Last night after dinner my seven year old decided that she was going to leave home. She had been arguing with her brother and when I asked her to take a shower it was the last straw.
‘This house is so boring! This family is so boring! You are so boring!’
‘You’d like a new mummy then? A more exciting one?’ I regretted the words as soon as I said them. They sounded petty and childish.
She showered, put on pyjamas, grabbed her blanket and announced that she was running away.
‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ I said, but she stomped outside.
‘I’m going to Melbourne,’ she said. ‘You can see me if you ever come to Melbourne.’
I tried to keep from smiling because at least she was picking a decent place to run away to. I have no idea where she got it from though. Was it because I had been there for work trips? Perhaps she associated it with somewhere you went alone, without your family?
She slammed the door and from the window I saw her go into the back garden. I went to load the dishwasher. Her brother, aged five, came in to talk to me. ‘I don’t want her to run away,’ he said.
‘I don’t think she’s leaving, she’s just in the garden. Leave her alone for a bit,’ I said.
‘I wouldn’t run away,’ he declared. ‘Would you like me to read you my home reader again?’ I again tried to suppress a smile. It reminded me of my sister and I, when one of us misbehaved the other always did her best to be the perfect child.
‘Not just this minute,’ I said, ‘I bet dad would love to hear you read it when he gets home.’ I heard the door slam again and went into the kids’ bedroom. My daughter had the small metal suitcase she keeps her doll clothes in and was busy packing. I watched her put in her favourite shorts and top, a jumper, a pair of underwear, a pair of pyjamas and a single sock. Then she crammed the rest of the space with books. Her brother came in and was watching with me.
‘Hey, that’s a shared book. Mum, she can’t take a shared book,’ he said. I ushered him into the shower and went to sit beside my daughter.
‘I’d miss you if you went, and besides, who would feed the dog?’
‘You could do that.’
‘Who would make your brother laugh and talk him out of a tantrum?’
‘But you’re better at it. Who would peel the garlic when I’m cooking, and make beautiful cards, and remind me to give the dog his medicine every day?’
‘Someone else could,’ she said. ‘They wouldn’t do it as well as me, but it would still get done.’
Her hair was still wet from the shower and her mouth was in a tight line. She was calmer than before, though, trying to shut the clasps of the battered case. She took a few books out so it would close properly.
‘Why don’t you see what you feel like in the morning,’ I said. ‘It’s nearly dark. See what you feel like after you sleep.’
I could see her thinking about this. I held out my arms and she came into them, her hair still smelling like shampoo from two nights earlier, when we had washed it. ‘I would miss you terribly.’ I said. ‘I won’t even be ready for you to leave when you turn eighteen.’
Her brother was back in the room again, towelling himself dry.
‘I’m never leaving, not even when I’m eighteen,’ he said, pulling on his pyjama shorts. His sister stuck her tongue out.
‘I’ll stay tonight,’ she said. ‘But I’m still running away tomorrow.’
I went to bed last night wondering if I had said the right things, if I could have handled it better. I can’t remember threatening to run away, but I was an easily frightened child, happy to trail around behind my big sister. My mother has told me stories of how she ran away when she was about five, how she got as far as the end of the street. My daughter is in some ways similar to her grandmother: fiercely independent, fearless and stubborn. But it is a different world we live in now, and our house is on such a busy road that thoughts of my seven-year-old walking down it alone make my heart race. You hear stories of parents offering to help pack their bags, calling the child’s bluff, but what message does that send? You are not loved enough. We don’t actually want you here.
And while I didn’t threaten to run away as a child, it is something I certainly fantasised about as a mother, something I went as far as writing a novel about. In What Was Left, Rachel runs away from her daughter, from her marriage, from the weight of her past. When things are difficult, is there anything more tantalising than the idea of escape? Rather than working things out, you could leave them far behind.
My daughter woke up this morning cheerful – she seems to have decided not to run away for the time being (though her suitcase is still packed). I wonder if I give in to her whims too easily, but she has started at a new school this year so there is a lot changing. She broke her arm a few weeks ago swinging from a tree branch and feels as though she can’t do everything she wants. Perhaps threatening to run away gave her a sense of autonomy again, of independence. It reminds me that she is getting older, that I can’t treat her the same way her brother is treated. I wonder what else I can do to give her power over her own life, without letting her become a dictator over ours.
Tell me, did you ever threaten to run away as a child, or run away? Have your children? How would you handle this? And how do you give them responsibility while keeping them safe?