“She is really hot. Are you sure she is okay? Isn’t there something you can do?”
My husband’s urgent plea in the middle of the night was barely audible over my daughter’s cries. That runny little nose on my 16-month-old persisted despite days of saline/suction wrestling matches. When her incessant crying began, maternal instinct and experience concluded: It’s an ear infection.
My husband’s anxiety was warranted because he is the hands-on kind of dad who gives the kids a bath every night.
Still, his questions were amplifying my unease and making it harder to remain calm.
“You’re sure she’s okay?”
I tried to silence both his voice and my rising self-doubt but again he pleaded, “Alicia, she is in pain. Do something! Call the doctor!”
This time my heart skipped a beat, so I exploded with, “Just shut the fuck up and go to bed. I’ll rock her all night if I have to. It’s just an ear infection. Stop second-guessing me. I’ve got this.”
Yes, I can get downright nasty in the middle of the night — it’s ugly.
But almost a decade and four kids deep into motherhood, I’ve made enough panicked phone calls to my pediatrician to know the drill. Unless the matter is serious enough for a trip the emergency room, I must survive until morning when the office opens.
I propped pillows up around my back to rest in the upright position that I noticed brought my daughter comfort, and she settled into a calm repose on my chest. With her aching ear to my heart, we stole a few hours of sleep.
I woke up to the aroma of fresh coffee. My husband is a tea drinker, so this small act of kindness suggested my merciless rant was forgiven.
Fueled by love, appreciation, and caffeine, I found the energy needed to usher the three older kids off to school. Then I headed to the pediatrician with my sick baby girl.
Peering into my daughter’s ear, my pediatrician declared, “Wow! This one is really icky. She has a perforated eardrum.”
My panic rose with the grave sound of this diagnosis, so I said, “We’ve had a lot of ear infections but never one of those before…”
I carried on, spewing the guilt I felt. “I suppose I should have brought her sooner, but she didn’t have a fever until yesterday. I just assumed…”
“Alicia, she’ll be fine. You know better than to play the ‘should’ve, could’ve’ game. This sounds worse than it is. I’m calling in antibiotics and ear drops then bring her back in two weeks for an ear check. You’ve got this.”
I breathed a sigh of relief because my kid was going to be okay, and a medical professional believed in my ability to parent.
My pediatrician is a mom with kids around the same ages as my oldest two. Over the years, she has lifted me out of my worry and guilt not only with encouragement, but also vulnerability. When I have lamented my struggles and failures, she has shared some of her own with me.
On this particular morning of my first perforated eardrum diagnosis, I summarized about seven years of our scattered conversations: “Motherhood is a delicate dance between determination and surrender. It’s so hard to know when we need to fight or stand down.”
She paused from entering my daughter’s prescription in the computer and turned to look at me, so I continued. “Showing up with love is what makes us good enough both in triumph and failure.”
She nodded passionately, but didn’t speak a word. I noticed she was teary-eyed, which suggested motherhood was weighing on her too. We lingered in this shared vulnerability for a moment, and then moved forward perhaps a little stronger with camaraderie.
Before you start thinking my poignant statement above reveals my omniscience, I’ll confess I was merely repackaging her advice with pretty words.
See, a few years back, I was in an ICU burn unit seeing my toddler through a scald burn injury. When I doubted my worth as a mom, she highlighted my unwavering love and commitment to my son’s recovery. In her eyes, climbing into a hospital bed and snuggling my son made me good enough despite his accidental injury.
In motherhood these days, we spend so much effort trying to be perfect and avoid failure at all costs that when we stumble, it’s hard to cope.
At least it was for me, but that’s when I discovered love.
Yes, love is what carried me through the moment I heard my son’s injury was so severe he might die and what held me together through his repeated surgeries and tears of pain.
Therefore, love is what I reached for to remain steadfast when managing a ruptured eardrum.
Home again after this diagnosis, I looked like the mess I felt I was. I was still in my pajamas and noticed my daughter’s ear must have drained when she was sleeping on my chest: Her ear fluid hardened into what became a crusty sign of my parenting fail.
Instead of ruminating about not seeking treatment earlier, I took a shower because I have learned that shame and guilt won’t fix anything that’s broken (trust me, I’ve tried).
Since my son survived his injury with scars I cannot fix, I have learned to choose forgiveness over remorse. Like my husband’s pot of coffee, an act of self-kindness in the form of a hot shower was exactly what I needed to adopt a more positive and productive perspective.
This shifted my thoughts to a moment when the baby first started crying from ear pain, and my burn survivor said, “Mom, I’ll hold her.” She snuggled against his chest and fell asleep in his scarred but compassionate arms.
He is 6, but patiently held her for an hour. I believe this is learned behavior, derived from a time he was injured and I was helpless except to show up with love.
I’m inspired to think that if we choose forgiveness and love ourselves despite the mistakes we’ve made, we might experience a positive transformation in the aftermath of adversity.
At least in my effort to embrace imperfection, I have learned to show up with love not only for my kids, but myself.
Love, I notice, is what makes me strong enough and perhaps even good enough to be their mom.
We’ve just got to show up with love. We’ve got this.
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