What If Something Happens To My Only Child?

by Erin Tharp
Feet of a young child in light green sneakers on the street
David Pereiras / Shutterstock

What if something happens to her?

This question asked by a drunken wife at my husband’s work Christmas party put a voice to my greatest unknown fear.

See, my husband and I had been married for four years when we decided we were ready to add to our family, five years later it was still just us. After nine and a half years of miscarriages and treatments, we finally welcomed a perfect baby girl with curly hair and porcelain skin into our little world.

One year later, I was diagnosed with Cushing’s syndrome and was told that I would have to have surgery to remove a macroadenoma from my pituitary cavity and would never be able to carry another baby to term.

The moment it came out of my doctor’s mouth, I started the process of convincing myself that I was OK with that. I was 34 and had struggled so much with having my little girl that I honestly thought I would be fine. After all, my doctor said the surgery would help me lose the 30 pounds of extra baby weight, and I’d never have a visit from Aunt Flo again. I convinced myself this was a good trade-off.

But then, at a dinner party shortly after getting the news, she said it. The conversation started out innocent enough. She simply asked when we were going to have another one, and I smiled and politely said we were blessed with a perfect child and didn’t need anymore. Then, she said the one sentence that I had been pushing down in my mind for weeks, “What if something happens to her?” I had no answer. I literally stood there speechless until her husband, embarrassed, pulled her away.

That night on the way home, I told my husband what had happened, and in true hero fashion, he was furious and threatened to kill her and her family. But then I asked him,Seriously, what would we do?”

Essentially he dismissed it as something she only said because she had drank a few too many martinis. “It’s a stupid question,” he said.

But, the fact is, to me her question was valid—it had merit. What if something did happen to our daughter? What would we do? How would we act? Would we join together and become closer? Or, would we slowly drift apart? Would we go back to the life we once had? Because our pre-baby life had not been bad; it had actually been pretty wonderful. We’d traveled and been nomads and played and laughed and both established ourselves in the world as what we believed to be adults. But, life after her was so much better, and I honestly didn’t know how to even think about a world without her in it.

The next few months were hard as I tried to deal with this new knowledge. Every time we went out, I worried that we’d have a car wreck. I came up with possible rescue scenarios every time we drove over a bridge or approached train tracks. I silently obsessed over her safety, and I’ll admit I became a little more helicopter-like than I wanted to be, but I was good at hiding it—so good, in fact, that no one, not even my husband, suspected anything was wrong. For him, the issue was closed. That woman said something drunkenly stupid, and her husband sent us out to a nice dinner to apologize—case closed, done.

For me, though, I just couldn’t shake the nagging thought that now that possibility of my daughter leaving us was out there, wide open, for the world to see.

Looking back, I suspect that the world probably already knew this. Actually, I think all parents know this (but if it hadn’t occurred to you yet, I am genuinely sorry to bring it up), and I wonder, is it really any easier for parents who have multiple children? Does the worry just suddenly go away when the second arrives, or does it just spread out, like the stomach bug, to attack the whole brood?

I don’t know, and I personally never will. But, I do know that now as I watch my daughter growing and becoming more confident, I feel more secure in her ability to not believe that she really could fly if she jumped off the roof and that generally she’s at least safer from her own harm.

She’s 5 now, and it’s still impossible to imagine a life without her, but how am I really doing? Well, I do still drive like a grandma, according to my husband anyway, and I still smell test everything she eats in front of me. But, the overall panic is gone and has been replaced with joy. I feel joy that I was gifted with this miracle before I lost my pituitary gland and joy that despite that loss I can still enjoy my miracle because she’s here. And there’s the joy that I still don’t know the answer to that horrible question, and I pray that I never do.