Friday, April 27, 2007


Tristan on two wheels

This post was inspired by MotherTalk's Blog Bonanza called "Fearless Friday", to support the paperback launch of Arianna Huffington's book On Becoming Fearless.

In thinking about what to write about, I chewed over lots of times when I've been fearless: travelling for a month by myself through Europe when I was 25 comes to mind (except, I wasn't so much fearless as terrified and too far from home to to anything about it except keep going), as does when I left my ex-husband. Even choosing to undergo the IVF treatment that lead to Tristan begged a leap of faith, and more than a bit of fearlessness.

That's not where I want to go with this, though.

Last Saturday, I took the training wheels off Tristan's beloved bicycle. We had been talking it up for a while. Since the middle of last summer, I'd been asking him if he was ready for me to take off the training wheels, and he'd answer unequivocally, "Not until I'm five."

He turned five this March, and I think we both knew it was time. It's been a funny season here, and we've had snow on and off enough that he's only managed to ride his bike a few times - although I'm sure he asked for it every single day. Finally, last Saturday was one of those gorgeous days that vault over spring entirely and instead more closely resemble early summer. Tristan and I decided early that morning that it would be the big day, the day the training wheels came off, and he pestered me with endless enthusiasm as I tried to get a few quick things done before we set off for the school yard with its wide expanses of flat, untrafficked pavement to try it out. In the end, it was just easier to drop what I was doing and indulge him than to keep putting him off. He practically flew into the house when I told him to go find not only his helmet, but a set of knee and elbow pads, too. (He is my son, after all. We're not graceful people by nature.)

Somehow, I thought it would be difficult to take off the training wheels - I'm always thrilled for an opportunity to haul out my toolbox - but the bolt holding the wheels in place twisted off in my fingertips. Just a few twists, and suddenly my oldest son was the proud but nervous owner of a wobbly, unpredictable two-wheeler.

Used to a bike that didn't fight back, he was having trouble controlling it even in the driveway. We only made it as far as the stop sign at the corner, him not sure how to maintain his balance and me not sure how to impart my knowledge on to him, before he started losing his patience.

"I can't do it!" he whined. "It's too hard."

"Yes you can," I said through gritted teeth, hot and frustrated and more than a little impatient myself. We stumbled on for a few more meters, but both of us were rapidly losing interest.

"I think maybe I have to be six," said Tristan, now pushing his bike and walking beside it.

"You know," I replied, getting my breath and composure back incrementally, "nobody can ride a bike without training wheels perfectly the first time. It's a little bit of work, and you have to learn to balance yourself. But if we practise a little bit each day, I'm sure you'll be able to do it."

He remained unconvinced, and politely declined when I suggested we try again. Later that afternoon, I suggested we have another go at it, but he again declined. We've had the most gorgeous, mild weather this week - perfect for bike-riding - and yet Tristan's bike has languished, abandoned in the garage on its kickstand.

He's so much like me, Tristan is. He doesn't like to fail, doesn't like to do it wrong. He doesn't like to be anything less than perfect. This, I think, is at the root of - among other things - my endless troubles with acquiring the professional level of French I'll need for my job if I want to get a promotion some day. I don't like looking foolish, don't like taking the risk, don't like facing the possibility that I won't be perfect the first time I try.

I found myself thinking about it over the last few days, this fear of failure. It's a strong fear in me, perhaps even more so than my near-legendary fear of change. If I can't do it perfectly, I'm often too embarrassed to try it at all. In thinking of all the things in my life that would not have happened if I hadn't been afraid to screw things up royally, I've realized that the best things have come from throwing that fear to the wind. One can only ride with training wheels for so long.

Wednesday night after dinner, I suggested to Tristan that we try again with the bicycle. He'd had it in the driveway a couple of times to practice his balance and scoot about by himself, but we hadn't really tried any long distances since that first day. To our mutual surprise, half way around the block some synaptic/physical connection was forged and Tristan was suddenly pedalling madly with me running beside him but no longer holding the bike seat. If I lagged behind, he would falter, but as long as I kept up with him, panting heavily at his shoulder but not touching him, he was able to maintain his balance.

We were both delighted. "I did it!" he cried, pride and surprise mingling in his voice. "I can't wait to tell Daddy. I did it!" Just before the final stretch to the house, he hopped off his bike and started to walk it the rest of the way home. "I can do it if I want to," he assured me. "I just need a little rest." He knows his limits. I don't know many adults who have acquired that skill yet.

It never fails to amaze me how much our kids teach us about being parents, and about being people. Sometimes, you just have to suck up that fear of gravity, that nauseous uncertainty, that reluctance to risk an ungainly crash. Sailing down the street with the breeze in your face for that first liberating ride is a lot more fun than sitting on the porch, watching the other kids whizzing by on their bikes while you wish you were brave enough to try.

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