The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When I realized I cannot keep all of my kids happy, healthy and safe all of the time

Courtesy of Jamie Sumner
Placeholder while article actions load

“Our first concern is his happiness, health and safety.” I said this all the time as a new parent — to myself, my husband and my son, Charlie.

I said it over that spot in my belly where they poked the needle to do the amniocentesis I never wanted, to confirm the chromosomal defect I never suspected.

I said it over his incubated and intubated body in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, after he was born at just 30 weeks.

I said it when he came home with a tracheotomy, and in the back pew of church when I flipped on the suction machine that sounded exactly like a tiny motor in a tiny lawn mower. Bowed heads turned discreetly as I waved the suction valve over his fragile neck.

It is only now, six years later, that I realize this motto, this mantra of mine, while true, is not something I can control.

We are home, and it is dark and cold and everything else that is a typical February afternoon. Charlie is practicing sitting crisscross applesauce on the floor — because I will do anything to get him out of his wheelchair and also because I did not want to haul the wheelchair in from the van. His brother and sister, twins, fight over the remote they are not allowed to control anyway, being only three. When has that ever stopped them? It is a battle of wills over “Paw Patrol” versus “PJ Masks.” I bounce six inches behind Charlie on the yoga ball we bought for his therapy, but which has instead turned into my revolving chair. What was that 1970s slogan? “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” I am a Weeble wobbling.

Is there a place for shame in your parenting toolbox?

On this night in the wasteland that is after dinner but before bedtime, I watch one twin hit the other on the head with the remote, which flips the television off Nick Jr. and on to some news report on the danger of potholes in winter. The twins scream as if local programming were truly a horror. Or maybe they are actually worried about road conditions. Charlie stiffens and falls backward into my shins. I gently roll us forward, but not before he starts crying too. His cries are the worst … the longest silence before the sounds.

This is my moment. With all three screaming I realize I cannot, in fact, have it all. I cannot keep all of them “happy, healthy and safe” at the same time, or in equal measure.

Happiness for the twins would be chicken tenders followed by a main course of Smarties for the rest of their lives. Would they be happy? Sure. They might miss their teeth after a while and the other four-fifths of the food pyramid that will ensure they grow to normal size and depth.

Total safety for Charlie would be staying home with me rather than going to his preschool where there are flu/strep/cold germs, children who careen off his wheelchair, doors that open too fast, curbs on the playground and teachers who cannot understand what he needs as well as me, his mother and mind-reader. Even I do not want to spend 24 hours a day with me, so how can I expect him to? He would miss friends and circle time and music time and lunches packed in his train lunch box and yes, there are curbs on the playground, but at least there is a playground.

Parenting is forever and always a give-and-take, a trade-off of one plus for three semi-decent status quos. I will take a migraine-inducing dinner at Chuck E. Cheese’s if it will make my children happy and tired in 2.5 hours.

I will risk the tears that come from shots at the pediatrician’s office if it will keep them a tiny bit healthier this year.

I will encourage them to keep at the physical therapy or gymnastics or soccer even when it is hard, even when it hurts, even when they are not good at it because happiness is not always in the easy things. Hard-fought happiness is good too. Maybe better.

Every now and then, though, I get my golden moment, when the motto becomes truth. There was that July picnic at the park when everyone ate the broccoli salad, and the breeze was warm, and mosquitoes were sparse. No one was fighting. No one was crying. I think there was even a group hug/team huddle in there. Happy. Healthy. Safe. All at the same time.

This is why I still say it, all these years later, even if it is not achievable nine times out of 10. Because sometimes it ends in tears, but sometimes it ends in a group hug. I let my hand hover over their heads and say, like a benediction, I want them to be “happy, healthy, and safe.” It is not easy. It is not consistent. But I will settle for a little of most of it some of the time.

Jamie Sumner is the author of the book, Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood. Find her on Twitter @mom_gene.

Follow On Parenting on Facebook and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and work. Sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

More reading: 

That viral Gap ad sends a powerful message about breast-feeding and black motherhood

You can now use a 529 to pay for K-12 education—so should you?

Screens aren’t completely bad for kids, according to a new book