It is 10:30 at night and my 4-year-old should be asleep. Instead, she’s waiting for me at the top of the stairs. Lately she looks so big — little girlish with long legs and a defiant smile. But right now, she seems like my baby again, zipped up in pink footie pajamas and clutching her blanket.
“What is it?” I ask, kneeling next to her.
She leans into me and whispers, “I keep thinking you might die.”
I hold her close and kiss her head.
I used to think that the worry that courses through me was a result of years of trauma that left my family torn and divided. When I had my own children, I worked hard to create a home where they could depend on routine and structure. Where mom and dad were always there. “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world,” the Greek mathematician Archimedes is often quoted as saying. For my children, their home is that place to stand. I want it to be their sure footing in a world of uncertainty and fear.
And yet, lately I’ve watched my daughter begin to bite her nails. She comes home from school worried she hasn’t followed the rules. That she’s broken an invisible rule that she didn’t know. In October she refused to go to school because she thought she was putting the toys away incorrectly and didn’t want to get in trouble. I let her have a day off before we went together to talk to the teachers and sort things out.
A few days ago, she asked to have a pie fight in the backyard. Before I could answer she said, “But we should wear our swimsuits so we don’t ruin our clothes. Maybe we should wash off in the pool. But it’s too cold. Will the pie ruin daddy’s grass?’
I want to laugh. She’s 4 and already planning her spontaneity. But I know her fears. I am 33 but I often spend my quiet moments attending funerals that have yet to happen, mourning lives that haven’t yet dropped away. When I go for a run in the morning, I conjure pain waiting to be felt and blood waiting to be spilled. I often envision returning to find my house engulfed in flames, or my family murdered in their beds. My heart catches when I turn the corner from the park, and it finally beats again when I can see down the street and there are no flames.
These are the little talismans of fear that I collect to ward off future ills. The horror you imagine will not happen, is one of the horrible Hallmarkisms I live my life by. I believe that if I can see my way through these scenarios, perhaps the terrible will hold no terror. Perhaps when that other shoe drops, I will survive. Therapists have told me this is common for adults who have seen the people they love hurt and maimed — scarred inside and out. I’ve had prescriptions to manage the panic and anxiety. And for most of my life, I’ve tried to become a person who never cracks beneath the fear of it all.
But here now is my daughter, who has experienced no trauma, sitting on the stairs, doing the same thing. And suddenly, I am afraid again. Have I not made a safe enough home? Did my worry slide down my DNA and into her? Did my husband give her blue eyes, while I gave her fear?
Trying to comfort her, I remember being 5, sitting in the doorway of my room, listening to my mom talk on the phone, crying because I was afraid she could die at any moment. I tried to imagine what my life would be like without a mom. If I imagined my life so that I was okay, maybe it would be fine. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t imagine away the pit of desperate grief in my stomach. I sobbed until I finally exhausted myself and went back into my room. Here, on the stairs, I am holding two little girls, one past and one present.
Parenting is living two lives — seeing your past self projected into the future, while your present self looks on. And yet, as much as I am in my daughter, she is not me. While worry courses through both of us, her fears belong to her now. They are for her to shape, and to decide their weight. But for now, she just needs to be held and loved. So that’s what I do.
My daughter is done crying, but I’ve only just begun. “I know how you feel, sweetie,” I say. “Sometimes I worry too.”
This is all I can do, and I hope that it will anchor both of us. In her book “The Monster Within,” Barbara Almond writes that within motherhood there is gratification to be found “from mutual pleasures between mother and child in which the mother’s needs are also gratified.” Sitting on the steps, I am able to reach through time, to comfort two little girls and help them both find a little peace in the swell of their anxiety. This is not the point of motherhood, but it is it’s own surprising grace.
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