In a recent discussion with an acquaintance about irrational fear (of storms), we were trying to suss out the root of her issue. The conversation turned light and funny when we both playfully poked fun at her ideas of what could happen. We were laughing at some of the ridiculousness and among that admitted cause for some valid concern. Yes, storms can totally be dangerous. No, a grey cloud does NOT mean that lightning is going to kill us all. We joked that being struck by lightning is the default measuring stick to communicate how often something isn’t going to happen. “You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than …(fill in the it’s-totally-not-going-to-happen thing here).” Her goal after our conversation: An attitude of Reasonable Caution.
This is where being a parent is hard: deciding what is reasonable or what is irrational when it comes to our fears concerning the safety and well-being of our children.
So, what’s reasonable?
When I learned to ride a bike, my dad ran behind me, grabbing the end of that banana seat until I peddled out of his reach. Inevitably I’d fall – my only protection was his faith in me that I could do it. I don’t think they sold knee pads or helmets for kids in the 80’s. My scrapes and scabs were the battle scars of figuring it out. Pain as a teacher and motivator. That seems reasonable.
I too can bear to watch the lessons my children learn through pain. Pain keeps our fingers out of those beautiful flames and can translate into a pleasurable endorphin rush after a hard climb up that rock wall in the park. Okay, so I won’t necessarily seek out experiences that will likely result in pain for my children, but I won’t shield them from it should it be a “reasonable” consequence. That seems reasonable.
So, what’s a reasonable consequence?
You see, I don’t (want to) self-identify as an over-protective mother – but struggle not to think like one. I’m a weird mix of realistic, practical, logical, tough and “we’re totally going to wind up on the news.”
When my son started eating solid food, he ate like a champ. He shoveled it in. By the time he was two, I had given him the Heimlich TWICE. The first time, I was around a group of people that saw what was happening and gathered around to help. The second time, I was alone in the house with him while he turned blue face down on my knee. Shaking and tearful, I hit my baby between the shoulder blades until he started crying. I willed him to cry. Every piece of me was scared. Fear is pain. My son is three now. I cut up his grapes. I slice his hot dogs in half, (neither of which he choked on), I cut up his meat, his cheese, his broccoli. I don’t have an end date on this method of food prep for him. He is capable of chewing all of these foods, but based on past experience this seems reasonable. Or is it over-protective?
“Just don’t worry so much.”
That’s a good piece of advice right there (eye roll). I fight the over-protective impulse. Being Pretending not to be over-protective is exhausting. I’d love to run in the field of wildflowers with my children, playing and dancing – instead of making sure there are no ants. But there are ants. Is it better to deal with the inevitable consequence of something that will probably happen? Or is looking out for what you know can harm them being over-protective?
“Just let them be kids!”
My children are six and three so they both think they’re invincible superheroes. AS SOON AS I try to “just let them be kids,” I’m usually off to urgent care. You think I’m kidding. I’m not kidding. My son took a header into a concrete planter on Thanksgiving Day. He was running IN THE GRASS in the backyard and basically hit a hole in one with his face.
“You can’t keep them in a bubble.”
I know. I live in the world and I try to let them do the same. I fight the urge to cushion their fall (literally and figuratively) more than I don’t have to fight it. My children get to play in the mud and in the puddles, but they’re not walking across the parking lot without holding my hand until they move out. Where is the line drawn between good parenting and over-protective parenting? I struggle so hard to be on the correct side of that line. Really. The internal monologue is exhausting. Sometimes the bubble option seems like less work.
“What are the odds?”
Let’s go back to that lightning thing. Lightning is beautiful, but I don’t like it. There’s another saying about lightning that’s been giving me some trouble, “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.” First, this is literally untrue. Second, I’ve been burned. When I was 19, my 16 year-old brother was killed in a car accident. When I was 24, my 17 year-old sister was killed in a car accident.
Two car accidents.
Five years apart.
No more siblings.
No aunt and uncle for my eventual children.
For a while, I had an irrational fear that I was next. The fear wasn’t crippling, but it was there. I looked at life differently. I looked at skiing differently. I was going to be the one that fell off of the mountain. I looked at flying differently. Our plane is going to be the one that goes down. Those thoughts crept into almost everything. I still strapped on those skis. I love the trip after the plane lands… because I still get on the plane.
I don’t think it’s the fear of watching my children experience pain that makes me feel over-protective. I don’t think it’s even the fear that I’m going to lose them (even though some days I have to beat that back into the far corner of my thoughts), it’s the realization that bad things happen. They happen. Every day. And they could happen to me again. Bad things happen all around us. If you haven’t been touched by that – bless you. Be the light I need to see that everything can be okay when my candle is temporarily out (because I go there sometimes), and please don’t look at me that way when I involuntarily reach out to catch my children (and they don’t even fall). I can feel you looking. I’m judging myself, too.
I’m not going to waste my life (or my children’s lives) just sitting around waiting for it. I know I can’t foolishly prepare for it, but I struggle daily with trying to define what is a “reasonable” amount of worry/preparation/pain. I don’t want to give in to the fear monster – but because of my life, I feel like that radar is a little “off.” I don’t believe my experiences are excuses for the way I interpret situations; they’re reasons. Valid reasons.
So, help me out here – any tips from recovering worry-warts on how to trade the fear for the fun? I’m all ears.