The first time I saw a toddler on a leash, I was 8 years old and out for a stroll with my family. We were hoping to catch a parade in the center of town, and plenty of other parents had the same idea: The streets were full of youngsters who had been lured out with promises of floats and marching bands playing ABBA songs.
In the throng of attendees, my mom and dad located another family they knew. While the adults exchanged pleasantries, I caught sight of their 2-year-old’s tether. It blew my prepubescent mind!
“Excuse me, is that a leash?” I asked, scandalized to see friends of my parents treating their offspring like a dog.
Their response was casual if a little defensive: “Yes, it’s her leash. She’ll run away if we don’t use it.”
At that moment, I knew the type of parent I wanted to be; that leash represented everything I wouldn’t do to stifle my child’s freedom. No sir, I’d never treat my future child like a prisoner! I was still in single digits, but I resolved to be a free-range parent.
I mean, I didn’t use that precise label. After all, Lenore Skenazy had yet to popularize the concept of free-range parenting as a way of raising liberated, independent kids whose parents never hover. But even without the correct terminology, I knew in my third-grade bones that I would never leash up a child of mine like a labradoodle!
I maintained the view that free-range parenting is best throughout my 20s. At dinner parties, I would often cite parents who leash their kids as symbols of everything that’s wrong with the helicopter-style parenting that has become an inescapable part of Western child rearing.
“Must we be physically tied to our children?” I’d scoff.
When I discovered I was pregnant two days before my wedding, I was elated. At 33, I felt as ready as I believed I’d ever feel to raise another person. As my belly grew, I fantasized about the fun times my progeny and I would have together: My child would be free to roam and explore, her creativity nurtured by me, her guide on this planet but not her authoritarian leader.
I would follow dutifully but respectfully behind my child, never stifling her sense of adventure by hovering. If ever I worried she was headed into a semi-dangerous situation, I’d gently take my offspring’s hand and redirect her attention to a gorgeous butterfly. In my fantasies of parenthood, there were always butterflies close by with which I could distract my daughter.
Basically, I didn’t know what I didn’t know; my little rascal was running around our condo by 11 months and trying to jump off furniture and climb the bookshelves by 11.5 months. No amount of baby-proofing seemed adequate to protect the Houdini of breaking out of playpens.
Outside the confines of our home, things were harder. At least the building we live in is free of vehicles and strangers. When we venture outside its doors, there are cars, cyclists and pedestrians who can’t see a 3-foot toddler. We tried to just keep our kid in the stroller as much as possible; however, our wild child would throw her shoes on the road in protest until we liberated her. The outside made my baby feel too alive to stay put in her Bugaboo Fox.
As my husband and I saw it, we had two choices: Raise our daughter like the kid in the movie “Room,” who never sees the outside world and learns everything he knows about society from “Dora the Explorer,” or order a baby leash on the internet. We picked the latter.
Last month, my toddler and I were having one of our leashed-up adventures at the mall, attracting much side-eye from onlookers. At one point, a suavely dressed gentleman clocked my kid as I was sitting on the dirty mall floor, pushing her right foot back into the boot she’d kicked off for the seventh time that afternoon. He snarled to his buddy: “Seriously? It’s like this woman thinks her toddler is a poodle!”
Unfortunately, that dude never looked back after talking shit about my parenting. If he had, the douchebag would have witnessed both me (and the 20-month-old who was copying me) giving him the finger.
As I reflect on my first years as a mother, my baby’s leash could be interpreted as a symbol of failure. I mean, I did objectively fail to live up to my fantasy of raising a toddler who roams safely beside me in a bucolic garden. But you know what? That’s OK. Doing the work of parenting requires letting go of those naive fantasies of what parenthood should look like.
Before becoming a parent, it’s easy to assert your child will never watch “The Wiggles,” to insist you’ll exclusively use cloth diapers, or to predict the baby will be sleep trained by 5 months old. But the reality is this: Parenthood is a bunch of best-laid pans that get waylaid when a tiny human (complete with free will) sets up camp in your house.
As a newish mother, I’m choosing to reframe the failure to live up to my unrealistic parenting expectations as success: I’ve successfully adapted to raising the spirited, adventurous, superfast runner of a kid I actually have.
My only regret? It’s not the leash! It’s the years I spent judging other parents before becoming one myself.