How I Became That Weird Theme Park Mom

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I can hear the screams before I’ve even found a parking spot. A heady mix of terror and exhilaration courses through my body and I know I’m not the only one in the minivan who feels it.

I tell my teenage son: “Open the app and check the wait time for Superman!” It’s a sentence I never thought I’d utter — let alone with such enthusiasm.

How did I, a 44-year-old “do-your-homework-brush-your-teeth-say-your-prayers-and-lights-out-before-10” mom, become a person who can debate the various merits of the classic features of El Toro and the modern corkscrew style of Bizarro?

I had been having some bittersweet moments watching my three sons, now 14, 11 and 9, growing up, growing away from me and toward their friends and their futures. Lately, it seemed my husband always got to be the fun one, letting them stay up late to watch a game, trading sports trivia and speaking in baseball vernacular. A secret language I’ve never spoken.

So one day last spring when I received an email promotion for Six Flags season passes for an “unbeatable low, low price,” I thought, what if I could stop time and reel my boys back to me with the promise of roller coasters and bumper cars? I had been adventurous once. I just needed to remind them. Wasn’t I the one who’d say, “Race you to the stars!” as we hopped on swings in the playground behind the library, my long legs and their tiny ones pumping furiously as we sailed toward the treetops. Didn’t I encourage them to brave the Scrambler at the local fair the moment they met the height requirement, giving them their first delicious taste of the wonder of velocity?

My oldest, who was 14 at the time, looked at the cost of regular admission tickets versus the price of season passes and determined that if we were going to go even twice, the passes would pay for themselves. And since we live only an hour from the park, we could easily get there multiple times in a single summer. He concluded that it would be “fiscally irresponsible of us not to get season passes.”

Economics aside, I went that route hoping, for once, to be more than a woman extolling the virtues of beets and proper flossing. And, spoiler alert: It worked.

In this loud and crowded space, a sense of peace and camaraderie washes over us. We are different. I’m not a nagging shrew and they’re no longer sulky, sullen adolescents. Here, we are marauders roaming a land filled with thrills — all of them ours for the taking.

As we race ever closer to the sun on the rails of a steel coaster, I can feel my jowls becoming one with my neck — but I couldn’t care less.

When you’re hurtling through space at 120 miles per hour, there’s no time to worry about the emails you haven’t returned, the lack of milk in your fridge and the bills that await when you return home. You don’t even have a second to consider that an errant bird may fly into your face leaving you with just one eye. Your mind is wonderfully, impossibly, remarkably blank.

As we walk from one section of the park to another in search of more dizzying, gut-churning fun, I’m able to impart small bits of wisdom without coming across as overbearing, the way I might at home.

“The stats on how often tongue piercings get infected are actually pretty alarming,” I caution. “Probably best to skip that whole business, right?”

Moments of pure magic occur as we wait among the sweaty, heavily tattooed masses to become human slingshots. My 14-year-old tells me about an older girl who gave her phone number to his good friend thinking he was 17 because his curly hair makes him appear taller. Would I have heard this story if we were waiting in, say, the orthodontist’s office? No. Normally, it would be easier to get my cat a job as an Uber driver than it is to get one lone anecdote about high school out of this kid.

As we prepare to board the world’s tallest roller coaster and be hydraulically launched 45 stories into the sky, my 11-year-old, his eyes as blue and hopeful as the clear summer sky, looks up at me and asks, “Can we hold hands?”

This is the same child who bolts out the door and forgets to say goodbye to me 40 percent of the school year.

“Of course,” I say and pinch his cheek. He doesn’t pull away.

When I tell friends and family that I’ve taken another day off from work to spend at this glorified carnival where sensory overload and overpriced nachos reign supreme, they grimace.

“Again, Liz?,” they ask, shaking their heads. “Did you lose a bet? Are you blackmailing the boys to empty the dishwasher or fold the laundry? And, if so, is it working?”

It’s then that I realize I’ve inadvertently become “that weird theme park lady.” I don’t tell them I’m doing this for me. For us. Because it makes me feel alive. Because screaming into the abyss is cheaper than a therapist’s co-pay and because I’m trying to go back to a time when I was more than just a bit player in the story of their lives.

In spending a day terrifying ourselves, we have been made fearless together. We’re slightly sunburned, giddy with adrenaline and a sense of having survived an adventure together.

And my kids know a new truth about me: I might not be able to build a go-kart, sink a 3-pointer, or stay awake for 10 consecutive minutes during a single “Star Wars film, but when it comes to thrill rides, I will wait as long as it takes for the front seat and I will hold your hand and scream as we orbit through space. Grinning all the way.