Sitting on the couch in her living room, Eleanor reads a letter from her daughter. It’s been ten months since she last saw her, and apparently Kate has been living at a retreat in Portland, Maine, the entire time. It didn’t surprise Eleanor when the twenty-nine-year-old left without a goodbye. It was just another act of defiance from her “pathologically rebellious” daughter.
“It’s not exactly a clinical diagnosis,” the psychiatrist had told Eleanor at McLean Hospital. “But Kate tried to organize a coup within the psych ward.”
“She doesn’t much care for authority,” Eleanor had agreed.
“She tried to plan an escape with the other patients,” the psychiatrist had added. “She went on a campaign to convince everyone that the doctors were feeding them lies about their childhoods, that we were planting false memories in their minds.”
Eleanor sets Kate’s letter down and turns on the television, trying to distract herself with the nightly news. She can’t stop wondering, though, where she went wrong as a parent. She gave Kate the best tutors, enrolled her in the most prestigious schools, rewritten essays for her. Kate is her firstborn. Her heart. The family’s pride. She was supposed to be an academic, a writer, yet she became the neighborhood dog walker.
Eleanor was also troubled by her daughter’s “relationship” with an egotistical businessman named Patrick. When Kate accidentally left her phone unlocked in the living room one night, Eleanor took the chance to read some of the texts from Patrick. She was mortified to see him treating Kate like an object, labeling her his submissive.
Patrick wrote in one text: You are my most treasured and loyal lost girl, a steadfast pet. I wish you were a doll that I could slip into my pocket and take out to play with or groom. You would wear a tiny collar to keep you from straying.
Eleanor tried to shake off thoughts that something terrible had happened to her daughter in Maine.
Leo, Eleanor’s boyfriend of three years, walks into the living room and kisses the top of her head.
“I’m going to make a sandwich,” he says. “Want one?”
Eleanor bites her lip. “Am I a bad parent?”
Leo looks caught off guard.
“All the attention I gave Kate? All the resources I devoted? Maybe it did more harm than good. Maybe some people are born without parenting skills. My mother said she lacked the ‘parenting gene.’ Maybe I’m missing it too.”
“Parenting is hard,” Leo says. “You never know if you’re doing it right.”
Eleanor thought Leo was a fabulous parent. His boys were so great. A doctor and an engineer. He let them do whatever they wanted when they were young. Roam in the woods. Play in mud puddles. Swim in the river alone. They didn’t even have a curfew. Leo trusted that they would do the right thing. He didn’t text them to ask where they were or where they were going.
Eleanor sighs. “The kids who were free as children seem to flourish as adults.”
“Kate will find her way,” Leo says.
Eleanor wasn’t so certain. Kate wasn’t like other kids. That’s why Eleanor stuck close, especially during a crisis. If she saw Kate struggling, she mobilized. Sometimes her interventions only made the situation worse, but it was compulsive. A similar compulsion kept her mindlessly chewing at the ends of her fingers until the skin wore off. Whenever Eleanor’s control weakened, she would nibble her fingers raw. It gave her worried mind a place to fixate.
“Kate’s anxious, because I’m anxious. It’s a cycle.” Eleanor looks at Leo. “Your dad left you, but you were determined to be a better parent, to break the cycle, and you did.”
Leo looks out the window at the Audi in the driveway. He squeezes Eleanor’s hand.
“You sure you don’t want me to come with you?”
She stands up. “No, I need to do this alone.”
Leo smiles. “Go get your daughter back, then.”
As Eleanor pulls out of the driveway, she thinks about the moment when she will see Kate again. She’ll unload a series of confessions: “It’s not you, it’s me,” she’ll tell her. “Your troubles as a daughter are my failures as a mother.”
After two hours of driving, the sun has set, and the Maine forest hums with the rising and falling rhythm of the cicadas. Deep in the woods, Eleanor smells pine through her open window. She chews at the ends of her fingers on one hand and worries. What if something terrible has happened to Kate?
Eleanor sees a sign for the Free-Range Center and turns the car onto a bumpy dirt road. Parking, she leaves the car and walks along a dirt pathway, passing tiny cottages, gardens, and a pond where fish nip at insects on the water’s surface. She can hear the faint sound of chanting. The distinct, drawn-out “Om” comes from a brown barn with a crimson roof. Eleanor approaches slowly, branches cracking under her feet. In the distance beyond the barn, she sees a young woman scribbling in a notebook. The woman flicks a cigarette into the dirt. It’s Kate!
Eleanor rushes toward her daughter. “Honey! I’m so happy to see you.” She tries to hug Kate, but her daughter recoils, turns her back and walks toward a roaring campfire. She throws her notepad onto the ground and folds herself into an alpine-style chair.
Eleanor notices that Kate has gained some weight, healthy weight. There’s even some definition in her arms, and her skin is a pinkish color, not the veiny, bluish hue it took on after years of starving herself. She must be eating, Eleanor thinks as she lowers herself into a chair beside Kate.
Eleanor struggles to find something to say.
Suddenly, Kate stands up and walks toward the barn. The door closes behind Kate, and Eleanor picks up Kate’s notebook and flips through pages of her daughter’s writing. She stops at a page and reads a poem. There is something radiant in Kate’s words. Something alive. Has Kate awoken from a long sleep? It makes Eleanor smile. A few minutes later, Kate walks out of the barn, clutching an object covered in a blanket. The object moves, squirms. In the faint light, Eleanor squints at it, and then she realizes it’s an infant. Eleanor leaps from her seat.
