I’ve learned fairly well to interpret most of the girls’ complaints by now.

My belly hurts (I’m hungry)

My waist hurts (Sage has to poop)

I’m sooooo hungry (I haven’t eaten since last night and it’s now morning!)

My legs don’t feel like they’re working–can you carry me? (I missed you today Mommy. I just want to be with you a little longer.)

Then sometimes there’s the mystery complaint, and it’s all I can do not to run to Dr. Google and frantically search six-syllable diseases that surely have never been seen outside of albino apes until now. (You do know that in my head, the longer the disease name, the more likely that it will kill you. I am very logical that way.) Last night, Thalia whined that she “felt hot.” And she did.

I did that feeling the forehead thing that really, is totally pointless, because I have no idea what I’m even feeling for. But it does make me look mom-like.

I grabbed the foolproof digital thermometer and with a 98.5 reading, I carefully concluded that this wasn’t the fever that was going to spike to 107 in four minutes sending us outside shrieking for a cab to the hospital. I whipped Thalia up a nice glass of ice water which seemed to do the trick.

But then she added another mystery complaint–this one even more mysterious than before (that’s often how these things go)--my lip hurts, but just right here a little bit…not this part, only here. And now my mind is running through some sort of internal medical symptom cross-checker application that was never actually downloaded to my brain, trying to understand if HURTING LIPS/PARTIAL + WARM SKIN/NO TEMPERATURE means I missed you today Mommy, and I want you to pay more attention to me than to Sage right now, or the slightly more daunting I ate something I saw lying under the couch that seemed like it might be chocolate and now I’m about to go into anaphylactic shock.

Recently I was reminded of a moment early in motherhood–Thalia, not much of a sleeper as a newborn, decided to mess with us by pulling a full six hours straight in her crib one night. Exhausted new parents that we were, we slept those full six hours too (sleep when the baby sleeps!) only to awake in a fit of terror that of course, the baby was dead. I bolted out of bed and ran to Thalia’s crib, holding my breath until I caught a glimpse of her own tiny chest heaving up and down.

As it turns out, sleeping more than 2 hours at a stretch doesn’t mean dead. I learned this early as a parent, and I impart that knowledge to you, my friends. Use it in good health.

The thing is, I’m finding that you do outgrow a lot of the new parent paranoia eventually. If you’re like me, somewhat rational (if prone to occasional bouts of crazy), you come to accept that indeed, babies are capable of sleeping for more than sixty seconds at a time, and eventually, without too much luck, they will grow into human beings who can handle butter knives all by themselves; push down a toaster ON button without help at all; maybe even walk past an open electrical socket and never even consider licking it once.

You stop worrying that every day is a bookshelf accident waiting to happen, just like the ones you read about in those alarmist childproofing chapters of your baby books, then promptly ignored. You drop them off at preschool fairly certain that they won’t be dipping their fingers into 99.8% pure lead fingerpaint, and that you won’t one day receive a midday call from the Director suggesting that a hostage situation in the Purple Room requires you to come down right away and convey the name of your daughter’s favorite stuffed bear to the SWAT team as they console her through walkie-talkies.

In fact, if your child remains healthy and thriving long enough, you might even succumb to that arrogant belief that the universe is on your team. And that things that happen in horror movies and Bones and cliffhanger two-part episodes of SVU will most likely not happen to anyone in your family anytime in your lifetime.

Then something like this comes along.

The unspeakable.

And I freeze.

As a parent, my mind simply doesn’t know what to do with it.

I can’t allow myself to think about it too much, to do that thing where a thought moves from your head to your heart to your gut, where it then comes out in angry, ugly sobs. I can’t seek out the story on the news or follow it on the local blogs like it’s some sort of episodic television.

I am not good at tragedy anyway. And this one…worse.

I write about it here because it’s my way of talking myself down. I keep repeating to myself that things like this don’t happen every day. Same as monkey diseases that infect little girls in Brooklyn. Same as preschool SWAT team incidents.

Because while my mind may sometimes go to worst case scenarios and statistical improbabilities, I refuse to let them guide our lives. I need to keep being the mom who ignores the childproofing experts. I need to keep being the mom who lets my kids run ahead down the street at full speed, having faith that they will always stop when they get to the corner. I need to keep being the mom who lets my four year-old go to the bathroom by herself in the local cafe because it makes her so proud.

