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