Every Mother's Worst Fear
I didn’t think about death on a daily basis until I became a mom. Staring down at my son’s tiny, puckered face after he was born, the fierceness of the love I felt took my breath away. It was different than the soft, warm love I felt for my husband that wrapped around me like a cozy blanket. This love had an edge to it, and a sharpness that served as a constant reminder of the pain it could cause without careful handling.
For the first few weeks of motherhood, I couldn’t hold my son without thinking about losing him. I’d be rocking him to sleep on my shoulder, listening to his breath in my ear, and think, “I have never been this happy.” Immediately, my next thought would be, “I will die if anything ever happens to him.” It was as if there were two movies playing in my brain. One was a sunshine-filled love story, and one was a bleak drama with a tragic ending. The more I tried to stay rooted in the love story, the more the scenes from other, darker movie kept crashing in and taking over my thoughts.
I kept these thoughts to myself at first because I worried I was crazy. Constant anxiety about losing the child you have just created was not in any of the parenting books I had read, or on any of the beautifully photographed new mom Instagram accounts I followed. Then, one night, it got so bad that I confessed to my husband.
“Yeah, me too,” he said. “I think about it all the time.”
“Wait, so this is normal?’ I asked.
“I guess it’s normal for us,” he replied.
“What do we do about it?”
“I think we just love him as much as we can every day.”
This response was not even remotely satisfying. But I knew he was right. No matter how perfectly I parented or how hard I worked to protect my child from the world, most of it was beyond my control. The only thing within my power was loving him.
When my son was eight months old, I drove him to the emergency room in what was the longest eleven minutes of my life. He was shivering uncontrollably and his breathing was shallow. Six hours later, he was diagnosed with a UTI that had progressed into a kidney infection, and we were given a room to stay the night.
I slept in the crib with him that night, curled around him carefully avoiding the IV cord that pumped antibiotics into his tiny veins. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known. How could I have missed that he was so sick? He hadn’t even cried. If I hadn’t noticed this then how could I ever expect to protect him from the rest of the world’s perils?
We spent three nights at Children’s Hospital while he fought the infection. During this time, I became acutely aware that we were the lucky ones. We were diagnosed quickly and treated swiftly and effectively. While three nights felt like an eternity for us, unlike many of the kids on his floor, we did not stay long enough to decorate his room or get to know the nurses.
Nothing will shatter your heart into a million pieces more than spending time on the baby floor at a children’s hospital. There were newborns nearly swallowed up by all the cords and monitors connected to them. There were parents in pajamas and slippers walking the halls with faces that told me they knew every inch of that floorplan. Then there were the rooms that stayed dark and empty except for the tiny patient inside, quiet save for the beep and whir of hospital machines.
I ached for those babies in a way I wouldn’t have been able to before I had my own. I was also filled with gratitude that we’d be going home once the antibiotics ran their course, back to a life of normal doctor visits only for checkups and the occasional sore throat.
I’d like to say that spending time at the hospital and going home with a healthy child cured my fixation on worst case scenarios. It did not. I live every day with a low-grade terror that something will happen to him. How can you not when your heart lives outside your body and tends to put small objects in its mouth and jump headlong off anything it can scramble to the top of?
I’ve accepted that the constant fear of losing him will always be part of my life. Perhaps this makes me morbid or crazy, but I also know it makes me a better mom. On the mornings when I’m late for a meeting and scrambling to get everyone out the door, it makes me pause to read one more book or for one more minute of cuddling. On the hard days when I’m counting the minutes until bedtime, it helps me to take a deep breath and summon the patience to hold him close and tell him for the millionth time how much I love him. I remember to be grateful for all the moments, the good and the hard, because gratitude is the ultimate antidote to fear. I know now that the fears will always be there, it’s what I choose to do with them that matters.