What if?

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Photo by jumpinjimmyjava, via Flickr

The thing about being a novelist is that you spend your life devising creative ways to torment your characters. When you’re writing contemporary fiction (as opposed to fantasy, for instance), these torments are supposed to be 100% plausible for the real world. The question we are trained to ask is: What if?

I love writing fiction, and I don’t use that word flippantly, since my fiction centers around the real meaning of the word love. But I have to be honest: encouraging this question can be a real difficulty for a person who has a history of latching on to irrational fear.

I spent almost two years being afraid of bridges, because one night I imagined the bridge collapsing and myself confronted with the impossible choice of which child to try to save. (Imagine traveling anywhere at all when the Missouri River crosses the highways to the south, west, and east of my home. Crazy twisty rivers.)

It wasn’t that I refused to go anywhere. It wasn’t even that I was terribly afraid in the many moments I was crossing those big bridges. I knew it was irrational. No, it was the “wee sma’s” (inappropriate apostrophe noted), as L.M. Montgomery used to call them, that were the hardest. Unguarded moments before dropping off to sleep, or when rolling over in the middle of the night, when the entire thing would unfold before my eyes with horrible clarity.

Because what if? I live in a state, after all, that is so opposed to tax increases of any kind that one of those crime shows referenced people buying cigarettes here and reselling them in New York at significant profit. A state where the abysmal quality of the roads is a joke as perennial as the weather, and a bunch of bridges are, in fact, in very bad shape–yet just a few days ago, the legislature voted down a tax increase to fund roads and bridges.

It’s an irrational fear, but unfortunately not that irrational.

I woke up at 5 a.m. on Good Friday to an image of Alex eating something that would cause his beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful and creative mind to be riddled with holes. It doesn’t even make sense now that I write it down.

And yet… what if?

Last Wednesday, I let the three younger kids walk from the church to the nursery without me, because I was running choir practice solo and we were running late. They’re all three busybodies. Nothing is going to happen to any one of them without the others coming running to me about it, and who is going to snatch all three at once? Especially when one of them has a disability? Besides which, Nicholas is turning into a pretty responsible and delightful young man these days, for the most part, deeply cognizant of the fact that he is more advanced in every way now than the sister who was his virtual twin for so many years.

And yet… what if?

A few weeks ago, a friend posted a story by a woman who was in line at the grocery store and the person in front of her asked to hold her little one, and how she started to walk off with the child. It was deeply involved and I can’t find the link now, but the upshot was that this woman was convinced it was a group of people involved in human trafficking. It was horrifying, because I spend my life trying to make sure my kids affirm their own competence in doing things without me breathing down their neck—without feeling insecure because they’re outside my sight lines. Take this to the mailbox; take the garbage down to the compost tumbler. Yes, the two of you may play outside together. Yes, middle schooler, you can walk to the bus stop by yourself. I consciously cultivate independence in my kids because I was so insecure about leaving the familiarity and security of home and my parents.

And yet…what if?

The world is such a scary place, and yet for most of us, it’s really it’s only scary when you process the big things, the things that are elsewhere. When I look around my world, here in middle class America, I see plenty to annoy or infuriate me, but nothing to scare me. My world is filled with good people and with evidence of community members looking out for each other. We don’t live in a world where terror lurks behind every bush and within every car that drives by. It’s the very security of my life that enables me to play around with the question “What if?” If there were real terrors in my life, I wouldn’t be wasting time making them up.

This is what I have to remember, as my kids get older and spread their wings.

A Single Tombstone

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Image by cliff.hellis, via Flickr

It sounds weird to say, but ordinarily, a country cemetery is a peaceful place to “be still and know that I am God.” That’s what I was doing that morning, seeking beauty and peace among the walnut and oak trees and grass, and in the sight of the fox that darted soundlessly along the fence, crossed the road, and disappeared into the woods on the other side.

It’s an old cemetery, many of the stones cracked and repaired, some lying broken on the ground, many of them impossible to decipher, but one flat memorial stone always has a bright array of flowers. I realized I’d never gone over to look at that stone. I left my bench and went to pay tribute, and I realized it was the grave of a father and son–a teenager. They died on the same day.

The thing about being a writer is that you tend to take circumstances and internalize them, try to imagine the story behind the moment or the image. It took only a fraction of a second to create the whole scenario in my own life: receiving that phone call, communicating news to the rest of my children, and trying to recreate my life with a third of my family gone.

At the end of that fraction of a second, I realized I had to stop playing writer–I just had to say a prayer and move on.

