05/23/2012 09:55 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Parenting And The Zen Of Roller Coaster Riding

I have a recurring vision of a roller coaster. It's a behemoth of a thing, which would be named Intimidator or Titan if my mental picture were that specific, and it is not only towering but also thunderous. 

In my mind's eye it heads skyward, then plummets toward earth, and immediately roars upward once again. People I love are on that coaster -- most often my children -- but I'm not barreling and shrieking with them. Instead I am standing, and observing, from solid, stable ground. 

No, this isn't a dream. It's parenting. 

Growing up has its ups and downs, some wild, many downright frightening. Our kids must stay on for the ride, because you can't get from childhood to adulthood without all these lurches and loops. Parents, though, have a choice (or a semblance of one). We can get on the roller coaster with our children, riding shotgun, feeling every vertiginous stomach drop, or we can hang out by the ticket booth, waving reassuringly as they hurtle past. 

"Off the roller coaster, off the roller coaster," I remind myself, sometimes as often as several times a day. I've chanted it silently just before answering the phone during times when one or another of my teens was going through a rocky patch. I recited it daily for awhile at middle school pickup, as I waited to see if my struggling guy would walk out the door with a friend or all alone again. I've summoned it for things as mundane as their search for a lost car key and as life-changing as their search for the right college. "Off the roller coaster," I've reminded myself. 

Sometimes I've actually succeeded. 

Even on the ground, though, I spend a lot of time holding my breath. After all, the purpose of parenting -- letting them go -- is in direct conflict with the fiercest instinct of parenting -- keeping them close -- making for a carnival ride of a different sort. Our breath-holding moments are as varied as the equations of our lives. On a playground, as they negotiate the ladder to the slide. On the first day of kindergarten, when they take a seat on the bus. When they use a knife, or remove their training wheels, or sing a solo, or drop a fly ball. 

A friend told of her own moment recently, watching her son take the wheel for the first time after having an unexplained seizure, which doctors are almost certain will not happen again. Another recalled combining this breath-holding with lip-biting as her daughter brought home a "dud" of a guy. 

In Buzz Bissinger's new book, "Father's Day", about raising a disabled adult whose mind will forever be that of a child's, he never describes himself as holding his breath, but you can feel him doing so. When he watches unseen at the shop where Zach works bagging groceries and a co-worker makes a fool of the young man while pretending to be his friend. Or when he watches from the car as Zach picks up cigarette butts and shards of glass from the Pizza Hut parking lot, and Bissinger understands that this is the work his son will do for the rest of his life. As I read, I realized I was holding my breath myself. 

So when does it end? When does the coaster slow and stop, and the safety straps unlatch, and the exhilarated/nauseated crowd walk away while another takes its place? Never, I'm learning. My children are still up there, and I am still waving and trying to exhale. My mom tells me that she is still watching me from afar as well, as I ride what she sees as a roller coaster of my own. (To extend the metaphor, I've held my breath for her lately too, as she navigated her new world after my father's death.)

"A mother is only as happy as her saddest child," the saying goes. She's only as anchored, and grounded and reassuring, too. But another part of this parenting job is to do a damn good impression of having our feet solidly on the ground. 

Enjoy the ride.