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What a Mother Knows

It's one thing when your child is safe in her bed down the hall. It's quite another when it's time for them to flee the nest. How far do we let them fall before we catch them?
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Mother and daughter talking in park
Mother and daughter talking in park

When Arianna Huffington quoted me in On Becoming Fearless, I was fresh off the Mommy Wars debate between working moms and stay at home moms, dealing with the kind of parenting paranoia that we all face. Sex, drugs, violence, academic pressure -- the inescapable threats to our teens.

My fear of those threats, however reasonable, was ruining my relationship with my daughters. I was so strict, they called me Skelator. I backed off as best I could. When my middle schooler was crying every night, I tried doctors and a different school. I even called my own mother. I had changed my life, my career, everything, to be a good mother. Yet there was no denying that every child is at risk. Even mine. There was nothing left to do but lie in bed and listen to her sob. The first time my editor suggested What A Mother Knows as the title for my next novel, I burst out laughing. Exhausted after another night of emergency phone calls from my daughter, I'd decided that what a mother knows is: nothing! I didn't know what was really going on, how far it would go, or what I could do about it. All I could hear was her crying.

I tried to console myself: what was the worst that could happen?

On jury duty soon after, I had to determine the value of a child's life to each mother suing the driver of the car that had killed their boys. There was no dollar amount that was enough, yet it couldn't be zero. Having a child die was the worst that could happen.

Desperate to create a happy ending, the novel I was writing became one of Everywoman, a mother trying so hard to juggle family and career that she nearly lost everything she'd worked so hard to create. She would have to be fearless to find her way, to find her daughter and save the family. If I could imagine this kickass character I could give her a happy ending. And maybe I could sleep at night. I wanted to control real life like words on the page. But reality trumps fiction, and as one daughter moved on towards a happy ending, it was her sister's turn to struggle.

My second daughter experienced more trauma in two years than I could comprehend, yet I couldn't keep her safe in my arms. It's one thing when your child is safe in her bed down the hall. It's quite another when it's time for them to flee the nest. How far do we let them fall before we catch them?

Kids today are more bombarded by horrific images than any generation before them. They see bombings on their iPhones and learn tragic news by instant message. Distant acquaintances who die from car crashes, drugs, and disease are now 'friends' to be mourned. They act hardened and infallible, more sensitive than ever. We expect them to be adults, even while they are tethered by cell phones and purse strings. The New York Times reported a "delayed adolescence." A HuffPost/50 piece claimed that 59 percent of adult children are supported by their parents. Yet only the rental car companies recognize delayed adulthood enough to have safeguards in place -- they require drivers to be 25. When our young adults get off track, it is natural to fear the worst. Nightly, I walked the tightrope between enabling and empowering. I had gone from believing my daughter could be president to praying she was safe. I couldn't bear her unhappiness -- I longed to see her smile. So every time the phone rang, my stomach clutched. As they say, little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems. The kind with consequences that could last a lifetime. Any given phone call could bring tears, paramedics, or police. Nothing horrible had happened... yet. But I had a vivid imagination for the worst. I wanted to be kickass, to be strong, but I was anxious. And my anxiety fueled hers to make every situation more explosive.

One day when I picked her up from a friend's in Hollywood, she pointed out the local sights. Not the Walk of Fame, but the liquor store where she bough her basic needs. "Basic needs?" I asked. "Top Ramen," she said, "and toilet paper." I waited until I'd dropped her off to cry. My basic need was for her to move on. To get through this phase. To know that it was a speed bump, not a dead end. I had to pretend in order to hide my fear. Fear was no longer ruining our relationship, but it was crippling us both. She needed to feel my confidence in her.

I kept my phone at the ready. Friends without children urged me to cut her off. Mothers understood. I tried everything: deep breathing, talk therapy, Xanax -- I even turned my phone off during yoga. But the only way to reign in the fear was to let go of it. To accept that I couldn't control everything.

Soon I had no choice -- I got cancer. I don't know that my illness was a product of my anxiety, but it certainly made me vulnerable. I exercised, ate well, was happily remarried, and had no genetic markers. But fear had consumed me. I no longer had control of anything, not even my own health. This was beyond my vivid imagination. Now, the worst had happened to me.

Finally, I turned the phone off at night. The life or death situation was mine. In case of emergency, she would have to call 911. Instead, she started calling to check up on me. Now, she was afraid for me. I am fearless about my own health, yet it is a constant reminder that this is another phase, for both of us.

I finished the novel and gave it a happy ending. I am that kickass mom. Every day, I am little more fearless. And now I clearly understand why the title of my novel is perfect. What A Mother Knows is a love story. A mother knows that she must never stop loving her child. They will grow up. When they are ready. When we are ready.