I have always found it strange that every time I see my mom (three or four times a year), she points out bruises and scrapes on my body and asks how I got them and what I am doing to heal them. Without fail, I never know how I got banged up, and am usually not doing anything about the minor wears and tears of my busy life. I’ve often pondered why my mom seems so fixated on these insignificant injuries. I try not to tell her when I am actually hurt, sick, or upset because she loses sleep over it, even though I assure her I will be fine. It seems that my mom suffers any pain I endure much worse than I do, which I have attributed to her nurturing, caretaking nature. Now, I am beginning to understand that this is a common mommy affliction.
Before becoming a parent, I never appreciated the extent to which it was possible to be hurt by association. We may tell someone “I feel your pain” as a sign of empathy, and I do often find myself distraught by the troubles of my friends and family. But the deep ache I feel whenever my son is in distress is unlike anything I have ever experienced.
I must begin with the caveat that I am extremely fortunate and grateful that my baby has never been really ill or injured. I cannot imagine (and do not even want to try) what it must be like to have a child with a chronic disease, or who has been in a bad accident. We have not yet had to take my son to the emergency room, or even to the doctor for a sick visit, and he has never had a fever or a cold. Maybe it is because we have been so lucky to date that I am so terribly afraid of that inevitable first illness or injury. There are constant reminders that it is coming . . .
For example, yesterday, when I came home from work, my boys were playing nicely on the floor. I plopped down to join them, and my husband and I were showing my son how to use his new giraffe toy, when suddenly he began to cry. My husband picked him up and exclaimed that there was blood on his face. We searched frantically for the wound and for clues as to what could have caused it. We discovered a small, but deep, cut on my son’s chin, with no sign of how it got there. I grabbed some tissues to try to stop the bleeding, then put on antiseptic and a band-aid (which was promptly pulled off). My son recovered quickly, and honestly seemed more upset by his parents’ reaction than the cut. For our parts, my husband and I are still recovering today. We feel guilty whenever we see that little red gash on our baby’s soft pale skin, and are still trying to identify the culprit.
I know this was just a very minor incident, hardly worth noting at all. But it reminded me how dreadful it is to see your child in pain. I know my little boy is bound for lots of cuts, scrapes, bruises, and maybe even some broken bones, not to mention the distress caused by teething, colds, allergies, and any number of other ailments. And I know there is nothing (or not much) I can do to protect him from these harms. Heck, yesterday, I was sitting right next to him when he cut himself. Still, I wish there was some way I could protect myself from the constant fear that something is going to happen to my baby.
In a fantastic interview by Oprah, Dr. Brené Brown, a professor of social work, observed that every parent has “stood over your child while he or she is sleeping and thought, I love you like I didn’t know was possible, and in that split second, … pictured something horrific happening.” I was struck dumb when I read that because it rang so true to me. Later, I shared it with my husband, and he had the same stunned, “I do that all the time!” reaction. Dr. Brown’s point was that the most terrifying emotion is when joy becomes foreboding. I never thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense. My son has brought unimaginable happiness to my life, so it should not be surprising that he also brought terrible new fears.
I do not want to hold my son back from exploring his world for fear he will get hurt, and I do not want the joy he brings me to be dampened by my own sense of foreboding. I accept that I cannot protect my son from all harm, but I will do what I can to keep him safe. When he is hurt, I will wish I could take away his pain, but instead, I must join him in it with empathy, comfort, and strength. I am beginning to accept that I cannot wrap my baby in bubble wrap, only love. And that is what my mom still does for me whenever she calls to check on my sinus infection or puts vitamin E on a new scar. I’ll bet she has good advice for what to do when your child is in pain . . . I’ll ask her and share her wisdom in a future post.