Where I’m from, spring is slow to wake up, rolling out unhurriedly with brighter mornings and later evenings, sunshine splashing lazily on snow covered fields, warm breezes that carry the scent of earth, renewal, rebirth, life – little promises in the bleakness of a snowy March. Then the snow melts and the fields are once again golden and brown, remnants of fall that hibernated, tucked under a thick blanket of snow and ice. And one day we find ourselves, faded and ashen, our pale skin and winter eyes blinking into the brilliance of spring sunlight, our windows left open, the birds chirping merrily, the rivers singing and flowing, flooding their banks, big old trees dipping tired branches into the shimmering water.
We spent the first warm spring day outside playing, hiking, splashing in puddles, cutting down dead trees. My four year old unearthed our outdoor treasures from the garage, including a colorful kite. The wind was just right for kite flying and I lifted it into the air as he started to run. The kite took off, gliding on the breeze above his head and I’m pretty sure no four year old has ever been happier than he was in that moment, sunlight streaming down on his lanky body, wind blowing through his hair, kite whipping back and forth. I found myself running alongside him, not to encourage him, but to yell out caution as he ran – “watch out for the power line! Watch where you’re going! There’s a ditch over there! Don’t run over your brother!” As I was opening my mouth to warn him about the ominous tree branches above his head, I realized what was happening and caught myself.
Mothers are never off duty. This was the first, and hardest, lesson that I learned in parenting, my tiny newborn laying naked against my chest, endorphins rushing through my body, my heart pumping blood and love and fierce protection and newfound anxiety all at once, in unison. This little boy, this poem uttered from my heart, with his rosy newborn cheeks and his wrinkly knees, needed my love and my constant vigilance and my whole entire heart and my body and my strength. He needed my faith to be steadfast in the process of motherhood, he needed my ceaseless protection. No, mothers are never off duty. We wake in the darkness to nurse hungry babies and hold hands with scared children and rock weepy toddlers back to sleep. We kiss the wounded and mend the heartbroken and hold close those little bodies filled with sorrow. As our children grow, our roles don’t cease, they just change. It seems that somewhere along the way, my kids outgrew certain needs but I didn’t get the memo. The more I thought about my creeping anxieties, the more I uncovered. In fact some days I find myself only considering the worst-case scenarios – car crashes on the way to daycare, getting lost in the supermarket, kids falling into the river or running into the road.
We were at the playground one particularly warm afternoon, the golden sunlight casting halos over the boys’ blonde heads, and I was diligently following my two year old around, grabbing his chubby, dirty hand each time he ascended a ladder, feeling adrenaline and anxiety flood my body each time he got too close to an edge, fearing that he would fall, when a thought struck me. So what if they fall? Am I enriching their lives and aiding them by trying to shield them from suffering, from pain, from natural consequences – from LIVING. Am I helping myself by trying to do the impossible – by trying to protect them from experiencing fear and pain? Perhaps the fear isn’t for my children alone, perhaps it’s the fear of facing the darkness and despair of a situation that I can’t control, one where my children are hurt or suffering and I can’t ease the pain. My two year old burned his hand on our wood stove this winter. This was my first experience with an inconsolable child, something my breasts or a hug or quiet whispers couldn’t remedy. We paced the waiting room of the ER in a repetitive figure-8, he was screaming, my back was aching, other mothers looked at me, empathy sketched deeply into their brows. As a mother, I am always sure of myself – these moments strip me of that assurance; leave me feeling incapable, vulnerable, small. So perhaps I’m overprotective of my kids because I’m also protecting myself. But the darkness must be faced as equally as the light. When I parent my children with fear, I’m teaching them to avoid the darkness, to avoid those challenges in life that show us what we are really made of.
There in the glow of the afternoon sunlight on the playground, my kids laughing happily, a warm breeze blowing over the dry grasses in the field, I took a step back. And when the four year old asked to slide down the fire pole for the 15th time I said ok, why not, if he thought he could hold on, and he did. So I helped him grab on and he slid all the way down, laughing delightedly, the two year old heading down the twisting yellow slide, pops of static electricity as he went. They did fall, backwards off the swings and forwards down the stairs, but they got up and brushed themselves off and they didn’t watch me with anxious eyes, wondering if they should cry.
That night after the playground, my four year old was lying on my chest, heartbeat to heartbeat as we often do, steady noise from his sound machine and a soft glow from his nightlight and I asked him what love meant. “Well,” he said matter-of-factly, “that’s a mystery, and a mystery has no words.”
Ellisa Koop, The Village Journalist