Photo by spcbrass, via Flickr

There are so many things in the world to be afraid of. Especially as parents. The more you send your kids out into the world, the more opportunities arise for catastrophe to befall them. But you can make yourself crazy anticipating them, and it does no good. I know people who do just that, trying to anticipate and prevent all potential harm, and succeeding only in causing themselves and their children anxiety.

I suppose you could argue that I go too far the other direction, giving my children as much freedom as I can possibly justify. But then, I know my own capacity for taking the question what if? and turning it into a debilitating, paralyzing, life-sucking neurosis.

Image by AlbinoFlea, via Flickr

I know, too, that much of my ability to think, problem solve, and discern came from the fact that my parents gave me the freedom to jump off hay bales, climb on farm equipment, ride a bicycle on a highway to go to town and the library, and walk in the woods by myself.

And I know how much mental, emotional work it takes for me to give my own children a fraction of the same freedom. So, for better or for worse, I choose to turn my back on as many of those fears about safety as I can. A single tombstone is a reminder that no matter what I do, danger is always hovering in the periphery. The vast majority of it is beyond my control. If I want to live fully, I have to focus my attention elsewhere.

Parenting In Fear

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Last week I read a news story that really disturbed me. It was about a woman who was arrested after leaving her kids in a vehicle while she shopped for a phone. The story is really short (you can read it here), and there aren’t many details given. But here were the things that I thought as I read it:

1. She obviously didn’t go anywhere out of sight of the kids, because the story says as soon as the officers approached the car she came out.

2. In April in Connecticut, it is unlikely to be dangerously hot in a car.

Perhaps there is more to the story. She was reported to be “uncooperative.” Maybe she was belligerent and if she’d been rational and calm, they wouldn’t have arrested her. Maybe in the course of the confrontation, she revealed other things that showed her to be an unfit parent. I don’t know. But purely on what was reported, this story disturbs me.

I’ve debated for a week whether to blog about it because I’m afraid. I’m afraid that if I say publicly, “This is an overreaction. This is not child endangerment. What did this woman do to deserve being arrested and having her children taken away from her?” that it puts me at risk of having someone knock on my door and say, “If that’s how you feel, maybe we need to take your kids from you.”

And this, at heart, is what I find so disturbing. I shouldn’t have to live with that fear.

We live in a society that is becoming steadily more judgmental about parenting decisions. In the back of our minds, we’re always aware that if we misstep in public, or if someone disagrees with a choice we make, we could be reported to the authorities. There’s always that threat of having our children taken away. Case in point: a blog reader told me once that she let her child play outside with another kid, and DFS came by and did an investigation because they thought she was endangering/neglecting her child.

Making parenting choices based on the fear of what other people think is not a recipe for good parenting.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think child protective services are the enemy. There are a lot of children who need much more and better than what they’re given. And there is such a thing as endangering a child by leaving them in the car. But there’s got to be room to weigh individual circumstance. There’s a big difference between someone who runs an errand at a strip mall, within sight of the car, for ten minutes when it’s 50 degrees outside, and someone who goes into the Mall of America for an hour or three when it’s 85 or 90.

Most parents weigh their decisions carefully, taking into account a wide range of factors unknown to anyone on the outside.

It makes sense to me that police officers would come up to a car when they realized there were kids in it and no adult. It does not make sense to me that when the mother immediately appeared–making it clear that she did have her eye on the children–they would arrest her for not having her eye on them.

Like I said, there could be more to the story. But this is what has been bothering me for the last week. What do you think? Have you ever made a parenting choice based not on what you thought was the right thing, but on the fear of being judged unfit by others?

Motherhood Fears

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One Fear illustration from Book of Fears

One Fear illustration from Book of Fears (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I sent my boys off on a trip this morning. For the next thirty-six hours, it’s just me, my girl and my baby. I’m not used to this. It’s always the other way around: me taking the whole crew for a day trip and leaving Christian behind. A few weeks ago, he took them all to a cousin’s baptism, leaving me to hold down the fort for weekend commitments we couldn’t escape. As the van pulled away I nearly dissolved into blithering mess of terror. What if something happens to them on the road? What if this is the last time I see them?

I’ve always prided myself on being a mommy who doesn’t cave to unreasonable fears. So much of child-rearing advice these days is based on fear: fear of SIDS, fear of power outlets, fear of stairs, fear of bicycle crashes, fear of abduction, fear of germs. Christian and I have always played it cool, believing in supervision and moderation over childproofing and overprotection. Our last doctor tried so hard to panic me over Nicholas’ slow growth. “Look,” I told her, “I’ve had a child with a disability who’s almost died. You are not going to get me to freak out because Nicholas refuses to eat what he’s given.”

