I didn’t worry much until I became a mom. I was a fairly strong-willed child, a bold teenager, a confident urban dweller throughout college and seminary, and a fairly adventuresome driver/world traveler a young adult. Overall, I was mainly a take-on-the-world-and-assume-it-will-work-out kind of girl. Until I had a small little girl of my own to take care of; now I have discovered WORRY.
Sometimes it starts with something small. A cough through the baby monitor at night that doesn’t go away. A slowness to adapt or master a skill her younger peers do that catches my attention. A yelp overheard while I am in the other room. And of course, there are the comments, both the well-meaning and the irritating, comments that inquire, observe, state opinion or pass judgment on my daughter or on me. You know the ones.
My husband jokes that lately I overdo my worry about our daughter precisely because I have had very little practice in processing honest-to-goodness, gut wrenching, this is really scaring me, worry. He, on the other hand, is a pro, with worrying muscles well-toned and an always-prepared list of the things that could go wrong, break, disappoint or cause stress in any situation. (These skills of his present their own set of problems to be sure, but here I am focusing on my own idiosyncrocies.)
This time it was a rash. A circular rash spreading out from my daughter’s seemingly innocent bug bite that first caught my husband’s attention during bathtime. We had recently been at a cabin in WI, surrounded by woods, lake water and plenty of bugs, so we kept track of her changing skin color. I watched the rash persist and increase in size for two days, leaving a white ring and dark center inside its crimson circle. I looked online, emailed friends in the medical profession, waited on hold with several nurses, and ended up visiting our pediatrician’s office yesterday. We left with a “good patient” sticker and a bag of antibiotics for my toddler, with the diagnosis of “probable textbook Lyme disease infection” on her inner right leg.
I felt calm throughout the process of figuring out the ensuing details, calling family who had been at the cabin with us, getting her a book and amoxicillin at the grocery store. We filled the prescription, I dropped her off at a friend’s house for the day, then headed off to my meetings, made a dozen phone calls, and felt overall very productive with my work day while she had fun out in the burbs. She got dropped off that night happy, tired and sweaty from a full day of playing in the humid summer air, eager to cuddle with me for bedtime stories and prayers.
Somewhere in between putting her to sleep and getting a glass of iced tea from the kitchen, something inside of me cracked open. I became aware that I was worried, really worried, about my girl’s health. Had I asked enough questions today at the doctor’s office? Could the tick’s head still be in her leg? Was she feeling okay now – how would I know if she wasn’t? Then another wave of emotion opened up inside of me. I realized that I can’t really know if she is okay – in the big sense of it all. I can’t control what happens to my innocent and often vulnerable two year old. I knew that truth in my gut, KNEW that I could not stop life from washing over her. I could not control all that would impact her and maybe hurt her. It felt almost cruelly random that we had noticed this spreading rash, taken her in and gotten treatment so easily; what if I don’t know what to look for next time, I thought? How can I ever know enough to always protect her, always think ahead, always know what is best for her? It’s our job as parents to keep her safe and know these things – but I don’t know what I don’t know; and what am I DOING? WHEN DID I GET FOOLED INTO TAKING THIS JOB OF MOM ANYWAY? Ahhhhhh!
The crescendo of my fears, limitations and worries reached their peak while I was talking to my husband. I hung my head, defeated by the truth of my limitations, painfully aware of these cracks inside of me that I could not reason, rationalize or will away. He smiled and wiped a tear from my face, assuring me that she was okay, she would be okay, that we were doing a good job, and that we would continue to do all that we could to love and protect our girl.
I relaxed inside, letting my mind take hold of these fears and steady them a bit. I became aware of pokes, fissures and thoughts that had likely condensed into this explosion of worry. I remembered my emotional conversation earlier that day with someone embroiled in addressing the child abuse of a young girl; I thought back to my recent lunch date with a colleague whose teenage daughter had chosen another faith and deeply wounded her mother’s heart; I replayed the conversation I had last night with a kindred spirit about all the guilt and worry that motherhood brings, all the comparisons that creep into our psyches now that we’ve given birth. The puzzle pieces started to connect, as themes of motherhood pain and ongoing vulnerability became obvious. This parenthood thing, it isn’t going to get any easier, I thought. My journey into worry and wondering, deep concern and letting go of control, has really just started. That’s a little daunting.
What I realized, again but also anew, is that my daughter is a gift from God. She is an amazing little human bundle of potential that I pray my husband and I can love and protect. But she is a gift; she is not mine, per se, and I cannot control or fashion her fate. My job is not to lock her away from pain or snatch her from the first signs of fear, or spray her down with tick repellent morning, noon and night. My job is to be obedient to God’s call on her life, on my life, and on my family’s life. My job is to do my best to keep her healthy and strong, and encourage her to become who she was designed to be, and to integrate fear with faith, pain with community, vulnerability with health. My fears betray my own assumptions all too clearly; my tendency to forget that I am vulnerable, that pain and struggle cannot always be battled and conquered, that suffering sometimes carries wisdom greater then privilege.
My daughter reminds me of the wider journey that we all make; a journey to become, to belong, to feel secure and cared for, to be protected and nurtured. I feel pained by the knowledge that so many children, so many of those most vulnerable on the planet, are not nurtured and protected sufficiently, not loved and encouraged to become. Maybe the world does not have a monster under every bed to worry about; but the world does not have enough beds for all its children, nor mosquito nets, clean water or stable loving adults. And while I can be aware of this pain and vulnerability, while I want to and must work toward protecting and loving the vulnerable, there are limits. Clear, heart-wrenching, human limits. And I must be honest about them within myself if I am to be of any good to anyone. The vulnerability of children is clear to me, in a way that my own is not. The clinging dependency and sweet faith of a child, like her sweaty hair curling heavy with contentment on my chest during bedtime, is beautiful to me. And I think that this is what terrifies me as well.
In my gut I know that I do not know enough. I am not strong enough, or faithful enough. I know my weaknesses even if I don’t visit them that often. I know these limits, when I must be honest and face them. And the limits that have my name on them seem to get cracked open inside of me through motherhood in a wholly unique way. This beast called worry, where did you escape from? The nagging weight of guilt, how did you creep in here? The nasty comparisons, envy and pride that well up much more quickly within me – I almost don’t recognize you. The impatience, selfishness and anger that jump through tired eyes and weary muscles – this was not always my reaction.
So I pray. I cry with my husband. I share these vulnerabilities with friends, sisters and mothers. I sing with my whole heart, focusing on who God is and who I am called to be. I make my phone calls and send my daughter to her friend’s house, and I pray some more. I feed her a bedtime snack and pull her sweaty hair back from her face, and I smile as she clings to me. I savor the good, display the messy artwork, cleanup after the bathtime chaos, cherish the chubby legs with a faded rash and skinned knees. And I work to explore this crack within. This soft space – sometimes scary, sometimes holy – that motherhood has ripped open, that God sometimes slips through. And then I pray again.