I am haunted by other people’s children.
I was part-way through a much-delayed blog when I saw a news report about a missing infant in Utica, NY, a report that has infiltrated my consciousness. For those that haven’t read about it, a nine-month-old infant was reported missing by his father … two weeks after he actually went missing. The father found himself locked out, left the baby on the porch in just a diaper and went around back to let himself in. When he returned, Levon was gone.
I couldn’t push the image from my head. I imagined a nine-month-old, alone in the dark, plopped on a small porch. An infant that age is relatively self-aware. He would have a sense that he’d been abandoned. He’d be intensely afraid. He would likely be crawling. What dangers would his curious little fingers unknowingly drag him towards? Or perhaps it was far worse. Perhaps the story was just that. Perhaps the father had actually killed the boy, intentionally or accidentally, and this boy had been robbed of his first steps, his first words, his first bike ride, his first day in school.
But this is far from the only story that pursues my thoughts. I find myself deeply affected by countless stories of other people’s children. Their pain to me is palpable and permeating. I can feel it seep inside my being, sparking my maternal fears. I envision my own children in these situations, imagine my world in tumult, taste the hypothetical despair. And sometimes, I find it difficult to step away from these feelings.
When I was pregnant, a good friend was also pregnant and gave birth just a few days after I did. I remember the excitement of seeing her initial text announcing the baby’s arrival and then the growing dread as I began seeing Facebook posts asking friends to pray for their little girl. As wonderfully overwhelmed as I was with my own healthy boys, I was also overwhelmed with empathetic grief for my friends, who ultimately had to make arguably the toughest decision any parent could make and take their daughter off life support. I couldn’t stop thinking about them throughout the day, couldn’t stop imagining myself in their position, tried to say a quick prayer of thanks for my own blessings and for their healing each time they passed my mind.
More recently, it was the Newtown shootings I couldn’t quite eradicate from my thoughts. I couldn’t stop imagining those poor babies staring in the face of hatred and violence. I couldn’t stop feeling for those parents who’d envisioned the adults their babies would become; dreamt of their future doctors, teachers, engineers; held their burbling grandkids in their mind’s eye. I looked at my own two boys, now such strong, individual characters, and teared up every time I contemplated a word without them.
This, to me, is part of what it means to be a parent, and particularly a mom. For most moms, there is an intense primal urge to protect our young at all costs. The thought of anything happening to our children is devastating, and thus we are in alert mode at all times, even in sleep. I know that statistically, our modern world is no more dangerous that the world of previous generations. But stories like Levon’s and like Newtown’s are reminders of what can happen and validate our constant paranoia.
Beyond the reminder, though, there is a level of empathy that you can only experience after you’ve become a parent. While many of us may have always been those who loved kids and may have had kids in our lives that we loved dearly, there is no bond quite like that between a parent and his or her child. My children are pieces of me, both literally and figuratively, and without them, I am not whole.
Too, I see that same connection in their eyes, feel their own joy and need in their embraces. Just as much as I can’t imagine a life without them, it’s equally painful to contemplate missing a moment of their lives.
A former schoolmate of mine died a little over a year ago, taken by a brain tumor at 33. I hadn’t been in contact with her for many years, but I followed the latter months of her story and beyond through friends on Facebook. Her son was just seven. I think about him, about the void that will be there throughout his life. And I think about her, about how painful those final months must have been, as she dreamt of a future for her son that she would never see. I sincerely hope that there is some realm of the afterlife where she can at least watch her son as he grows.
Even fictional grief gets me. I have never really been much of a crier, but I’m finding that it’s increasingly difficult to keep the waterworks at bay if I’m watching, reading about, even writing about anything in relation to parents and kids. (Hell, I’m trying to hold back tears as I type this in Barnes and Noble. Perhaps, in retrospect, this would’ve been better to finish writing in private.) This is why Downton Abbey kills me. Seriously, two parent deaths? I even knew one was coming, and I think that just made it worse.
To be a parent is a gift. Don’t get me wrong, there are more than a few moments that you truly doubt that statement … and that can be in just one afternoon. There will be times when you want to run screaming, when you question why you ever stopped using birth control, when you wonder if you’ll ever sleep again, when you will wonder how much screaming your eardrums can take before they explode, when you realize you forget what it’s like to wear clothes that don’t have some food or snot stain somewhere on them.
All of those moments, though, can be easily outweighed by moments of such intense pride and joy that you think your heart might burst. When you see your child light up the moment he catches a glimpse of you. When you realize that your touch alone can sometimes soothe him. When he learns how to truly give a good “squeeze” and relishes giving you one. When you hear your own words and intonations slip from his plump little lips. These moments are so rich, have such dense value, that they will make you want to hoard them and to fear anything that could strip you of them.
This is why I also have such a hard time understanding those parents who take that currency for granted. They infuriate me. I get visibly sick and angry when I hear stories of abuse or neglect, even those that may not initially seem as such.
I was reading a book recently about a journalist’s journey into the Amazon to search out information about a long-missing explorer who disappeared while searching for a potentially non-existent society in one of the most treacherous environments in the world. I had to stop reading. What was supposed to be this romantic tale of exploration was, to me, an exercise in narcissistic stupidity. The journalist, an overweight city boy with zero experience or knowledge, leaves a wife and small child at home to risk his life to write about a man who continually left his wife and children at home to risk his life. I couldn’t read it. I was just constantly pissed off. I didn’t see either the famous explorer or journalist as adventurers. I just saw them as selfish jackasses who shouldn’t have gotten married or had kids if they wanted to go traipsing off into mortally dangerous environments.
I felt the same as I read about Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk across the Grand Canyon. This is not entertainment. It is narcissism. His “victory” is not something to celebrate. His willingness to risk leaving his children fatherless for the sake of an empty accomplishment and some TV ratings is deplorable. OK, off my soapbox.
But this all comes back to my earlier statement. To be a parent is a gift. It is a singular experience that can frustrate you, humble you, humiliate you, terrorize you, intimidate you and exhilarate you, all in one moment. It opens a part of you that you may not have even known existed. It taps into a whole new palette of emotions that provide you such a freshly vivid perspective on the world. It indoctrinates you into an ancient clan of nurturers and providers, fostering intense connections with people you don’t even have to know.