Basically, I need to keep being the mom who sticks with only the fears that are crazy and irrational.

So I remind myself, it’s perfectly normal to be a hot six year-old on a hot day in mid-July. I put Thalia to sleep, give her some magic Aquaphor for her lips, kiss her on the forehead, and assure her and Sage we’ll have a big breakfast in the morning.


48 thoughts on “Unspeakable”

  1. Brilliant and perfectly said – could have come right out of my own mouth. After being a mom for almost 11 years (30 kid years!) I have those same occasionally crazy fears pop up. But like you, I reassure myself that it’s normal to have a kiddo that’s hot on a mid-July day and plug on. Well written – thanks for putting it down on paper. 😉

  2. So many corners and dark stretches, you could really lose your mind. Better to keep your head, be passionate in your love for those littles, your life and the hope that good will trump evil more often than it doesn’t.

    Still, it’s so hard not to let the horror and empathetic grief to consume you.

  3. Hi. I’m new to your blog (as of yesterday), but I’ve already subscribed!

    Thanks for this. I can completely relate to having to talk yourself out of always believing the worst. I have a 2y/o, and when she was an infant we actually called the doctor’s office because she had a particularly nasty spit-up (Projectile? I think it was projectile…It projected!).

    I agree that we have to let ourselves learn that the WORST isn’t usually the BEST explanation, even when we are reminded that the WORST still does happen (I hadn’t seen this horrific news story!).

  4. We try to protect our children from so much. Sometimes I think we need to turn off the news and protect ourselves.

  5. I saw the title to this post, and just knew you were going to mention Leiby.

    And I’m down here, a million miles away … hearing it on my news too. The most Unspeakable of all. I read about it before I went to bed last night and it felt like a huge black hand was going to pluck my children from their beds.

    I was crazy with confusion at how a person could do this. I’ll never understand the mentality.

    Sending all of my love, and thoughts, to Mrs Kletzky.

  6. I worry about things too that don’t make much sense or I can’t do anything about. We can’t put our kids in a bubble and watch them 24/7, if we could, we would go crazy doing that and our kids would not be able to survive in the world. If we tried to protect them from everything, we couldn’t funtion. Stories like the Brooklyn kid are tradegies and fortunately do not happen often. I feel for the family, but I hope they don’t beat themselves up on allowing their child to walk home alone. I walked from school everyday as a little kid like many of us did. All we can do is protect our kids on the things we can control, provide them with the tools they need to be productive adults, and allow them to make age appropriate decisions for themselves. Overprotecting them is not protecting them, it is disabling them from knowing how to handle life on their own.

  7. My oldest has inherited my tendency to imagine the worst. Comforting her with rational explanations helps quell my own fears. Most of the time, anyway.

  8. We would all like to know that if we are perfectly attentive, our children will be safe. Like, 100% safe. But then horror strikes, and we are faced with the nasty truth that it’s not so. I think in many ways it’s easier to worry about the irrational, because reality is so much more brutal. All we can do is the best parents we can, hug them, kiss them, reassure them, and enjoy them.

    1. Try a mirror. You put it in front of them while they sleep. If they fog it up….you are all good.

      1. Also, it’s a good way to make sure they’re not vampires.
        (One of my lesser fears, to be sure.)

  9. I read about this yesterday and cried. It is such a senseless tragedy. A horrible innocent day gone terribly wrong. There are no words. I feel for that family.

    In an instant lives changed forever. So sad.

    I still freak out when I wake up in my bed and it’s just me and my husband. I try not to worry, but there is always the first moment of panic.

  10. Beautifully written. Poignant. Heartbreaking. And you are not alone in your feelings.

    My son had major surgery when he was 2. And even nearly five years later, my heart and brain still duke it out over what I need to worry about sometimes.

    And then there’s how hard it is to let him grow up, but knowing that’s what he needs from me, to let him grow. We’ll figure this thing out together.

    1. Oh Leanne, thank you for sharing this. It made me tear up. I can only imagine that parents of children who have had medical challenges feel this push and ull even more. But you’re right, we do our best to resist the urge to invent a plastic bubble so that they can be healthy emotionally too. Sigh.

  11. I’m not sure what your protocol is about linking to other people’s blogs so feel free to delete this, if it contravenes anything…but when I hear about a tragedy like this, I like to go to Lenore Skenay’s blog to help me realize that yes, this was a very, very rare occurrence – not to diminish the tragedy at all, but if we start changing our self-imposed freedoms because of it, we all start creating our own prisons.

