Four months ago, my daughter (who will be three years old in March) took a header into the stone hearth that surrounds our wood stove. One minute she was racing around the living room squealing in joy, and the next she was facedown, her head was bleeding and she was howling in distress. My husband scooped her up, put pressure on the wound, I grabbed the car keys, and we sped to the ER since it was 8:30pm on a Saturday. We left the garage door wide open, and I was wearing my pajamas. All that mattered at that moment was getting our child to a place of healing.
Eva did just fine through the whole ordeal – she was singing through tears on the way to the hospital and enjoyed a grape sucker and several Little Nemo stickers on the ride home after getting four stitches. As people like to say, kids are resilient. Head wounds look scary and bleed a lot, even when they aren’t serious.
In a nutshell, minor childhood injuries tend to be more traumatic for the caregivers.
“Is she going to be ok?”
“How could we have prevented this?”
“What did we do wrong?”
And my favorite,
“What if it happens again?”
The days after the accident we padded the corners of the hearth and had a lot of talks about how important it is to walk in the house and watch where we are going when we do choose to move fast. A week went by, autumn turned to winter, and Eva’s stitches came out, barely leaving a mark. The whole thing was a tiny sliver of experience in the big picture of life.
A few weeks ago when Eva was attempting to walk up the stairs by herself – which she can pretty much do by now, albeit slowly – I moved quickly to stand behind her. She shook her head in agitation and said, ‘No mom, no mom, no mom.” She wanted to do it herself, and I was hovering. In my mind, of course, all I saw was a mom ensuring her toddler didn’t tumble backwards down wooden stairs. What I saw in that flash of instinct to move right behind her was a bleeding forehead from four months ago. My mind went immediately to the hours after returning home from the ER visit, lying in bed with thoughts of “what if it would have been worse?” and “what if it happens again?” swirling in the darkness that tends to amplify things that just need to fade into the background.
I still find myself getting nervous when Eva goes careening around the living room and races by the wood stove, just missing tripping over the hearth by inches. I still stand behind her when she goes up the stairs. I still find my arms reaching out if she starts to lose her balance. And when she races around the living room, sometimes she does trip over things. And she gets back up again. She isn’t quite ready to go completely solo on the stairs, but she can make it up on her own just fine without me hovering anxiously in her wake. There are times when she needs to be caught mid fall or picked up from losing her balance. She’s still little and she needs her parents to take care of her. But what she doesn’t need is a parent who projects the energy of fear into her every waking moment. What she doesn’t need is a childhood that is so protected and laced with “what ifs?” that she doesn’t learn how to bounce back from challenges, and pain, and undesirable situations. What she doesn’t need is a mom who is so afraid of what might happen that she doesn’t get to fully experience life and all its contrasts.
I don’t totally know how to be that parent yet. (I have a hunch that I’m not the only parent who might feel this way…) Every single day invites a new challenge to find the middle ground between keeping my child safe and letting her figure things out for herself so she can develop the skills she needs to live fully.
Human life is fragile. We know this. Life can change in a blink of an eye and sometimes bad things happen. But despite this fragility, life is best experienced through an energy of curiosity and joy, rather than one punctuated with fear and worry. Children – like all living things — are fragile, resilient, delicate, and sturdy all rolled into one. When they are little, they need protection and care from those who love them. They need concerned attention and hand holding….to a point. But they don’t need to grow up in the shadow of fear for what might happen.
They need the freedom to fall down so they can get back up again and thrive.