Category Archives: milestones

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Big screen at the concert with Paul Simon playing the guitar on itI got back from Ireland on the Tuesday evening of that week. On the Friday, B and I did something we haven’t done for years and years – we went to a concert. A real proper concert, not just a gig. We saw Paul Simon, and it was amazing.

There were moments during the evening when the long relationship I’ve had with Paul Simon’s music, and how it’s been intertwined with that other long relationship in my life – the one with my husband – made my brain do that expand-and-contract thing (imagine, if you will, a slidy trombone noise) as it tried to take in the expanse of time from my first experience of Paul Simon to where I am now. Timey wimey, wibbly wobbly indeed.

Sometimes all the points in my life seem to be laid out on a flat surface rather than along a timeline. The distance from any one to another might be near or far but bears no connection to such two-dimensional things as years and decades. I can vividly remember a moment when I was 20, but not necessarily last week.

The older I get, the more this will happen, I bet. It’s unnerving, this living in the world business, if you look at it from a height.

Though maybe it was the jetlag too. It was a very whiplashy week, going from filial responsibilities and reminders of inescapable mortality to pure selfish entertainment with a side of romantic nostalgia with little but a transatlantic flight and the graduation from elementary school of my elder child to buffer the two extremes.

That sort of enforced perspective can really mess with your mind. Maybe just as well we don’t manage to do it very often.View of the stage (from way back) with teeny tiny Paul Simon and his band

Some birthdays are better than others

I don’t know whether I’ve documented every one of Dash’s birthday parties here, but I know I’ve done a lot of them. Last year, the big One-Oh, seemed like the culmination. Dash had been planning it since before he turned nine, all the kids I thought wouldn’t be able to come showed up, and it was a giant, crazy, over-the-top ball of mayhem.

“No more!” we said, spent, forgetting that Dash would continue to have birthdays every year. This April rolled around and we realised that we would not get out of hosting some sort of party, because he is the polar opposite of his sister who really only wants a trip to Build-a-Bear with one or two friends. I tried to convince him to do a destination event – the really cool climbing wall place, perhaps, that he’s wanted to go back to for ages – but no. It had to be a party at home.
“I’ve always had a party at home, except that one year when we went to Pump It Up and I didn’t like that. It has to be at home.” He was not for turning.
“But Daddy and I are exhausted. We can’t come up with more party games. Your friends don’t want to play lame party games made up by you and your parents. It’s chaos. It’s anarchy. And it’ll probably rain. We can’t do it,” we said. Impasse.

Then, salvation arrived in the shape someone who mentioned that they’d had a laser-tag birthday party at their house. A guy had come along with a van full of laser guns, showed the kids how to use them, and then run the games for two hours. All I’d have to do was feed ’em. (I can do that. Though I always underestimate how much other people’s boys can eat.)

I was sold. I got the contact details and booked it. We capped the invitees at a smaller number than last year. Everyone was happy. I forgot to obsessively monitor the weather forecast because I was busy being busy with other things, and we just threw a party two weeks ago (for B’s birthday). Suddenly, the day before the day was upon us, and I had to plan the party food, shop for the party food, make the party food, clean the house (a very little bit), and make sure the sun was going to shine.

The weather forecast was not good. In fact, there was a 65 to 85% chance of rain during the time of the party. Dash and I went to the supermarket on Friday after dinner and bought everything we could possibly need – except butter and chocolate chips, which I had to send B out for as soon as we got back – and I made the cake.

On the morning of the party my luck was in and Mabel’s soccer game was cancelled because of all the rain on Friday. Dash went to baseball practice and I sandwiched the three layers of chocolate cake (as requested) together with lovely chocolate buttercream, and dredged some icing sugar on top. As, I thought, requested. Then Dash got home (practice cut short due to rain) and announced that it was meant to be vanilla icing, and it was supposed to be on top as well. It was ruined. I was the worst party mom ever, he said sadly. I always get something wrong, he told me, neglecting to remember all the things I got right that he didn’t even notice. I felt somewhat under-appreciated, though it was true that he’d said vanilla and I’d forgotten.

