Their Bad Mother

Their Bad Mother

There But For A Rocking Chair: On Love and Fear and Keeping Our Children Safe

Before Emilia was born, I fussed endlessly about babyproofing. Never mind that it would be months before she would even enter the world, let alone move around it and find its electrical outlets: I was convinced that when it came to babies, there was no such thing as too many precautions taken too soon. So we did everything: plugged electrical outlets, purchased baby gates, secured the cords of window blinds, babyproofed cupboard doors, checked the house for mold and lead paint and random specks of dust. And we secured bookshelves to the wall. And paintings, and photographs, and pretty much anything else that could conceivably come loose and turn into an agent of harm.

Everything, that is, except the dresser in her nursery. It wasn’t that we disregarded it; it was that it was a late addition to the room, and got moved from corner to corner while I dithered about where it best served the nursery’s feng shui, and it was never in exactly the right spot, a spot that I could commit to. By the time in ended up in the place where it stayed, Emilia had arrived and I was distracted and dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on our extensive babyproofing efforts fell to the bottom of my list of things to worry about, and the dresser just never got secured to the wall. Until it almost fell — almost, I say, because its fall was prevented by a silly little rocking chair that she had, at eleven months old, pushed in front of it in order to get to something — I forget what — on top. The dresser toppled and knocked her off the chair and was halted in its crash by that same chair and really, I can’t remember much more than that, other than the absolute, abject terror that I felt when I chased down her screams into the room and saw what had happened. I never wrote about it. The horror — and the guilt — was too acute. She might have died. She was — I was — we were — lucky.


Others have not been so lucky. Dana, and her darling little Tiggy,were not so lucky. (A warning, which applies to the preceding link, and what follows: This story is deeply distressing. Really.)
It’s a simple story, but a horrifying one: Dana’s toddler, Tiggy, was playing near an unsecured dresser, a heavy one, and it fell on him, and it killed him. It killed him. Just one moment, one piece of furniture, one small child. And death. An utterly preventable death.

That the death was preventable is what adds an extra punch to the gut here. Because that whole idea, that death can be preventable, is what torments all of us, parents especially. It’s what draws us to the idea of so-called helicopter parenting; it’s what keeps us up at night, listening for our babies’ breathing; it’s what leads us to imagine that it’s entirely possible that we’ll never want to let our children learn to drive, or date, or even leave the house alone. We’re terrified by the idea — the idea that I think most of us know so intimately that we can practically feel it, touch it, see it glimmering in the air before us — that something might happen to our children that we could have prevented, that we might, someday, face the dreaded specter of ‘if only I’d… (not left him alone in the crib, not let her go outside to play, not let him out of my sight… not left that dresser unsecured)’. This idea is our monster, our bogeyman. This idea is our enemy.


This idea is our enemy, because if it is given too much power, it can overwhelm us and not only deprive us of the ability to enjoy our parenthood, but also, at the other extreme, lure us into a false sense of safety when we feel that we’ve taken all the precautions that we can. It draws us into a kind of magical thinking, where we can spin from one belief — that anything and everything can and will harm our children — to another — that if we just follow all the rituals, conduct all the ceremonies (batten down all the hatches, check everything for toxins, secure all the furniture and set all the alarms), we can save them from all harm — and in the process cause us to lose necessary perspective, the perspective that tells us: do everything that you can, but know that you cannot control perfectly the lives and lifeworlds of your children.


This important, I think, when we consider a story like Dana’s and Tiggy’s, because it is tempting — so tempting — to just shriek out, “SECURE YOUR FURNITURE! GO, DO IT NOW! GO, DO IT, SO THAT THIS WILL NOT HAPPEN TO YOU!” And, of course, you must go and do exactly this, you must make every effort to ensure that your home is safe for your children, that is your obligation as a parent, but, but… you must also remember that in doing so, you secure no guarantees. Taking every precaution does not inoculate your children against injury or death. It does not inoculate you from making mistakes. It does not inoculate anyone from acts of God or Nature or Fate. It does not guarantee that lightning will not strike or that cancer will not emerge or that you will not look away at just the wrong moment or that even if you never, ever look away that that something might happen right before your eyes and despite your best efforts. It does not guarantee anything, anything at all.


I consider Dana’s story and I tell myself, there but for the grace of a rocking chair… I told myself that all last night as I struggled to write this. There but for the grace of a rocking chair. I could have ended up there, despite all my best efforts, but I didn’t, and it all came down to a rocking chair.
Still, I will be checking all the dressers and bookshelves and appliances and electronics today and tomorrow and the next day, and when I am not doing that I will be obsessing about ice on the roads, and flu bugs, and toxins in everything.

End of the day, all I can say is this: Hug your children, and do your very best to keep them safe. But use your strongest and brightest energies to love them and enjoy them, not to fear for them.

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posted January 25, 2011 at 5:53 pm

I read this post and have been subsequently praying all afternoon for God to help me let go of the terror I now have of the furniture in my house. Since I became a mother, I’ve become so easily upset by news stories or blog posts about tragedies involving children. It’s impossible to read something like this and not imagine how you’d feel it was your child. I’m headed home in a few minutes, and you can bet my toddler will be watched. Closely. And, hugged tightly.

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