Riding a bicycle is easy. You just have to already know how to do it.
The last few weeks, I’ve been toeing a cautious line as I encourage my oldest child to ride his bike. After months of gentle debate, he was finally swayed toward a trial period without training wheels; admittedly, a leap of faith for a five-year-old, taking something you’ve only recently learned how to do and upping the difficulty level. I don’t want to tell him that it’s easy, because that’s not the sort of thing that’s helpful to hear when you’re falling over in the street. I don’t want him to think it’s hard, though, because there’s no sense in upselling a mountain to someone who’s already agreed to climb it.
I know it’s hard, though.
Riding a bike is one of my favorite things in the world to do, when I remember that and allow myself the time to do it. The cooperation between body and machine is something like poetry; twenty-some pounds of metal and rubber transforming a lumbering ape like me into a graceful projectile, floating three feet off the ground at twenty miles per hour. Running is brutal; despite doing my fair share of it over the years, running has always felt like racing a clock, trying to get where I’m going before my knees or arches or lungs give out for the day. On a bike, I can simply keep cruising. You can move faster and further and freer on a bicycle than you ever thought possible before you saddled up, and I want him to feel that freedom, feel that joy.
How do you explain how to do it, though?
I’ve never been the best at teaching anything—all due credit to those who can—but it can be especially hard to impart wisdom on something that’s become intuitive to you, whether it be tying your shoes or playing an instrument, swinging a bat or riding a bike. Put your feet on the pedals, and push. Don’t fall over; just keep pushing. Stay upright and keep your eyes ahead of you. Just push. If someone were telling me this as I kept falling over? Well, I’d be pretty frustrated after a while, too. But that’s really all there is to it.
I want to tell him about the good days. The day I rode a hundred miles and finished on a narrow spit of beach, staring out over a glittering ocean and feeling like Alexander, like I’d conquered all the lands of the earth. The days I rode around the city, seeing sights I’d never see on foot or from a car, like I’d snuck backstage to the world. The times I hit speeds going down a hill that felt terrifyingly unsafe and exhilaratingly free all at once. The times it all just felt so perfect and fluid and like I could go on forever.
I don’t tell him about all the times I’ve eaten it hard, of course, like the time I flipped so hard into my handlebars that I had the wind knocked out of me for what seems like an hour. I don’t tell him about riding shoeless as a child and skinning my foot when it went between the tire and fork. I don’t tell him about all the parking meters or curbs I fell into when I was learning to use cleated bike shoes. I don’t tell him about the time I took a shortcut through what I thought was standstill traffic and got knocked off my bike by a car that was, as quickly became apparent to me, not standing still. (In what remains my most essentially New York City experience ever, the driver got out, asked if I was alright first, and then cursed me out for running a red light once I confirmed that I was. He was correct both in fact and in tone.)
There are bad times riding just like there are bad times doing anything, and you don’t let those distract you from the good. (Just try not to run red lights.)
There’s a lot to say and a lot not to say, but mostly?
Just keep pushing, Stay upright, and keep pushing.
Parenting is easy. You just have to already know how to do it.
Everything makes sense in retrospect, and almost none of it in the moment. The day we brought him home from the hospital remains the single most terrifying day of my life, when we were suddenly solely responsible for keeping eight and a half pounds of extremely fragile human alive and there was no longer a team of nurses checking in on our ability to do so every twenty minutes. We had done all of the reading, taken all of the advice that people offered, and in those first moments home, not a lick of it mattered. We were on our own.
Barring serious medical complications, a new baby’s screams mean one of three things: I’m hungry, I’m tired, or I’m gassy. This is small consolation when you’re desperately trying to get the screaming to stop and you’ve tried all three and nothing’s worked and maybe it is something serious and should we call the doctor do you think we’re doing something wrong and oh he just farted and he’s fine now. Well-meaning people who’ve been through it can try to tell you what to do, but that doesn’t make actually doing it any easier. The only ironclad piece of advice I received as a new parent was “support the head”, and that is in fact up to 85% of parenting a newborn, at least speaking as the parent whom the baby was not directly physically dependent on.