Three-layer chocolate cake with chocolate icing in between

Cake: first incarnation

We both retreated for a little while to lick our wounds, and then I suggested we could make some vanilla icing and put it on the top, since the icing sugar that was there already wouldn’t hinder that. He agreed it would be better than nothing. (I thought it would be just that bit more cloying, but it wasn’t my cake.) He helped, and did all the spreading. (Exhibit B, below.) Then he helped make lemon scones too, since there was still plenty of time. He’s a man of tradition, and if a party doesn’t have chocolate cornflake buns and lemon scones and pigs in blankets, it’s not a party. (Actually, he just likes plain blankets, with no pigs.)

Triple-layer cake with white icing on top and some smeared messily down the sides

Cake: second incarnation. I didn’t know he was planning to put the vanilla on the sides as well, but then he did, and here we are.

The rain had been coming and going all morning, but mostly coming. I thought it might let up in time for the party. The guests were a little late and the laser-tag guy was late too, because the Beltway was chockablock of people driving to or from or to avoid the March for Science in DC. It didn’t matter. He got them all fitted out with their guns and they ran around playing various games of team-based laser tag for an hour and a half, mostly in the pouring rain. I looked out the window and was mildly concerned, hoped their mothers wouldn’t hold the weather against me, and went to find a pile of towels.

Four boys with laser tag guns in front of houses

Trying out the guns. Once they started playing there was a lot more running and hiding. Also more rain.

Eventually they all came in, shedding muddy shoes and towelling off their wet hair at the door, and descended on the table like the proverbial locusts. Dash got to light his candles – at least the first few – and blew them out in one go. Parents arrived and removed their damp progeny, leaving behind nothing but tumbleweeds of tossed-aside wrapping paper, the tracks of wet socks, and tortilla-chip crumbs on the floor, and everyone said they’d had a good time.

Dash blowing out his candles

Eleven candles.

I would have liked some wine at that point, but first I had to take Dash down to the urgent care, because he’d managed to bump his chin off the laser-tag gun right at the start and give himself an oddly deep cut. It needed three stitches, which was a first for both of us, but there was no wait and the tetanus shot was much better than he was anticipating. The doctor asked me about my brogue, which is never a good word to use to a suburban Dubliner, but she didn’t know any better. I distracted us all with stories of Dash’s birth in Texas eleven years ago tomorrow, and if he does have a scar it’ll be a handsome one that makes him look like Kirk Douglas (if you like that sort of thing; my mother would frown and say “Oh, he was never my cup of tea”).

The doctor said he can’t do gym or sports and has to stay away from situations where balls might fly at his face (yes, she actually said that, but I didn’t point out that she was quoting Clueless). He’s very miffed that he’ll miss baseball all week, including his team’s first two games – but on the bright side, all the rain also caused them to postpone today’s season opening day ceremonies, and the big game between the winning and runner-up teams from last year, until next week, so he’ll be able to play in that.

I got my wine when I got home, but it wasn’t very nice and it gave me a headache this morning anyway. Tomorrow he turns eleven. It wasn’t the best birthday celebration day ever, probably; but the big day is still to come. There’s a giant Nerf gun and some Lego Technic waiting for him, which I think he’ll like even if it isn’t a Playstation. We’re not the greatest birthday parents, but we try, every year.

Seven’s end

Today is my last day to have a seven year old. Tomorrow, I will have two tweens in the house.

I love seven because it’s a magic number. But eight sounds so composed, so balanced, so very sensible. I think I’m going to love eight too.

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Decade

Ten years ago in the last few days of August, the B and I put our four-month-old baby in the Corolla and started the drive from southmost Texas to Maryland, two years after we had first driven all the way there from Pennsylvania. In many ways, driving back north felt oddly like going home, even though Maryland is technically below the Mason-Dixon line (and therefore still in the South, unlike Yankee Pennsylvania). Texas was pretty alien. I’d only lived in Pennsylvania for 18 months before that, but B had been there a whole PhD’s worth of time. Maryland felt reassuringly familiar.

