Becoming a parent for the first time is terrifying. This teeny tiny life is placed into your hands and you and you alone are responsible for it. Everything that you acquire to keep your baby safe comes with a warning label screeching the danger of child injury or death. You decide to co-sleep with this tender little life rather than leave it alone in a crib. You get a bed rail when he begins to roll that’s covered with labels forewarning you against putting a baby in an adult bed. Other parents say, Aren’t you afraid of rolling over on him? I think, Aren't you afraid of alienating her? You navigate your way amidst this sea of dangers.
Whether you take all the alarm bells in stride or whether you fret and worry will depend largely upon your nature. It will also depend upon experience. I have become more relaxed about certain things now that I’ve been at this for a year and a half. If my son drops his apple on the supermarket floor I pick it up and give it back to him without wiping it off first. Once I was scolded by a West Indian grandmother for not having my boy’s ankles covered in the winter weather.
But appearances can be deceiving. Your level of anxiety over your child’s safety also depends on what may have happened to you in your life, or what happens along the path of parenthood.
When my baby was eight months old, my sister took her own life by jumping from the roof of her
Brooklyn apartment building. It was like the earth cracking open beneath my feet. The whole family was deeply shaken. I was overwhelmed with the trauma of sudden loss, with guilt over not having saved her, over the possibility that she had become more sad in juxtaposition to my joy as a mother, (she was 47, and had never born a child), and with an immense and complicated grief. The lifelong wound of having lost my father to the effects of bipolar disorder as an eleven year old was reopened in addition to the new wound of losing my sister Gaby in our forties.
My generally optimistic nature, and my child’s contagious happiness, along with a strong and supportive family and weekly therapy have helped me to rise above the sorrow and focus on being a strong and positive and nurturing mother. Being able to look at myself and the situations in which I find myself with a sense of humor has been an essential tool in my survival kit. Writing also gives shape and voice to the anxieties that grip me, and in so doing releases me from them.
But still there are times in life when one’s psyche has to work overtime to make sense of things. The week before the perigee moon would loom huge above our dazzled, moon-swept faces, massive earthquakes struck
. The subsequent tsunami swept away whole villages in the blink of an eye. Then, more locally, in our sleepy little town, a three year old girl died, allegedly at the hands of her own mother. Let’s just say that my trauma sensors were on high. I went to a Women’s Gathering on the night of the full moon to hear Joan Borysenko speak and I wore my sister’s four hundred dollar Thierry Rabotin pewter dancer’s shoes for the party afterward, one of several pairs she bought in the height of her psychosis when she probably wanted nothing more than to dance her ass off to the Talking Heads, commune with the angels, and get her six figure job back. Japan
I didn’t get to dance in my sister’s shoes for her that night. I did get to hear most of Borysenko’s interesting talk, entitled “Rising Tide of Light: Developing Resilience in Times of Change” before the hubby called me at 8:20, after I had been out of the house for four hours straight, a big record over our previous two hour record, with baby wailing in the background. “I think he’s had it,” hubby said.
The sound of the baby crying over the phone flooded me in Cortisol. Within three minutes of getting off the phone I scooped up my purse and turned on the car. Seven minutes after that I was pulling into our driveway. The baby boy had a big smile on his face. He also had a very wet diaper. Ten minutes later, after changing him and putting him to my breast, he was asleep.
That morning as the last of the moon’s milky light bathed our side of the planet I had a terrible dream. I was at an enormous indoor swimming pool with my new family. I was on the deep end, contemplating the diving board, and I had left my one year old on the side of the pool behind me, between his father, who was on the shallow end, and me. I had turned my back for one moment. When I turned back to Cayce, pool water was lapping up onto the side of the pool and covering his face. When the water pulled away from his face it was blank, motionless, and unresponsive. I ran to him and picked him up by his feet and hung him upside down but no cough came. No water sputtered out of his mouth. He was as still as a statue. “Help me!” I cried. “He’s not breathing! Help me!”
When I woke up, my one year old was breathing steadily beside me in our bed, the moon was gone, replaced by a brilliant sun.
There are a couple of things that strike me about this dream. The pool, first of all. Womb water, a force of creation, also with it’s power to destroy. And the fact that my partner, Cayce’s father, was there with me… that despite his presence, Cayce was my responsibility. I carried my child into the world, and whatever happens to him falls at my feet. And the feeling that if I turn my back for one moment something terrible might befall my child. So the dream is a dream of a woman who feels she must remain ever vigilant. A woman who can’t let go. Who waits for the shoe to drop and the sky to fall.
I know I must deal with this or I will become one of those merciless helicopter moms, hovering, not living. Those dance shoes still fit, and there happens to be a very good funk band playing at The Chicken Box tonight…