Parenthood Means Constantly Imagining Worst-Case Scenarios

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Photo: Michael Hitoshi/Getty Images

For the first year of my son’s life, we took him most places in a carrier, a front pack strapped to one of us. This was especially convenient when we lived in New York, where navigating the subway with a stroller was unthinkable and even just pushing it down the sidewalk made me nervous. With the carrier, I could use my hands, sign receipts, open doors, sit on the toilet, even. It was perfect once I got the hang of it, save for the nightmare scenario that would pass through my brain and stop me in my tracks, my breath caught in my throat: What if I fell? I mean, what if I fell any time I was carrying the baby? What if I dropped him? What if he wiggled out of my arms, what if he rolled off the bed, what if something fell and hit his (horrifying, pulsating) soft spot? 

Most other parents I’ve talked to have experienced some version of these worries, especially in the early months of their babies’ lives. They also experienced the eventualities. Babies do fall. They do get dropped! As any seasoned veteran on a parenting forum will tell you, “There are people whose babies have rolled off the bed, and there are people who lie about it.” BTDT, as they say. Been there, done that.

Your child, in the course of his or her life, will get hurt. They will probably be okay. “Probably,” to a new parent, is cold comfort. At least to me, when I was sleep-deprived and hormonally organized toward vigilance, newly in charge of someone who so recently didn’t exist, and so terrifyingly in touch with mortality, “probably,” even “almost surely,” didn’t hold much water. All I needed was a possibility, and my mind went running. Hell, just yesterday I choked back sobs trying to tell my therapist about the Day-Care Story in the Times this week — the one about the infant who died after his mother had to return to work early, the one that I want to say I wish I’d never read and don’t recommend to any new parent (though it has sparked an important discussion about family leave), when what I really wish, of course, is that it never happened. My therapist is a parent, too, and when I finally gave in and told her about it, she just nodded and said, “Being a parent is like walking around with a wound.” What else was there to say?

And that’s the thing: The worst-case-scenarios loop does move beyond logic, but it isn’t out of left field either. It’s hard to parse logical safety concerns from the feeling of panicked inevitability. There is a spectrum between typical parental worry and a postpartum anxiety disorder; I know my own terror-gripped fantasies moved between the two.

Lydia has a baby just under a year old, and when I wrote to her, she described an internal monologue that was all too familiar: “When she was born I would do this weird walk, simultaneously mincing and plodding, while clutching her with all my might because I had technicolor visualizations of pitching forward on the way across the room and cracking her soft baby skull against the sharp edge of the crib.”

Lyz, a writer and mother of two, echoed those sentiments. “When she was first born,” she said of her daughter, “I would walk with her around the house and, completely unbidden, just see myself dropping her on accident. You have a baby, you have new life, you suddenly see death lurking around every corner, and you can’t control it, but you want to try.”

These feelings were so real to me that reading them, I felt a little ill. My son is older now, and he’s fallen and been dropped and rolled off the bed, and each time he’s been totally fine. He’s resilient; my fears have taken new shapes (a dog biting him, a car hitting him, a fall down the stairs — all, arguably, logical). But given that this stuff does happen despite our vigilance, and given that our worry feels so overwhelming, but inescapable, what the hell can we do?

I talked to pediatrician Dr. Larry Rosen, whose practice in New Jersey is called the Whole Child Center. He’s used to discussions like this, and said that while this isn’t a new problem, he does think our collective parental anxiety is increasing.

The reality is that kids can get hurt,” he told me. “Every parents’ No. 1 fear is probably, ‘My baby’s gonna die or get hurt,’ and then, ‘I’m responsible for that.’ That kind of implies that we have 100 percent control over everything, which, as you realize pretty quickly once you have a baby, you don’t.”

“Yes!” I shouted in reply, and told him that this phone call was like therapy. We have influence over our children’s lives, but we cannot control everything they, or we, do.

For instance, we fall. When my son was 9 or 10 months old, my terror fantasy came true. I fell forward when I had him in the carrier, tripping on nothing but my own two feet. (I was wearing clogs, I feel I should confess here.) I’m not sure how long it takes a body to go from upright to flat-out on the pavement, but in that time, I managed fling my body sideways, twisting in the air like a character in The Matrix. My kid got a rug burn from the carrier rubbing his head, but he was fine. We both sobbed, I don’t remember who more. One of us was soothed by “The Wheels on the Bus”; the other let Dad carry the baby from that point forward. I am just now reacquainting myself with my Danskos.

Lyz dropped her daughter, just the way she feared, when she was also 9 months old. As she tells it, she was walking in the snow to deliver cookies to her neighbor to thank him for shoveling her driveway. She slipped on ice, fell backward, and the baby slipped out of her arms and hit her head on a gutter. “I still have flashbacks about it when I walk outside in the winter,” she told me in an email. “I can feel it it — how it felt to lose my grip on her and the panic stomping my heart. She is fine. Clearly, I’m not.”

Elizabeth is a teacher, and she has a 2-year-old son as well as a horror story of her own. She’s also a poet, and for that reason, I let her story sit in my inbox for two days before I could open it, glass of wine in hand. Her son, reaching out to her and calling, “Mama,” pitched himself forward in his stroller and hit the pavement face-first while she was wrangling his car seat back into the car, late for work. “I’m convinced I have killed my child. He’s screaming, he’s bleeding, I leave the car door open and just run with him back into the house, I’m shaking and crying and trying to assess the damage: Basically, it was a total mother nightmare. This is it, you have permanently brain-damaged your son, you are the worst mother in the world, what the fuck did you think you were doing, you idiot.” He was fine, though Elizabeth was definitely late for work.

All the babies of the parents I talked to were totally fine. Dr. Rosen was quick to underline this point. “It’s not always okay, but you know what? Most of the time it is. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those babies are gonna be fine.” He recommends bringing babies, especially those under 6 months, in if there’s any physical sign of trauma — a bruise, a bump, bleeding. If they fell from a significant height or were in a car accident, or anything major, doctors still want to check them out, even in the absence of external injuries. “If there’s a huge lump or the baby’s vomiting, then we need to see them. Even in those cases, most of the time, a huge majority, things turn out to be fine.”

In a lot of ways, the time I fell carrying my son was a turning point in my anxiety. The forbidden, horrible thing did happen, and we were okay. I felt awful, and shaken, but also relieved. As Dr. Rosen put it to me during our interview-cum-therapy-session, “At some point, you kind of have to surrender and trust that for how many gazillion years people have been parents, and not that it always works out and we have a lot of things we can blame on our parents, but most of the time, babies are okay.”

They aren’t always, and I know my brain will latch onto every horrifying counterexample. Accepting that I have influence over, even responsibility for, my child, but not complete control over him, or myself, or the universe, is a long-term project I may never complete.

Parenthood Means Constantly Expecting the Worst