There weren't many people in our neighborhood out at 7:15 this past Sunday morning, but if you were one of them, you might have seen a duo biking down Lenox Avenue headed towards the Whole Foods on the Upper West Side. You might have heard them calling back and forth to each other. It might have sounded something like this:
Older woman: "Okay, we're gonna cross the short way when we get to the corner. Are you ready?"
Little girl: "Ready!"
Older woman: "Thank you, Bee."
Or you might have heard this:
Older woman: "Hey, Bee, we have the light so double check and then you can go straight through when you get to the corner. Ready?"
Little girl: "Ready!"
Older woman: "Okay, good girl."
You might have heard the woman remind the girl to mind the doggie over there and oh, isn't she so cute? You might have heard the girl laugh and say that she got splashed when she biked through that last puddle. You would have seen them smiling at each other, enjoying that summer Sunday morning and those empty city streets. And I wonder, would you have sensed the fear in that mother’s heart that she worked so hard to conceal from her daughter?
I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was nine. Picture it: I was the oldest kid in the neighborhood to learn and a total crybaby to boot. I had a big dorky second-hand bike with a purple flowered banana seat and matching basket. My dad unscrewed the training wheels and dutifully ran behind me down the sidewalk, letting go of the seat when he thought I'd gotten it. But I hadn’t; instead I got 21 stitches in my chin when I lost control of the handlebars and landed face first on a sharp bump in the concrete. I was an ugly sight on a bike, to say the least.
Completely unlike me, Bee learned to ride her bike at four and a half the very first time she got on it. I had nothing to do with it. I wasn’t there for the moment itself so I can’t tell you how it happened. I can tell you that while she figured out how to ride it right away, it took her months to learn to use the brakes, so for the first six months or so, she never got to ride her bike anywhere but up and down the back courtyard. About a month ago, we ran into some friends of ours at summer camp drop-off. They – a five-year-old, a seven-year-old and their dad -- were locking up their bikes outside of the school. And that got me thinking.
Thirty-three years after those stitches, I love riding my bike. When Johnny and I moved out of Brooklyn five-plus years ago, I recommitted to riding to work as often as I could since I would no longer have to battle with steep bridges and long mileage. To make myself feel better about biking through midtown Manhattan twice a day as the mother of two little ones, I took a class on biking in the city taught by Transportation Alternatives and vowed to obey (most) traffic laws. I got a good helmet and I always wear it. Always. And I insist that whenever anyone else in our family is on anything with wheels – even an itty-bitty scooter – they wear a helmet. Even Teeny, strapped in three different places into her adaptive trike that weighs so much she can barely push the pedals, always wears a helmet. I try to ride and encourage the others to ride as often as I can, because I really, really like riding my bike and I want them to as well.
I also really, really like taking Bee to school or camp. It’s not always possible given my work schedule, but I try as often as I can. Since her school and her camp are on my way into the office, taking her in always meant leaving the bike at home and going by subway. Until I saw this other family and I got an idea.
“Hey, Bee. How would you like to try biking to camp with me?” I suggested casually.
“YES!” she shrieked. I didn’t expect such a decisive response. I thought we would talk about it for a few weeks and that would give me time to think it through. But she didn’t give me the option of backing out. The next morning she was ready. She woke me up before my alarm went off, already dressed with her helmet and backpack on. She was ready to go.
Her commute to summer camp is 2.8 miles one way. In New York City. During rush hour. In the summer. On many levels, that’s a very big deal for a very little kid. Most days she’s super psyched to ride and she does so without complaint, but not always. She gets tired. She gets hungry and thirsty. She gets sweaty. There’s a very steep hill that takes up about four blocks of the ride; on very hot days we have pushed our bikes up some or all of this stretch and on one particularly dismal morning I hung her bike from the handlebars of mine. I pushed them both up the hill myself and tried not to scream while she staggered along about twenty feet behind me, whining and moaning with every step. We laughed about that day later, but at the time I was pretty sure neither of us would survive it. We’ve gotten better. We pack a snack, an extra rubber band for sweaty pony tails, a thermos of cool water. I got Bee her own bike lock and I taught her how to use the combination. And we try to have a good time.
