The potential to mess up my parenting seems to be all I ever think about, now that my oldest is entering one of many prickly times of his life. He's 9 and I stupidly thought I didn't have to worry about contamination from the adult world for another few years. I guess the joke's on me.

The troublesome thing about firstborns is that they're an experiment in motion. With a constantly moving target, you don't realize you've screwed up until it's too late. At best, until it's almost too late, and at worst, your head's in the sand.

My eldest has been a conundrum to me since the beginning of his life. It's not him, it's his stature in life. Well, his stature in my life, I should say. There I was, feeling on top of the world when he was born. Up until that point, whatever I wanted to achieve, I went after it, doggedly, and typically got the result I pursued. What could having a child throw at me that I couldn't conquer?

Canned laughter. Canned laughter. I swear someone's playing it in the background.

Anyway, my little bundle of joy hadn't been alive for more than six hours when my mother found me in tears, ready to hang the curtains of shame and failure. Why? Because I didn't know how to nurse him. Surely, he was going to be dead within the hour and it would be all my fault.

I eventually figured that particular "mystery" out -- well, the kid did ... he seemed to have a more instinctual interest in making it work -- but there's been no shortage of other, more perplexing mysteries since, each proving I'm not at all as smart as I once thought I was. For example, after all that hard work to get your baby to start talking, and then having them speak in full sentences by 2 or 3, how do you get them to shut up again? (I'm kidding. Don't send hate mail.)

My latest mystery is wondering how much I let his little 9-year-old bubble shrink. I assume I'll be asking the same question in varying degrees until he reaches adulthood, too. Let me take a moment and preface that yes, I will always believe in some sort of bubble, and no, it doesn't matter to me if others don't. I often get advice saying that I can't protect my children forever. To that, I agree, but I'm not trying to do it forever. I'm trying to do it until 18. You know, when even the courts and government tell me they're mine, all mine. Before that point, then yes, there is a bubble. If there wasn't -- even a socially accepted minimum bubble -- then 12-year-olds would be allowed in strip clubs and Big Bird would be dropping potty words on PBS because he's cold and living in an alley behind some trashcans in the middle of a New York City winter.

Thus, bubbles exist, but the question is how big should I make them and how often do I let the world pop it, piece by elastic-like piece? I used to think that my son was an unwilling participant in this bubble popping business, shocked and offended that a friend would tell him what an older brother did the night before, but I know better now. Shock of all shocks to me, he -- like many little boys out there -- thinks it's rather amazing and wonderful to let a stupid, maybe even debauched, idea float around in their brains like a little tingle of electricity and excitement. Even worse, they act on it.

Bubble. Pop. Sometimes from the outside, sometimes from the inside, and at all times it gets smaller and smaller, leaving me wondering, "Are 9-year-olds supposed to know THAT?!?"

What's a momma to do? Cry, yell, insert head into the sand? I tell you, for once in my life, I don't know. I'm winging this as I go and hope someone's taking notes of my hits and misses because I know I'm too frazzled to do so.

At least I have the bittersweet experience in knowing that my children find unique ways to confound and stump my best efforts, making me feel utterly unwise and powerless. This, of course, is a line of thinking that would've never entered my psyche before they were born. I suppose that means having children is a "hear, hear" for humility.


As an aside, if you're out and about on Feb. 9, come join me for another signing for my book, "Unholy Hunger," at Barnes & Noble from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. I'll be giving away a $25 Starbucks gift card, too. (Bribery!)

-- Heather Ijames is one of three community columnists whose work appears here every Saturday. These are the opinions of Ijames, not necessarily The Californian. Send email to her at Next week: Inga Barks.