My first boss in Washington was like an honorary big brother. In between directing our little staff about housing policy matters, he offered life lessons. “When you have a kid,” he assured me, “you’ll be ready to hurl yourself in front of a moving car just to make sure it doesn’t hit them.” I guffawed. Throw myself in front of a moving car? That sounded dangerous (and crazy).
And yet, he was right. He had the benefit of already being a parent and knowing about danger and fear from the other side.
Starting with pregnancy, I began making changes to protect my daughter. A former caffeine addict, I kicked my coffee habit. A loyal Indian food patron, I declined Palaak Paneer from any restaurant that couldn’t confirm they served pasteurized cheese. If only it were so easy to keep Lila safe now.
One January day, as I prepared for our afternoon walk, Lila practiced standing by holding onto my bed. She fell forward, bumping her head against the metal bed frame. I called the pediatrician, who asked a slew of questions about the bruise just above Lila’s eye, then sent us to the emergency room in case Lila needed stitches. After the initial shock of the fall, Lila was fine, but I remained anxious. It felt like we were at the hospital for years. I was grateful when stitches were deemed unnecessary.
Any time Lila tried to do something risky after that, I’d remind her of that ER visit and advise against recklessness. I doubt she understood, but everything was alright until April.
Lila needed her diaper changed. I turned away for one moment to grab a diaper wipe and heard a thud. My 11-month-old had rolled over, plummeting from her tall changing table to the floor. She cried, while I speed-dialed the pediatrician. Once again, they sent us to the ER. Lila cheerfully befriended all the medical staff at the hospital, while I was scared.
Lila was intact, but I felt chastened. Not by the doctor or nurses, who reassured me that this happens to everyone, but by a sense that I needed to be even more vigilant. The more mobile Lila is, the more adventurous she is. As a mother trying to raise a confident child, I think that’s wonderful–within reason.
For example, Lila lost interest in laying down for diaper changes. She began standing on the aforementioned high changing table. So, I relearned to diaper her, while she leaned against the wall or my shoulder. It’s not ideal, but we’ve made it work.
What’s scarier has been Lila’s quick transition from new walker to near-sprinter. Lila has quickly adapted from moving barefoot to moving in shoes. She now zooms between furniture and neighbors in our building’s lobby, saying hello and investigating everything. Indoors, that’s largely fine, but outside is another story. Lila has always enjoyed watching cars whoosh past and, ever the extrovert, her newest interest is rushing to the street to greet drivers. I’ve repeatedly chased her, blocking her from stepping off the curb and into traffic. That’s been terrifying.
As a kid, I thought adulthood looked glamorous. I had no idea how many unspoken scary things parents regularly take into account, never bothering to alarm their children that they’ve escaped a close scrape. It’s often.
Recalling stories my mother told about my toddlerhood, I hear them differently now. If Lila ran into Manhattan traffic, I’d be hysterical. If she crashed her riding toy into older boys at the playground, I’d worry about the boys’ response. And if she jumped into a pool without knowing how to swim, my heart might momentarily stop.
As a parent, I can’t enter beautiful spaces without seeing potential hazards everywhere: uncovered electrical outlets, glass tables, gate-less staircases, and slippery bath tubs. The more mobile Lila becomes, the more potential threats I visualize.
Perhaps in this sense, parenting is like the Secret Service. I take it for granted that whenever Lila and I are together, I must envision worst case toddler scenarios and ensure that they never transpire.
Since I can’t swaddle my daughter in bubble wrap, danger has become my constant companion. I do my best to know my surroundings, predict my daughter’s next moves, and learn to live with uncertainty. Life with a toddler is mostly joyous fun, but it also means learning to accept–while constantly managing and mitigating–risk. At this point, my only fear is my daughter’s fearlessness itself.