Updated: Dec 30, 2018
How did I let this happen?
It happens so quickly. Lightning fast. You’re fine, they’re fine, and in an instant you’re in free fall, swallowed up by panic and adrenaline unmatched by anything you've experienced, blinded by a fear you never dreamed existed, unable to breathe and in your suffocation grasping wildly for every forgotten prayer from childhood like it’s your last chance, cursing yourself for your false confidence and willful ignorance.
I was killing it as a mom. My son was healthy, he was happy, he was sleeping through the night like an angel, napping well and on a schedule. I’d never been so in love and the glow of motherhood was still newly minted on my cheeks, boosted by the comments from loved ones and strangers alike that I was doing an excellent job. How right they were. Wasn’t I? Wasn’t I doing a beautiful job? I was so careful with him, regimented in my safety precautions, incredulous at mothers who joked about their laxity, disturbed by what I judged to be even the slightest oversight in maternal care. I had convinced myself that my abilities as a mother and the health and wellbeing of my child were inexorably linked in a symbiotic dance, a self-fulfilling prophecy of complementary behavior. He was a good, healthy, wonderful baby because I was a good, healthy, wonderful mother. Nothing bad had happened because of course I wouldn’t let anything bad happen. I was omnipotent in motherhood.
I had convinced myself that my abilities as a mother and the health and wellbeing of my child were inexorably linked in a symbiotic dance, a self-fulfilling prophecy of complementary behavior.
My son was one week shy of four months when I fell down the stairs with him. Alone in the house, frustrated that my sweet, happy baby had been fussy for the last 48 hours (“Just a phase! Not a sleep regression! He’s normally sooooooo happy!”), I headed downstairs after a particularly arduous diaper change and felt my foot slip forward as I rocketed back, saw his head pitch forward as I screamed and the guttural, animalistic sound only a mother can call forth escaped my mouth and shattered my maternal innocence forever, piercing the air and everything it touched.
Did his head hit the railing? Did his body leave mine? How many stairs was it? I stared at the ER clinicians and my mother’s friend who had raced to meet me, unable to offer answers, stammering that I wasn’t sure, I don’t think so, I can’t remember – my eyes pleading with them to understand that this was a mistake, a one-off, find the answers themselves, tell me it’s okay. Later, when my mother came to join me, she asked where my car was. I blinked. I drove here? My car was in the street outside the hospital.
That split second in time had viciously replaced each of my memories and all I would see when I closed my eyes for the rest of my life were his blond wisps in a lopsided lurch falling away from me over and over again.
I couldn’t remember anything after seeing his head shoot out of my hands on the stairs. That split second in time had viciously replaced each of my memories and all I would see when I closed my eyes for the rest of my life were the blond wisps of his hair in a lopsided lurch, falling away from me over and over again. A hellish loop, breaking our symbiosis, separating me from my child and dragging me alone mercilessly into the arena of guilt and anguish where mothers are brought to pay for their carelessness, their ineptitude, each of us as shocked as the last that we - the good mothers, the careful mothers we told ourselves - ended up here. How did this happen? How did I let this happen? What kind of mother am I?
He was fine. He never lost consciousness, he cried, which was a good sign, and ate normally. Two hours later we were home. He’ll never remember or know anything out of the ordinary occurred. It could have been so much worse and I thank God every day that it wasn't. But I had been forever changed. The first time you realize you cannot protect your child is staggering. It rips through your heart and leaves you shell-shocked and alone, horrified at this new, harsh reality and disgusted with yourself for ignoring its brutality. You were blind. Careless. Smug. Brimming with parental bravado and the wicked assurance that yes, of course bad things happen, but not to my baby. How foolish we are.
The only thing more painful than the vast ugliness of the reality that you are unable to keep your child safe is the brutal knowledge that it was always there and you were willfully blind to it.
As my emotions shifted from the inconsolable to the subdued, from vomiting at the hailstorm of “what ifs” that plagued my thoughts to merely shuddering, as we settled back into our routine, I waited for the fear to leave. Surely, every time I saw a flight of stairs I wouldn’t retreat or hand my baby over to someone else, someone more careful than his mother, to hold him. Surely, the shame I felt when my parents had a runner installed on their stairs would lessen with time. (“Heard you dropped your baby” sneered the workman installing the carpet as hot tears stung my eyes.) And I was right. My son is going up and down the stairs on his own now, with me right behind him, but when I do carry him I’m not overpowered with anxiety. I simply walk deliberately and slowly with a prayer on my lips. I’ve worked through the shame and the guilt and am able to offer my experience as a quipped story, a joke about my maternal laxity to add to the conversation along with those of other mothers who have seen the worst fear of their lives come within an inch of fruition only to turn it into a self deprecating anecdote on their inability to mother appropriately.
I’ve worked through the shame and the guilt and am able to offer my experience as a quip, a joke about my maternal laxity to add to the conversation along with those of other mothers who have seen the worst fear of their lives come within an inch of fruition only to turn it into a self-deprecating anecdote on their inability to mother appropriately.
I still see the back of his head tipping forward every night when I close my eyes. Maybe I always will. Maybe it will be replaced by a new, worse memory as he grows more independent and new dangers present themselves. But nothing can match the ferocity and anguish I met that day on the stairs. The intensity of the feelings faded. But the knowledge that my child could, and would, be hurt remains. It is one of the many painful lessons that link us together in our journeys as mothers. It is an inescapable piece of parenthood. It is the worst first.