My husband and I are raising four daughters in a small town in Vermont. Once you have four children, people assume you have a certain parenting expertise. “Four children! You must be a pro by now!” I hear from friends, colleagues – even our pediatrician.
The truth, of course, is that parenting isn’t a video game; they don’t give you another kid once you’ve mastered the first. I never expected to have four children. But (most days) I love our crazy, noisy brood. And (most days) I love being a mom. I’m far from perfect: I’m always exhausted and often one tantrum away from a breakdown, but I think I’m a pretty good mom.
But I’m a pretty good mom who’s dropped my baby.
In fact, I have – unintentionally, clumsily, stupidly – endangered every one of my daughters during her first year of life.
When our first child was several months old, I set her, in her carseat, a little too close to the edge of the ten concrete steps leading to our front door, while I rummaged around for the keys. I turned to see, as if in slow motion, the carseat wobble backwards and slide down the entire flight of steps.
I swore I wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I was only partly right.
Because when our second daughter was 4 days old, I was nursing her in bed late one night, attempting to stay alert by reading. Despite my best efforts, I nodded off with her in my arms. I woke to a loud THUD and my baby wailing. She had rolled off the bed (which, thankfully, was only 18 inches from the floor); more accurately, since I’d been holding her when I dozed, I had dropped my newborn.
I didn’t drop our third daughter; instead, when she was 5 months old, I nicked a chunk of skin out of her tiny finger while trimming her fingernails. She bled for the better part of an hour, through two washcloths and countless tissues.
After these incidents, my daughters were fine. In every case, my baby cried for a minute – mostly in response to the panicked signals she got from me, no doubt – and then carried on with being a baby. No daughter has any memory of these events today; no signs of the mental, emotional, or physical distress I feared I’d inflicted upon them.
On the other hand, I was beside myself with guilt each time. Like anybody in their right mind, I’m no fan of hurting babies. Since becoming a parent, there are movies I can no longer watch and books I can no longer read because they feature bad things happening to children. Yet I’d been careless with the very babies I’d been trying so hard to nurture and protect – not once, but three times.
You’d think that the fourth time around I’d have learned something, or at least exhausted all possible disastrous scenarios.
The fourth time around, I brought innocent bystanders down with me.
In retrospect, it was a poor choice to use the stroller. The stroller in question was a “Snap & Go” model: a wheeled frame that can hold an infant carseat. This stroller had been through three babies already; it was rusty, the fabric basket was torn, and I expected a wheel to pop off any day. But since our fourth daughter was 8 months old, it only had to last a while longer.
This rickety stroller was my baby transportation while running errands in town the day after a snowstorm. Mounds of snow were heaped beside the sidewalks, and deep puddles of slush pooled along the curbs. Every few feet the stroller would get stuck and I’d have to puuuuuuush it through the slushy snow.
But I soldiered on with the stroller; with two bags and two additional children in tow, it was my best option. Of course I didn’t fasten the belt that secures the carseat to the stroller frame; I hadn’t done that in years — who has time? Also, the baby wasn’t buckled into her carseat, because she’d been fussy in the store and I’d had to unsnap her to soothe her. But since we weren’t driving and she couldn’t get herself out of the carseat, I figured it was fine to simply lay her back in.
The girls and I crossed Main Street. Then, at the curb, I hit a slush trap. The stroller was stuck and wouldn’t budge. I would have to lift it over the curb and onto the sidewalk.
At that moment, my Good Samaritans appeared. This happens frequently when you have young kids in our nice little town, especially when you look as frazzled as I do — someone’s always offering to help me out. In this case it was a young couple — a childless young couple, I later deduced.
“Do you need help?” asked the husband.
“Thanks, I’m okay,” I grunted, wrestling with the stroller while my two older daughters ran ahead.
He didn’t buy my independent act, and stepped towards the stroller. “Well, okay, maybe if you can lift that side…” I said gratefully.
At which point, he lifted not the stroller, but the carseat sitting atop the stroller. And remember how I didn’t have that carseat belted on? So, he lifted the back end of the carseat out of the stroller frame, flipping the carseat right over.
And remember how my daughter wasn’t buckled into that carseat? So, when the carseat flipped over, my baby flew out and landed on her stomach in a puddle of slush.
The husband stared at me, eyes wide, and exclaimed, “Holy s*#%t! There was a baby in that stroller?!?” Apparently, when he saw my other daughters run ahead (good thing they did, so that I didn’t have to define “s*#%t” for them) he assumed I was a normal person with two children, pushing an empty stroller.
When I picked up my daughter (unhurt, just a little soggy), she was totally unfazed. She even smiled at the man who’d just flipped her out of her carseat. Her entire demeanor said: Yup, I’m a fourth child and I have no concept that my life is supposed to be safe and easy.
The couple didn’t notice how fine she was; they apologized frantically. They even offered to give me their names — I guess in case I wanted to sue for damages. (I probably should have jumped on the opportunity and requested a scholarship fund. But I chose the high road).
“It’s really okay,” I reassured them. “She’s a fourth child. This sort of thing happens to her every day. It’s my fault; I knew there was a baby in the stroller. Excuse me, I should probably catch my other children now.” (At this point, my two older daughters were small dots in the distance, oblivious to their sister’s traumatic experience).
As I trudged away, I’m sure the nice young couple stared after me in horror. Perhaps they felt guilty, or perhaps they were wondering whether they should call social services. (In either case, that’s one couple that’s probably going to wait a while before having kids.)
SO, I am living proof that time and experience don’t necessarily make you a better parent; they just make you an older parent. I’m as capable of dropping my fourth child as my first.
But I do think that time and experience can bestow perspective.
Looking back, I see these little traumas – the times I accidentally endangered my babies –as valuable life training. I can even chuckle at these stories now, because they ended well (thankfully — I know that’s not always the case). But regardless of the outcome, the point is: We cannot keep our children from being hurt. Futhermore: It is highly likely that, despite our best efforts to love and care for our children, sometimes we will be the ones doing the hurting. As my daughters grow older, I’m less likely to physically drop them (phew!). But in the future, try as I might, I’m surely going to leave them with emotional wounds.
Parenting is messy like that.
But there’s beauty in the mess, if we look for it. When I unintentionally hurt my children – physically or emotionally – I can allow myself to be crushed by guilt. OR I can see it as an opportunity to experience grace: grace from my daughters when they forgive my slip-ups (or, better yet, don’t remember them!), and the grace that I extend myself by acknowledging my imperfection and moving forward (God helps me with that — a lot).
The most beautiful things to emerge from our parenting messes, though, are our children. My daughters astonish me with their resilience, their ability to weather the hurts that the world — and I — throw their way. I pray that they will always find the strength and grace to emerge from a puddle of freezing slush…and smile.
This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE!