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Heavy Meddle: Help! I’m Afraid My Husband Is Putting My Child’s Life At Risk

We live in one of America’s most dangerous cities for bicyclists, and my husband still wants to ride one of our children to school on his bike. (edwardconde/flickr)
We live in one of America’s most dangerous cities for bicyclists, and my husband still wants to ride one of our children to school on his bike. (edwardconde/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions via email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,

Steve

Dear Steve,

I live in a busy city noted for its terrible drivers and studied nationally for the horrendous, asthma-producing quality of its air. In the past year alone, three cyclists have been killed on their bikes within a mile radius of where I live. I knew one of them personally. When I pass her ghost bike, its basket filled with flowers, I always tear up. I worry all the time for my partner, who has the bravery (insanity?) to ride his bike all over the city, too.

That he chooses to take his own life into his own hands daily is his choice. But I cannot abide his taking our children's lives into his hands, too. Lately, he has been pressuring me to let him take one of our children to school on his bike. A nice morning ride through dirty air and dodging aggressive, texting drivers. I have begged him not to do this. He is insisting, calling me unreasonable, rigid. I think he's unreasonable to suggest that risking an innocent child's life unnecessarily is an okay thing to do. (We both have cars. He wants to ride for the exercise.)

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I know that the world is divided into two categories: the crazy and brave people, who take to two wheels to navigate urban traffic in spite of all the risks—and I do admire that they can do this; and the fraidycats like me, who wouldn't ride a bike through this particular bike-unfriendly city if she were paid to—and I do wish I could get over my fear. (Our “bike lanes” are a joke.)

I have tried explaining to my partner that I am not trying to deprive him of the joy of riding his bike with his children — he can take to a bike path on the weekends, if he wants. But this is just a line in the sand for me. Am I wrong to be so opposed?

The truth is that if anything ever happened to any of my kids while on the back of my partner's bike, I would not be able to forgive him. Is there another way I can think about this? Am I suffering an irrational fear, or are my concerns well placed? I can't believe the amount of conflict and tension it's bringing to my otherwise pretty civil and calm, if imperfect, marriage.

Thanks, Steve.
A Worried Mama

Dear Worried Mama,

Congratulations! Your letter was sufficiently provocative that it launched my wife and into what I will call “a heated discussion,” which is what married people call an argument where nothing gets thrown. For the sake of fairness, let me summarize my wife’s take first.

In short, she feels you are in the right. You clearly live in a city that is dangerous for bicyclists, and this danger includes the area around your home. The only reason your husband wants to take your children to school on his bike is for exercise, which, as you rightly note, he could do on weekends in a much safer manner. Case closed.

I don’t quite agree. Or rather, I’d like more information. Specifically, I think it does matter what precise route your husband is proposing to take. How many major streets would he be riding along and crossing? How are the bike lanes on these streets? Would the trip be during peak traffic hours? Did any of the fatalities you mentioned take place on this route? Furthermore, what sort of precautions would your husband take?

I ask these questions not to discount your fears, but to get a better sense of how much these fears arise from the known dangers of riding a bike along this route, and how much are about the generalized idea of living (and biking) in a dangerous city with dirty air and aggressive, careless drivers.

The more basic problem here is that you guys are talking past each other. Rather than listening, you’re stuck in vilification mode.

The more basic problem here is that you guys are talking past each other. Rather than listening, you’re stuck in vilification mode. You see him as a daredevil. He sees you as a rigid fraidycat. Neither of these caricatures is fair. Both of you are loving parents who happen to hold widely divergent views on the relative dangers (and merits) of urban bike riding.

As a practical matter, my advice would be to ask your husband to bike the route in question with you, at the time he would bike the kids into school. If you’re still worried about the dangers, he needs to be able to hear that. But you also need to be able to place some trust in his judgment, and in his competence. After all, he is your children’s father, not some interloper who wants to take them on a lethal joy ride.

The broader issue for you guys is how to make joint decisions as parents. That can’t happen without trust and communication. My wife is right (as usual): you have every right to veto his decision if you feel your children will be needlessly endangered. Again: your husband needs to be able to hear that.

But also it’s worth thinking about whether your own anxiety may be occluding your view of the world. Yes, it can be a dangerous place. And yes, as parents, we should seek to protect our kids from injury or illness — when we can. But fixating on your fears is not the same as managing them. It may be that you have something to learn from your husband in this regard.

Better to sort through all of this with him now, because issues of risk versus autonomy are only going to ramp up as your kids get older, and their own lives expand (i.e. someday, they will be driving the roads of your perilous city).

I’m not trying to scare you, Worried Mama. I’m urging you to view this dispute as the beginning of a larger discussion that needs to happen.

I wish you luck, courage, and safety,
Steve

Author's note: When I say that my wife and I got into about this letter, I mean it. We did not agree. At all. And I suspect that some of you out there will feel my wife was right, and that questioning Worried Mama’s anxiety was out of line. If so, I fully expect to hear from you down below in the comment section. Also, please send your own questions along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don’t have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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