Some people say that the most dangerous place to stand is between a mother and her child. But in my case possibly the most dangerous place to be is in my arms.
The first few ‘incidents’ when I was new to motherhood were benign enough: a chubby baby leg wedged between the slats of the crib, snipping a tiny fingernail too close, forgetting to buckle baby into the car seat. My friends assured me they had done similar things. My missteps seemed universal.
Then I dropped my daughter. That didn’t seem so common.
She was just a 20-pound baby and I was walking down some stairs at a friend’s house. In hindsight, it was the perfect storm for a fall, slick wood stairs, my socked feet and the 20 lbs I was carrying. I slipped, my hands let go and I dropped my daughter as I fell. I landed on my tailbone and slid down the remaining steps to my wailing child.
Once we were sure the baby and I were okay, my husband expressed his confusion with my reaction. He thought my instinct would be to hold on tighter to our daughter as I fell. A reasonable assumption.
I didn’t know how to make sense of my reaction. Dropping my daughter had been a survival instinct. It just wasn’t the right one. I felt embarrassed and defective. What kind of mother saves herself before her own child?
What was wrong with me?
They say that the impulse to love and protect a child is hard-wired into a mother’s brain. There are stories of mothers developing superhero strengths and abilities in order to protect their children from danger. Mothers have fought off cougars and polar bears. Mothers have lifted cars off a crushed child.
I knew that my desire to protect and love my children was fierce but I wondered if my wiring was right. My reaction wasn’t from lack of love or that I didn’t value her safety. Could my own survival instincts have been stronger?
A few years later we were camping with friends on Quadra Island. It was a hot summer day and I was walking with my infant son on the beach. As I stepped down some driftwood stairs, a step shifted and I lost my balance. I dropped my son into the rocks and sand below as I fell. This time, my son hit his head on both the wooden stairs and the rocks. Luckily, we were camping with a few paramedics who examined my son and assured me that he was fine. Once again, baby and I were okay, but my ego was not.
Did I lack a real Mother’s Instinct?
My son has had the worst of it. In addition to being dropped, I’ve whacked his head with a toilet lid, knocked his head on the top bunk bed and pinched the skin of his neck in his bike helmet. But the real whoopsie—the one that actually left a scar—was the incident that my daughter refers to as The Time My Mom Snipped My Brothers Finger In Half.
Yes, I accidentally snipped the tip of my son’s finger with my pruning shears. That required 10 stitches and a humbling visit to the emergency room where a kind and empathetic doctor assured me that despite the injury to my child, he could tell that I was a great mom and advised me to cut myself some slack.
And I am a great mom. A little clumsy perhaps, but a loving, thoughtful mother. Apart from possibly wrecking them, I hope to give my kids a childhood that will send them out into the world feeling loved, accepted and empowered to live a fulfilling life.
Often when I lay down at night, I wonder about all of the ways in which I haven’t done enough (vegetable intake, physical activity, undivided attention). I worry about the things I did too much (yelling, screen time, checking my phone). And while I would never consciously choose to cause harm to anyone, I am only human and I make mistakes.
I know the wounds will heal, perhaps their physical ones sooner than my guilt. Their bruises will fade and someday their scars will make for great stories about our adventures together. Maybe then I can view my Mother’s Instinct from the perspective of an entire life’s work of raising humans.