I was ending a phone conversation with my mom not too long ago, and as we said goodbye, her words to me were:
“Love you, be safe.”
I am 33 years old and have two daughters of my own. But my mother still tells me to be safe. Those words stuck with me, and I began to reflect on what they have meant over the course of my life.
When I was 3 years old, “be safe” meant keeping my feet up while running so I wouldn’t trip. It meant not putting things in my mouth that weren’t supposed to be there. It meant challenging my climbing abilities while paying attention to what I was doing on the playground. It meant, when the day was done, being safe in my dreams.
When I was 9, “be safe” meant continuing to challenge my climbing abilities but still paying attention to what I was doing when climbing tall trees. It meant keeping a look out for cars and pot holes when I was careening down the road on my bike. It meant avoiding poison ivy when my brother and I explored the woods.
When I was 13, “be safe” meant staying away from the mean girls. It meant not giving in to peer pressure to pick on the kid who was a little different. It meant not answering the door when staying home alone. It meant being responsible when babysitting the neighborhood kids. It meant wearing early teenage-appropriate clothing. It meant asking questions about my changing body and learning more about myself as a young adult.
When I was 16, “be safe” meant being extremely careful while driving and not showing off. It meant not giving away too much personal information in AIM chat rooms. It meant studying really hard in high school so that the sacrifices my parents made in order for me to go to college would come to fruition. It meant getting to know boys a little bit better but never giving too much of myself away. It meant finding a solid group of girlfriends who I could always count on for laughter, hugs, and to make amazing memories.
When I was 18, “be safe” meant to be responsible with my new freedom at college. It meant to show up to class, do the reading, and prepare for tests. It meant calling a trusted friend to make sure I got back to my dorm room safely when I was enjoying Friday nights a little too much. It meant that when I became sexually active, to make sure it was with someone I sincerely cared about and someone who cared about me — and to use protection. It meant to call home at least once every few days. It meant really learning about myself as an individual and almost-adult, and discovering who I wanted to be in the world.
When I was 23, “be safe” meant working hard professionally but having a lot of fun, too. It meant working for a cause that I believed in, not because it would make me rich. It meant paying extra money for a cab ride home rather than taking public transportation by myself. It meant dating lots of different types of guys so when the right one came along, I would know he was worth my effort and time. It meant calling my grandparents once a week because I never knew which conversation would be our last.
And now that a I’m 33-year-old mother, “be safe” has its own meaning. It means not losing my cool entirely but taking a moment to regroup when my daughters are bickering and my housework isn’t done. It means cherishing the moments of our children’s littleness and innocence and having a lot of fun with them. It means having faith it will all be OK when both cars are acting up and a bill payment is late. It means taking a deep breath and stepping away for a minute when there are little girls and animals and a husband who all want something from me and all I want to do is run away.
It means that when one of the girls says something hilarious or I need to vent about something or I’m feeling lonely, I call a friend — or, better yet, my mom. She always knows how to make me feel safe.