What happens when parenting isn’t perfect? When life isn’t what you expected? When things get hard in mommyland? I wrote this a year ago, after discovering that my own answer is “Keep running.” What’s yours, friends?
Maybe somebody has to explore what happens when one of us wanders over near the edge and falls for awhile. Maybe it was your turn. –William Stafford, “Afterwards”
Recently, it was my turn. As Stafford’s poem suggests, you can ask, but there’s no telling why, exactly. My personal cocktail of despair involved leaving my job to be a stay-at-home mother, a mass shooting that felt a little too close to home, and—oddly—a spiritual shift so fast and ferocious that it seemed likely to upend my tidy life entirely. Welcome to life on the edge.
Anxiety comes with a whole goody bag of possible symptoms. For me, however, it’s just one thing– the sense of danger around every corner–that has made day to day life challenging; that has, in fact, led to episodes both comical and worrisome. A car backfires in an alley; I jump. A teenager misfires with a water cannon at a pool party and everyone around me gets wet—I get grass stains, because I drop instantly to my knees on the lawn, a crazed ninja in a twinset.
Overall, I feel vulnerable, exposed, in harm’s way. And the fear is particularly gripping where my children are concerned.
As it happens, I have plenty of opportunities to reflect on this: my younger son is a climber. Silas climbs fearlessly and constantly. At two he has had falls, stitches, and, once, after discovering that lamps do not make good handholds, surgery. After Silas-proofing to the best of our abilities, we take the inevitable in stride. We sigh. We laugh. We make “as long as you can get yourself down” the cardinal rule of our home.
And yet now I am so worried about what might happen—what could happen—what probably will happen if I’m not careful enough—that I start to feel incapable of parenting him. Worry leads to fixation. Fixation turns into paralysis.
This comes horribly to life one afternoon; the boys are in their rooms for what used to be called naptime, but which is actually, unofficially “mommy needs a break time, whether you sleep or rest or simply spend an hour picking your nose.” I might use these precious minutes to read, write, or check Facebook; sometimes I sit and stare at a wall in silence. On this day, though, I take a shower. I am shaving my legs when I hear a crash. A spectacular sort of crash. Seconds later, my older son propels himself through the door and into the bathroom, talking in an excited jumble, “SilasfellandcrashedIthinkhe’shurtcomefast!”
At one point—in “the normal days”—I might have run, blindly, instinctively, or at the very least, swiftly, to the scene, mom-as-rescuer ready to do her thing. I’d appear out of nowhere, cape trailing behind me, to snatch my child from the jaws of danger. I think I would have, anyway. On this day, what I do is: nothing. Or nothing effectual, at least. I switch off the water, grab a towel, stand dripping onto the shower floor, stare at Soeren. He is nearly hopping with anxiety and excitement, chattering a stream of words in my direction, but I am looking through him, listening beyond him. And what I hear is silence.
That silence—an empty nothing that echoes down the hallway—expands until I feel a terror that seizes my heart and kicks the backs of my knees. I see pictures: Silas crushed by furniture. Silas dangling from the cord of his window blinds, pinned in the space next to his bed, broken or bleeding on his floor. I feel sick, guilty, terrified, each image worse than the one before. And still I stand there. I don’t make myself move. I can’t make myself move. I might be standing there still, I tell you truly, except that finally, miraculously—thank you, God—I hear Silas begin to cry.
This particular bogeyman disappears, a figment of my imagination after all. I attend to Silas, we work together to clean up his room, and we move on with the day. Later, though, I hear the quiet whisper of fear, and this time, it’s questioning me. My focus. My dedication. My abilities. And honestly, I have to agree with it.
I’ve been spending time wresting with the dangers inside my head, but I wonder who my children might look to when the danger is real. Increasingly, scarily, it seems like the answer is, “Someone else.” I don’t know how to keep my children safe. I don’t know how to keep myself safe. I’m not even sure I remember what “safe” feels like.
