When my daughter was a newborn, she flipped off the changing table onto the floor. I was across the room at the time, forlornly surfing Facebook to see what normal people with normal lives were doing, those lucky souls who weren’t trapped in the eternal twilight of breast-feeding, Sex in the City reruns and diaper rash.
Most people’s immediate response to this is horror. Every warning label, parenting book and sad pamphlet sent home with new parents warns against leaving an unattended child on a changing table. But she was a three-week-old infant. Her legs didn’t straighten all the way yet, so the possibility that she might catch a kicking heel and launch herself backwards off the table never occurred to me. And I was a three-week-old mom, as well, exhausted from crying on the kitchen linoleum.
She hit the floor with a damp-sounding thud. Even within the fog of new-mom sleep deprivation, I knew to pause before picking her up, to evaluate the need for 9-1-1, ambulances and body boards. But she was crying angrily, her only demonstrable talent at that age, besides sleeping-while-eating which she did for the other 20 hours each day. And her pupils were the same size, which I vaguely recollected as important when diagnosing the severity of head injuries.
This was the moment when I came face-to-face for the first time with the scourge of parental decision-making: a blinding fear of being That Mom.
If I went to the hospital, I’d out myself as That Mom who was cruising Facebook instead of taking care of her precious infant. That Mom who ignored all the clearly posted warnings and let her baby fall. And probably also That Mom who overreacted and declared a medical emergency when the baby was obviously fine; did I not see the gunshot victim in line behind me?
But if I didn’t seek medical care and something turned out to be wrong, I’d be That Mom who didn’t seek medical care for her child. That Mom who was too embarrassed or clueless or somehow deficient in any number of ways to do what was obviously right.
Regardless of what course of action I chose, if something went wrong, I’d be to blame.
I like to think I’m self-actualized to make a rational and well-considered opinion based purely on what feels right for me and my family. But every time, since that moment sitting cross-legged on the scarred rental-apartment floor clutching my baby, I’m tripped up by the fear of being That Mom. Instead of simply asking myself, “What do I think I should do?”, I’m swept into the complex calculus of which That-Mom label freaks me out the least: neglectful or overbearing? Too cautious or too reckless? Selfish or doormat-like?
Years later, I decided my daughter was mature enough to be left home alone, but then panicked: what if some freak accident occurred and suddenly I’m That Mom who left her seven-year-old alone? My son is dexterous enough to use a knife, but what if he cuts himself and I’m That Mom who’s lying on the couch with a novel instead of making his snack? As they got older, the opportunities for catastrophe—and judgment—grew with them: can my 14-year-old take a Lyft to tennis practice when I’m at work? Can my twelve-year-old take the city bus to the library downtown?
Parenting in modern America is a high-stakes performance with a zero-tolerance policy for errors. A Greek chorus of observers watch, ready to jump in and judge any failure on my part. But parenting is a long game, an on-going process of letting out the leash a little at a time. It might be safer in the moment for me to stay home or use the knives myself, but I’m aiming to raise self-sufficient adults, and that’s a messy, risk-filled process. As my husband says, “It’s better to learn your limits on Halloween candy than heroin.”
Kids get the space and the grace to learn and grow and (sometimes) to fail. Wouldn’t it be nice if we parents also got that space and grace from each other, since we’re learning and growing too?