Lone palm tree by the water looking over at buildings in the distance

Buh-bye, Texas

We’d rented a place to live, sight unseen, which is always a horrible way to go about it. It was not very close to B’s new place of work, because we were assured that we didn’t want to live in that particular county. We should live one county over, where it was – I don’t know, nicer, safer, more expensive, something. In retrospect this was a bad decision because with B driving the car off to work every day I was left trapped in the apartment, in walking distance of one set of shops but nothing else. Every day I pushed the baby up to the supermarket, took a look in Sears, stopped at Starbucks if he was either cheerful or asleep, and back home. He’d fall asleep on the walk back, but often wake up when I tried to get him back inside, which involved one flight of steps up to the front door and another down to our basement-level apartment.

Baby having his toes dipped in the water on a long beach

Hello, Atlantic Ocean

I didn’t meet anyone while we lived there. I don’t know who our neighbours were. I didn’t make any friends. I tried to find a moms’ group but the only one I could find was about 30 miles away. We went once, making a game effort, but it was too far. It was lonely, but it was temporary, because we’d only rented that place for three months.

At the end of our three months we were more familiar with the area. We moved to a condo across the road from B’s place of work, in the dodgy county, where rents were lower and everything else, as far as we could see, was exactly the same. (We hadn’t encountered the school system yet. That’s where the biggest difference lies.) But for me, it was the beginning of actually making a life here rather than just pushing the baby around on my own, day after day. I had the car: I could go places. I found the library. I found the community center. I found a local group of moms and dads that met at the playground every Wednesday. I found my space.

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Baby’s first DMV historical site. (George Washington’s birthplace in Virginia, where we stopped for… lunch, or education, or something.)

But ten years. If you’d told me then, as we drove the highways north of New Orleans, along the Gulf shores of Mississippi and Alabama – communities still reeling from Hurricane Katrina the year before – through the panhandle of Florida, into Georgia and up along the coast of the Carolinas, that we’d still be in the US ten years later, I’d probably have demanded that we move home straight away. This was not the plan. (This is why nobody should know the future, even if it’s perfectly good.) The plan was another couple of years in the US and then home to Ireland to buy a house and settle down and send the baby to a nice Educate Together school if possible and be perfectly normal Irish people.

We still have the Corolla, but we have a Subaru too, because we’re true suburbanites now. We bought a house that’s still close to B’s work, but not where they’re out dealing drugs on the stoops. (Apparently that’s what went on in our second rental’s neighbourhood. I had no idea at the time.) Some of the friends I made that first year are still my friends, and their kids are my kids’ friends, and we’re all Americans now. (Even B. has a citizenship application in the works at the moment.)

Oh, we still have the baby too. Sort of.

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*****

I nearly forgot to mention my new stickers. I’m delighted to be shortlisted once again in the Personal Blog – Diaspora category of the Irish Blog Awards – but there’s a public vote element to this round. If you’d be so very kind as to click through here and take a moment to log in (sorry!) and vote for Awfully Chipper, I’d be eternally grateful.

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Everything changes

I already feel like this is going to be the summer when everything changed.

Maybe every summer after this will be one of those summers, or maybe I’ll look back and think “I thought that was change? THIS is change.” But the summers when they were little kids, I think those are over.

One thing is the electronics. We sort of fell into the chasm of electronics without really meaning to, which is of course the worst way to do it. All at once, Dash got his iPad Mini because he had to do something with all that birthday money/tokens, and B invested in a Chromebook for Dash to use for homework and the kids to use for other things so they didn’t keep stealing my computer. And Mabel had already started treating my Kindle Fire like her own personal Minecraft machine, since I hardly use it when we’re at home anyway… it all got away from us a bit.

Their obsession with various games waxes and wanes, and device time can be used for bribery purposes. Dash is proving fairly good at self-regulating with his, too, so it’s not all bad. I suppose. Maybe, like having babies, there’s never a perfect time to introduce electronics. Maybe if you think too hard about it you’ll never be ready. Maybe we’d all like to keep our kids little Luddites forever, since we had to be when we were children – but that’s not going to work, is it? We’re a bit like Pooh and the honey pot with it still – sometimes we’re on top and sometimes the technology is running the show, but we’ll sort it out.

