This spring, when my oldest was about to get her driver’s license, I went to the bike shop. After waiting six feet apart from other people who, like me, didn’t look like they frequented bike shops in non-pandemic times, I spotted a road bike the color of a traffic cone, the brightest one in the shop and the biggest contrast to the mom bike I’ve been riding for 15 years, a black cruiser that used to have fully functioning gears and a kid’s seat on the back.
I climbed onto the road bike, nearly toppling into a rack of overpriced bike shorts. Soon, though, I was zipping around the floor, smiling behind my mask.
It was my first road bike and only the third bike I’ve ever owned. The first was a white mountain bike I rode nearly every day of the summer before I got my own driver’s license. I rode it on trails and on a busy interstate without a bike lane to my regular babysitting gig. It was the 1980s, so I never wore a helmet, and I never worried about getting hit by a car.
When I was on that bike, I never worried about anything.
When I got home from the bike shop, I propped the road bike against the garage wall, next to the cruiser resting on its kickstand. I hadn’t ridden it in nearly a year, and a layer of dust made it look more gray than black. I thought I would give it to my sister, who was about to adopt a baby, but she already had a mom bike. I began to text a friend who might want it. I still haven’t finished that text.
The Mom Bike Life
My oldest was just a few months old when I bought the cruiser at a bike shop in the city. My husband watched her while I took the bike for a spin past the mostly empty storefronts under a fall sky threatening a downpour.
I didn’t think of the cruiser as a mom bike back then because I was barely a mom. I still worked full-time, obsessed over the baby’s weight, and refused to submit to the much-promoted eat-play-sleep-repeat schedule.
As a baby, my daughter was sleepless and self-possessed. The first pediatrician who saw her in the hospital told me she looked “wise,” an odd way to describe a newborn. Perhaps it was because of her eyes. They were large, already framed by long lashes, and open more than a newborn’s eyes typically are. She looked right back at the doctor without fussing. I knew she wasn’t seeing much of the world then, only bright contrasting colors a few inches from her face, but she seemed to know others saw her.
It was awhile before my daughter was old enough to safely ride in the seat, so I rode the bike on my own around our city neighborhood and sometimes all the way to the park. I missed her as soon as I started pedaling. Sometimes I’d glance back to where I left her with my mother or my husband and nearly turn around. I couldn’t wait for her to get old enough to ride with me. Even in those days, I thought of the cruiser as “our bike.”
When my daughter was finally big enough—around nine months or so—she cried as I adjusted her helmet. I could never get the straps comfortable enough, but she was easily distracted once we started our ride. I’d glance back when we stopped, and sometimes her eyes were closed. She looked like a peaceful doll, with a few gravity-defying curls framing her face.
So much of parenting has been like those early rides for me, just struggling to get past the hard part to the good part. On the cruiser, the good part was always just down the road.
And sometimes biking with kids was better than I ever imagined it could be.
Once, when my daughter was three years old, and we were biking around Kelleys Island in Lake Erie, I heard a loud thunder clap. The sky hadn’t looked threatening when we set out, but storms can brew fierce and fast on the island. We were still about a mile away from the trailer where we were staying when it started to rain. The swells on the lake kicked up as the rain poured down, and I was starting to worry. I hoped my daughter wouldn’t sense it as I pedaled like hell. Soon, though, I could no longer avoid the potholes in the poorly maintained road as they became puddles and the puddles flooded. Sneakers soaked, I imagined us sliding off the road and down the muddy banks or getting struck by lightning, I tried to turn the experience into an adventure.
“Isn’t this fun?” I yelled through the rain.
My daughter was silent as my tires splashed through the puddles, water dampening the hem of my shorts. When I looked back, her curls were plastered across her cheeks and her neck. She looked contemplative, like she was trying to figure out whether to be scared or elated.
“We’re almost there!”
More thunder. More rain. Flashforwards flickered through my brain – us in the life-flight helicopter, the hospital, the therapist’s office.
