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I’m a free-range parent. My toddler’s concussion changed everything.


I almost wish she’d been wearing her bad shoes, the plastic ones that seem to catch the pavement. At least then I’d be able to put my finger on why one moment my 2-year-old was running full speed and the next she was crashing into a concrete wall. She was barefoot, though, as her head snapped up and back. I’m certain, because the sight of those pink toes dangling as I dialed 911 comes to mind easily. Almost as easily as the events that preceded it, the ones that, when I close my eyes, play unbidden and on repeat, like a roommate’s favorite song. Running, running, trip, wall — facedown on the ground. Running, running, trip, wall — facedown on the ground.

Then the tape skips to my daughter in my lap, not breathing but trying to, stretching out long and rigid, eyes rolling back, her body starting to shake and then abruptly going limp. I can still feel the warm weight of her on my arms and thighs, the stillness that’s ordinarily such a pleasure at the end of a long day becoming suddenly terrifying.

So I know it couldn’t be that I let her put on the wrong shoes. But I did make her take that path when she had been headed for an equally good route. It was bossy — controlling, really — and I’d done it because I had plans to jump up on that wall a few times, to squeeze in some exercise. Vain, vain, vain. And maybe she tripped because she was tired. I had skipped her nap to get an earlier bedtime, an extra hour alone. Selfish. I was controlling and vain and selfish, and God saw it and struck my baby down. I know none of these thoughts is true, but they play on a loop, too.

She’s fine now, though. Or she will be fine. She’s probably definitely fine.

While I was on the phone with emergency dispatch, she drew in a deep breath and sat up, saying, “It’s dust a big bonk.” Indecision reigned as a potential ambulance bill competed with the drumbeat in my head thumping, her brain, her brain, her brain, as I remembered Natasha Richardson. Then she was crying again, too loudly for me to talk to the guy anyway, so I apologized and hurried to the pediatrician’s office a few blocks away.

The nurse looked at my alert, albeit grumpy, child and told me what signs to watch for — things like dizziness and nausea — and sent us on our way. They would just shine lights in her eyes at the ER, she said, and I nodded, wanting to go home. If I could just return our setting to normal, replacing the antiseptic smell and wall of patient charts with a toy-strewn living room made too warm by the afternoon sun, everything would be normal, my gut said, as it also told me otherwise.

In the stroller on the walk home, she kept nodding off. A guy I knew in high school got laid out, and we had been told to keep him awake. Grasping at this shred of outdated medical advice, I bought her a Popsicle and got her out to walk. She let the sugary treat slip out of her hand (surely a third sign of distress, had the list been created with toddlers in mind) and then stumbled around like a driver failing a field sobriety test. Still, it could just be that missed nap, I told myself. But when I opened the door to our house, the retching started. I left denial behind then, sitting on my hardwood floor beside the puddles of vomit that would have taken precious minutes to clean. Her brain, her brain, her brain.

It’s time to land that helicopter. Hovering isn’t helping your kids.

As we sped to the hospital, I watched my daughter fade away. She responded to questions quietly and literally, a ghost of her normally vehement and silly self. Her eyes drifted around, aimlessly and sometimes separately. By the time we arrived, she was awake but not there. I never understood the appeal of zombie movies. What’s so scary about an animated husk of a human being? Now I knew. At some point she smiled in the dazed manner of a college buddy after one too many bong hits, and I tried to savor the foray into lucidity, in case it turned out to be her last.

Then the tide turned. The doctors rush-ordered a CT and gave her Zofran to stop the vomiting. By the time the scan came back clean — her brain was bruised but not bleeding; her cheekbone was battered but not broken — she had blinked back on. One minute she was gone, and the next she looked up, and was focused, curious as to why I blotted my eyes on the little outfit we’d hastily replaced with a hospital gown: “Dresses aren’t for wiping, Mommy. You need a nap-tin.” And I no longer had to fear she would be irreparably damaged.

But I might be. After years of her older siblings sustaining nary a broken bone, I’d come to believe what they say about kids being tougher than they look. In the lingo of my free-range social set, I’d tell people, “Children need independence, it’s only in exercising gross motor skills that they acquire them.” And I still subscribe to this view that risk reaps reward. Really, I do. Except the possibility of a second blow to the head has me shadowing her every move. Even a mild one can be catastrophic, according to emerging research on professional football players. And what toddler can make it a full day without a tap here and smack there, let alone the recommended two weeks?

So now I’m the “be careful” parent I once pitied. The thought of my daughter using the trampoline on our vacation next month makes my hands tremble, and I’m tempted to cancel her bouncy house birthday party the month after that. Even though the window of danger will have closed by then, the cold fear seeps in.

I hope I too will return to normal after a few weeks of extra precaution, that the hovering and second-guessing will disappear and the fearlessness that has bred three capable, intrepid children will come back. I hope the balance I struggle to find in life generally — that combination of adventure and stability needed in any good marriage or job — will once again infuse my parenting. But we just don’t know, the ER attending said, whether a concussion in childhood can cause a seizure disorder later in life. Sometimes one moment in time lasts forever.

I suppose all I can do is be overbearing in the short term and then try to let go again.

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a freelance writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at

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More reading:

‘How would you like to handle this?’: The question that helped me stop overparenting

What exactly is this whole ‘free-range kid’ thing?

Why kids should go barefoot more (and probably parents, too)