I thought I was impervious to Mommy fear. But since Michael came along, everything’s shifted. I’ve found myself going in to make sure he’s breathing, and fighting unreasonable nerves as long as I’m not in the room. I’ve had to talk myself off a ledge when Julianna goes wandering while we’re outside, even though I know her top three favorite places to haunt. During pregnancy I had a recurring day-mare about crossing bridges. Every day when the bus pulls away, I blow kisses and wave at Julianna, and I have to squash the what if‘s.

It’s happened to Christian, too. All our babies napped on our bed at one time or another–Alex slept most of every night there for the first several months. But that news report about babies at day cares got under his skin. Has anything changed in the last couple of years? No–our children are no more likely to die sleeping on our bed now than they ever were. It’s the adults who’ve changed.

For me, the fear even reaches tentacles into the past. A while back I took the kids to visit my parents on the farm. The gravel was fresh that day, and I could feel the van tires slipping on the road. 35 mph felt a little too fast that day, and I remembered myself tearing down those roads in high school at 55 and 60. (I’m not kidding.) I got the shudders, as if somehow I was still putting myself and my kids in danger because I was an idiot when I was a teenager.

It seems odd for mommy fear to be more acute at this stage of the game. Shouldn’t an experienced mother be less freaked out, not more? Well, in some ways I am. But with more children, the stakes are higher, and I imagine they’ll probably continue to increase as the kids get older. So maybe it’s just as well I have plenty of practice learning not to let the fear rule me.

What We Fear

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Photo credit: LWPrencipe, via Flickr

I’m beginning to think I take the easy way out in blogging. It’s more comfortable to share about experiences past and conflicts resolved, but the truth is, there is much in my life, as in yours, that is deeply broken and flawed and causes pain. But it’s raw to touch those subjects, to lay them bare before a public audience. Not because I think I have to look like I have it all put together, but because when you’re working things out, the thought process is incomplete. It hasn’t matured to a point where I can say: yes, this, here is the whole story, as fairly as I can present it. And when you lay something you’re still wrestling with before the multitudes, it invites judgment and confusion, because people have to weigh in without the full story.

I have been debating all week what to share for a motherhood moment. One of Mama Kat’s writing prompts today touches a subject I have wanted to address ever since my series on anxiety…although I keep putting it off. There’s so much cuter and cuddlier a moment, something I could present with the warmth and humor that I love about the Thursday reflections. Except that considering how I’m feeling this morning, it would be also be fake and plastic.

My biggest mama fail hasn’t happened yet. And pray God, never will.

It began while we were driving across a bridge. We cross a fair number of bridges around here. Basically there’s a big river on the way to almost anywhere. Why on this particular day the image came to mind, I will never know. I saw myself, alone in the van with the kids, careening into the river. Being a mother, I immediately began problem-solving how to get everyone to safety. I realized instantly that I couldn’t. If that happens, at least one or two of my children are going to die. If not all of them.

I tried to tell myself that thousands of cars cross these bridges every day, and a bridge fail is nearly unthinkable. I tried to tell myself it was unlikely I could even swim myself to shore in a current that strong and deep, much less hauling any of my children, so if the bridge does ever fail, there’s nothing I can do about it anyway; why worry?

But the image was so real. Maybe because I spend much energy trying to conjure dramatic scenarios in such vivid detail that I can carry others along through words. But I flashed back to times in my life when I have seen improbable images in my imagination, only to find that suddenly one day, I’m seeing them in truth. Okay, so I can only think of one right now, but it was a biggie.

For three nights, that waking nightmare kept me up. No amount of letting go or praying made any impression on it. My search for a solution started involving the installation of flotation devices in my van. It was patently obvious I was headed for another irrational, prolonged freak-out.

Perhaps the prayers did have an effect, because reason has had a better grip on reality in the last few months. But I realize that there are some fears you simply can’t lay to rest.

It got me to thinking about safety, the desire to protect our children. The oft-repeated mantra is prevent what you can: thus, car seats, childproof latches and covers, etc.

But we can prevent an awful lot by refusing our children the freedom to grow—by hovering, not giving them the space to fail on their own. At what point do we begin to protect them from one set of danger while condemning them to another? At what point do they begin to absorb our fears and approach life with timidity and terror instead of reasonable caution? To carry around their parents’ baggage, simply because we’re too frail to carry it ourselves?