Then there’s swimming. For the past six years, I’ve bought a three-month membership at the pool in June and we’ve trotted down there almost every afternoon of the long hot summers. It’s been a lifesaver. The kids learned to swim not really from sporadic lessons, but just from showing up over and over. The tedium of gathering towels and slathering sunscreen was made up for by some social time at the pool – where we’d almost always meet some friends, without needing to make plans to do so – and a good night’s sleep guaranteed.

So this year I shelled out for summer membership, as usual. We’ve gone to the pool maybe three times since then. Dash has had a vendetta against swimming, for no apparent reason, and though Mabel likes the pool well enough, she’s usually happy at home of an afternoon, not going bonkers and needing to be dragged somewhere. Nothing forces me to muster the energy for a pool run, and Dash would probably stay at home alone anyway, now that he can. Bedtimes are getting later and later. Next year I’ll probably save my money and give someone extra camp time instead.

It will have been the summer of my book, of course. My first book, let’s say, optimistically. I don’t expect instant stardom to ensue, so that they look back and say “Well, of course, that happened before Mom was famous…” but I do want it to be a beginning, not just the end of something. And whether I’m writing more or editing more or have a part-time job next summer, one of those things may well be the case, and then it would have to be camps all round, or at least a lot of boring stay-at-home time for Dash (who doesn’t like camps unless I can find some very cool engineering or rock climbing one, he says).

It might just possibly be the summer Mabel started to read books. She’s reading something called The Chronicles of Wrenly, and it seems to be holding her attention enough that she’ll quite willingly read a chapter or two a day, when I suggest it. (All right, there was a bribe involved to start her off, but even though the Playmobil set is already in transit, she’s going to finish the book. And it’s a series!) I think it’s just managing to hit that sweet spot of interesting enough and easy enough, so that reading isn’t remotely a chore.

But more than those concrete things, it’s definitely been a summer of more autonomy for Dash. He chooses to come with us or stay at home more often now. It’s mostly stay at home, but hey, if I could choose to stay home from the supermarket I probably would. He spends too much time on his iPad one day and then voluntarily keeps away from it for all of the next. So it’s been a summer of me figuring out how to let go, loosening the reins, trusting him, letting him be his own person.

This is Dash’s last summer as an elementary school student. This time next year he’ll be a rising middle-schooler. No wonder things are changing. I can barely keep up.

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Dashing onward

Baby Dash, about two weeks old, arms flailing

You have a baby, and it feels like forever. Time is measured in two-hour blocks, all day, all night, for ever. You’re constantly counting things, because it gives you the illusion of control: feeds, ounces, wet diapers, dirty diapers, weeks until breastfeeding gets easier, hours of sleep. Minutes of sleep. It takes so long, so much, just to get as far as that first smile, when everyone says things will start looking up.

He gets his first tooth, a white nub of sharpness poking through the bottom gum, and you feel a tiny chime of something, of sadness, of “over-ness” because this is the beginning of the end of your newborn, who isn’t a newborn any more anyway, he’s already up on hands and knees rocking back and forth and propelling himself backwards into the blinds on the french window instead of forwards to the thing he so badly wants to reach. You laugh and make videos because you know that in a day or three or five he’ll be going forwards after all, and he’ll never look back again.

You have a little boy, sturdy, chubby-handed, all grins and cheeks and dimples and still-fluffy wispy hair. He lisps adorably and says memote rontrol instead of remote control. You don’t teach him the right way to say it, but one day you realise he hasn’t called it the memote rontrol for ages, and you didn’t even notice that his lisp is mostly gone.

You have a boy whose elbows and knees are suddenly pointy, poking into you when he sits beside you, too big to sit on your lap (but still trying). He has grown into the gap where he knocked a front tooth out: nobody is surprised to see it any more because his classroom is awash with wobbly incisors and gappy gums and children who want to show you that their tooth fell out. Your boy has a classroom where things happen that you don’t even know about. You’re not too sure how you feel about that, even after all these years of waiting for the day when you could go to the bathroom without an audience.

