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Catching My Breath

By Carla Naumburg


She needed me to acknowledge her reality, her feelings and her fear. I couldn’t do it, because it would have meant acknowledging my own. I couldn’t do that either.



One degree. That’s what the weather app on my phone reported one morning this past winter as I was rushing around, trying to get myself and my girls dressed and fed and out the door on time.

In my mind, one degree is much more than just uncomfortable. One degree is scary. My six-year-old daughter was diagnosed with asthma when she was about four years old. I also have asthma, and our impaired lungs don’t respond well to air that cold. Inhaled steroids generally keep our chronic coughs at bay, but memories of her asthma attacks, including an especially bad one at school last fall, are rarely far from my thoughts. So I came up with a different plan for drop-off on that especially cold day. Rather than making her walk with me from the parking lot into school, I would drop her off right in front so she could get inside quickly. Then I’d circle back around, park the car, and walk in to meet her.

When I told my daughter the plan over breakfast, she promptly burst into tears. She was scared. Even though I knew she would be fine, she told me she didn’t feel safe walking in by herself. She couldn’t identify why she felt that way, but I wasn’t terribly surprised by her response. Along with my problematic lungs, she also inherited my anxiety. As a result, she has a hard time with the anticipation of changes to our routine, especially when she can sense that I’m anxious too. Looking back, I’m sure she was picking up on my worries that morning, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

“I know you’re scared,” I said in a voice that was both harsh and weary. “But it’s freezing out there, and I’m worried about your breathing. I’m trying to keep you safe.”

“But I’m scared, Mommy. I don’t want to walk in alone. I want to walk in with you. Please, please don’t make me. I’ll wear my scarf over my mouth. I’ll walk fast. I promise.” Huge tears rolled down her face as she sat in front of a bowl of soggy Cheerios.

“I don’t care,” I snapped at her. The words came flying out of my mouth before I even realized what I was saying. “You’re not walking across that parking lot.”

The truth is that in that moment, I didn’t care about my daughter’s fear. I knew she’d be fine, if unhappy, in the few minutes it took me to park the car and walk back to her.

What I cared about in that moment was my own fear.

I know it’s unlikely that my daughter would have stopped breathing on the walk from the parking lot. The worst that might happen was shortness of breath, and she had a rescue inhaler at school. But just as my little girl wasn’t able to think logically about her fear of walking a few feet on her own, I was unable to think logically about what I was feeling.

I was scared she’d stop breathing, and I would do anything to make that fear go away, even if it meant triggering a similar anxiety in my own child.

For years I’ve dismissed the impact that multiple trips to urgent care and the emergency room with a croupy infant who grew into a wheezing toddler and asthmatic preschooler had on me. I told myself that my own history of coughing until I vomited and struggling to breathe had prepared me well to manage a child who had inherited my faulty respiratory system.

Then she had an asthma attack at school this past fall and all of that changed for me. In the past, we always had a plan, and I knew what was going on and what to expect. A barking cough meant twenty minutes on the front porch at 3:00 in the morning; the same cold winter air that could trigger an asthmatic cough often opened up her croupy airways just enough to avoid a trip to the emergency room. When she started wheezing, we went to urgent care if it was open, and the emergency room if it wasn’t. My illusion of control remained unchallenged until that morning when the phone rang and I heard a voice on the other end telling me, “We’ve called 911 for your daughter. Please hold.”

And then, nothing.

Instantly, I was on my feet, pacing the living room, my hand clenched around the phone, my eyes tracing the soft curves of the wood in our floor as my imagination went wild in those few minutes while I waited to be transferred to the school nurse, who was busy tending to my daughter.

Breathe. Breathe. Is she on the floor? Is her face blue? Breathe. Breathe. Are they pumping her chest? Can she breathe? What if she cant breathe? What if? What will I do? What will happen to our family? How will I survive? Breathe. What do I do now? What if my baby isnt breathing? How would I ever breathe again?


As it turned out, she was O.K., and the school did an excellent job taking care of her. She had had an asthma attack in gym class and after taking her rescue inhaler, her blood oxygen levels didn’t come up as well as the nurse would have liked so she called 911. At no point was she unconscious or in serious danger. By the time I got to school, short of breath myself from running across the parking lot past the ambulance and fire truck idling out front with their lights flashing, my baby was weary and a bit frightened, but she was safe and breathing well.

Yet something changed in me after that 911 call. For years, my go-to response in times of crisis had been gratitude. Each time I caught my mind drifting into the world of “what-if’s,” I intentionally reminded myself how fortunate we were to have access to effective asthma medications, knowledgeable and kind medical professionals, health insurance and highly skilled first responders. Thank God, I told myself. We are so lucky.

This is all true, of course, but it’s not the whole truth. What I didn’t realize—what I never let myself realize—is that all of those late night trips to the emergency room were actually micro-traumas that cut into my already constitutionally thin skin and left scars that were small enough to go unnoticed, but sensitive enough to leave me feeling just a bit more vulnerable with each passing event. I knew on an intellectual level that parenthood could be traumatic, but I was too busy counting my blessings to see that my experiences were also scary and confusing and exhausting, even if they weren’t the worst things that could happen to a parent. Gratitude had become my false messiah, a practice I clung to at the expense of acknowledging the full range of emotions that welled up inside me each time my daughter got sick.

All of those feelings—the intense fear, the overwhelming sense that my daughter’s life and well-being are, to a larger extent than I ever thought possible, beyond my control, and the flood of gratitude—hit me on the day of the 911 call. But I never let myself take the time to notice and acknowledge them. Once again, I buried my pain and anxiety beneath a thick blanket of “thank god it wasn’t worse,” and tried to move on.

But some part of me couldn’t move on. And so I was left with this hard, tense kernel of anxiety and fear, ready to pop at the slightest hint of danger.

It popped on that one-degree morning, but I didn’t realize it until long after I had snapped at my daughter.

She needed me to acknowledge her reality, her feelings and her fear. I couldn’t do it, because it would have meant acknowledging my own. I couldn’t do that either.

And so I tried to yell it away.

It didn’t work, of course. It just hid the fear and anxiety under a layer of anger and silence. Nothing was released, nothing was transformed. Nothing was healed.

We’re both still scared.

And I’m still trying to catch my breath.

Carla Naumburg, PhD is the author of Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters (Parallax, 2014), and Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family (New Harbinger, Forthcoming). You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


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