Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In which I'm Learning to Live with The Fear

My oldest boys have vasovagal episodes in response to painful stimuli. In other words, when they get hurt, they lose consciousness.

The boys have different pain thresholds, so this has happened only twice to Bubba but has happened about a dozen times to Froggy. Monkey hasn’t had an episode but is only just now about the age at which this first happened to his brothers.

At age six, Froggy has lost consciousness so many times that he can often anticipate when it’s going to happen. He tells me “the floor feels fuzzy.” I’ve been working with him to lie down wherever he is when this feeling comes over him, but he has yet to remember on his own, so I will either call to him to lie down when I’m suspicious he’s hurt badly enough to pass out or, if he’s close enough, scoop him up and lay him on my lap, feet elevated.

Froggy has lost consciousness eight times, give or take, in my arms.

I have watched his eyes roll back in his head, his body stiffen and convulse, and foam seep from his lips. I have held him while he holds his breath and then gasps for air, as his bladder and bowels relax and release. I have hugged him when he wakes up confused, panicked, wild-eyed, afraid, dazed.

On the outside, I suspect I appear calm. Even though I know Froggy can’t hear me, I soothe him with reminders. “Mommy’s here. I have you. Breathe, Froggy. Breathe. Wake up for me. Breathe. I’ve got you.” I hold him gently, remembering not to cling too tightly. I tell bystanders who’ve never witnessed this before, “It’s okay. He passes out when he’s in pain. He’ll be fine.” I must be convincing because the last time this happened, the other moms on the playground just went about their business, rarely even glancing back to see what was happening.

But the truth is, in those terrifying moments, I’m barely holding it together.

What if all the doctors are wrong and this isn’t benign? What if this episode is different from all the others before when he was just fine? What if he doesn’t gasp for breath this time? What if he doesn’t regain consciousness? What if he hurt himself too badly this time?

What if, at this very moment, I’m holding my son as he dies?

This is why, no matter how many times Froggy loses consciousness in my arms, it will never get easier. Because each and every time, I am confronted headlong with The Fear.

Usually, when we’re going about our day-to-day business, I can easily hold The Fear at bay. I don’t think about The Fear when I’m watching the boys play soccer or when we’re chatting about our days over dinner or when I’m folding laundry or when I’m mediating another disagreement. But sometimes The Fear creeps in: When the boys are sick and I can’t do anything to make them better. When, in the still of the night, I kiss them goodnight and marvel at my good fortune to be their mother and feel my heart race with the possibility that one day I might look back on The Fear and wonder if it was really a premonition.

When I’m holding my baby and it appears to all the outside world like his life is slipping away.

Sometimes, I think it would be easier if I didn’t love them so completely.

But I do. And because I do, the only response that makes any sense to me is to lean in. Lean into the love. Lean into The Fear.

When Bubba first lost consciousness, I had no idea that the boys had this condition, that it was normal, that I had the same condition. (Boy, did that realization explain a lot about my medical history.) So when my father yelled inside to call 911 because Corbin had hit his head and wasn’t breathing, I fell apart. I dialed 911, handed the phone to my stepmother, ran into the other room screaming, and crumbled, weeping, onto the floor. It wasn’t until my sister took me by the shoulders and firmly told me, “Bubba needs you. He needs his mother. Go to him.” that I came to my senses. (Yes, it was just as Lifetime movie-like as it sounds.)

Leaning in means that I now run to my boys when they’re hurt, even when I know they’re hurt badly enough that I will hold them while they slip out of consciousness and panic will grip me and The Fear will take hold. Leaning in means that when they wake up, the first thing they will see is their mother’s face, and they will know that I am always with them when they need me the most.

Leaning in means knowing that if The Fear becomes a reality the last thing my boys will know in this world is their mother’s touch and remembering that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Leaning in is remembering that I never make good parenting choices when guided by fear. Leaning in means letting my boys decide when they’re ready to hop back on the monkey bars. Even if it’s just five minutes later. Leaning in means remembering that roughhousing and running and climbing and pushing limits and experiencing freedom are good and necessary for my boys.

Leaning in is giving myself over to loving them fiercely and completely, knowing that however long their lives are, this is the kind of mother I want to be and this is the kind of love my boys deserve to know.  Leaning in means tearing down any barriers I have feebly erected in an attempt to protect my fragile heart. Leaning into The Fear, sometimes, looks a lot like letting go.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Dance

My husband’s parents just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Amazing. May we be so fortunate.

Mister and his brother hosted a dinner at a local restaurant, and family and friends flew in from hundreds of miles away. The evening was a tremendous success, and the following day Mister and I extended the celebration by hosting a brunch at our home. I panicked when he told me a couple of weeks prior that he wanted to do this, but I knew it was a good thing. So we set to work.