Now you have a boy whose legs are long and strong and tanned and covered in bruises from baseballs and mosquito bites from staying out in the back yard making crossbows from sticks. You have no more duct tape in the house. When he lazes on the sofa playing a computer game he takes up the whole thing – the same cool brown leather you laid your shirtless newborn down on one small portion of because the hospital said you had to wake him for a feed every two hours. It has more scratches now, more pieces of breakfast cereal and dried-up pasta and toast crumbs between the non-removable cushions, and its backbone is broken from too much jumping, but it’s the same sofa.

Yesterday. Yesterday and forever. What they didn’t tell you was that after that first smile, time would catapult you forward and it would only ever get faster, never slower again.

Dash on a statue of a moose in Philadelphia

Moose express

Minx

Today is Mabel’s last day of first grade. She did not deign to pose for a photograph.

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She bought her own chocolate croissant at the farmer’s market yesterday morning. Not even with me standing beside her: she left us sitting on the hill and headed off to the bakery booth by herself, a five-dollar bill flapping in her hand. I don’t know if she was polite, but she got what she went for and brought us back the change. She wrote thank-you cards to three of her teachers last night, with minimal prompting from me and no dictation required. They weren’t exactly individualised, but they were quite nice and very neat.

She made a poster for her brother’s lemonade stand, but then she quit the job because he wouldn’t give her any free samples. You need to negotiate your terms of employment up front, I told her. But I told her he needs to learn some managerial skills too.

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She builds houses and towers and spawns wolves and ocelots in Minecraft, she wheedles me into putting more games for her to play on my Kindle Fire, she can quote The Princess Bride at an apposite moment.

She still draws while she watches tv, piles and piles of papery people with varying expressions and colourful clothes. She still puts her babies to bed under blankets, and makes families of puppies and little tableaux of Playmobil figures or plastic dinosaurs. She still wants someone to stay with her until she falls asleep.

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She is still completely unreasonable quite often, but she does it with such minxy insouciance that half the time we have to laugh. “Miss Unreasonable-Pants,” I called her the other night, and she spent the next five minutes narrating an argument between the two legs of her unreasonable pants.

She’s seven and a half. When did she get so big?

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Perfection achieved

We have fixed Dash! I feel like we’ve finally accomplished something as parents. They say you can’t change people, but they’re wrong.

No, we haven’t got to the root of his reading trouble, or his vision if that’s what it is. He still won’t eat more than about four very specific things. And singing in tune is not always, yet, his forte. But his teeth are straight now! We made it happen! Yay us!

You might remember, or not, because I didn’t blog much back then, that Dash knocked out a tooth when he was a baby. One of his top front teeth, in fact. He’d only had it a month, when bump, thump, bang, and out it went. The sort of thing that makes you want to envelop them in bubblewrap and never leave the house again.

(Though in fact it turned out to be one of only two trips ever to the ER, and apart from that time he nearly bit through his tongue and the time he cut his eyebrow on the corner of the coffee table, and … well, anyway, he’s surprisingly not accident-prone, actually. I promise.)

Anyway, that meant he had a gap in his smile for a long time, and it gave the adult tooth there all the time in the world to decide on its trajectory, which I think is why when he finally had two top teeth again by age seven or so, they were at odd angles to each other. One sort of stuck out more than the other, and there was a big gap between them. They looked like an awkward couple, askance.

I had noticed that a lot of kids here seem to get braces earlier than we did Back In My Day. At first I was sceptical, but after interrogating a couple of dentists I came around to their way of thinking. If you straighten up the front teeth first, the rest of the adult teeth have a better chance of coming in straight to begin with, you can monitor it all better instead of plonking an fully developed 14-year-old down in front of an orthodontist and saying ‘Have at it!’, and the entire treatment should be shorter and maybe a bit cheaper. Not to mention that if you can get some of it over with while they’re still young enough not to be quite so self-conscious about their looks, that’s got to be a good thing.

So Dash got braces in August (did I tell you? I don’t remember), just on the top four teeth, and yesterday he had them removed. Phase one is complete, and he might not need phase two at all – though the orthodontist will keep an eye on him at intervals to see how everything’s coming along as the rest of his adult teeth come through.

Today Mabel got another crown, a filling, and she has an appointment for an orthodontist consult because even with only four adult teeth so far it’s clear that she will have crowding issues. Poor girl drew the short straw, evidently.