I talk with my therapist, my minister, my mother. And they all say: Keep walking. Trust yourself. Trust the Process. I picture that capital-P Process, an unbroken string stretching across a white background, and me, blind despite the brightness, grappling awkwardly toward it. Feeling my way, step by lurching step, across the unknown.
Outside of my imagination, “keeping walking” looks like this: I stare into space; I wander, as if lost, through familiar rooms; I look down to see that I’m holding items I don’t remember picking up. Homeschool papers and workbooks pile up untouched, shaming me; we don’t have a television, but we have Netflix, and soon my children memorize the theme song to the Backyardigans. I do load after load of laundry, a task so discrete that it cannot intimidate, but I cannot make a dent on the mess in the kitchen.
Through all of this, my husband—acknowledged by both of us to be the more dramatic personality in our relationship—is strangely placid. Why aren’t you worried, I ask. He looks mildly amused. He reads my drafts, takes my arm in crowds, catches my eye and smiles when the children are being maddening. Mostly, though, he stands back. Craig handles the tasks of everyday life and waits, the very image of Keep Calm and Carry On. He has something, my husband. I think it’s called faith.
And eventually, I do, too. Not the kind I imagined, the unshakeable certainty you carry with you at the core of your being. This is a faith you consider the existence of, a half-believed rumor, then crawl toward, grasp for and ultimately stumble into. The kind you skin your knees tripping over and arrive, finally, splayed out on the floor but grateful in the knowledge that Things Will Be Okay.
That happens on a trip back home to Wyoming, in a sharp experience of clarity on a hike with the boys. In an afternoon, I come face to face with my childhood and also with my powerlessness to protect my children—to protect myself—offered as a lesson by one of the most beautiful and hard-edged places I know.
The truth I come back with, the only truth I know, goes like this: you can climb, and you might fall. You can try, and you might fail. You can live, unsafely . . . or you can die.
The acceptance comes in a moment, but the shift back to normalcy happens only gradually. In the meantime, I take up running and move with a dogged devotion that my sale-rack athletic shoes cannot match. I try ellipticals, treadmills and sidewalks before meeting, finally, the wooded trails on the edge of town. We are matched, that patch of woods and I, not quite wild but definitely not fully civilized. A little messy. Too steep in places.
I run, and I breathe, and I come back to myself, but as the days grow shorter and the shadows longer, I feel a wistfulness tinged with fear for all the moments I cannot keep. Under this worry might be nothing. Or, it might be everything.
Am I losing this season? Can I hang onto myself? Is this my last chance to run this year?
Without ever consciously acknowledging them, I keep the questions on heavy repeat in my mind. As I wonder and I worry, I do what comes without questioning: I keep running. And eventually I come to understand that there is only this. Hot weather: keep running. Cool weather: keep running. Leaves turn: keep running. Leaves fall: keep running. Darkness settling in, the ground a changeable surface of debris over mud: walk, gingerly—but continue to put one foot in front of the other.
Finally, the return to rhythm touches the other parts of my life. My cheeks hurt and I realize I have been smiling as I listen to my sons explain a game to one other, each playing by rules of his own making. I kick through leaves alongside Silas, holding his hand, and find myself walking happily at half-height, that I might better hear his two-year-old observations on the world. My husband and I reclaim our evening ritual of regaling each other with the three best parts of the day; we laugh so loudly that Soeren emerges from his room and demands that we stop waking him up.
It is fall, and it is beautiful. I notice, and celebrate a spectrum of colors, and of feelings, that I had forgotten existed. I label them as they come. Ochre. Ruby. Anticipation. Excitement. Joy.
And yet. The edges of my life don’t fit together quite like they did before. The frayed and knitted-together places remain invisible to most everyone else, but I can see the seams. And I know. I am choosing. To engage with life means deciding, sometimes daily, to step away from the edge of risk—or not. It is choosing whether to pull my children back from their own falls—the ones that life brings to each of us and the ones they create for themselves in climbing, pushing, experimenting.
We are all wandering out near the edge of falling. It is also the edge of learning—the edge of flying. But it’s a cliff. It’s a canyon. It’s a place without railings.
And still, we live here.