Kate says, “I came here when I found out I was pregnant.”
Eleanor lowers her eyes. “Is it . . . his?”
“She’s Patrick’s, yes, but he’s no longer in my life.”
Eleanor stretches out her arms. Kate carefully hands her baby to Eleanor.
“Her name is Jenna.”
Eleanor supports the baby’s head as she reclines in her chair. “Hi, Jenna.”
Kate looks at her baby in her mother’s arms. At the Free-Range Center, she has listened to thought leaders, authors, and researchers lecture on free-range parenting, which the founder of the Center calls “a commonsense reaction to parenting in overprotective times.”
“Kids aren’t physically and emotionally fragile,” Kate has heard him say, “and we shouldn’t treat them that way.” The founder has admitted that he’s rebelling against a culture of over protection to “future-proof our kids.” It wasn’t long before Kate committed to raising “a free-range child.”
Kate has learned about the link between play in childhood and creative capacities in adulthood. She’s been told that children can—and should—roam and play unsupervised. The same is true for walking home after school by themselves or riding the subway alone, if necessary. One impassioned author even told the group: “For the love of God, can we stop loading our children’s brains and bodies with Adderall, Ritalin, and Prozac? Instead, let’s try the hard work of parenting.”
She’s particularly fond of the talk given by Laura Dekker, who became the youngest person to sail around the world in 2009.
“Jenna is going to be different,” she says to Eleanor. “Different from me. Different from you. Better than both of us. She’s going to climb trees, fall, scratch her arms and legs. I’m not going to scold her for running in flip-flops. She can ride the train when she’s a teenager. I’ll give her freedom. Space. Opportunities to make mistakes. To fail. To learn responsibility. Independence. And, most of all, my worries will not become her worries.”
The last time Eleanor saw Kate, she was impetuous. Immature. Lost. Kate appears more dignified now, not just in speech but in the way she carries herself, how she smartly pulls her shoulders back and softy examines her baby. She has clearly done some growing up.
Eleanor chokes up as she thinks about all the ways she inhibited Kate in childhood.
“I shouldn’t have hovered over you or smothered you, shouldn’t have stopped you from playing and trying new things, from finding out who you were and what you wanted.” She shakes her head. “I should have let you go to that damn writing conference.”
“I’ve been hard on you, Mom. I’m sorry. I was really lost for a really long time. To be fair, I was a loved kid. I have you to thank for that.”
A young man walks out of the barn then. Kate smiles as he approaches the campfire. The twenty-something has a beard and wears a flannel shirt—a hippie, without seeming grungy or dirty. He smiles and stretches out his hand toward Eleanor.
“You must be Kate’s mother. I’m Bradley. I’m—”
“He’s my fiance,” Kate blurts out.
“Um, okay, hi. Bradley.”
Bradley laughs. “It’s sudden, I know.” He looks at Kate affectionately. “But I care about your daughter very much.”
Kate rolls her eyes. “Please. This is gross. Mom. We’re in love, okay?”
Bradley doesn’t appear to be anything like Patrick, who saw the world through cold, detached eyes. Bradley appears softer, kinder, humbler.
Eleanor asks, “Are you sure about this, honey?”
Kate smiles tenderly. She had spent the last several years unable to feel anything and that “deadness” has dissolved, leaving in its place something that looks like—feels like—happiness. Joy, even.
Kate shakes her head. “I’m actually good, Mom.”
“Well, we have an extra bedroom for Jenna.” Eleanor smiles clumsily at Bradley. “And Bradley can stay with us too.”
“We’re leaving, Mom.”
Eleanor looks confused. “Where are you going?”
Bradley speaks up. “I have an apartment in Seal Beach.”
“I’m going to finish my degree at Long Beach State,” Kate adds. “Study history. I already spoke with the dean. I’m enrolled for the fall semester.”
“And Jenna will stay there? Is it safe? Who will—”
Kate laughs. “There you go, worrying. Everything will be fine, Mom.
Bradley eagerly adds, “And she has a job interview with an animal shelter next week.”
Eleanor glances at Kate’s notebook.
“I see you’ve been writing too.”
“So, this is goodbye?”
“You can visit, Mom.”
Eleanor gently hands the squirming infant to Bradley. Then she wraps her arms around Kate and squeezes.
“We should get going,” Kate says. “We want to visit Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky tomorrow.”
Eleanor reaches for Kate’s notebook and opens it to the poem she’d read.
“Can I have this one?”
Kate tears the page out and hands it over. She walks toward a Subaru Outback and spins around to give her mother one last smile. Kate loads Jenna into the car seat, and Bradley starts the car. As the car merges onto I-90 West, Kate turns and playfully sticks her tongue out at Jenna. Then she lowers her window and rests her arm on the door. Closing her eyes, she lets the wind blow her hair in all directions.
Heading east in the opposite direction, Eleanor also enjoys the warm air on her face. Without a worry in her mind, she closes her fingers tenderly around her daughter’s poem and smiles.
Written by Dustin Grinnell – Brighton, Massachusetts – USA
Feature Photo by Jenna Norman
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2 Comments Add yours
Well written. I have parent friends who overprotected like Eleanor.
Raising kids, our own or someone else’s, is such a huge responsibility. I used to torture myself over what I should have done or not done. I have forgiven whatever parenting errors I made by reminding myself I said and did what I reasoned and felt was right at any particular moment. And remembering my own childhood (my perception of it growing up and later after becoming a parent), I realized children are more resilient than we imagine. They must find their own path. We must let them.