Nearly 2 weeks ago, the 13 year old daughter of a friend of ours went missing. It looked as though she ran away; she was last seen getting off a bus in New York City. After 12 days of unimaginable sadness for her parents, her story spread through social media and, thanks to a tip, police found her, safe, inside a 45 year old man’s house in New Jersey. I don’t know much more about the story except that the New Jersey man has been arrested and that there may have been a possible internet-based relationship involved.
It makes me sick to my stomach.
At 13 I spent my time dancing around my room and singing musicals at the top of my lungs into a hairbrush microphone. I agonized over holding a boy’s hand at the movies when our parents drove us to the movies for our first date. I felt the awkward brush of lips that somehow passed for my first kiss. I babysat on weekends. I still went to roller skating birthday parties. I giggled with my friends. To think about 13 year old girls checking out dating websites and chat rooms and connecting with 45 year old men blows my mind.
The scariest part, to me, as a parent, is to wonder if this could ever happen to me. To MY family. To MY son or daughter. I guarantee our friend didn’t think it could happen to his. You know what they say: keep parental controls on your kids’ internet usage, educate them about being safe online, look for signs that they aren’t happy or that they are hiding something, be open so they talk to you. But the bottom line is that teenagers are smart. Especially now. The parents might not have a clue. No matter how hard they try, parents can’t always keep their children safe.
When I was pregnant with Owen I remember feeling this intense power and pride that I was growing a little person. I was keeping him safe and healthy. I was. I could totally protect him, at least while he was in my belly. When he was born I was immediately struck by just how dangerous the world is. It’s all sharp corners and scratchy surfaces and poisonous chemicals and loud noises and bright lights. I barely wanted to put him down in case something happened to him. Little by little I had to get over that fear, though. We have to live our lives. I had to teach him to crawl on his own, and walk on his own, and have the confidence to try things without me holding his hand and explore the world beyond my arms. It’s the scariest thing a parent has to do — let go. And know that we can’t protect our babies all of the time.
My mom and I were recently discussing how important it is to realize that every stage kids are in leads to another, even more wonderful stage. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in wanting our babies to stay babies forever. For me, it’s mostly because we can protect them when they are small. We keep them safe in our bellies. When they bump their head, we can pick them up and kiss them and tell them it’s going to be alright. But it scares me to think about when they are teenagers and the space we have given them gets so wide that they could have an online relationship with a sexual predator and I, as the mother, might not even know.
So I guess I do believe my mother when she says that children just get better and better as they grow. But hearing stories like the one about my friend’s daughter also makes me want to hold Owen’s hand for the rest of his life.
Some things would be a lot easier if they stayed babies forever, huh?