Navigating the Wilds of Maternal Love

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Growing up, we had a nickname for our mother: “Mrs. Worst Case Scenario.” Peril, it seemed, was everywhere. An invitation to go on a ski trip inevitably meant a broken leg. Swimming in the ocean spelled certain death from unseen riptides — everyone knew the lifeguards weren’t really watching. And then, at age 22, when I told her I planned to travel cross country, her response was resolute: “Absolutely not. You’ll get raped, murdered or worse,” she said, failing to clarify what might be worse.

Negotiations ensued, and five weeks later, I unzipped my tent in Yosemite National Park in search of a pay phone. I found a little convenience hut and asked the attendant for directions. “Excuse me,” she called as I walked away. “By any chance is your name Maggie? Maggie from New Jersey?”

There’s almost no favorable scenario in which a national park campground clerk can accurately guess your name and home state. In my case, I knew what this meant: It meant park rangers. Possibly all-points bulletins. I pictured search dogs fanning the wilderness with only the stale scent of a college T-shirt for guidance.

It meant I’d forgotten to call home.

One of the many terms of our agreement had been this: I must call home every six hours, leaving a voice mail message with the time of day, current highway and the nearest exit, along with any additional details helpful to local law enforcement.

“So they’ll know where to start looking for your body.” Mom had said this through clenched teeth on the day of my departure, angry that I would risk her peace of mind on this ridiculous whim. She’d stuffed business cards in the glove compartment of the Chevy Corsica we were traveling in and into random pockets of my duffel bag, presumably to notify my next of kin.

The Yosemite story became lore. When chatting with someone who didn’t know my overprotective mother, a friend would gush: “Tell them the ‘Maggie from New Jersey’ story!” It became my pièce de résistance about my crazy mother.

But now, as a mom myself in a perilous era, I’ve begun to understand. These days, nearly every moment feels like a cautionary tale for my children’s survival. They are living amid a pandemic where simply touching the monkey bars could spell disaster. Not that Covid-19 has quashed their more dangerous fantasies: My oldest passes a parked motorcycle and talks of her plans to ride one. “Absolutely not,” I hear my mother say.

Only, now, it’s my own voice that I hear.

My daughters are 7, 5 and 1 — hardly ages to be let loose into the wilds. Yet, on a recent hike, I shirked every request. The rocks my children wanted to climb? Covered in slippery moss. The narrow path begging exploration? A breeding ground for ticks.

My mother often spoke about my body as if it were a Roth I.R.A. she’d cultivated. But as angry as she made me, I see now that I’ve no stones to throw, as I’ve been raising my daughters in that same glass house — retrofitted as a germ-proof bunker. I’m only seven years vested and already feel like I should have a lifetime controlling share in any decisions that might result in bodily or emotional harm. And isn’t that nearly every decision?

Therein lies my covetous secret. That bunker isn’t for my children. It’s for me. Because, if something terrible happened to them, I wouldn’t survive. I realize now what my mother had been referencing, so many years ago — what could be worse than being raped or murdered: those unspeakable things happening to one’s child. That’s the fear that comes with loving someone almost to the point of irrationality.

Less than an hour after I’d asked about the pay phone, my traveling companions and I scrambled free of Yosemite’s cellular dead zone, the sun bearing down as we cleared the forest and hit a straight patch of highway. I watched as my cellphone came back to life: Twenty-two new messages — my father, siblings, best friends, a boyfriend, all trying to track me down at my mother’s behest. The final message came at 2 a.m. saying simply: “This is your mother and I am NOT asleep.” I spent that three-hour drive to San Francisco, half terrified, half resentful of the tether that felt more like a noose around my neck.

But 20 years later, my indignation has dimmed. My reflection, these days, is about the sheer magnitude of maternal love: That if you set off into the world, there is someone who loves you so fiercely, so irrationally, that they will find you in the wilds of California. That the attendant in a campsite sundries hut will know your name. That, without knowing you’re safe at 2 a.m., your mother will not be asleep.

At the time, I couldn’t dream of a world in which I’d ever feel comforted knowing someone cared about my exact location. That I would ever marvel at a love so encompassing that it expressed itself through stashed business cards and all points bulletins. I want to call my mother and explain all of this, but, of course, I can’t. She died at 64, not from the risks she’d feared for me, but from cigarettes smoked in her youth — an enemy from which her own mother didn’t even know to protect her.

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And so here I am, motherless, left to navigate the wilds of this deranged love, unable to ask her: Would she have done it any differently? And should I?

The past few months, I’ve contained my children in the equivalent of that bunker — our small, quarantined rowhouse — shielded from nearly every outside variable. I finally have my protective bubble, but it’s far from satisfying. Lost is the glimmer in their eyes encountering something new, the growth that comes with testing out the world on their own. But eventually, we’ll leave these confines. Someday they’ll make their own decisions. Will I really be able to watch them pull out of our driveway in somebody else’s old Chevy and sleep in an unprotected tent? Will I be able to stand in the doorway as they embark on an adventure, knowing that inherent in every adventure is risk?

That’s when I remember: “Mrs. Worst Case Scenario” herself stood in that doorway and sent me out into the wild — albeit with her own irrational parameters. The selfless side of mothering won out, even if I couldn’t recognize it then. It was a truth I never considered as we drove west out of Yosemite, the lines of sequoias fading into the horizon line, thinking only of ourselves, the possibilities of the open road, and what adventures the night held in San Francisco.

Maggie Master, a writer based in Baltimore, is working on her first novel for young adults.