I can’t help thinking that many, perhaps most, of our fears for our children—even things like how we will support our families—have more to do with us and our own insecurities than they do with reality. We regard fear for our children as something beyond our control, and by extension (ironically), something over which we try to exert absolute control. But how many of our fears do we go courting? Are they actually grounded in fact? And if they’re not, then beyond a reasonable education in caution, don’t we owe it to our children to keep those fears to ourselves?

The fear of going over a bridge and having to choose which of my children to try to save—however irrational a fear it is—is one that I may well carry the rest of my days. My fear of Julianna wandering off might only last until she finally learns to talk and tell people who her parents are, but the fear of her being taken advantage of when she reaches maturity I know I will bear as long as she (or I) lives. But I’m not going to keep her under my roof, treating her like a child in a misguided attempt to protect her from it. She deserves the same freedom to grow, fall down, and learn that my parents gave me. I will not burden my children with my emotional baggage. They’ll pick up enough on their own.

Mama's Losin' It

A History of Anxiety, Part 2: The Onset of “Freaking Out”

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Scared child

Image via Wikipedia

For part one, click here.

When I introduced the topic of anxiety last week, several people commented that they had struggled with it as well. Before I go on, I need to clarify that I have never been diagnosed with any form of clinical anxiety; I never saw a doctor or counselor. I went through it “by myself.” Actually, I got through it solely by the grace of God and a very patient boyfriend/husband. So what you will not find in this post is expert information—only my own, very personal, experience.

After breaking up with my fiancé, I spent a lonely summer in transition. In the fall, I started playing and singing with the choir at the Newman Center, a commitment that was to change my life in many ways, giving me both a vocation and the man I was going to spend my life with. We went out on our first date early in November, and by the end of the night my body was buzzing. I knew. He left the next day for a business trip, so I didn’t talk to him for a week. By then, I’d spent so much time reliving and analyzing the experience that doubt had wormed its way in.

And not just doubt, but full-blown panic. I’d promised God that I would never ignore His promptings again—but with the screaming voices in my head, how could I tell what was God and what was the enemy?

This was how I discovered that my seemingly clean recovery from the breakup was anything but.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last decade or so trying not to overthink this period of my life. It’s too dangerous. At this point, I can’t even tell you what most of the fear was. And I’m not so sanguine about my recovery that I am willing to go crack the Journals open to find out, either. Some things are better left in the past. I can tell you that it was more than mental; it was a full-body physical reaction. Hot flashes, fingers trembling so badly that I couldn’t function properly, brain paralyzed to the point where in the middle of a practice session I’d have to put my flute down and sit for ten minutes, trying to stop my heart pounding. I can tell you that my fears seemed utterly rational. Most of all, I can tell you that I was just afraid of making the wrong choice.

I wanted to follow God’s plan for my life, but freaking out made it impossible to know what that was. What if I wasn’t supposed to be with him, and I tried to force it? I’d already followed that road once. What if I was supposed to be with him, and my inability to silence the voices of self-doubt was destined to derail God’s plan for me altogether?

Meanwhile, Christian was dealing with fears and anxieties of his own. For at least a year, we went back and forth: one of us was freaking out, the other acting as support. We traded roles constantly. When I think about it now, it’s truly miraculous that we got through it at all.

But Christian is not nearly as prone to self-analysis as I am. Slowly, his anxieties eased, and although he wasn’t ready to leap into the unknown of lifelong commitment, he spent more and more time being the supporter, a burden I know he grew very tired of carrying. Meanwhile, instead of finding my fears resolving, I found new ones. No one is superhuman; no one can take the emotional beating forever. Every time I freaked out (which was almost daily) I was also afraid that this might be the line in the sand, the point at which he said, “Enough. I’m done.”

In such times do we discover the power of real love. Love that never ends, that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, as in I Corinthians 13.

It took more than two years for “freaking out” to fade to a dull background of anxiety. I prayed a lot. I exercised “letting go”—a search for stillness of mind and heart, to allow God to speak. I still had the niggling doubt in the back of my mind: Is this what I’m supposed to do? But it no longer ruled my life. We started talking about marriage, about how to structure life together and how we felt about kids and child rearing. And by the summer after my first year of grad school, when we’d been together for 2 ½ years, I thought freaking out was, at last, in the past. Two weeks before I went back to school, he proposed in front of the whole church. I was on cloud nine. No doubts in this girl’s mind. I knew now that I was where I was supposed to be.

Don’t breathe your sighs of relief yet; the story’s not done. But this is a long, dense blog entry already, so I’m going to leave it there for today.

For part 3, click here.