Like a lot of primates, I really don’t like snakes. In Maine, we only have non-venomous, ecologically beneficial, pest-eating garter snakes and rat snakes, but the unexpected sight of one gliding eerily past my feet in the garden gives me major willies.
This wasn’t always true. I remember happily holding a little red-bellied snake that a preschool classmate brought in for show and tell. I was 3 or 4 years old. Shortly thereafter, I was playing outside when my Birkenstock-clad mother nearly stepped on a snake on the way to the mailbox. She reacted like many people would–an operatic shriek and a leap backwards. And from that moment on, I reacted the same way.
As outlined in this article from Parenting Science, some fears have to be taught. And some are learned very quickly, whether by baby humans or baby monkeys.
I don’t want my daughter to learn from me how to be afraid. I’m afraid of and anxious about so many things. Driving on the mainland, riding a bike, flying in an airplane, needles, alien abduction and of course snakes–at one time or another these fears have prevented me from living my life to the fullest. Some of them–aliens, needles–are behind me. I went through cognitive behavioral therapy for driving, with moderate success. But I still can’t really ride a bike, and I still cringe when entering parts of the yard where I’ve seen snakes. Flying, since I suddenly lost my faith in the Bernoulli principle somewhere over Canada, is a real challenge.
I’m using Penrose as a reason to become stronger, to be able to practice and hopefully model fearlessness. The first chance I had to practice this didn’t go so well. Penrose was only a few weeks old and I was carrying her around the garden, showing my sister where we had planted our apple trees.
“Don’t look,” she said.
“Aiiiieeeeee!” Without even seeing the snake she was telling me not to look at, I totally lost my composure and sprinted across the yard. Great. At least Penrose was probably too young to retain my undignified reaction.
Out for a walk with her and the dog the other day, we came across a young ringneck snake in the road (I just gave myself major willies looking that up in my Audubon guide!) I took a deep breath and said out loud, “Oh look, there’s a snake.” I kept my voice steady and took only the smallest step out of the snake’s trajectory. Penrose is too young to have retained that reaction either, but, as I subtly shook off the willies, I felt like it was a good step towards letting Penrose form her own reaction to snakes.
A bigger test is going to come this winter. We’re flying to San Diego to spend Christmas and New Year’s with my in-laws. Leaving Maine to visit southern California in winter is a real treat, and being surrounded by loving family while eating Mexican food and going to the beach on Christmas Day is worth the boat to the highway to the airport. But lately, especially in the inevitable turbulence over the Rockies, I approach a full-blown panic attack. I’ve begun taking Xanax for flights–it got me to and from London last summer–but this time I’ll have a child to take care of. I don’t want to be knocked out like B. A. Baracus, I want to be a caring and functional mom. I need to be available to take care of Penrose, changing her, feeding her, and possibly assuaging her fear and confusion at being in a sky tube, miraculously held aloft by the flimsy-seeming principle of lift.
So, I’m going to let Penrose make me strong. She already has, not just in my bulgier biceps from lugging her carseat. For her, I had blood taken regularly, testing for genetic anomalies, blood sugar, Fifths disease. For her I got a TDAP booster, two Rhogam injections. An intravenous pitocin drip to stop my bleeding after she was born. And as I kept approaching my fear of needles, and dedicating each jab to her, I eventually overcame my fear. As she becomes more aware of my reactions to the world, I hope I can meet each of my anxieties and fears and, in her name, overcome them.
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