Photo: Courtesy of Deana Morton
As my three-year-old son and I strolled through the parking lot, a group of teenagers started giggling and pointing at us. My stomach tightened and my cheeks turned red. They were laughing at my child. I tightened the grip on the leash attached to my son’s blue backpack.
Taking a deep breath, I tried to focus on my son’s carefree demeanour. “I can’t wait to go shopping,” he exclaimed. “Me, too, baby,” I said, smiling at him. You see, my son is an escape artist. But with the leash backpack secured to him, I knew we’d have a great time. It’s taken some time, but I’ve learned to love the leash.
There are two types of kids: the barnacles who remain obediently by their parents’ side and the bolters who take off. My son is like the Usain Bolt of children.
It all started when he was nine months old. He was about to crawl for the first time. With my arms outstretched and my camera ready, I encouraged him. “You can do it, little guy,” I said. He rocked back and forth on all fours. Then he looked over his left shoulder and promptly turned around. I snapped a photo of his rear end as he crawled away from me.
This became a pattern. Wherever I was, my son would crawl, walk or run in the opposite direction. He also loved to disappear. We would be in the children’s section of the library and then, poof, he would suddenly appear in the parking lot. Or we would be at the zoo, looking at the lions, and then, poof, he would be hiding underneath a rack of T-shirts in the souvenir shop.
Before I became a parent, people would tell me how much joy a child brings to your life. But they failed to mention the sheer terror you feel whenever your kid leaves your sight. My stomach drops, my body starts to shake and I find myself uncontrollably screaming my son’s name while running in every direction. It’s as if I’m stuck replaying the first scene of a Law & Order SVU episode where the mom loses her child and detective Olivia Benson reassures her, “We’ll do our best to find your son, ma’am.”
I’ve done everything to keep this kid by my side. I’ve bribed him, telling him “If you stay with me, we can get a new Hot Wheels car!” I’ve told him about stranger danger, which has prompted him to point at people, yell “Stranger!” and then run off. I’ve strapped him in a stroller, only to have him wiggle and scream like a rabid animal. I’ve tried carrying him, too, but it was like trying to hold a little breakdancer popping and locking in my arms.
Things got worse when his little brother was born. I felt like a prisoner in my own home. I wasn’t able to manage one kid, let alone two kids, outside of the house. My mom group would go to the park, library or children’s museum and I’d stay home. There was no way I could take my little Houdini out in public with a baby strapped to my chest. It’d be as relaxing as trying to read a good book on a roller coaster.
At some point, my sister gave me a blue backpack with a leash attached to it. I immediately put it in the basement. I’d never do that, I thought. I’m not putting him on a leash like a dog—I am not that mom.
The following week, we had a vacation planned in San Diego. My husband packed the leash backpack in his carry-on. I gave him the side-eye and he responded, “Just in case.” As soon as we got to the terminal, my son used my heels like they were starting blocks and bolted. I handed the baby to my husband and started sprinting after my little escapee. I kicked off my strappy sandals to pick up the pace. Bystanders stood wide-eyed as I leapt over suitcases like they were hurdles on a track. I pivoted around a group of seniors and rounded a corner. I made one final dash, catching my son at the top of an escalator. Two strangers started to clap. “Nice save,” one of them shouted, as if I had just saved a basketball from going out of bounds.
Without saying a word, my husband took out the leash backpack and strapped it to him. My son tugged on the leash once or twice and then, magically, he stayed by our side. He even pretended to be a monkey, screaming “Daddy’s holding my tail!”
A couple of months after we started using the backpack, my son was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, which was unexpected. We learned that the reason why he is unable to sit still in busy places is that his brain is experiencing sensory overload, which makes him feel disoriented. I was getting upset with him for disappearing when, in fact, he was just trying to satiate his neural activity. When a room was too bright, he longed to be in a place that was dimmer. When things were too loud, he retreated to a place that was quiet. He wasn’t running away from me; he was running away from his surroundings.
With the guidance of an occupational therapist, my husband and I started to incorporate a sensory diet into his daily routine. A sensory diet is an activity plan that provides sensory input, such as pressure massages, various animal walks and Play-Doh, to help keep him more regulated throughout the day. The therapist also encouraged us to use the leash backpack.
At first, I felt self-conscious being in public with my son tethered to me. The leash felt like a giant advertisement that I was a failure at being a mom. People would point and stare, which made me feel even worse. Were they making fun of my son? Did they think I was mean? I wanted to make a bright yellow T-shirt that read “Yes, my kid’s on a leash! Come and talk to me about it.”
But, because we were suddenly able to enjoy everyday activities like grocery shopping, going for walks and hanging out at the library, I felt like singing at the top of my lungs. My son never felt self-conscious wearing it, and I tried to mirror his demeanour. I decided that if he didn’t care, why should I?
My son is almost five years old now, and he has made leaps and bounds from his sprinting days and disappearing acts. His improvements are a result of occupational therapy and a sensory diet. Now that he is older, he loves to hold hands, and we only use the leash backpack when we travel or find ourselves in other stressful situations.
As for his little brother? Fortunately, he turned out to be a barnacle.