    RIP, Lieby.

    Lenore’s blog: http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/

  12. Sigh. I go both ways. In some respects I give my kids a good bit of freedom. Age appropriate of course. At the same time, I can’t imagine letting mine walk anywhere alone right now. They may be 16 before I let them do it alone. In a group, sure. But there are no right answers and like you said, this happens really sorta of infrequently….which is why when it does, we all hear about it.

    Last month a little girl was kidnapped here. Nine years old. In an alley behind her house. She was taken, abused and then the dude did let her go. Nine years old. Same age as my oldest daughter. I can’t imagine.

    I don’t watch the news. I pay attention to as little of this stuff as possible. Mostly because, they don’t let you put healthy children in bubbles. I think what Marinka said is right. However, I do this already. I’m a Food Network addict. Mostly I can filter out the hard stuff…it just makes me hold my kids closer for a bit.

    One thing my mom said once that has always stuck with me, is you can’t really protect your kids from everything, you just hope that can. All you can do is teach them to be safe and love them. And hope like hell.

    1. Your mom is a smart lady, Issa. And my heart goes out to that little girl. I’m just so relieved she came home.

  13. I have to admit, I saw the headline in the paper yesterday and instantly thought, “I don’t want to read this”.

    And then my own 5 year old son and 2 other little kids went missing at the swim meet yesterday for about 45 minutes. Thankfully, I missed the frantic search that ensued because the dads were in charge of the kids while I was volunteering at the meet, and no one told me they were lost. I only found out later, after they were found, when another mom asked me, “Were you totally worried?”, and I was like, “”About what?”. The only difference between my story and theirs is that we were lucky, lucky, lucky.

    And that tiny little difference is what so utterly freaks me out. Because we have absolutely no control over luck.

    My heart just breaks for the family.

  14. I’ve been traveling with my kids through Europe, keeping a tight grasp on them, and have just heard the news about this lovely little boy. We can’t live our lives in fear, but we certainly need to make sure our kids stay safe. I’m sure his mom was a wonderful mom who did exactly what we have all done to teach our children the difference between right and wrong.

  15. In trying to be normal or live without fear it sounds like you are taking risks with your kids and hoping for the best because you assume it won’t happen to you or to them. I’m sure that’s what everyone assumes before tragedy strikes them. Letting your kids run down the street ahead of you and hoping they will stop is wishful, child like thinking. How about teaching them they MUST stop?

    1. I believe that Liz is not “hoping” they will stop, but rather trusting her kids to put into practice what they have been taught. Trusting that the hours of time invested in walking with them to the corner and teaching them to stop will pay off when the time comes to allow them to run ahead.

      As a mom, I find it hard to do this, but I do try to allow my kids age-appropriate freedoms, so that my children will know that I trust them.

    2. Hi Sarah, and welcome. This is a really nice supportive community here, in part because we ask questions of each other if something is unclear, or offer respectfully alternative points of view instead of lobbing accusations.

      I do a lot of things wrong as a parent. Feel free to scroll my archives for them. But intentionally putting my children in risky situations is not one of them.

  16. Beautiful post… I think we’ve all “been there, done that”. But hearing the lastest tragedy, I know I’m holding mine a little tighter, inspecting the “owies” a little closer, and am definitely making sure that my babies are 100% ok (at least for tonight)!!! Thanks 🙂

  17. I’m pretty sure that I am looking forward to the paranoid freak out and irrational fears that will come with being a first time mommy. I’m only 6 weeks in, but your story here, does give me comfort that every mother has them and I will not be the only one! 🙂

    1. I often take comfort in the fact that whatever I’m doing as a mom, good or bad…I’m not the first. Welcome!

  18. Hear, hear – well said. Because you can’t live in fear or the fear wins. We will all struggle. We know too much and yet we know so much.

  19. As one of those moms whose child has had surgery (five now), I can tell you that the first tme your child is pulled it of your arms and into the care of strangers that you have no choice but to trust is gut wrenching. But then, you see your child survive and thrive afterwards, and suddenly letting them go to the bathroom by themselves in a restaurant feels much less intimidating. You give them confidence by showing them your confidence in them.

    Our children live in the world. And, despite the ugliness that lurches out of what seems like nowhere and reminds us that it exists, we hurt them by trying to build walls around them. When we keep out the bad, the good can’t get in either.

