‘The Red Hat’ narrates a moving moment of change in the relationship and routines of a child and their parents. One that poet Rachel Hadas uses to highlight how the latter must eventually contend with the very independence that they have tried to foster and encourage in their offspring.
Even something as simple as allowing them to walk to school on their own has ramifications onnot just the child but the parents as well. The poem cleverly uses their parallel journeys to symbolize the way. Eventually, they diverge as part of the process of growing up. It is a poem about contending with such necessary milestones and views them from the perspective of a parent.
Explore The Red Hat
‘The Red Hat’ by Rachel Hadas is a poem about two parents reluctantly trying to cope with their child’s newly gifted independence.
“Now our son / officially walks to school alone,” the speaker declares in the opening lines. But that is only a half-truth as they concede it is more accurate to say “semi-alone.” That is because both parents still choose to follow their son for at least part of his journey. Though they still give him a sense of independence by walking along the opposite side of the street and not making direct eye contact.
Eventually, along an area known as “Straus Park,” their paths diverge from one another. The speaker describes the intense sense of longing that overwhelms them, their “love and fear” stretching outwards in vain to follow their son the rest of the way to school. The speaker ends the stanza reflecting on the marked differences between today and two weeks ago, contrasting the son’s past reluctance with his newfound boldness.
The second stanza continues the parental retrospection as the speaker confesses the differences this change has catalyzed within their own morning routine. Their mornings are somewhat longer now because of this new routine, but there is also an elusive feeling that now fills them after watching their son go. One that makes them feel “empty, unanchored, [and] perilously light.”
Structure and Form
‘The Red Hat’ uses a number of literary devices. For example, there are instances of visual imagery like: “He walks up on the east side of West End, / we on the west side. Glances can extend / (and do) across the street; not eye contact.” (5-7) “holding a hand, he’d dawdle, dreamy, slow, / he now is hustled forward” (14-15).
There are also examples of metaphors, for example: “Already ties are feeling and not fact.” (8) “The watcher’s heart / stretches, elastic in its love and fear, / toward him as we see him disappear,” (10-12) “the pull / of something far more powerful than school.” (15-16)
It started before Christmas. Now our son
officially walks to school alone.
Semi-alone, it’s accurate to say:
I or his father track him on his way.
striding briskly. Where two weeks ago,
holding a hand, he’d dawdle, dreamy, slow,
he now is hustled forward by the pull
of something far more powerful than school.
‘The Red Hat’ begins with the speaker explaining that their son has begun to walk alone to school. Yet they are not truly alone, as both parents still accompany the boy from a distance. “I or his father track him on his way” (4), they confess before describing their route and the way they try to maintain some semblance of independence for their son.
For one, they walk up the opposite side of the street, exchanging only glances though “not eye contact” (7). The speaker holding up this little dance of furtive peeks — between a child testing their newly minted freedom and a parent still trying to let go — as a sign of their ties already becoming “feeling and not fact” (8).
As they approach the point where their “parallel paths part” (9), the child heads out alone as the parents stop. Hadas creates a potent image of longing as the speaker describes the way their heart “stretches, elastic in its love and fear” (11) to follow the boy now “striding briskly” (13). Here the poet juxtaposes the parent’s reluctance to let go with the child’s ever-diminishing hesitancy. The speaker recalls just two weeks prior how, he’d hold their hand and “dawdle, dreamy, slow” (14).
But now that has all changed, and the speaker prophetically admits that their son is being enticed by “something far more powerful than school” (16). In other words, the child is now intrigued by the curiosity of exploring the world outside the watchful but protective eyes of their parents, a natural and pivotal part of growing up.
The mornings we turn back to are no more
than forty minutes longer than before,
empty, unanchored, perilously light
since the red hat vanished from our sight.
‘The Red Hat’ ends by shifting the focus away from the child who has now departed to complete their solo journey to school and toward the parents left alone with their thoughts. The speaker mentions that their mornings haven’t been tangibly altered much by the routine, with the exception of being “no more / than forty minutes longer than before” (17-18). But there is now a perceptible though hard-to-define sense that things are different now than before.
Without their son, they feel “flimsy, strange, / wavering in the eddies of this change” (19-20). The poem’s diction and imagery characterize the surreal feelings of parents coping with their children’s first dive into facing the world alone. The speaker describes this elusive impression more concretely in the final lines as being “empty, unanchored, perilously light” (21); further emphasizing the poet’s attempts at capturing the way a child’s journey growth can unmoor a parent’s sense of identity and purpose.
The poem wrestles with the love and fear that sits at the center of any parent watching their child grow up. It gets at the precarious balancing act of wanting them to exercise their independence but also the inherent worries that arise. Be it over the child’s safety or the existential discomfort inspired by their sudden and ever-growing absence.
Hadas might have written this poem from experience as she had a son herself. The poem’s intimate parental point of view makes it a compelling expression of the unspoken but universal fears experienced by those with children.
The poem unfolds as this bittersweet expression of pride and worry. As a result, its tone wavers between a soft tenderness that is directed at the son and an earnest melancholy.
The speaker of the poem is the parent of the son walking alone to school. The decision to refer to themselves in the third person is fueled by the fact that the poem narrates the actions of both parents. Sometimes it is the speaker, and sometimes it is the father, hence the vague “watcher’s heart.” But it also emphasizes the perceived distance between the parents and their son. As if to illustrate the way they are further receding into the background of their child’s life.
- ‘Parents’ by William Meredith – this poem takes a lighter route in trying to convey the relationship between children and parents.
- ‘On Children’ by Kahlil Gibran – this poem seeks to guide parents on how to raise their children.
- ‘Mother to Son’ by Langston Hughes – this poem also takes on the perspective of a parent as they try to impart advice to their son.