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jennifer loviglio
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Toy Recalls Would Have Pushed Me Over the Edge

If you're the parent of young children and you aren't freaked out and running screaming through the streets, I can't relate. Oh, maybe you're the relaxed type, calmly removing the lead-coated Sarge trucks and the Polly Pocket dolls -- with their intestine-shredding magnets -- from your child's damp clutches. Maybe you're calmly adding them to the top closet shelf where the Sesame Street and Thomas toys from the last couple of recalls are waiting to be returned to the store. But this is pure speculation. I can only imagine how a calm, rational parent would react, never having been one myself.

Fourteen years ago, when my first child was born, I went right past neurotic and straight to basket case. And this was in gentler times when each week did not bring news of another massive toy recall. I was surrounded by real and perceived danger; I was even leery of toys.

Raised by parents who were already highly anxious in an era -- the 1970s -- when the very idea of environmental toxins was born, I never had a chance. Throughout my childhood I learned about the toxins in the air I breathed, the food I ate and the water I drank. Pollution. Cholesterol. Pesticides. Factory runoff. Around every corner lurked a potential Superfund site.

My precious infant son wouldn't touch anything other than natural materials until he was one year old, I declared. An expensive toy catalog carried safe, all-natural toys, but we couldn't afford them. With nothing more than a Swiss Army knife for a screwdriver and one of my wooden clogs for a hammer, I set out to make all his toys myself from natural -- preferably organic -- materials.

I drove all over town in search of just the right toy-making materials. I got untreated hardwood scraps from a carpenter and sanded them to make blocks. With organic cotton rope I fashioned a wooden threading puzzle. I even bought some woolen balls and organic-cotton dolls from that fancy catalog. When my son turned one and no longer gummed everything in sight, I expanded my pallette to include plastic. He loved to shake the little beads inside a soda-bottle rattle I made.

It wasn't easy creating toys that were not only made of affordable materials but were also safe for an infant who developed new skills almost daily. I decide to share my projects in the local parenting newsletter where I lived in Nashville, TN. This was before the sancti-mommy era, but my column -- with its clumsy sketches and wordy construction tips -- must have inadvertently exuded judgementalism. During a playgroup, a woman I barely knew yelled at me. "Who do you think you are," she said, "making me feel guilty for buying toys rather than making them!?"

That wasn't what I had intended at all. In fact, we had started to buy him mass-market toys, and I sometimes felt bad that we couldn't afford more. But my superneurotic carefulness must have come across as sanctimony. In truth, I was just too nuts to worry about what other parents did. A string of toy recalls would have pushed me over the edge.

Right now my son, who is now 14 years old, is running around the house shooting his 11-year-old brother with a modified (read: more dangerous) Nerf gun. Videos on YouTube taught them how to alter the guns so Nerf's foam pellets rocket out much faster and more frequently than they're intended to. I haven't bothered to make sure the boys have on protective eyewear.

You might well wonder: How did I go from a one-step-away-from-straitjacket-parenting style to what could be called, with only mild exaggeration, a neglectful parenting style? A single, sudden event helped me loosen up. When he was nearly two, my son ran into a hotel room and promptly tripped, fell, and split his eyebrow open on a bedside table. The gash was ½ inch above his eye. We waited in the emergency room in Atlanta for eight hours, blood congealing in the wound.

It came to be known around here as The Fall. And it made me realize that no matter how many meals of homegrown peas and organic brown rice he eats and no matter how carefully selected his toys are, my son is going to be tossed around by life and there's nothing I can do to stop it. I can try to buffer him a bit, but that's all.

Despite my nervousness, my sons have not grown up afraid of the world. They want to run and climb and bounce and jump and ski. I want that for them, too. It's ironic that since The Fall, with each bloody knee and broken arm they've had, I've relaxed a little bit. I just checked the kids; they are wearing plastic protective glasses. I hope the glasses aren't off-gassing phthalates.