    1. my son also had surgery at age 1 (it was very minor surgery and it was outpatient – to repair a double hernia). i remember the surgeon, who was really very good, telling us that the surgery should take about 1.5 hours. well, it was torture taking him into the OR and holding his hand until he was under, and then walking out of there, but once i got through that, we waited over 2 hours, the last 30 minutes of which we were terrified that something had gone horribly wrong, because if it’s only supposed to take 1.5 hours then where the heck is the doctor? of course he came out and told us everything was fine, but what a nerve-wracking 2 hours. and man, little kids heal so quickly (both physically and emotionally). He had the surgery at about 7AM, we were back home before noon, and he was back to his normal self, crawling around and pulling himself up on the furniture by bedtime that night. after surgery that morning. laporoscopic, but still. now at age 5, he loves to hear about how the doctor had to sew up the little holes in his belly.

  20. Ugh… I didn’t want to hear about that. I already tend towards protective… not in padding the furniture or anything, but I foresee finding excuses for my teens NOT to drive whenever possible. I will paint my car yellow and be a taxi if necessary. Although I claim “protective”, truly I want to teach them to be safe and not naive because I see so many naive adults every day just banking on everything working out. I believe there is a way to teach non-naivity and awareness without instilling fear.

  21. Hi! I’ve been reading your blog for a little while and thought I should say hello! Thanks for talking about this. I’m a mom-to-be and definitely anticipating some mom paranoia in the first few years. It’s good to know it CAN be controlled! (sort of?)

    Although this post ended on a somber note, I laughed out loud through the whole first half. Thanks! 🙂

  22. You know, these things used to be the most horrific thing I could imagine – and this is definitely up there, but last week this happened in our (jewish) community : http://jhvonline.com/beth-yeshurun-couple-tragically-killed-p11328-275.htm

    … and that has scared me more than anything. It’s the age old discussion, what’s worse – being left behind or being the one that leaves?

    The only thing that is of any comfort is bearing witness to how both communities have reacted with strength and faith and, well, community. It’s been a rough week for our “Tribe” – I pray that all the families affected by both tragedies find some sort of healing.

    And I pray that the monsterous has something monsterous done to it.

  23. Gosh, I really, really get this. I’m a single mom, so there is usually only ever one of me to look after my little one. I get so worried sometimes that one set of eyes isn’t enough. What if something happens while I’m in the shower? What if she wakes up while I’m downstairs and sleepwalks into an accident? What if, what if, what if? Then I have to just stop and breathe and make sure my bookcases are secure. And my door is locked. And believing that the universe is on my side!!! Great post, Liz.

  24. It’s a choice between driving yourself absolutely bullshit crazy or believing that our children can negotiate the world on their own. *hugs* to you, mama, because I can’t speak for all of us, but you’ve certainly captured a lot of the way I feel and think.

  25. Me tooooo! I have a tendency to let my brain go to terrible places (and Google), especially when it comes to my kids’ health. Someone should really confiscate my computer whenever they get sick.
    But as a friend once told me, it’s normal to be anxious for your children since they can’t really do that for themselves. It’s our job as parents to assume the worrying (some of us more than others), and to decide when it’s serious or, more likely, not, so that they don’t have to.
    Hmmm, I’m not sure this really makes me feel any better, but it sure helps explain a lot!

  26. Beautifully written.

    One of my favorite parts of the Pirates of the Caribbean is when Captain Jack says, upon making it off the island alive for the second time, “It’s not probable, but it’s possible.”

    I use that thinking all of the time to quell my fears as well as my kids’. It’s possible for bad things to happen, but it’s not probable. Living any other way isn’t really living….

  27. Me as well. I wouldn’t sleep at night otherwise. When my cousin lost her 7 year old son, Gabriel, last year I couldn’t get it out of my head and for a long time I cried myself to sleep. I cried for her son, who was taken at such a young age. I cried for my cousin, his mother, and the pain she must be experiencing. I cried for my aunt, his grandmother, who lost her grandchild and had to watch her daughter endure the worst agony a mother can ever experience. I felt guilty because of my happiness. My children are perfect in every way. I’m married to their wonderful father. Things are going good. But like Tara said, that isn’t really living. I just learned to better appreciate what I have. And to keep a place in my heart for little Gabriel forever.

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