Before she went rogue, Sarah Palin got lost. She was stalking "majestic dall sheep with their thick curled horns," she writes in her new book, in Mount McKinley National Park. "I was only about eight years old, and for a couple of anxious hours of climbing hillsides and calling my name, no one could find me on the crags and snowpack." Her father played it cool, "but inside, he was pretty frantic." She was found, at last, asleep on a rocky slope in a white T-shirt that made her look like one of the sheep.
Even though I presently have Palin frustration seeping out of my pores, this story struck a sympathetic chord. A few months ago, my 6-year-old, Simon, got lost. He was unfindable for 45 minutes, somewhere in woods on the shoreline, within reach of open water, and very much out of my reach and sight.
I did not think, Oh good, he is exploring the world, may he go forth and frolic, the way I would have no doubt counseled some other mother to do—at least hearing the story after the fact. I felt only panic. And when we found him, I was seized by the most powerful surge of mother-bear instinct I've ever experienced and vowed silently to never let him go more than 10 feet away from me in the outdoors again.
This story doesn't fit well with my theory of parenthood, the one in which children have the freedom to wander and encounter adversity, where parents understand that human beings need hardship to learn, and a central problem of middle-class mothering is that we're so terrified of appearing neglectful that we put our children on leashes, both literally and virtually. What I take from the afternoon of Simon's disappearance is a dose of humility. Theory never quite matches up with practice the way we want it to, does it? Especially when it comes to parenting. Also, dogma begs for a corrective. Some mothers don't give their children enough free rein and I don't want to be one of them. But what about giving too much?
Here's what happened: My husband and two kids and I were visiting the house of a friend and colleague on the shore in Connecticut. In a loose group of eight (three parents, two hosts, three kids), we went for a walk through a stand of pine and birch, surely no more than a square mile. Simon and another 6-year-old boy ran ahead down the path and picked a tree to hide behind. They jumped out and yelled "boo" and chortled at their own cleverness. Repeat twice. Then I watched them sprint off out of sight. I was at the front of the pack of adults, and I turned a corner and saw that the path forked ahead of me. I wasn't sure which way the boys had gone. But I figured the left-hand fork couldn't lead them far astray because it looked like a long dirt driveway.
I went to the right. Everyone else followed me. After maybe 10 minutes, I started looking for Simon and his friend instead of waiting for them to pop out from behind another tree. No sign. I started calling. No response. I admitted to the friend I was walking with that I didn't know where the kids were. This sounds like a natural step, but in the moment, I hesitated to take it. I didn't want to break the lovely peace of the afternoon. I didn't want to worry our hosts.
But eventually, it couldn't be helped: We called for the boys, and they didn't answer, so we had to start looking for them. At first we made small dry jokes about how they would be around the bend. They weren't. We split up and scattered, calling the boys' names. I walked down the path to the left, which was indeed a driveway, and found a family innocently sitting down at a picnic table. They looked sinister to me: Could they be hiding two boys?