Each time I open my news feed or turn on the TV and find news of another child lost or injured, I find myself working through a complex cycle of emotions as I process the event. When I first scrolled past a story about a 2-year-old who was dragged into the water by an alligator early this week, I could barely believe my eyes. At first I was tempted to look away. Tragedy has permeated my news feed since the weekend, and I wasn’t sure I could handle any more. Still, I clicked, and I read, and I felt sorrow for the parents. And then I was overcome with an overwhelming feeling that this tragedy could have happened to me.
I have watched the videos and glanced over the family photos, and I can’t help but see myself in the eyes of a mother whose life will never be the same again. She carried this baby, just like I carried my own, for 40-odd weeks. She gave birth, and then she rocked him and fed him night after sleepless night, just like I have done with my own. She was a good mom, and still her child was taken from her too soon.
I’ve never been to Florida or anywhere alligators roam, but I have been a mother long enough to know the scary truth about being a mom: Unavoidable accidents are a part of the job.
Most of us are fortunate enough to experience only the inconsequential or merely inconvenient accidents. We excuse ourselves to the bathroom and return to find our child has a bump or bruise. We take a van full of kids to the park and rush to catch our tumbling child on her way down the stairs, but spend an afternoon in urgent care, leaving with a new scar or cast.
Just last week, I took my two young daughters to a small splash park in our town. A friend came along, and we stood at the edge of the park, counting the heads of our children over and over again as they ran wild with roughly 30 other kids. I was watchful, and I was careful, trying to keep my eyes on a set of blond curls in a hot pink swimsuit and the wild, black hair in a blue one, but I still lost one of my kids.
One minute, I saw my two girls running through the fountains together, and then the next, I only saw my youngest. I circled the park for a minute, telling myself to not panic, that I had probably only glanced over her.
I hadn’t glanced over her — she was gone. I handed my youngest over to my friend and started a frantic search for my oldest baby. I checked the bathroom stalls and the swing set, my blood pressure rising with each moment. I kept looking, retracing every inch of the park, yelling her name while other moms started to notice my panic. The whole time, I was trying to ignore the thought that this might be it, that I might not see her again. In the end, it took only a few minutes to find her, tucked inside a covered slide at the other end of the park with a new friend, chatting about who knows what, but it felt like an eternity.
I pulled her out of the slide and hugged her. I explained with shaky words how scared I was. I told her how important it is that she doesn’t leave me without asking. I gave her one last hug and then ushered her back to the splash park to return to play with her sister.
In a world where our children climb into gorilla cages, are dragged off by alligators or lose their life at school to a sadist with access to guns, I can’t help but feel I can’t hold on to my children tightly enough. Even my best efforts to protect my children could be thwarted by the most unexpected or the most unpreventable disease or predator or accident.
I can live in denial, insisting it must have been the mother's or the father’s fault that their child was dragged away by a wild animal. Or I can live in paralyzing fear, second-guessing every decision I make, robbing my children of the freedom and joy of childhood because I can’t manage my own fear, keeping them home from the splash park or avoiding the zoo.
Or I can accept that we live in a world where tragedies and accidents happen to the best mothers and the sweetest little children, and then I can move on with my day. Not in callousness or to be dismissive, but in gratitude for the time I have with my children. I can parent the best that I know how and enjoy each day I spend with the beautiful babies I have been given. I can say an extra prayer as I send my daughter off to swim lessons or pack her bag for preschool, but I cannot control the world we live in.
And when I see a grieving mother who did the very best with what she had and lost her child to the unthinkable, I can grieve with her instead of judging her, because I know how easily her story could have been mine.
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