There are many words that describe the upside of parenthood — joy, pride, love. And then there is the flip side — worry, fear, and sometimes, sheer terror. These feelings are born in the hospital along with your sweet little bundle. Fess up. You counted their fingers and toes, didn’t you? Leaned over the bassinette to make they were still breathing? Worried about the best way to lay them down, tummy or back?

The concerns continue when they conduct the Apgar (the first of the many, many tests in their lives) to evaluate your newborn’s physical condition and you breathe a sigh of relief when they pass. The questions keep coming — are they eating enough, are they sleeping too much, are they crying too loudly, are they pooping enough?

Every stage brings its own set of fresh worries, and some of them are well-founded. Walking leads to running and climbing, and Katie’s forehead has a permanent reminder of an unfortunate encounter with a coffee table at the age of three. The dangers are waiting to pounce in your house, in your backyard, just around the corner. They can be real physical dangers — like Molly’s broken collarbone falling from the trapeze, also at the age of three — or they can be imagined and fed by the media — the boogeyman who will steal your child from the supermarket cart, the stranger who will push your toddler into the big, white van and drive away forever.

Healthy worry is good, and to be expected. But when does worry become neurosis? The secret of good parenting — like Goldilocks and the three bears — is to worry not too little, not too much, but just right. The trick is to know what that “right” amount is, and then the big challenge is not to let your worry infect your children so they become fearful of life or are hindered from achieving their potential.

Children of a certain age don’t know the concept of fear or worry. Our 10-year-old is a perfect example of this. This past week, we were in California so Bill could ride in the Solvang Century, an annual tradition where he rides 104 miles through the rolling hills of the south central coast. On the way north to drop Molly off at school, we stopped at Pismo Beach, where we decided to explore the Oceana Dunes, great white undulating mountains of endless sand.

Bill and I thought a five-seater dune buggy, with him driving, would be just perfect. Will would not hear of it — he wanted to drive. So we all rented ATVs and our first mistake was getting him settled first, because as soon as he was behind the controls, he took off down the beach all by himself, while the rest of us were still strapping in. Wait, we hollered. Of course he couldn’t hear us. He looked back, and we signaled him to wait, but as soon as we moved to catch up with him, he was off once again. Wait! Chug, chug, off he went. Wait! Chug, chug. Frustrating? Yes, and scary as hell.

My heart was thudding in fear with the possibilities: he was going to crash into someone, someone was going to crash into him, he’d flip headfirst over the handles, he would go up a dune sideways and the ATV would flip over on him. My mind has a habit of running bad case scenarios like this, pretty much like a multiple-choice array of THINGS THAT COULD GO WRONG.

My fears turned out to be unfounded. The ATV ride on the dunes turned out to be one of the best experiences of our entire vacation, with Will out in the lead for most of the way. But I won’t hesitate to confess that the overwhelming feeling I had at the end of the ride, when we were all back safe and sound, was relief.

Now Will wants to ride in the Solvang Century next year with his dad (there are 25 and 50 mile options) and I have already considered the dangers: what if he crashes into someone, what if someone crashes into him, what if his bike flips on a fast downhill stretch, what if the tire is not on securely and falls off. And now I’m working on a whole new set of worries because Katie is telling us she wants to skydive this summer. ACCCCKKKKK!

At times I wonder if I am normal or neurotic. Does every mother of a baseball pitcher worry that the baseball might come back too fast and hit him, despite his fast reflexes — so much faster than yours ever were or will be? There’s not just the physical danger — what if he doesn’t pitch well and loses the game and he feels really bad? Is it hard for other parents to watch their children pitch or play goalie, positions where they are in the spotlight, and you’re off to the side pacing and praying that they are the hero and not the goat? Does Derek Jeter’s mom’s heart beat faster every time he is at bat?

Does every mother of a lacrosse player wonder why they don’t wear leg protection, because those balls are rock hard and could smack their shins into oblivion? As for golf, I still remind Molly to keep a safe distance away from anyone else who is hitting a ball (remember Prince William getting whacked in the head?) and to keep an eye out for errant balls flying in her direction whenever she’s on the course. She still rolls her eyes at me whenever I do this; it has become a parent-child ritual.

Dangers lurk not only in the sports arena — there is also the possibility of illness and then there are psychological threats at school and on the playground. Will my kid have friends to play with or will he be marginalized or even worse, bullied with fists or taunts? Will the “mean girls” attack in the girls’ locker room with words as their weapons, and if so, will my daughter have a strong enough sense of self-esteem to fight them off? Will my son be able to recognize teasing as just that, and not let it get to his head? And will he tell me about it so I can do something? Will I know if something is wrong, and will I know the right thing to do?

Whether your kids are 9, 19 or 90, a chunk of your heart will always be concerned with their safety and happiness. In one of my favorite novels, Love Story, Jennifer Cavilleri tells Oliver Barrett that love means never having to say you’re sorry. The Suburban Mom corollary to that: love means always having to worry. It goes with the territory when you are a parent.