It’s found a home. The parasite-vice clenching your chest. The angry fist twisting your insides. The pressure against your temples. The cells that impossibly pulsate and disassociate from your being. Panic—a living side-effect of motherly love—has found a home in us.
We’ve all had the experience of looking the wrong way at the wrong time. I’ve had a few. One time, a son snuck behind me as I unloaded the dishwasher. I turned to put away a stack of plates. When I looked up, he was sprinting away with two knives pointing straight up. He was OK.
Then, there was that freezing day when we called 911. We believed our 4-year-old somehow escaped the child safety locks. Our fear took us to our half-frozen pond. After 15 eternal minutes of screaming and searching, we found him nestled in a tiny space of our warm home. He was OK.
As I recall such horrors, I feel ill. I don’t even want to tell you about them.
Some will commiserate while others may judge. I feel ashamed. Regretful. A chain reaction trips me every chance it gets. The chemicals that surged through my system in those quicker-than-lightening but slower-than-torture moments have no concept of time or mercy. They travel familiar neurological ruts guided by the smallest of triggers. Memory is ruthless like so. The past is always gunning for the present, always “after it” in spite of the fact that it’s always before.
Panic: an infinite split-second of feeling the whole world may fall away. For too many parents, it does just that. There is no relief. No exhale. Only tragedy. Grief I cannot fathom, condolences that will never be enough.
But, when the kids are OK, the seconds following always look the same. I squeeze his little frame, trying to absorb his being into mine. Surely, if we were one person, I could take better care of him. My lungs deflate just before bursting. And, with that—catharsis. I sob. I carry him far away from the danger. I say, “I love you” over and over. Each time it’s somehow more true even though there is no threshold. Nothing could cause me to love him more or less than I do.
Once my pulse and thoughts slow and he squirms away, I tell him something about safety. He says, “OK, momma” and goes on with life. Then, I scold myself for minutes upon years. I tell myself what a crap mother I am. Inept. Ill-equipped. No-good. I verbally abuse myself to anyone within earshot. They all say, “You’re a good mom. Things happen. He’s OK.” Most moms share a story. They aren’t wrong. The truth just doesn’t make me feel more right.
I can’t find a moral here. None at all. I just wanted to take a minute to acknowledge the heavy existence of panic.
I’m not here to say things happen. That feels more like an ominous warning than a comfort to us worriers. I am here to say, I get it.
I understand the panic. I understand the imprint it leaves on your body and mind. The trigger of a too-quiet moment or a horrific news story. I understand why you kiss their hair after they fall asleep. Why you place your hand on the baby’s chest to feel him breathing even though you risk waking him. Why you double-check the car seat buckles. Why you randomly wonder if you have enough carbon monoxide detectors. Why you dress them in neon shirts in large crowds and write your name and number on the insides of their shoes. Why this very post is giving you anxiety right now (I’m sorry about that, truly).
I understand the panic. It’s real and it’s valid. It’s a mess of love and despair in hyperdrive. I. Hate. It. And . . . I’m so very thankful for it. (Aha, moral, I knew you’d show up.)
The truth: Panic, you are primal.
You are an animal instinct. I’m a momma bear and that’s my cub. You descend from generations of mommas trying to keep kids safe on this ridiculous planet. Safe from T-rexes, wild dogs, and possible toxins in terra cotta pots that are eaten (true story). You’re part of a collective consciousness I didn’t sign up for but couldn’t survive without.
You’re not an over-reaction. You’re all-action. You’re how I deal. A survival tactic. My very best frenemy. You leave a mark emotionally, neurologically, permanently.
You remind me: do millions of things preceding millions of would-be accidents. You validate me: things do happen. Anticipate said things rather than wave an idle hand at them. You mold me into the piece of work small humans call “momma.”
Panic, I got you. I got you in spades. Do your job and then let me do mine.