By Elrena Evans
Giddy with anticipation, I trade a wad of cash in exchange for two secondhand bikes and load them into the trunk of the minivan. The baby snoozes peacefully in his car seat while my almost-four-year-old daughter bounces in excitement, even though neither of the bikes are for her. She has multiple cast-off bikes to choose from this season, and her big sister, age ten, somehow still fits her bike from the year before. But the boys, aged six and eight, are simultaneously too big and too small for any of the extra bikes we have lying around, so the ones in the trunk are for them.
When I pick him up from kindergarten at noon, my six-year-old reacts predictably. “A new bike? For me?” He can barely contain his glee and the three-quarter mile trip home is endless. Once there he falls out of the car, grabs the bike, and hops on.
“This new bike doesn’t have training wheels,” I caution him, as he waves aside this minor concern.
“Hold my seat and launch me!” he yells, and I do, and he wobbles for a bit as he speeds down the sidewalk before crashing with a bang. “Ow ow ow!” he yells, hopping up and down, before throwing his leg over the bike again. “Launch me one more time!”
I launch and he falls, I launch and he falls, throughout the afternoon. By the time we pick up his older siblings from school, he has left bits of himself all over the sidewalk and is covered in Band-Aids, but he can ride his bike.
“Guess what!” I say to my eight-year-old as he climbs in the car. “I got you a new bike!”
“Does it have training wheels?” he responds instantly.
I look at him in the rear view mirror, tall for his age and gangly, all skinny legs and limbs and the mop of red hair he gets from me.
“No, it doesn’t, Honey,” I say gently. “You don’t need training wheels, remember? You learned to ride a bike last summer.”
“I want training wheels,” he says.
“Why don’t we try it first, and then we can talk about it?”
“I want training wheels,” he says.
I take a deep breath and focus on the road before me.
Back at home, I buckle the baby into the stroller as the girls hop on their bikes, my six-year-old already long gone down the sidewalk. My eight-year-old eyes the training wheels on his little sister’s bike and looks at me significantly.
“You don’t need training wheels,” I tell him.
“But I could fall,” he says. “I could get hurt.”
“You will fall,” I tell him. “It’s part of learning to ride a bike. And you will probably get hurt. But you won’t get hurt very bad.”
With impeccable timing, my six-year-old comes careening into view and crashes, spectacularly, on the driveway in front of us. His knees are bright with blood and he calls out “Mom! The blood’s dripping all the way to the ground! I think I need a Band-Aid!” Then he surveys his legs, wipes away the dripping blood and smears his hands on the grass. “Never mind, I’m good,” he calls, as he takes off again on his bike.
“See?” my eight-year-old says.
“You won’t get hurt like that,” I say. “You won’t get hurt like your brother.”
“Why not?” he asks.
“Because you have a radically different personality,” I say, positioning the handlebars. “Hop on.”
“I want my scooter,” he says, and I relent. We parade to the end of the street and back, the kids and I, three of them speeding blurs on bikes while my son pushes his scooter, slowly, beside me and the baby in the stroller. I watch him methodically scootering beside me and I wonder if he will ever take off with his siblings, or if he is destined to spend the rest of life here beside me, tethered by his own anxiety.
This becomes our modus operandi over the next few days: three kids on bikes, one in a stroller, and one locked tightly in the grip of fear, fighting me every step of the way as I try to prise him out.
“Don’t let go of my seat!” he screams as I stand beside him on his bike. “Don’t let go!”
“Honey, I have to let go,” I tell him. “I can’t run as fast as you can ride, and besides—letting go is kind of the whole point.”
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” he says, dismounting.
I close my eyes and open them again. “I’m going to push you a little bit on this one,” I tell him. “Just like I did with swimming. Remember how scared you were to swim? And look how much you love it now.”
“But this is different,” he insists. “In a pool you can’t fall off and get hurt.”
In a pool you can drown, I think, but I know better than to say that. He is shifting rapidly from foot to foot, fidgeting with his hands, and looking like he’s about to puke.
“I just don’t want to take the risk,” he says, looking at the bike. His voice climbs an octave or two and starts to crack. “I just don’t want to take the risk!”