I am fully aware that biking in New York City can be dangerous, even for an adult on her own. So in addition to trying to keep it fun, I talk a lot about safety. As we ride, we banter back and forth. I like to hear her voice constantly so I know she’s engaged and paying attention and close to me. We talk about why I’m always going to say “Mind the people!” when we are on a busy street even though the hundredth time I did, she rolled her eyes and said “I know to mind the people, Mama!” I explain that I trust her but that I don’t trust anyone else out on the street. One morning I told her to mind the cute little doggies within earshot of the woman walking them, and the woman turned and thanked me for doing so because her dogs were skittish and afraid of things like children and bikes. After that, she stopped complaining. We choose our route carefully, selecting flat, shady streets with wide sidewalks, avoiding streets that attract heavy foot traffic with schools, subway entrances and stores. We know where the hills are, where the construction is, where the parks are. I ride on the sidewalk with her, always preferring to stay closer to the curb while she stays on the inside, away from the cars. We ride “double file” like that when we can, and single file when we can’t. We avoid crazy thoroughfares, swapping them for corners with crossing guards and quieter intersections that have clear visibility.
When she realized with some delight that she was now getting to cross the street – many streets in fact -- without having to hold my hand, I got the sense that we also needed a system. So every single time we approach a corner, I tell her what our next move will be. No matter what that is, the next thing out of my mouth is always “Ready?” and the only response to that is “Ready!” When I hear that, I thank her or praise her in some way and we proceed. If she responds any other way, I stop and check that she’s okay.
Once she didn’t say “Ready!” even though she was. To prove a point, I stopped short and she pedaled right into my bike. “But Maa-aam-aaah,” she wailed. “I said okay!” We talked about why it was so important for her to have a consistent response. I told her that hearing her call “Ready!” was my favorite thing in the world.
She was incredulous. “Even more than me telling you I love you?” she asked.
I nodded. “Even more than that. It is my job to make sure I do everything I can to keep you safe. So when I ask if you’re ready to cross, please tell me you’re ready. It's kind of like holding your hand. When I hear you say you're ready to cross the street, you’re telling me you’re with me, you’re safe and we’re on the same page. Once I know that, then I want to hear how much you love me!”
I tell her that she needs to be looking ahead of her and everywhere else at the same time. I know that this little creature would be defenseless against a bleary-eyed New York City cabbie finishing a fourteen-hour shift as she bikes determinedly across 125th Street. So when I feel at all uneasy, I stop right in the middle of the busy avenue as she pedals across, knowing that turning cars will definitely see me before they have the chance to ever knock into her. Maybe there’s no such thing as truly safe bike riding in the city, but it is critical that we do our best to practice safer riding.
I remember reading once that parenting is a long process of letting go, starting with severing the umbilical cord at birth and ending with the death of the parent. I think about that process a lot: just about everything we as parents do is in some way preparing our children for life on their own. Many of these little moments are harder for me than they are for my kids and they have seared themselves into my memory as milestones that I look back on with a mixture of nostalgia and relief that we made it through. My first day back at work after maternity leave with Bee. When Teeny weaned herself shortly after she turned two, and putting her in a wheelchair on the school bus weeks before her third birthday. Letting Bee go on her first sleepover. Explaining to Teeny as I did last night that at almost four, she was big enough to fall asleep without Mama in her bed and letting her weep quietly to herself for the longest ten or fifteen minutes I have experienced in years. And making the decision to bike with Bee.
I think we both really enjoy our rides together, but the truth is that I would hold her hand as we cross the street forever if I could. Part of me loves watching her grow into her own person. I am very proud of who Bee is becoming, and at the same time, so much of me would still keep her little. I would not necessarily choose to have this independent little human who just this morning insisted on dyeing a permanent blue-black streak into her hair as I touched up my grey roots. I looked at her as I wrapped tin foil around the streak and clipped it out of the way. She was wearing my high heeled wedges and her Elsa underwear. She’s tall now, and so lean. Pierced ears, painted nails. About to start kindergarten. She swims underwater with goggles and no floaties. Reads. Bops around to music on her own iPod. What's next? Sometimes I would keep her little forever: a chunky baby snuggled into my chest in the wrap, dependent on me for everything. Pushing Bee and her sister to become independent individuals is sometimes more of a push for me than it is for them, and it is in recognition of this that I choose to continue riding with her even though I know that I can’t keep her 100% safe 100% of the time. Unless I keep her home for the rest of her life, could I ever, really?
She only has three more days of summer camp. The new school she starts in September is 4.9 miles from home and I’m not sure she’ll be able to do that kind of distance until she’s a little bigger and her bike is a little better. Maybe she’ll want to try it, or maybe after her three weeks of vacation she’ll decide that she would rather take the train after all. For now, I just hope she wants to ride tomorrow too.