I heard a little laugh turn into a squeal.
“Go, Mommy, go! You can do it!”
I got us to the trailer safely.
With my daughter cheering me on, I felt like I could do anything.
While on a bike, “there is always that thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive,” wrote Bill Emerson in his Saturday Evening Post essay, “On Bicycling.” Whenever I wasn’t riding through a rainstorm, my mom worries fell right off that thin edge.
My youngest daughter didn’t want to ride on the bike as much as her sister did. Even now, at 12, she prefers scooters and skateboards to bikes. I could have given up the mom bike when she was a toddler, but my friends’ boys, who were the same age as my youngest, liked going for rides with me. I was just as happy riding around the neighborhood with them. I pointed out the rabbits, rang the bell on demand, and delighted in the smiles of neighbor parents who knew what I was doing, taking other people’s kids for rides as an excuse to get on my bike. Who rides a mom bike with a child seat without a child in it? The boys’ moms knew they were doing me a favor.
When all the kids in my life got too old for the bike seat, I still tried to get my girls to go on bike rides with me. I even proclaimed last summer to be The Summer of Family Bike Rides. After spending an entire school year driving my family in the car, always racing the clock, I wanted us all pedaling in the same direction, with the fresh air and exercise drawing us closer. I mandated one ride per week.
We rode together once that summer.
When we got to the trail, it was a beautiful day for a ride, warm and sunny, but no one was happy. The youngest realized her bike was getting too small. The oldest, no longer loved the feel of the wind in her curls. She sulked as she pedaled and said us she’d rather be reading. My husband the avid cyclist kept critiquing our choice of gears and pedal strokes.
“Stop complaining!” I yelled. “We’re on a bike ride!”
I wasn’t striving for an Instagram-perfect peloton, just freedom from the worry that my family was drifting apart. It was a short ride. When we got home, I put the bike in the corner of the garage behind the scooters. I knew I wouldn’t be riding it again soon.
On the Road Again
I am better for having become a mom, though it’s hard to look forward to a time when being a mom does not take up so much of my life, mind, and heart. I’m not eager for that future when I’m older, when the web of obligation between my daughters and me is thinner. I won’t always be the first one they come to for connection. In fact, the mom bike reminds me we’ve already turned that corner. There’s nothing better down the road on that bike anymore.
That’s why I needed a new one.
When I ride my road bike, I don’t ask my girls to go with me. My oldest doesn’t remember any of our biking adventures or even that she used to enjoy it. She has found her freedom driving. My youngest now enjoys riding with her friends during the day and with her father when it’s almost dark. Sometimes when I’m sitting near the window, I watch them. There’s no pining, nagging, or whining. They just go.
My husband never rode her on the mom bike. He never wanted to. When he rides with her now, they are together but also riding for themselves, not unlike bicyclists in a peloton, who ride together because they are courting speed. The formation gives some riders a break while others take the headwind. Like with most things, it helps to be intentional about a bike ride—and honest about why you’re doing it.
As a teenager, my mountain bike was how I explored the world outside the one created by my parents. As a young mother, the mom bike allowed me some mental freedom from my responsibilities without having to leave my daughter. In these times of forced social distancing, the road bike helps me find joy in a solitude I choose. I don’t feel at all like a mom on it. I could be 16 or 31 or 50. The wind feels the same.
I’m almost ready to give away the mom bike. A few days ago, I dusted off its frame, flipped up the kickstand and went for one last ride around the neighborhood. The mom bike suffered under my weight, loudly resisting any attempt to switch gears. The seat was loose, the tires bald. A neighbor now used to seeing me flying past on my road bike did a double take, visibly confused by the return of the cruiser that used to transport his toddler son around the neighborhood.
I know I’m not the person for that bike anymore. Its clicks and rattles—and its bell—are all part of the soundtrack of early motherhood, and I’ve moved on.