Though Kiddyland was demolished in 1971 and replaced by a discount store, it helped inspire my passion for roller coasters.
Growing up, I lived two miles from a 21-acre amusement park called Kiddyland on the south side of Chicago. This magical venue featured miniature rides with planes, trains and automobiles, and – because it launched a year after World War II ended -- army tanks, replete with mounted machine guns. Toddlers manned heavy artillery. Sweaty ponies circled in weary procession. Popcorn, sticky cotton-candy cones and discarded tickets littered the dusty midway.
Carnival-game barkers urged us to “step right up” and we flocked like sailors to the sirens. You could toss a ring and win a colorful plastic cane to swordfight with your siblings; or, to my mother’s greater horror, land a ping pong ball in a goldfish bowl and take one of the little suckers home. A shatter-prone object in our childproofed space. Another mouth to feed. It never lasted long.
Though Kiddyland was demolished in 1971 and replaced by a discount store, it helped inspire my passion for roller coasters. That, and my position in my family as the tenth child born in a 12-year span. Adventure, precocious risk-taking, helplessness and terror characterized my earliest life experiences, and propelled me toward adult activities that reproduced them in equal measure: Sky diving. Producing live television. Riding a flea-market bike around Manhattan before the advent of bike lanes. Having a third child.
On a recent 20-hour drive to drop that third child at college, I decided that roller coasters are the right – if massively overused -- metaphor for parenthood, at least in my experience. The highs are transcendent; the lows, agonizing. When you least expect it, the ride turns upside down, and you lose stuff – but instead of sunglasses or keys, it’s your dignity, your privacy, your sleep, your abs, most of your money, all of your time. There is laughing, crying, screaming, puking. There is bliss and despair.
On the parenthood roller coaster, you basically make the trip twice – age 0 to 12, when you try to keep the kids from falling out of the ride; and 13 to 21, when you try to keep them from destroying it. In short, you are a low-paid carny, responsible for managing and maintaining this baby with no training or operating manual. You repair the wheels, balance the load, lower the fat U-shaped collars around your riders and lock them in tight. You pester them about hands remaining safely inside the car. You keep everything on track.
Halfway through my roller coaster ride, my partner lost his way. The kids had entered the double-digit ages, and we were climbing the initial slope of our second go-round. At a certain point I noticed my partner wasn’t pulling the train with me; instead he was loading boulders in the back. Perhaps I was too focused on the roller coaster to notice the boulders accumulating. Perhaps our cars were codependent, and I enabled the boulders. In any case, he eventually pulled the emergency break and ejected, mentally, emotionally, financially, and finally, physically. I locked the cable around my car and hauled the rest of the train up the steep part, mostly alone. A familiar sensation of adventure and risk, helplessness and terror. Don’t look up or down. Just keep moving.
Fortunately, roller coasters are subject to the laws of physics. “The amount of work done by the external forces upon the object is equal to the amount of change in the total mechanical energy of the object,” one academic website explains. In short, if you really put your back into it, all of the “potential energy” you contribute to the ride is transformed into “kinetic energy” – the energy of motion. Absent a serious derailment, a beautiful thing happens: the cars – and the kids -- take flight.
I am enjoying a thrilling moment on the other side of the last peak: All three of my children are happy and healthy simultaneously. The oldest is two years out of college and landed a new job with a meaty raise. Her texts are filled with screenshots of velvet rolled-arm sofas and boho rugs from Wayfair; she finally moved into her own place after navigating COVID with unnervingly social roommates. My middle daughter finished college a semester early and worked a cavalcade of jobs – cable seller, bank teller, cat sitter, Doordasher – and landed a teaching assistantship, allowing her to fund graduate school without debt. My youngest – forest bather, thrift-shop junkie, wearer of Birkenstocks -- started college in August in the mountains, winning a coveted spot in the outdoor-themed dorm with her fellow ecowarriors. A trifecta of happiness: Every day I wake up and hold this precious reality like a goldfish in a tiny bowl from Kiddyland. Don’t spill it. Don’t kill it. Treasure the miracle it represents. It won’t last long.
When I boarded the roller coaster, I had assumed it would end when my youngest went to college. Surprise! The universe conned the shit out of me. The ride is perpetual, ceaseless, timeless. Try to leave it and you end up with disembarkment syndrome, a neurological condition that causes a persistent sensation of rocking, bobbing or swaying following a flight or a cruise or 25 years of parenting. It is the Vulcan mind-meld of life choices: You and the roller coaster are pretty much one, forever.
But let’s face it, the hard part is over. When my nest finally emptied in August, I sold its stuffing on Facebook Marketplace and kicked it to the curb. Liberated by remote work, I embraced a carny’s minimalist life – summer in the greatest city in the world, winter in the sun. I’m not naïve enough to think there won’t be twists and turns, ups and downs, friction and resistance on the roller coaster ride ahead. But instead of being in the first car, leading the action, I’m in the last – weightless, hands up, flying free.
Laura Rowley is an award-winning journalist and author of six books. She owns the content strategy firm Rough Meadow Digital Media, and lives in New York and Houston.
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