“Dysregulated,” the psychologists call it, a term I find particularly apt. It’s what happens when the fear is so overwhelming you lose the ability to regulate your own body. I see it in front of me and wonder if I’ve picked the wrong battle, if I’m fighting too hard, if I should just give up and let him spend the rest of his life on a scooter. But I have a hunch, and my hunch says that if we can get over this hurdle, what we will gain will far outweigh what it cost. It’s hard to play a hunch, though, when you’re betting the emotional stability of your son.
“Let’s just try it one more time,” I say the next day as I hold on to his bike. “Let’s go down to the cul-de-sac.”
“But I can’t start,” he says as we walk his bike. “I can’t stop. I can’t steer.”
“But you can ride,” I say. “You really can. All of those other things will come. I’ll start you, I’ll point you straight toward the grass, and you can fall off there where it’s nice and squishy. You’ll be okay. I promise.”
He positions himself at the edge of the cul-de-sac, where his three siblings are whizzing around on their bikes.
“Everybody get off the street!” he yells, his voice raising and cracking. “I don’t want to crash into you. Get off the street!” My throat catches as I watch his siblings immediately turn their bikes back to the sidewalk, making way for their brother. I hold on to his seat and he wants me to hold the handlebars. I hold the handlebars and he wants me to hold the seat. Finally, holding both, we run awkwardly toward the grass. He wobbles a few feet by himself before crashing, unhurt, on the accepting lawn.
“See? You did it, Buddy! You really did it!” I am hopping with excitement even though I know this isn’t the big a-ha moment, the moment he realizes he can ride a bike…it’s just the first hurdle in a series stretching farther than my eyes can see. But still: it’s one hurdle cleared. We celebrate.
Baby steps, bit by bit, day by day. Each day he can go a little farther, last a little longer before becoming “dysregulated.” We practice riding in the cul-de-sac, then switch to the scooter for our longer ride down the street. His siblings cheer him on. He suffers a few minor falls, but can be coaxed, eventually, back on the bike. I start to think we might make it, after all.
One day I’m inside nursing the baby when I see my six-year-old daredevil flying past the house on his bike, with another bike following in hot pursuit behind. It takes me a full minute—takes me until neither bike is still in sight—to realize the boy on the second bike was my son. And the realization makes me cry.
The next morning he is up and dressed and heading out the door a full forty-five minutes before we leave for school—”Going to ride my bike!” he calls back over his shoulder. That afternoon he takes the bike, not the scooter, on our trip to the end of our street.
“Boy, can you believe I used to ride a scooter instead of a bike?!” He catches up to his waiting siblings, incredulous. “A bike is so much better. Can we go on another street now?”
And here is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Here is where we realize, as my knuckles whiten around the stroller handle, that my son doesn’t arrive at his anxiety a priori, with no antecedent. Here is where we face the fact that he gets his anxiety from me. I can keep it in check, more or less—on my street, near my house—but out there? Those roads are busier. Those roads have more cars. Those roads have hills and gravely sections and construction and all sorts of danger. I have four kids on bikes and one in a stroller. I can’t protect them all, out there. Out there, they could be killed.
All the kids are clamoring to ride on. My son is looking at me expectantly. Letting go is kind of the whole point.
And we go. They are all so fast, so much faster than me with the baby in the stroller, and I am watching my eight-year-old take off on his bike, wobbling at first, and I am running so hard my heart feels like it will explode and I am praying, out loud, as my feet pound the pavement behind them, God please, please, please just don’t let him fall. Please just don’t let them get killed. Please just get us all back safely home.
And they are laughing, and I am running, and the baby is squealing with delight, and now I’m calling out to them “Slow down! Wait for me! Stop at the stop sign!” but they can’t hear me, and now I am laughing, too, because I can’t hold them back, because they are flying, I am flying, we are all flying, and we are free.
Author’s Note: Shortly after writing this piece, my four-year-old daughter (in personality, a match for my six-year-old son) took a bad fall on a street a mile from our house—a fall that left her with small scars she will most likely carry into adulthood. Watching her fall, unable to protect her, I realized I had Band-Aids of all sorts of shapes and sizes, fresh water, and ice in the basket of the stroller for just such an event. My eight-year-old had packed them for me, just in case.
Elrena Evans is co-editor of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life, and the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and five children.