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Flying Space Junk, Motherhood and Fear

By Benison O'Reilly - 15th June 2011

When I was a child we lived in country NSW.  During school holidays my older sister and I would travel to Sydney by train, unaccompanied, to be met by our grandmother at the other end.  On the return journey the reverse would happen.

This started when I was quite young, eight years old or so, and my sister eleven. The trip was a long one, close to eight hours, and I’d pass the time reading and daydreaming. I remember feeling terribly grown up as I made my purchases from the food trolley that trundled up and down the corridors of that train.

Recently I had to dispatch my middle son on a similar journey. It wasn’t nearly as long - less than two hours from Sydney to Gosford - and I’d arranged to have him met at the other end. And yet, as he entered that train my chest was tight with anxiety. I remained a little on edge until I heard he’d arrived safely at his destination.

My son is not eight. He is fourteen years old and as tall as a man.  He had his mobile to call me if anything went wrong.  And yet I was worried. How ever did my mother do it?
My mum, you see, is a world champion worrier. A favourite family story dates back to 1979, when the abandoned space station Skylab was predicted to break up over Australia.  Mum wanted us to stay indoors until the danger had passed! As it happens Skylab did fall to earth in Western Australia, vindicating my mother. Fortunately it’s a large and sparsely populated state and I’m pretty sure no Australians met their demise being flattened by a piece of flying space junk.

As a twenty-something I set off to Europe on a backpacking holiday.  At the airport my mother watched with stricken eyes as I nonchalantly waved goodbye at the departure gates, dreaming only of the adventures that lay ahead. For the next year and half mum held her breath. I rarely phoned home (this was way before mobiles) but did consent to write regularly to let my family know I was still alive.

Before I left my mother issued me with strict instructions:
Do not travel on trains alone at night. I did.
Do not walk through city streets alone at night. I did, on several occasions.
Do not accept lifts from strangers.  I did, and got into a scrape one day in Italy.

I risked alcohol poisoning in the Greek Isles too, but I made it back to Australia safe and sound, like many other seemingly indestructible young girls have done, before and since.  Mum still doesn’t know all that I got up to.

It’s only now I am a mother that I understand my mother.  To be a mother is to love beyond measure, but with that love necessarily comes fear.

My youngest son has special needs, and I have a right, and indeed a duty, to keep a close rein on him.  But if we wrap all our children up in cotton wool in a misguided effort to keep them ‘safe’, we ultimately do them a disservice. They need to learn independence and how to stand on their own two feet, and even to take a few risks some time. It’s a necessary part of growing up.

So I resist the urge to become a helicopter parent. I let my older sons catch public transport and go out at night with friends. I try to keep my worries to the plausible: a car accident, an encounter with a gang of ‘lads’ - young men with excess testosterone and the urge to fight - or that silent, lurking killer that haunts too many families these days: depression.  I don’t worry much about paedophiles in the bushes, or ever about flying space junk.  Yet I know I can’t protect them from everything, and my boys have an irritating habit of not answering their mobiles when I call.

I remember when I brought my eldest home from hospital.  For the first few months of his life I was convinced he would die of cot death and barely let him out of my sight. In a blink of an eye that baby is now seventeen. Miraculously he survived infancy and the years between. In a few months he’ll be finished school and sometime soon he intends, like his mother, to spend a year or so overseas.

The world has turned full circle.

If you’re at Sydney airport when that day comes you’ll recognise me. I’ll be the mum looking on with stricken eyes. But if I’ve done my job properly my son will walk nonchalantly through the departure gates, dreaming only of the adventures that lie ahead.

How do you find a balance between keeping your kids safe and teaching them independence? I'd love to hear.

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