Kim Brooks’ new book, Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear, has only been on sale since last month, but her story has been causing a stir since 2014, when Brooks wrote about the cool, overcast day when she left her four-year-old son alone in the car in a Target parking lot while she ran in to buy him a pair of headphones. During the ten minutes Brooks was in the store, a passerby noticed her son in the car and called the police. Brooks was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and a warrant was issued for her arrest. Though her case was eventually dismissed in exchange for 100 hours of community service, the sting of that day still lingers seven years later. “I felt, I think, what just about every woman feels whenever someone attacks or criticizes her mothering,” she writes in Small Animals. “I felt angry. I felt embarrassed. But beneath all that, I felt ashamed.”
Brooks recounts the incident and its aftermath in such meticulous, suspenseful detail that it’s hard not to imagine yourself in a similar situation when, frazzled by responsibility and pressured by time, you make a split-second decision and hope you get it right. As parents, our job is to constantly assess risk on behalf of our children and ourselves; with so many choices flying at us all day, our batting average is necessarily imperfect. And mothers, Brooks points out by citing experiments conducted at University of California, Irvine, are prone to extra scrutiny and judgment. This is the deeper, more troubling message in her book. “A father who is distracted for a few minutes by his myriad interests and obligations in the world of adult interactions is being, well, a father,” she writes. “A mother who does the same is failing her children.”
In the second half of the book, Brooks brings in stories of other mothers who left their children unattended and were accused of child endangerment or neglect, including a single mom in Atlanta who allowed her nine-year-old daughter to play in a park less than a mile away from the McDonald’s where she worked and the self-proclaimed “terrible Starbucks mom” who left her three kids in her minivan with the sliding door open while she went in for a latte. As little as a generation ago, these choices would have been seen as normal, rational parenting decisions. Today, in many states, they’re against the law.
Brooks argues, as do the panoply of child psychologists and researchers she quotes in Small Animals, that these cases are symptomatic of Americans’ proclivity for overparenting. “We now live in a society where most people believe a child cannot be out of an adult’s sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision,” Lenore Skenazy, a free-range parenting expert, tells Brooks. The misperception flourishes despite the fact that child abductions and molestations have decreased dramatically over the past generation, and that, according to UC Irvine cognitive scientist Barbara Sarnecka, “the greatest risk to children in America right now is not strangers and not pedophiles and not overheating cars, but obesity and all the health disorders related to it,” including Type 2 diabetes, anxiety, and depression.
Still, fear is palpable on practically every page of Small Animals. Brooks admits to being an anxious mother, and in this, too, her story is supremely, heartbreakingly relatable. As a new parent, she read parenting books constantly, obsessed over stroller choices, and compared herself to other parents. “There’s a mania about it, and a constant economizing of time and resources that, once you’re in it, makes it easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees,” she writes.
As a mother to my own two small creatures, I too was beset by anxiety, though of a different sort. I didn’t worry about what other mothers thought of me; I was too busy worrying that I or my kids wouldn’t survive the day or the year. My father died of cancer three months after my second daughter was born, and for the first time in my life, it hit me that I was mortal. If he could die, so could I, so could my daughters. I worried they’d be strangled by window blind cords or choke on watermelon. I worried about the flu. As the years passed, my fears didn’t go away—they just changed form. Later, when the girls started walking home from school by themselves, I fretted about distracted drivers running the four-way stop. Now that they’re older, I worry about sexual predators and cyberbullying, social media, and my worry itself: Have they internalized mine?
Every parent’s tolerance for risk is different, just as every child’s is. I might not have left my daughters alone in a car when they were four, but my husband, Steve, and I started taking them on wilderness rafting trips when they were babies. We had years of whitewater experience and chose our rivers carefully—Class I or II riffles at most—but of course I worried. And when the blowback invariably came from people criticizing our parenting decisions, Steve and I joked nervously that it was only a matter of time before child protective services came knocking. But then, as now, the greater peril seemed not to go, to deny our girls the chance to learn to travel lightly through wild places, to find solace and inspiration in its wildness and in theirs.
Fear may be a chronic, inescapable part of parenthood, but there are things we can do to help alleviate it. In one of Small Animals’ more uncomfortable moments, Brooks is outside her urban Chicago townhouse not long after the Target incident; she sees a cluster of parents watching their kids ride tricycles and play on pogo sticks in the alley. It’s early evening, a nice scene, but neither Brooks nor her husband want anything to do with it. “I’d come to dread these moments of communal parenting,” she writes.
This struck me as a missed opportunity. A strong sense of community can be integral to kids’ independence and parents’ peace of mind. With mutual trust and communication, neighbors can be allies in your efforts to give kids freedom as they grow, an extra set of eyes if they run into trouble, a door to knock on if they need help. Playing under adult supervision, as the kids on Brooks’ street were doing, is the first step toward the unstructured free-range play that helps them grow into self-reliant, problem-solving adults. Like anything, though, independence takes practice. When I walk my daughters partway to school, I’m training them to be safe and responsible with their freedom as much as I’m training myself to let them go. This takes baby steps, breaking down objectives into manageable pieces for everyone and building up solo time gradually until, one day, you realize they’re ready, and so are you.
I also found myself hoping Brooks would carve out some solo time for herself. “For years, I’d been embracing, or at least blindly accepting, the assumption that a woman who has small children doesn’t just become a mom,” writes Brooks. “She becomes Mom.” Except for a two-week writing residency in Virginia, we don’t see Brooks in anything but that maternal role. Toward the end of Small Animals, though, she comes across a snapshot of herself as a young girl flinging herself off a diving board.
She props the photograph on her dresser, and for a moment, I’m hopeful. She’s going to make the leap and reclaim the fun and frivolity that all too often go missing from a mother’s life. And she does, sort of. Brooks goes away to New York City for a long weekend—with her husband and kids and siblings and nieces. Still, I couldn’t help but wish for her the same sweet independence she wants for her children: the pure, unadulterated joy of pumping your legs on a swing with your head tilted back, riding a bike with the wind in your face, running along a trail, alone, of throwing yourself off a diving board into the unknown, accountable, in that moment, to no one. No matter what our age, we all need freedom. We all need to play. When the shadow of my anxiety comes skulking back, as it always does, the only thing to do is put the books—even this fine one—back on the shelf and go where I always feel better, more grounded and sure and alive: outside.