When my daughter was about 14 months, we went to the beach with my mother-in-law and some of her close friends to celebrate her birthday. The beach we went to had a hard, crashing surf. I looked at it and decided most of our day would be spent closer to the calm of the tide pools. When we did head down to the waves, I picked up my child and held her close. I anticipated the thunderous crashes of the waves would frighten her. I expected the shocking cold of the Maine Atlantic waters would be uncomfortable for her. We got close to the surf so she could closely watch the waves roll and roil their way toward us. She exploded in laughter and leaned her body toward the waves. She struggled against my arms. She wanted to be in the sand. I put her down and held both her hands. She laughed and ran right toward the ocean. My tiny beloved being ran right into the roaring, wild sea. She laughed as the waves lapped around her legs. I scooped her up and together we headed straight into the pounding surf. She squealed with delight as each wave hit us, as we jumped against the push of the ocean.
Every particle of my being wants to protect my child. I want to steer her from harm and provide her with a shield from the dangerous things in the world. I looked at the sea and saw it’s turbulence and unforgiving power. I looked at my daughter and saw how incredibly small and vulnerable she appeared. But, that’s not what she saw. My daughter saw something incredible, the greatness of waves crashing to shore. She felt her own bravery and joy. She was mighty and strong.
I often think about what sort of parent I want to be. The instinct to cling to my child and protect her from every harm is strong. But, I don’t want that to be my defining characteristic as a parent. I have to defy my biological instinct to be the kind of parent I want to be. I want my daughter to know her own strength. I want my daughter to take risks equipped with the intelligence and groundedness I see in her every day. I want my daughter to be inspired by what is out there in the world, not fearful of it. I always want her to feel the vastness of her spirit when she encounters great or even terrifying things.
This makes for a very beautiful story. But it is hard. How does a parent ever quiet her fear and worry for her kid? Sometimes I ask my fear to go away. It seems to come back almost immediately and with an even louder voice. Sometimes I ask my worry to simply speak a little quieter than the part of me that wants my child to express her independence. That works sometimes, but not often. Often, I just sit there and listen to my fear rattle on. And I say “yes, dear, I hear you” even though my worry can carry on for a very long time. It’s an earful. But my fear says other things to me, like the fact that she’s there because I love my child. My worry knows the strength and depth of my love. That’s why she begins her chatter. To remind me of what is deeply important to me.
For whatever reason, there is this idea that we can and should rise above our fears. That bravery is only a thing earned by those that have managed to silence their fears. I don’t buy this story for a second. Here’s a story I prefer: being brave means hearing your fears yet still moving forward with what you believe is the right thing. All the while those fears continue to buzz around in your head. It’s listening to your worries ramble on and saying, “OK, thanks for that, but I’m gonna do this other thing.”
I have experienced beautiful moments with undercurrents of fear. I have had joyful times with tinges of worry at the edges. I am learning how to experience these complex, multifaceted moments without feeling the need to chase away the darker feelings. The day at the beach was full of joy, fear, awe, and surrender. I held onto my daughter while I let her go. I laughed with her while taking in occasional nervous sharp breaths. There were opposing forces to reckon with. There was much to welcome into my heart. Complexity is inherent in the most meaningful of moments and can only be embraced as the woven braid that it is.
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