Mister set the menu. I tweaked it. (Too much gluten, not enough vegetables.) He approved. We divvied up cooking duties. He wrote his grocery list. I added my items. He shopped. (Bless him.) We figured out what would be cooked where and when. For two days, we alternated our prep work and cooking. The morning of the brunch, we covered each other when one of us needed to sneak out of the kitchen to shower and dress for the event. As soon as guests started to arrive, the food began rolling out.

I would visit with family and return to the kitchen to take care of something, only to discover that Mister had already handled it. So I’d do something else. He’d return to the kitchen after chatting to find what he needed to do had been done. So he’d do something else.

He gave tours of our home. I answered the door. He brewed more coffee. I consolidated food. He washed dishes. I put dishes away. He gathered coffee cups. I gathered napkins.

By the time the last guest left, the kitchen was spotless.

Besides the compliments that the food was delicious, guests told us that we made the brunch look effortless. The truth is… it was.

My husband tells everyone that he has made a life choice to never dance. I disagree. This brunch was nothing short of a beautifully executed dance. There was never a sharp word spoken or an accusatory question asked. In fact, we hardly spoke at all, not about logistics. We didn’t need to.  We smiled. We winked. We complimented each other’s food.

I’ve experienced this dance before. On the occasions we stay in a hotel as a family, we have a rhythm. Mister supervises bath time, while I lay out pajamas and the next day’s clothes. I distribute various lovies into the correct beds. I dress the littlest. Mister brushes little teeth. (We both give lots of hugs and kisses.) The next morning, I shower while Mister gets the boys dressed. He showers while I finish getting ready. He gathers our things. I pack them up. He herds the boys out the door. I do a final sweep of the rooms.


I thought our hotel dance was the result of practicing it a few times a year. Maybe it is, in part, but I realize now, after the anniversary brunch, that there’s more to it. Thirteen years into this marriage, we know each other so well that we can anticipate what the other one is thinking, what he will say, what move I’ll make next.

Don’t misunderstand. There are plenty of times when Mister and I trip over each others’ feet, step on toes, and struggle with the give and take of leading and following. But when we remember to listen for the same music, the dance is fluid, flawless.

I treasure the comfort and familiarity and routine that are the result of nearly twenty years with Mister. I feel safe and known. Still, I have occasionally missed the thrill of the first year, of falling in love. But I’m beginning to realize that the thrill is still there; I just have to look for it in different places. Weeks later, I’m still smiling from our beautiful brunch dance. It’s surprisingly, sweetly reminiscent of how I felt after Mister kissed me for the first time. And it fills me with the tingly anticipation of a lifetime of dances with my partner.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Lessons from a Summer of Free-Range Parenting

Not long ago, I casually mentioned to another mom on the playground that my boys have been to the emergency room six times, twice by ambulance. Eyes suddenly opened wide, she slowly turned her head toward me to gauge my expression. (Was I serious? Was I appropriately horrified by that absurdly high number?) I understand. It wasn’t that long ago that I probably would have reacted the same way had the tables been turned. But ten years into this parenting journey, I’m starting to get a better handle on what kind of parent I want to be, and who I want to be is, in part, a mother who allows her children the kind of freedom that means that sometimes they will get hurt.

Still, this doesn’t always come easily for me. I fight my natural tendency to be a mother who protects at all costs. I’m bombarded by the message that the best kind of parents are those who know exactly where their children are and what they’re doing every second of every day. I question my choices when harm befalls children given this freedom, especially when the stories hit far too close to home. But I am determined to continue trying.

In fact, I recently realized that the two primary ways I assess my success as the mother of young children are 1. how kind they are to others and 2. whether or not their knees are skinned. So this picture of the boys in Maine this summer positively makes my heart sing. Their legs are bruised, scraped, bug bitten, and covered in sap and dirt. Just as they should be.

