I Lost My Son

It wasn’t fun.

Photo illustration of a baby in the black woods.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel/Unsplash. Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Before she went rogue, Sarah Palin got lost. She was stalking “majestic dall sheep with their thick curled horns,” she writes in her new book, in Mount McKinley National Park. “I was only about eight years old, and for a couple of anxious hours of climbing hillsides and calling my name, no one could find me on the crags and snowpack.” Her father played it cool, “but inside, he was pretty frantic.” She was found, at last, asleep on a rocky slope in a white T-shirt that made her look like one of the sheep.

Even though I presently have Palin frustration seeping out of my pores, this story struck a sympathetic chord. A few months ago, my 6-year-old, Simon, got lost. He was unfindable for 45 minutes, somewhere in woods on the shoreline, within reach of open water, and very much out of my reach and sight.

I did not think, Oh good, he is exploring the world, may he go forth and frolic, the way I would have no doubt counseled some other mother to do—at least hearing the story after the fact. I felt only panic. And when we found him, I was seized by the most powerful surge of mother-bear instinct I’ve ever experienced and vowed silently to never let him go more than 10 feet away from me in the outdoors again.

This story doesn’t fit well with my theory of parenthood, the one in which children have the freedom to wander and encounter adversity, where parents understand that human beings need hardship to learn, and a central problem of middle-class mothering is that we’re so terrified of appearing neglectful that we put our children on leashes, both literally and virtually. What I take from the afternoon of Simon’s disappearance is a dose of humility. Theory never quite matches up with practice the way we want it to, does it? Especially when it comes to parenting. Also, dogma begs for a corrective. Some mothers don’t give their children enough free rein and I don’t want to be one of them. But what about giving too much?

Here’s what happened: My husband and two kids and I were visiting the house of a friend and colleague on the shore in Connecticut. In a loose group of eight (three parents, two hosts, three kids), we went for a walk through a stand of pine and birch, surely no more than a square mile. Simon and another 6-year-old boy ran ahead down the path and picked a tree to hide behind. They jumped out and yelled “boo” and chortled at their own cleverness. Repeat twice. Then I watched them sprint off out of sight. I was at the front of the pack of adults, and I turned a corner and saw that the path forked ahead of me. I wasn’t sure which way the boys had gone. But I figured the left-hand fork couldn’t lead them far astray because it looked like a long dirt driveway.

I went to the right. Everyone else followed me. After maybe 10 minutes, I started looking for Simon and his friend instead of waiting for them to pop out from behind another tree. No sign. I started calling. No response. I admitted to the friend I was walking with that I didn’t know where the kids were. This sounds like a natural step, but in the moment, I hesitated to take it. I didn’t want to break the lovely peace of the afternoon. I didn’t want to worry our hosts.

But eventually, it couldn’t be helped: We called for the boys, and they didn’t answer, so we had to start looking for them. At first we made small dry jokes about how they would be around the bend. They weren’t. We split up and scattered, calling the boys’ names. I walked down the path to the left, which was indeed a driveway, and found a family innocently sitting down at a picnic table. They looked sinister to me: Could they be hiding two boys?

I reminded myself how very rare child kidnapping is. In his new book, Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon mourns the loss of what he calls The Wilderness of Childhood and all the exploration that took place there “entirely free of adult supervision.” He thinks we’ve closed off the wilderness because we fear the wolves, who to us take the form of child kidnappers. And yet

This is not a rational fear; in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of stranger abductions in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was. What has changed is that the horror is so much better known.

Right. Except that now my kid was lost in the woods. I started to run. Sweat trickled down my sides and my throat constricted as I called Simon’s name. At one point I came out onto a small spit of beach. Simon wouldn’t have gone into the water by himself, would he? One of our hosts was wading through a waterlogged spot, her sneakers soaked, for a better lookout. I felt bad that she was getting wet and immensely grateful that she was moving purposefully. She said something reassuring. I couldn’t answer.

I turned around and ran back down the path, toward where I thought my husband Paul had gone. I was still calling Simon’s name, but I hated the sound of my own voice, shrill and unhinged. Then Paul answered, from back in the woods off the path: He’d found them. He emerged with Simon in his arms, crying, and the other boy more calmly in tow. In her book, Palin says that her only “heartache” about getting lost was her disappointment that a Hershey’s bar she had with her melted while she slept. Simon, though, kept saying tearfully, “I couldn’t see you anywhere.” I grabbed him and could barely restrain myself from saying I would never never be out of sight again.

I don’t mean to suggest that this was a uniformly terrible experience. A few months later, Simon remembers getting lost with some grimness, but I wouldn’t say he’s scarred—more embarrassed, probably. He’s still apt to take off in the supermarket, say, or across an open park. And yes, that’s probably a good thing. Chabon writes that “Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity.” But now, he warns, “the sandlots and creek beds, the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations.”

Chabon worries about the effect of this change on the development of children’s imaginations. I see that. And if we want to bring back the wilderness of childhood, children will get lost there. So maybe the lesson is that once they are found again, you have to let go of the vestiges of panic and repeat the mantra that nice-looking picnickers almost never kidnap children and that 6-year-olds generally have the sense not to go into the ocean alone. But I can’t forget the gap between my notions of parenting and losing Simon for just part of an afternoon. Chabon’s wild childhood (he roamed in a two-acre strip of woods in Maryland) turned out fine.  Maybe after Simon’s does, too, I’ll recover my certainty that a little peril has benefits.