growing away from me? Wasn’t that the whole idea of having them in the first place?
Raising children means making the beautiful progression from the umbilical cord that sustains, to the leash that restrains, to the invisible tether that remains, connecting child to mother wherever they go in the world. Every day I take a deep breath and let go. Again. Then I send them out into the world, into their world. They go because they feel the safety—it’s in the tether—and it can stretch as far as it needs to without breaking.
“Are you watching me, Mom?”
When Haley gets on the bus heading a mile away to elementary school—she presses her face to the window and blows me kisses. When Melissa gets in her car and drives hundreds of miles to her summer job in Colorado—she looks back in her rear-view mirror and waves. And when Jeremy walks down the jetway and boards a plane to Chile—he turns back to see if I’m still there.
“Are you watching me, Mom?” each one asks.
You bet I’m watching.
Sydney’s almost a teenager and has pretty much outgrown this phase of running off. She frequently declines to even hold my hand as we’re walking through a parking lot. The other day I went to pick her up early from middle school and as I waited I noticed a kid, alone, at the end of the long hallway. As this lone figure advanced and came into focus, I saw it was my daughter, walking down the hall, unaccompanied, with confidence in her stride, toting a backpack as big as herself and wearing a smile that said, “I’m ready. Let’s go!”
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.
And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.