One of the many reasons I am grateful for our annual vacation in Maine is that it provides the perfect opportunity to parent the way I long to, largely free from all the influences that constantly whisper to me that I might be doing it all wrong. Our family spends several weeks in a cottage in a spruce forest on the bay. We leave to hike mountains and to restock the pantry, but much of our time is spent in camp with hours upon hours of time to just play. Play for me involves reading and crossword puzzles and naps, but for the boys, it means large swaths of time spent outside. My husband and I provide a few basic ground rules (like “You can’t go down to the float without a life jacket.”) and then let them run free. These are snapshots of what happened this summer:

  • The boys spent hours in the boathouse, filled with tools and chemicals, and never touched anything they didn’t possess the skills to properly handle. 
  • They fell down, got up, and returned immediately to what they were doing. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Sometimes they requested Bandaids; often they didn’t.
  • They came home from tromping through the woods whenever they were hungry.
  • They never wandered so far away that they got lost. 
  • The nine year old decided he wanted to build a crab trap. After rummaging through the boathouse for supplies and crafting his trap, he caught dozens of crabs. He couldn’t stop grinning. 
  • Without being told to stay away from the water’s edge, the three year old recognized the possible danger and threw rocks from further back. 
  • No one ever needed a reminder to put on a life jacket before going down to the float.
  • The three year old walked to another cottage in camp a quarter mile away, looking for his cousin, and when he didn’t find her, came right back home without our even knowing he wasn’t with his brothers. We didn’t find out about this adventure until much later in the day.
  • When the nine year old took a nasty spill on his bike while coming down the steep, gravel driveway, he didn’t let it stop him from riding again, but he did recognize that he needed to do something differently on the next descent.
  • The boys took turns trying to flip each other out of the hammock. They recognized on their own that they had to be gentler with the three year old. 
  • The boys spent an entire morning with their cousins, planning and executing repairs to the decades-old tree house, including replacing rotten boards and completely rebuilding the ladder. They doled out jobs based on age and skill. The big kids looked out for the little kids. The boys decided on their own that the second level of the tree house didn’t look structurally sound enough to climb up to, so they didn’t.
  • Mister and I almost never intervened in disagreements that happened outside of our cabin, and only once did anyone come to us needing help in resolving a problem. (Our answer was “Oh my goodness, your brother is freaking out; let him out of the outhouse!”)

I’m certain much more happened that I know nothing about. The boys spent hours tromping through the woods but reported on only a fraction of that time. Maybe one day they’ll tell me, when there’s enough distance that I’ll laugh rather than cringe. Or maybe they’ll hold those memories tightly and reminisce only with their brothers and cousins, their partners in crime. Either is just fine with me.

As a parent, I often act as though I suspect my children don’t possess the intelligence or self-control to prevent themselves from making every bad decision presented to them, when in reality, overwhelming evidence suggests that, in fact, my boys are quite capable of making sound decisions most of the time and that the few bad decisions they make are almost always rather routinely lousy and not dangerously so. So what I need to do is put in place a few safeguards for the really big dangers and for the temptations that are specific to my children and then step back.

One day this summer, I stepped outside and saw my nine year old walking by with a 2x4 about 6 feet long. Curious, I asked what he was doing. He reluctantly answered that he was going to use it as a sled to go down the hill behind our cottage. The 20-foot hill, riddled with new stumps, that ends right at the foundation of our house. It didn’t take more than a shocked look on my face for him to correctly guess that I thought that was a supremely bad idea. But I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t seen him as he walked by. Would a brother or cousin have warned him that was a dangerous idea? Would he have gotten set at the top of the hill, looked down at the stumps and at the wall that would stop his descent, and decided not to sled down? I suspect fear almost certainly would have stopped him. But what if it didn’t? What if he went careening down the hill? What if one of the boys had started mixing chemicals in the boathouse? What if someone had fallen through the floor of the tree house? What if the three year old had wandered up to the road?

My husband often tells the boys that not getting the result you hoped for doesn’t mean the decision was wrong. (These are the deep, difficult conversations that stem from losing a game of Yahtzee.) A boy with a broken arm, a concussion, or (please, dear God, no) something far worse doesn’t mean that my choice to offer my boys the freedom to play unsupervised in the woods or walk alone to a friend’s house or cook his own breakfast was wrong.

My job as a parent is not to prevent harm from ever coming to my children. That will happen, regardless of how tightly I hold the reins. (In fact, many of our boys’ injuries have occurred when Mister or I were just feet away.) My job is to help shape them into the best men they can possibly be. And I cannot achieve that goal if my boys have no sense of who they are apart from me, if they have not been allowed to experiment and fail, if they do not feel trusted to make good choices, or if they have never experienced the thrill of a success crafted entirely of their own making. If I don’t provide this space for them to spread their wings, I am guaranteed to thwart their potential. That’s a certainty far scarier to me.

When I have doubts that I’m on the wrong path, the smiles on the boys' faces, the way they straighten their backs with pride, the confidence in their voices, and the delightful way their thoughts bubble and tumble from their mouths is all the reminder I need to continue giving them the space to learn and explore, to fail and succeed on their own.

And when they do need me – to celebrate with them, to commiserate, to slap on a Bandaid – they know I’ll be right here, dozing on the couch with my book spread open, waiting for them.