After a while, though, things start to make sense—right after you needed them to. I don’t know a thing about raising a teenager, but a three-year-old makes perfect sense to me, as person who is no longer in charge of a three-year-old’s well-being. The map of their needs and your abilities and the places where those two things meet appears crystal clear in the rearview mirror, existing mostly so that you can provide well-meaning advice to people for whom it will be every bit as useless as it was to you in that same moment. But now you know, and so you tell them.
Just keep pushing. Stay upright, and keep pushing.
It’s hard watching your kids get older, and mine aren’t even that old yet. Looking at photos from even two years ago fills me with deep pangs of longing over time’s merciless march forward, mourning the tiny little wonders they’ll never be again. When your kids are young, the most frequent thing anyone will say to you—aside from telling you to support the head, which again, you really should do—is to cherish these times. They move by so fast. I understand the well-meaning sentiment behind saying this, but it’s always bothered me to hear it. I want to scream back “I am cherishing this! And it’s not stopping them!” Instead, I smile, and mumble an agreement.
I want my kids to need me forever, but more than that, I want them to not need me. Of course that’s contradictory; emotions stop making any sort of sense once children are in your life. I was once a bulletproof stoic in the face of the most sentimental movies; now a well-crafted car commercial can bring tears to my eyes. A neighbor friend often posts flashbacks photos of her children, who I’ve only known as teenagers, when they were mere toddlers. The photos are from only a few short years ago, a rapid evolution from little kids to full-on people that presages my own near future, and each time I see them I exclaim out loud “stop doing that! I don’t want to know!”
The actual parenting gets easier, though.
Children who once relied on us for everything now just rely on us for most things. They can use the potty by themselves, bathe themselves (sort of), get themselves dressed and under the right conditions even occasionally feed themselves, as long as I’m willing to look the other way about what they’re eating. (I am.) They can work safety scissors and ice dispensers, telephones and tablets and quite regrettably, they’ve gotten really rather adept with the television remote.
Every day they need me less, and that makes my days incrementally easier, and my life incrementally harder.
I want them to be self-sufficient people, brave and bold and able to take care of themselves one day. I want them to be physically strong and emotionally strong, unafraid of the things they should be unafraid of and confident enough to simply avoid the things they should be afraid of. I want them to know that there are no monsters under the bed, that volcanoes don’t exist in Kentucky, that we have never had a fire in our house. (That last one is a lie, but they don’t need to know that.)
I want them to know that they will be okay, and I want that to always be true.
He climbs out of the grass where he’s fallen again, and declares that he’s going into the garage to get his training wheels back. Of course, I won’t allow that to happen, and he wouldn’t find them anyways. (I’m still good at hiding things from him.) I allude to the times I’ve fallen over myself, while omitting some of the hairier details. It’s okay to fall down. The important part is that you get back up, I say. You’re doing great. Let’s try it again. Each day, he makes it a little bit farther. One house down. Two houses down. He’s wobbly, but he’s getting steadier. Learning to push.
The sun finally came out last weekend, for what felt like the first time in a year. I brought my bike out of storage and went for my first outdoor ride of the season, a quick dozen miles or so around the neighborhood. I felt liberated; it was still a bit chilly and the wind cut through my light jacket, but I didn’t care. I was moving, cruising smooth and free and joyful again. When I got home, he was out in the street, practicing with my wife. Look what he can do, she smiled, and he was smiling too.
I stood behind him, hand on his back as it’s been the whole time. He wobbled to start, but found his balance. He was starting to understand. I began a half-jog to keep up, steadying him as we went. He pushed hard, and his back left my hand. He rolled down the street, moving on his own. Pushing, and staying upright. Moving without me.
How do you let them go, off into the world on their own?
It’s just like riding a bike.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)