There is a common misconception among mothers -- particularly, it seems, among new mothers like me -- that the constant state of fear in which we find ourselves will remove any and all potential harm from our children's lives. We know, logically, that this is not true. Life happens. The world is still flawed. Mistakes will still be made and knees will still be skinned. The sun rises, the sun sets.
So what -- oh what-- can we do to keep the fears contained where they rightfully belong, rather than allow them to go raging like bulls in a china shop, shattering everything in sight?
I read a recent article that revealed the biological processes behind these fears. In essence, they are a benefit. They keep us mamas alert and attentive. They program sensitivity in us to things we once ignored and, for that, many of us should be thankful. They are the primary reason we made it to adulthood. But in spite of these necessary instincts, which have prevented countless injuries and tears, we often cannot rest. Because rest, it seems, is for the negligent. The weak. The lazy.
My rational mind tells me this notion is ludicrous. Dangerous, even. Rest is crucial for human beings, and especially for human beings responsible for the care of other human beings. But another voice tells me "Yes! Hide all the things! Hover over your daughter's every step! Don't let her out of your sight for a second or that shelf/television/hot cup of coffee will fall on her head!"
Could a shelf or television or hot cup of coffee fall on my daughter's head? Yes. Even if I'm in the room with her. In fact, a cup of coffee did fall on my girl's head just last month. I had placed it up on the top of a short bookcase out of her reach (or so I thought) and even pushed it as far as I could against the wall so she wouldn't be able to stand up on those tippy toes and grab it. But my daughter, being the curious, innovative toddler that she is, found a way around this obstacle. And rather than reaching for my cup from the front, she scooted around to the side of the shelf and grabbed it from there. I was in the room with her, just feet away. But my back was turned while she was busy reading her books on the floor. All the outlets were baby-proofed and the baby gate was up. Heavy objects had long since been removed and any piece of furniture big enough to cause harm was bolted to the wall. But she found that damn cup of coffee. And suddenly I heard a clatter of porcelain followed by the piercing cry of my 1-year old. I turned, saw her standing in a puddle of (thankfully) room-temperature coffee, and sprinted to her side. I scooped her up, soaking clothes and all, and told her over and over that it was okay. That she was okay.
Then I started giggling. Her little eyelashes were dripping caramel-colored liquid and she smelled heavenly. She cracked a smile, too, and then tried to go back to her books, babbling happy sounds the whole time. All was forgotten in her mind, even with her still-wet clothing and sticky hair. I bathed her and put her in a fresh outfit while my husband cleaned up the mess.
It wasn't until later, once everything had settled down, that I realized how easily that cup of coffee could have been scalding hot. Freshly made. A once favorite comfort transformed into a third degree burn that would have sent my daughter to the ER and DFACS to my house. In my mind, a funny anecdote to tell for years down the road had suddenly become a testament to my flaws as a mother. It's been weeks since my daughter poured that coffee on herself and, still, I haven't stopped imagining how terrible it could have been.
My husband, on the other hand, just shrugs and says, "Babe, it wasn't hot. Our daughter is fine. Let it go."
I admire his ability to approach things as they come and leave them where they are when they're finished. But my mind doesn't work that way. In addition to being a mom, I have OCD. And it tries to interfere with my life every single day. It doesn't manifest itself in the way of repeated hand-washing or cleanliness. No; it manifests itself in thoughts that burst through my peaceful moments like the Kool-Aid guy bursting through a wall. They're disruptive and rude and couldn't care less that I don't have any time or energy for them. I've learned over the last two years how to approach these thoughts and I've seen how God can use them to create really beautiful moments in my life. But it's a daily struggle. We all have our issues. This is mine.
So hear me when I say that I understand the mama guilt. It's real, and not just for women who have OCD or anxiety or struggle with depression. It's real, period, for all of us who are mothering and who have mothered sweet little ones.
But let's look at it a little bit differently right now. Our maternal instincts help us keep our babies safe. It's really a wonderful bit of biology and design. And our lives are certainly better for it. But no one benefits from the raging guilt that follows us around and permeates our homes. I want my daughter to know her mother as someone who is cautious, yet adventurous. Loving, but firm. Compassionate and honest. Our culture tells us that we have to choose this style of parenting or that particular approach, even while it speaks out of the other side of its mouth and tells us we can have it all. There are voices coming from all angles of parenthood, and each one says something different. More often than not, I hear my mama friends say they feel that if they stop to take a moment for themselves, they've done something wrong. But this is not true. It's not even close. No child has ever fully benefitted from a helicopter parent. He might have stayed physically safe, sure. And that's always a good thing. But what happened to his mind? His sense of adventure? His self-image? His ability to grow and become an confident, flourishing adult?
Somewhere along the way, we have replaced our natural protective instinct with a desire to please everyone who might enter our world and give us their opinion.
And that's a terrible shame. Because I've learned most mothers are good at what they do, flaws and all. In fact, it's our flaws that make us capable of instilling grace in our children. Of giving them a perspective on life that is forgiving and free. Of showing them that people are beautiful and the cracks in our exteriors let more light in. We have to learn to trust our instincts and trust that even when giving our best fails us, we are not failures.
After my daughter spilled my cup of coffee, my husband came up with the idea to build a small wall shelf above the couch where our drinks will stay far out of her reach. My response was to ask, "But what if we accidentally spill something on her while she's sitting with us?"
My husband, the patient and loving man that he is, simply looked at me and said, "Then we'll keep trying to find a better way."
And that's all we can demand of ourselves. Not perfection. Not flawlessness (no matter what Beyoncé says). Just our best. And the hope of better things if our best fails.