Deborah Kolben recently wrote a piece about the ways in which our perspective changes when we have children. She observed, quite rightly, that our world becomes a much smaller place. I agree completely. But not only does the world become a smaller place, it also becomes infinitely more dangerous. All of a sudden we find ourselves completely responsible for this defenseless little being, who we are genetically, societally, and (if you are the gestational parent), hormonally programmed to nurture and protect. Everything becomes a potential threat, and we must be constantly vigilant.
It’s an odd paradox, really. We are led to believe, and we must believe, that we have control over who our children become. That if we just get the right mix of folic acid, BPA-free bottles, and Spanish-speaking nannies, we can ensure that our child will not only survive, but even grow up to be the well-balanced, emotionally strong, highly intellectual, physically active individual we wish we could be.
And yet we know it’s not true. Somewhere, in the darkest moments in the middle of the night, when the baby won’t sleep anywhere other than our arms, our mind wanders to the possibilities. What if she gets sick? What if he’s not smart? What if she never finds a partner, or a community? What if my child isn’t happy in life? What if he uses drugs? What if she hates me? And the worst thought of all—what if my baby doesn’t live long enough for me to find out?
Those thoughts are, quite frankly, intolerable. The reality that there is so much beyond our control is just too much to absorb, even in our best moments (which, for parents of toddlers and babies, are few and far between). And so we cling to the small details, focusing on finding organic baby food, the right gymnastics class, the best preschool. Although we know there are many, many different ways to raise healthy, happy children, we judge our fellow parents. Whether it’s about sleeping or feeding or nannies or daycare, or the third rails of baby-raising (breastfeeding and vaccinations, of course), we’ve all got our opinions. In the face of such overwhelming anxiety about the infinite possibilities of what “could” happen, we must believe that we have chosen not only the right path, but the best path.
I’m as guilty of all of this as the next. But I don’t want to be, and it’s hard to know how to change it. Since first reading Debbie’s post, though, I’ve been thinking about it. This dilemma was in the back of my mind as I put my toddler down for her nap the other day. She still sleeps in a crib, which is in the corner of her room. She likes to sleep sideways at the end of the crib, back to the room, legs poking out through the slats, feet planted against the wall. Her body is cradled by three sides of the crib, and her view is limited to that small corner of the room. How safe that must feel.
But the rest of the day she is out, exploring the world, trusting it, and trusting us. She follows us to new places, she has conversations with the new people we introduce her to, and she’ll even try new foods (sometimes). Yes, there are times when she is scared of the talking Mr. Potato Head or the room full of people, and in those moments she turns to her father or me for comfort. But she doesn’t judge me for my decision, or get angry. She just asks for help.
I was like her once. We all were. But then life happened, and we learned about pain and loss, and we learned that sometimes there are things we can do to keep ourselves safe. But sometimes the illusion of control is a bit too pervasive, and we get scared and angry when we are reminded that we can’t control everything. Perhaps our children are the models we need for moving forward. Maybe it’s about trusting the universe, and each other, and remembering that when we get scared or feel unsure, we can ask for help. Maybe it’s about appreciating the times when we can turn our gaze outward and engage with the world, and also allowing ourselves those moments when we just need to curl up at the end of our crib and enjoy the safety of a small world.