Since the moment I found out I was pregnant for the first time, I have been terrified of stairs. My anxiety about falling down a flight of stairs peaked after my first daughter was born, and looking back, I see now that it was just one symptom of the post-partum anxiety I didn’t realize I was suffering at the time.
In the mental health world we refer to them as “intrusive thoughts”–those upsetting or disturbing images that seem to come out of nowhere. They’re a hallmark of depression and anxiety, and in the weeks and months after each of my daughters were born, they came on fast and furious. Most of the intrusive images involved one of my girls dying; I wrote them off as yet another symptom of becoming a neurotic Jewish mother. But I just couldn’t escape my fear of the wooden staircase inside our house. I was terrified of falling down it while holding one of the girls; I obsessively donned a pair of thick cotton socks with rubber grips on the soles each time I had to walk downstairs, even in the heat of summer in a house without air-conditioning. I would walk slowly and carefully, taking each stair as if it was covered in ice.
It’s been four years since my second daughter was born, and the anxiety has dwindled down to average Jewish mother levels, on the high end of neurotic. But I’m still scared of the stairs. I still walk slowly down them, and I can’t stop myself from reminding the girls to slow down, look ahead, and pay attention each time they step off the top step. I always feel ridiculous for doing it, of course, and I try to tell myself to calm down and stop nagging, but I just can’t seem to keep my mouth shut.
This past week we were on vacation in the Adirondacks, and the girls and their cousins were running up and down the staircase in my grandmother’s lake house. I had been so good at reminding them to take it easy on the stairs and to watch out for exposed tree roots as we walked through a wooded area to a small beach. I had been so good about it, except for the time I wasn’t. I was up in my bedroom changing out of my bathing suit, and my 5-year-old came running up to get a toy. Before it even occurred to me to say anything, she went charging off, eager to get back to whatever game she was playing with her cousins.
You know what happened next.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. WAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!
I went running down the stairs after her, only to find my daughter in a crumpled heap on the floor at the bottom of the staircase. She had fallen down the entire flight of stairs and was clearly in pain. A trip to the urgent care clinic in town confirmed that she had fractured her left arm.
So now I’m in that weird situation where the thing that I’ve most feared for years has actually happened. On the one hand, it didn’t turn out nearly as badly as I had imagined; it’s not a traumatic brain injury and there were no broken bones poking through her skin. She’s got a relatively minor fracture that will hopefully require nothing more than a few weeks in a cast. On the other hand, my daughter FELL DOWN THE STAIRS AND BROKE HER ARM.
What am I supposed to do with this? Assume that lightning only strikes once and I can stop worrying about it? Is it time to move on to my backup list of things to stress about, such as whether she will ever learn to swim (the cast is not helping with this one!), if she will have asthma for the rest of her life, and how I’m supposed to protect her from flesh-eating bacteria? Or should I take this as evidence that I’m actually smart to be on edge when it’s time to head downstairs? That seems to be a particularly dangerous path for my anxiety-prone personality, but it’s also hard to deny.
Shit. I don’t know. I don’t want to be an anxious mother, but then life rears its ugly head and reminds me that there is plenty to be worried about. Even worse, some of it might actually happen, as my daughter’s bright blue cast reminds me each day.