No One Told Me Parenthood Would Be Terrifying

by Jessica Burdg
Originally Published: 
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The gangly theme park attendant straps us in, his teenage angst so obviously expressed with each formulaic seat-belt check. He walks the aisles, lifts the bars, sighs a little.

Click, click, click.

It’s been a full afternoon. My 3-year-old’s blond ponytail is starting to come undone from so much play, her skin bronzing from exposure. My husband appears tired in the way that comes from pushing around little children for hours, but his face is handsome and satisfied. My youngest daughter, Emmylou, is not quite 2. Her demeanor is still playful yet exhausted; we had to skip naptime today. This will probably be our last ride.

Click, click, click.

I am seated directly across from her, my bubbly Emmylou. She grins at me, waving two fingers. I smile back at her, already dreading the walk back to the car. It’s all I’m thinking about.

Click, click, click.

Our roller coaster starts to creep ahead. I look at my daughter across from me, out of reach. I recall how much she has grown. I remember how her pudgy little fingers used to grasp mine as I fed her, how she would coo and stoke my arm. Now, her playful side is beginning to emerge. I think of how she loves to run away, begging us with her cackling laughter to give chase. I think of how she has become an expert at unbuckling herself from her high chair, of how she thinks it a challenge to maneuver herself out of seat belts. We start to ascend.

Clang, clang, clang.


Clang, clang, clang.

She likes to get out of seat belts. I don’t know how well the attendant got her in there.

Clang, clang, clang.

God, no.

Clang, clang, clang.

It’s too late to stop this ride. We’re crawling up the first hill slowly, steel grinding agonizingly along steel. I will her with my eyes, with my heart, with my being.

Please stay sitting down, honey. This is not a game. I’m sorry we ever got on this thing.

I can’t reach her. She’s too far away—my little baby suspended high above the ground because I put her there.

Clang, clang, clang.

She begins to fumble with her seat belt, wiggling around beneath the metal bar. I can see her fidgeting, plotting her escape. She starts to fold her tiny legs up under herself, poised to stand.

She’s out—standing there, daring me with her eyes, proud of her cleverness. We are almost to the top of the hill.

Clang, clang, clang.

I’m screaming, but the wind steals my words. I’m pleading. Sweating. Heaving. Waving my hands.

Please, honey, please sit down. I know you’re just a baby, but we can’t play this game right now. Please.

I can’t breathe. In a few seconds, we’ll be plummeting down the hill. I bang my entire body against my own safety bar and back again violently, shaking the seat. I have to get to her. I can’t get to her. I have to get to her. I can’t get to her.

Please sit down. Please? Mommy loves you. Mommy’s sorry.

Just before we descend, she mercifully squeezes her legs back underneath the bar. She looks at me full of youthful vigor, so coy. Although she’s no longer strapped in, she is able to move freely in and out of the safety of the bar. For the next 45 seconds, she will choose when she sits and when she stands, not comprehending the implications of either choice. She likes this game because it makes me react, but I never wanted to play it. Not here. I never want to play it again.

Clang, clang, clang.

The roller coaster has six more hills, and each one is the same: She stands but sits right before we crest. I struggle, plead, panic, helplessly beg, profess, apologize—all six more times. My body is bruised from banging against the metal seat, trying to escape, to save her somehow. My mind is numb, just witnessing my youngest daughter almost plummet from my life over and over and over and over and over and over while I remain powerless. Stuck.

I put her in that roller coaster. I thought it would be fun. Boarding the ride, I was thinking about walking back to the car and how we would carry all our things, about corndogs for dinner and when to apply more sunblock. When we file off the roller coaster, I vomit. It has nothing to do with motion sickness.


I wake in my bed. I’m trembling, gasping for air between desperate sobs. I dry heave. My face is on fire, hot to the touch, yet I’m shivering. I cradle my knees to my chest, rocking back and forth. I dry heave again. I walk to Emmylou’s room and stare at her there sleeping, sucking her thumb like she’s not supposed to. She’s not dead on the sidewalk of an amusement park. I didn’t watch her fall. She’s been right here all along.

I stop at the bathroom on my way back to bed and dry heave once more, my stricken reflection in the mirror stark and withdrawn.


Before I had children, people told me about all the good feelings: how you feel when your newborn first opens her eyes, the first time she says “Mama,” the first time she takes a wobbly step. You’re overcome with joy and pride: Those emotions, prominent in motherhood and inviting to talk about, appear in bounty.

I wish they had told me, though, the terror that being a mom induced—the fear of strangers and next-door neighbors, choking, suffocating, broken hearts, being left behind. I wish they had told me that the feelings caused by motherhood wouldn’t always be warm and that being afraid for your child, even when no danger is apparent, is perhaps proof that you’re doing it right.

If you’re scared, it means you care. It means you’re trying. And me? Well, I’m fucking terrified.

There was a reason I had that dream involving the roller coaster. That same day, my daughter fell headfirst out of a rouge Radio Flyer into a puddle and flipped over violently. I wasn’t there to see it, but my husband recounted it to me vividly and with wide eyes. He doesn’t usually get alarmed, so his concern elevated mine. He said she fell so hard and fast that her body toppled over her head in an unnatural fashion. He initially thought she may have broken her neck.

I wasn’t there to see any of this, to comfort my daughter or examine her immediately after the incident. Instead, when I got home, I checked her in every way I knew how. I scraped dried mud out of her nose, washed sand off of her scalp, checked her pupils and tested her range of motion. She was shaken but fine. She took a nasty spill, but she was resilient.

But it scared me. Lots of things scare me.

While I know my children will get the good from me, I’m terrified they’ll also acquire all my unsavoriness. I think of my penchant for adrenaline and all the poor places it took me in the past. I think of my tendency to trust too much and too quickly, of my naivety, of my love of running away.

Even more, I don’t trust the world that will hold my children. There are wolves behind too many doors, people spouting ammunition and lies when they should be spouting words and truths. I can’t change that.

What I can do, though, is prepare my girls to make the best choices possible, encourage exploration and answer their questions honestly. The world might be scary, but I can do my best to make it less unknown to them.

It will always be terrifying for me, though, as their mother. It’s part of parenthood, and we’re strapped in. Our children won’t always be sitting within our reach, quiet and protected. Our fears authenticate us, bring us back around. Our hearts explode and reconvene, swell and deflate daily. How vibrant the highs and how shattering the lows! How much more we feel, both good and bad—how alive!

How worth the ride.

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