When I became a mother, I knew it would be a lot of responsibility and a lot of caretaking. After all, I had owned a number of cats and dogs over the years. You have to make sure they are fed, kept warm, given the opportunity to perform bodily functions, taken to the vet once in a while for shots. Easy, right?
Not at all. The level of responsibility required for another human being who is completely helpless and unable to articulate his needs hit me like the cartoon anvil being dropped out of the window. It took my breath away to think that ONE SLIP by me, and this little boy would be toast. I was unprepared for the feelings of desperate love and attachment and the enormous pain I could evoke by just imagining something happening to him.
I remember noticing little imperfections and sobbing while I rocked him, sure that it meant something dreadful and unfixable. There was a lump behind one ear but not behind the other. BRAIN TUMOR! He slept for too many hours. ENCEPHALITIS! His facial features were uneven. Thank goodness there was no internet back then. I didn’t KNOW what terrible condition uneven facial features indicated, but I knew it was really bad. Pediatricians are saints, aren’t they?
After a little while, I started to worry I was pregnant again and would be DETHRONING my little king with some random new baby. Did other moms feel all kinds of pings and pangs inside their bodies that reminded them of pregnancy? Or did I just have an insanely wild imagination? Whatever – I felt so disloyal to my baby as I pondered the idea of two kids a year apart. How could I have done this to him when he needs ALL of my attention ALL the time? Of course I was not pregnant, and in fact my first son was 5 years old before I had my second son. And many people have their babies close together and the kids do just fine. I was simply a victim of New Mom Overreaction Syndrome.
Did it ever abate? Well, yes and no. In some ways, I know it did, because I had to take giant leaps of faith in order to leave my child with daycare providers and later, put him on school buses. But in other ways, it did not, as I would drive to the daycare center with a panicky feeling in my stomach because I was certain something terrible had happened to my child during my drive from work. No cell phones back then! Anything was possible and I had visions of somber daycare workers coming up to me to tell me he had been taken to the hospital. And of course, that would be my appropriate punishment for leaving my baby with strangers to go off to work.
Whenever I heard a news story about some bizarre accident involving a child – a steel girder crashing through the window of a school bus to kill some poor little girl stands out in my mind – I had palpitations. When my son went on trips with his daycare center, I may have appeared to be a functioning adult worker, but inside I was curled in the fetal position, picturing all the road hazards on the way to Mystic Aquarium. What 3 year old needs to visit an aquarium anyway? It was all because the teachers were bored, wasn’t it? A huge plot designed to endanger my precious child, hatched because THEY were tired of hanging around the daycare center all day! I have to confess that one summer, I rearranged my schedule so that my son would be home with me on the weekly Stupid Contrived Dangerous Trip Day. The other kids were too little to brag about the trip to him to make him feel bad and I retained my sanity, so it was a fine plan.
So here’s what I’ve learned: none of us is prepared for the enormity of the task we have taken on, for the amount of guilt we feel if everything isn’t perfect all the time, and for the relentless crashing waves of uber-responsibility we feel for the well-being and safety of that precious little life. You have to do whatever you need to do to keep yourself going. If that means calling the pediatrician every day, believe me, you’re not the only one. If it means missing work to chaperone school trips because you think the teachers are not going to notice if your child is abducted, then do it. If you indulge your inner paranoid self as much as you need to, and then start to realize you have experienced lots and lots of non-events and non-tragedies, you will start to loosen up a little bit as the years go by.
But it never really goes away, fellow moms. I’m sorry to have to tell you that you have been sentenced to a life of fretting. Cell phones are truly sanity savers, but guess what, the kids turn them off or forget to recharge them. “Sorry, Mom! My battery died.” How many times have I heard THAT after a sleepless night imagining my child bound and gagged in the trunk of a car?
This is the price we pay for loving someone so much and so fiercely that we can’t imagine life without them, even if we’ve known them for just a few months. The invisible umbilical cord* is always there. It may have to stretch across the ocean to accommodate our babies’ adventures, but it will do that without ever breaking. It’s infinitely elastic, just like our hearts when we welcome more little ones whom we love just as intensely.
Whenever you feel overwhelmed, think of all the people you know whose kids get through childhood just fine (including yourself!). The odds are in your favor. Give yourself a big hug and maybe a good cry and find your own way to peace – a nap, a bath, a baby snuggle. Whatever it takes! All will be well, I promise you.
*To the adoptive moms: my theory is that you and your child get to knit your own umbilicus together!
A big thank you to Sharlene Kerelejza for encouraging me to write this post.