I’ve fixed her, for now, with a dose of Motrin, a Harry Potter double bill and a new puppy toy.

 

Seven

Mabel. Oh, Mabel mine. Happy sad girl. Puppy lover. Your fringe is in your eyes again and your shins are scraped. You still don’t go much for shoes, especially if there’s a pile of leaves to be jumped in. You’re a natural teacher, a committed animal-lover, a linguist. You speak fluent opposite, excellent gibberish, and your command of Russian is impressive. (Seriously.)

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You hate princesses but you spent half an hour surfing Frozen clips on YouTube yesterday. You don’t like girly things, but you haven’t thrown out the pink half of your wardrobe yet. You don’t want to be limited, that’s all: you’re an equal-opportunity lover and hater of pink and blue, of bracelets and beyblades. You complain that your brother gets all the best stuff, but then you pick out the American Girl doll and know exactly which outfit she should have.

You think you can have everything. Keep believing that.

Mabel dressed as a pirate

You’re a fun lunch date, even if you do only want fries and ketchup. You and your brother, when not fighting tooth and nail or driving us nuts staving off bedtime, can be the most hilarious double act around. You’re a serious goofball, a crazy gorilla on Broadway, and did you know that meatballs are very rare in Australia?

You’re seven. Seven is the most magical age I can think of. Remember your magic. Use it well. You will always make me proud, no matter what you do, because I struck it lucky when I got to be your mother.

A poster Mabel made saying "Pink Boys Blue Girls"

 

A little farther away

Dash’s new school is ten miles away. It’s a straight shot around the Beltway, and except for the home-to-school run in the morning, it takes 15 minutes door to door. The morning run to school takes anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic. Maybe longer; we haven’t had a rainy day yet. This commute (no bus, nobody close to carpool with) is clearly going to be one of the less fabulous aspects of the new school, but we knew that. B and I take turns with the morning run, but of course I’m always the lucky candidate for the afternoon pickup. So between our two cars we’re driving 40 extra miles every day, with me spending an hour and a half in the car on a day when I drive him to school as well as back. I can’t wait for next week, when there’s a parent association meeting on Wednesday evening so I get to go over one more time that day.

But driving in good weather, even on a slow road, is fine. We have the radio, for news – educational! – in the morning and music in the afternoon. I can talk myself through some knotty plot holes when I’m on my own; I find talking to myself in the car is very productive, and nobody else knows I’m not on a handsfree phone call, right?

Really, the mental adjustment is about having one child so much farther away from me than I’m used to. It just gives me a tiny niggle when I think about emergencies, or bad weather, or terrible things like, say, for instance, what happened on this day fourteen years ago. I wasn’t even in the country, let alone a parent, then; I worried about my boyfriend but he was safely in Pennsylvania, and not in a field or on a plane. But if we’d lived here, if my kids had been at school that day, we would all have huddled together as soon as we could, to hold what’s dearest closest to our hearts.

In the winter, Dash’s school will follow the decisions of the county next to ours when it comes to late openings and early closings and cancellations. Mabel’s school, of course, just up the road, is in our own county, so they may have different decisions on the same day, in the same weather. And we’ll have to get onto the Beltway in snow or ice or storm to go and get him, or bring him there. (Then again, the Beltway is always the first to be attended to with salt and grit when there’s bad weather. It’s usually the minor roads that are harder to pass.)

I know that if I was held up getting Dash from school, for whatever reason, the friend who picks up Mabel would take her home with them for as long as was needed. I know that we all have mobile phones that allow us to communicate in emergencies (assuming I (a) remember to bring it and (b) remember to charge it). I know that statistically everything will probably be fine. I know that Dash would be looked after if I didn’t make it to the school because I was stuck on the road waiting for the AAA truck. I know that we have two cars, which helps a lot on days like this when the Check Engine light comes on and I ask B if he can bike to work so that I can bring the one car to the garage and still have the other for 3pm pickup time.

But it was nice when they were both a short walk away, all day, and I felt that no matter what happened I could run up the road (panting) and grab my babies and stick them under my wing and keep them safe from every sort of harm.

I suppose the distances are only going to get bigger as they get older, right? This is just the first leap.