I used to be afraid of murderers. And airplane crashes. And car accidents.
I would create scenarios in my head so vivid and involved, I was sure I had suffered some freaky death in a past life. I always marveled at people—especially people like my husband—who could lay their heads down one minute and float into blissful sleep the next. Why aren’t they worrying about the next major earthquake taking out half the U.S.? How can they sleep knowing we are destroying the environment with our chlorofluorocarbons? The Cold War can’t remain cold forever, and, by the look of them, you’d think these people have never even heard of Soviet spies.
After my second son was born and I was thrust into therapy to deal with my guilt issues over his having had a stroke, I learned something I had probably known on some level all along: I suffered from anxiety. So that’s why I white-knuckle it the entire drive up to the cabin, certain a flock (or pride, or gaggle, or herd—whatever they’re called) of deer will walk directly into our path and, for no logical reason whatsoever, will stop, in the middle of the road, resulting in a gruesome combination of deer guts, fur, car parts, and my family splayed across the northbound lane of I-75.
Perhaps most telling of this extreme anxiety is how I reacted to punishments as a child. In response to me teasing my father over his being wound so tight, he wouldn’t let me do my homework until I had scrubbed every inch of my bathroom. He responded, “Yeah, well, you were weird. I couldn’t think of any better punishment. What kind of kid wants to do her homework so badly, she’d clean a bathroom with a toothbrush to get it done?”
This kid, apparently.
I do distinctly remember being certain Earth might stop rotating on its axis if I didn’t get that chemistry crap done STAT. My therapist would have pointed to that as yet another example of my anxiety and paranoia disorders and my need to cool my jets.
Once I had children, my fears changed from focusing on my demise and that of the general population to my son’s untimely end. What if I accidentally drop him off the changing table? What if he shoves so many Cheerios in his mouth, he chokes before I can do anything to stop him? What if he somehow figures out how to crawl out of his crib, maneuver the child-resistant door handle, turn on the bathroom light, fill the tub, and drown while I’m sleeping?
Irrational, yes. But even though I knew this, I still contended with these fantasies nightly as they played out in such a fashion. I could win an award on daytime television for their intricacy and dramatic effect.
Now that my oldest is six—and quite the extrovert, at that—my fears have evolved into something far more foreboding than ever before. Instead of worrying about physical harm to his person as a result of improbable accidents, I now worry about something far scarier: the corruption of his innocence. Nothing is worse than being unable to protect him from realizing the world isn’t made from a dash of sunshine and a splash of rainbows, from experiencing his first real disappointment, from contending with those first truly hurt feelings at the hands of an uncaring child or, worse, adult.
While I knew I harbored these worries, I didn’t know just how deep and soul-crushing they were until we went camping a few years ago. For the first time, my precious baby boy, who is clearly not a baby anymore, went off to play with another, older kid on the campground where we were staying. Yes, he was still in my full view, and yes, I was pacing like a tweaker on a three-day bender trying to stay close yet inconspicuous, but I couldn’t help daydreaming terrible things. Not his getting hit by a car or his falling down and breaking a bone.
No, these terrible things would leave greater scars.
These terrible things would involve his being made fun of, or mocked, or bullied. These terrible things would cut into his jovial spirit, leaving a little less of it behind. These terrible things would cause his big, loving heart to adopt a protective layer that, over the years, would become harder and harder as the discovery of what a cruel place the world can be sinks in.
When I was pregnant with my oldest, a colleague, newly knocked-up herself, asked whether or not I worried about being a parent. “No, of course not,” I replied. “All we can do as parents is our best and hope they turn out okay.”
Were she to ask me that question today, my response would be different: “Worried about parenthood? No. Being a parent is something I can control. It’s the childhood part that’s got me scared shitless, because that I can’t control. No matter how hard I try, I can’t stop them from growing up.”
And that’s the scariest thing of all.