These were the words my mother spoke to me last week. Perhaps they sound like familiar words from your own mother (or father or grandparent or step-parent or any other given figure of introjected value judgments). Now, let me make a caveat that my mother is not usually like this. I want to be clear about this for two reasons: 1) I do not want to give a false impression about my mother; and 2) my mother is one of my seven readers and is probably taking umbrage right now to the suggested characterization that she is a scold. She isn’t usually a scold, but she did scold me this weekend. What about? A knife and pair of scissors, both used to open boxes and wrap Christmas gifts, were lying out on the kitchen counter.
“You have to stop doing that,” my mother said. “It's dangerous.”
She’s right, of course. Our little girl wouldn’t have been able to reach these instruments of potential harm and death on our kitchen counter, but it won’t be long before she will be tall enough. As she grows, she gets exponentially more mobile and capable. She can already unlock and open most of the doors in our house (knobs are so much better than handles, and all we have are handles). She does not hesitate to pick up anything she finds. She can turn faucets on and off, and she’s tried to turn on our gas stove a few times. She’s into everything, just like an eighteen-month-old toddler ought to be. And we need to be hyper-vigilant, just as parents of an eighteen-month-old toddler ought to be.
We have cabinet locks. We have outlet protector plugs. We follow her everywhere she goes in the house; she’s only alone when she sleeps. But it seems that every week or so we discover some new danger. She climbed out of a pack-and-play crib we’d assumed was secure. She runs faster than we previously thought. She climbs on everything. This cute, adorable little creature has suddenly turned herself into a constant hazard.
As a new parent, one of the earliest and most frightening feelings I had was the sense of responsibility. Being tasked with the safety of another human being can be an overwhelming pressure, but when that human being is an adult, there’s always some modicum of responsibility we can put on the adult. But a child cannot be responsible for herself; it’s all on the adults who care for her. Holding my sweet little girl in my arms once we got home from the hospital, I remember suddenly feeling burdened with the greatest sense of responsibility I’ve ever felt. Remember, I have a career in which I sit with people in the midst of their pain, grief, and suffering. I spend my days helping patients and families and students sort through the deep, dark wounds they carry, giving them the space and care they need while also respecting the boundaries of the work I can do with them. It’s a grave responsibility that I take very seriously. But it’s nothing like the responsibility I felt holding my sweet girl in my arms.
But the scary thing is that it was so much easier then! I mean, I’d swaddle her up so she couldn’t move any of her limbs, which she didn’t know how to use anyway. She spent her first six months just lying around. She couldn’t run, couldn’t grab things, couldn’t do much of anything except eat, sleep, cry and poop. But oh how that has changed. Her self-agency in the world is a force to be reckoned and respected.
There are things I miss about my pre-parent life. I catalogued some of those in previous posts, but I’m starting to recognize a new loss, a new grief that comes with more anxiety than I anticipated: I miss being irresponsible. By “irresponsible,” I don’t mean reckless or foolhardy or dangerous. I just mean not responsible. And that is maybe not even completely true, because I acted responsibly for my own well-being. You know, I wasn’t doing stupid things that put my life in danger, because I could trust that I and the other people in my life would behave responsibly. I could leave knives out on the counter without worrying someone was going to impale themselves. I could put chemicals in an unsecured cabinet without worrying that someone was going to drink them. I didn’t worry that anyone in my house was going to electrocute themselves or burn the house down. I could trust that everyone would, for the most part, behave safely.
But now I am always looking over my shoulder. I even back my car out of the garage more slowly – even when my little girl is in the car with me. I mow the yard slower, I throw more junk in drawers and high shelves, I scour the ground for tiny objects that might, despite all sensible logic, find their way into someone’s mouth.
Being a parent means being completely responsible and completely powerless at the same time. It’s like juggling eggs while playing dodgeball. I can’t reasonably protect her from everything in the world, right? But I still have to try. It’s exhausting and, frankly, scary as hell.
And it’s only going to get worse. She’s only a toddler now, and she’s just going to keep developing new capacities for manipulating the world around her. And, God help us, she’ll be a teenager one day. All of us know how teenagers are – physically able to act like independent adults with only a fraction of the intellectual and emotional judgment adults need to make good decisions. I mean, holy hell, I’m raising a lemming.
It used to be that my fantasies about my pre-parent life were sleeping in late and having more time and energy for sex. Now I just fantasize about leaving scissors lying around.