I’d like to talk about risk. And I’m mostly doing this without statistics, or rather because there is such a flood of statistics thrown around in topics related to childhood, health, safety, and so on, I don’t want to rely on one source and so I’m not going to lean on any in particular. So this is an opinion piece.
A while ago I started a petition for a safer cycle route to and from my child’s school. I know what you’re thinking, that’s a super-grown up thing to do, right? I did feel pretty much like a totally responsible adult when I made it, even that the thought crossed my mind to make it, and no one was more surprised than me, but that isn’t the point of this post. The point is that on the road I cycle on (and I’m an experienced commuter-cyclist) children also cycle to school by themselves, to the local high schools.
On my petition, some of the comments expressed concern for the children who cycle on the roads by themselves, some even suggesting that this was a bad or irresponsible idea (to let children cycle), and I think this bothered me even more than the lack of a decent cycle route in the first place. Here’s why:
- Risk vs the perception of risk.
I’ve been a cyclist for years, and for around 4.5 years I’ve cycled with a child on the back of my bike. One time a car brushed against me while overtaking too close to the back of my bike and knocked my rear light off. I’ve been yelled at, beeped at, catcalled (with and without children present). Sometimes people pull out of a junction with out looking, but I have eyes and brakes and have never been seriously injured on a bike, nor have my children. I’ve come much closer to death in a car than I ever have on a bike. Cycling can be a very safe way to travel – both in the short and long term (upon which I will elaborate below).
- Risk and victim-blaming.
I want to keep this one short and sweet: by telling children or their parents that they are being irresponsible or putting themselves in danger by exercising their entitlement to exist in their environment (including utilizing their local transport infrastructure) you ARE kind of implying that it’s their fault if they get hurt, which is also sort of totally victim blaming.
You’re telling (potentially) vulnerable people (in this case because they are either walking or controlling a less powerful vehicle) that they are responsible for the bad behaviour of others. And also forgetting that some people don’t have much of a choice about how they get around.
This is different from the entirely-legitimate personal preference to NOT travel by bike of on foot BECAUSE you are afraid of, say, getting hit by a car (although I’d likely try to convince you otherwise if this is the case). We can choose how we want to interact with our surroundings, but accusing others of irresponsible behaviour for not feeling the same way is…see above.
- Hierarchy of risks:
The fact is that we avoid what we consider to be ‘immediately really scary’ risks because they either *seem* way worse or *seem* way more likely to affect us than the long-term risks to our wellbeing of our present choices. In one infographic, it is stated that if in the UK cycling was as standard a mode of transport as it is in Denmark, the NHS would save £17 billion within 20 years.
Also, I don’t know about you, but I feel strongly that teaching our children to a) accept powerlessness over the circumstances/hurdles in their way and b) that they should be afraid of interacting with their environment because other people aren’t to be trusted, isn’t a good thing at all, and its a message that is communicated pretty unambiguously when we tell children ‘don’t cycle, it’s dangerous’ or imply to parents that they are irresponsible for letting their children use the roads that they’re…uh…totally entitled to use.
The same source also suggests that “shifting just 10% of journeys from car to bike would reduce air pollution and save 400 productive life years”.
Yes, with using a road where no one sticks to the speed limit and there are potholes-a-plenty there comes risk, but *SHAKES FIST AT SKY* what about when we’re older and can’t breathe because there’s no safe air anymore?! I don’t know how air works, I could be going in the wrong direction with that projection. But you get the idea. Consideration of health isn’t synonymous with body-shaming (I know one can often present as the other), it’s actually a consideration for our children’s future (hell, for my future!).
And now to move clunkily and awkwardly to the second half of this post: personal risk and motherhood.
I’m just going to say it without going into specific detail lest it curse my chances: this mutha is hoping to go exploring somewhere very cold in the quite-near or (assuming my plan A doesn’t work out) not-that-far-in-the future. And I half-organised this without even a thought of my children. Isn’t that terrible? No. And here’s why.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved being out in the wild. Exploring, running, climbing, resting, admiring views and getting really out of breath and then feeling really good. So when a potentially amazing opportunity came up recently to prepare to become a part of a really exciting expedition trip (if you’re me) I did what a normal person does – I went for it. I did all I could to be a part of it, I didn’t think about the fact that while I (if I) do it, someone will have to look after my children for a few weeks. I didn’t think, “how will my other half cope?” or “am I being selfish?”, because he will and because I’m not.
I’m a mother, but I’m not a martyr, and being such doesn’t negate my own dreams, my own autonomy as a complete human being with ambition and plans. And some of those plans involve risk – risk of physical injury, risk of not coming back (I mean not a massive risk of that, otherwise I probably wouldn’t consider going away, because I enjoy being alive and respiring and whatnot), risk that I’ll miss a milestone.
Here’s the truth – I exist when my chidlren aren’t around. When they’re not there I often don’t even think of them much. And, you know, I’m wondering whether that’s exactly how attachment parenting – parenting with secure attachment in mind – is meant to work. Does it make sense? To me it does. We are connected, we’ve bonded, we know each other intimately whether we are in each other’s presence or not. As parents – how ever we define how we do that, or not – we have a responsibility to see that our kids are warm, clothed, fed, as far as we can, but we also have a responsibility to ourselves not to let our own personal plans and ambitions fall by the wayside.
I am not primarily (or entirely) “a mother”. I am a human being first. And risk happens in life – motherhood doesn’t and shouldn’t make us more afraid.
Is this crazy-talk for an attachment-parenting advocate? No. If we’re truly to acknowledge attachment parenting and feminism as not opposing ideologies (for want of a better noun) then a limit to maternal duty – or rather, a redefining of such – has to be realised.