The Secret Burden

The Secret Burden

By Laura Fokkena

fokkenartWhat they told us in high school was all wrong. Back then we were reminded, over and over and over again, that we should delay parenthood as long as possible because it was so much work. “It’s so much work!” declared the narrators on the grainy film strips, the experts brought in from Planned Parenthood, all the articles in Seventeen. Babies meant we’d spend our days cranking out bottles of formula and our nights rocking screaming infants to sleep; babies meant second jobs and diapers and a never-ending pile of laundry; babies, in short, meant years of grim and thankless labor. Why we were supposed to dread that work but embrace the work that would get us into a good college was beyond me, but we were reminded again and again that having babies before, say, thirty, would be a loathsome, dreary task. (I guess after thirty parenting magically transforms into a cheerful, upbeat endeavor.)

I now know better. I now know that the worst part of parenting is not the diapers or the temper tantrums or the sleepless nights: it’s the fear. Fear that your child will hate you, or end up weird, or get lice or rickets or right-wing politics, but most of all, say-it-in-a-whisper-’cause-it’s-just-too-fucking-terrible: die. Children can die.

Whoever came up with that idea was one big sadist. And now, let’s create a world with Redwood trees and ocean sunsets and lighthouses, French wine and Czech beer, the sound of cicadas on summer evenings, and human beings capable of love and life and space travel. Oh and then–the afterthought–just for the hell of it? Let’s make it a world in which two-year-olds can die. Ha.

Good one, God.

Parenting books and magazines fill pages and pages with advice for interviewing caregivers, questions about smoking and discipline philosophies and Can I please see three references? But I had only one interest as I searched for someone to look after my daughter. Would this person be suicidal at Rakaya’s demise? Not out of a sense of guilt or responsibility, but because a life without Rakaya just isn’t worth living? Okay, then. They were fit to care for her in my absence.

Of course that narrowed the field down to my husband and my mom, which was somewhat inconvenient.

Not that we didn’t leave Rakaya with friends, babysitters, here and again with regular daycare centers, the public school system. But there was one significant difference during those episodes, and that was my angst. Leaving Rakaya with her (very lovely, competent, caring) babysitter while I went to work was, for me, like leaving her in a basket in the Nile. Would I ever see her again? What would become of her? What terrible fate might befall her in the four hours I spent filing documents for grocery money?

I surprised myself, shortly after her first birthday, by being calm when I picked her up one day and saw a large goose egg on her forehead.

“She fell against the coffee table,” her babysitter told me, and recounted the harrowing story (which really wasn’t all that harrowing–the kid, new to this whole ambulatory thing, had taken a few steps and then had fallen down) with all the horror befitting someone who just might be, okay, if not suicidal then surely catatonic had my child met with a more drastic fate. She was ashen, head shaking, hands to her throat. Terrorized, basically. All good signs. Very good signs.

I surprised myself because my calm was earnest. “It’s okay,” I reassured her. Me, reassuring the babysitter! But it had happened hours ago, a lifetime in one-year-old terms, and Rakaya was now happily drinking juice and playing with her doll. With a giant gash on her head. “These things happen,” I said. And they really do! And I really knew it! My kid had gotten hurt and I wasn’t there to comfort her and, guess what, we survived.

(Of course, one will note that I still remember it seven years later.)

I thought my worry burden would lighten once my daughter was smart enough to avoid electrical outlets, but no such luck. Rakaya’s eight now, and we live on a busy street in Boston. For months I’ve been telling her that when we go back to my hometown in rural Iowa she’ll be able to ride her bike anywhere she wants to, “just not here in Boston; it’s too dangerous.”

Except now we’re in my hometown for a visit and I’m expected to put my money where my mouth is. She came back to my mother’s with her friend Aaron today and asked what her “limits” were.

Don’t vote Republican. Don’t date anyone who doesn’t respect you. Don’t argue with the cops; you’ll never win. Don’t sacrifice art for calculus, or vice versa. But, oh, okay, she was speaking geographically.

“I dunno,” I said. “What are Aaron’s?”

“He can’t cross highways or railroad tracks,” she said.

These are good limits. Stellar limits! Perfect for an eight-year-old girl in a town that sees all of ten cars a day on any given street.

And still I’d rather have her riding in circles through the living room.

When I was thirteen on vacation in Texas, a strange man came up and asked me if I’d ever done any modeling. Being thirteen, all the don’t-talk-to-strangers rules went right out the window. Modeling! Why, no! Why, no, I hadn’t! He said he wanted to photograph me–how about now? My mother, buzzkill that she was, happened to come along at this juncture and the distinguished photographer, to my great disappointment, scampered away along with all my hopes of stardom. When I told Mom of the encounter, we were back in our hotel room behind locked doors faster than you can say Blue Lagoon.

Am I being paranoid? Who’s to say? These are just–“just”–the Scary Bad Dude tales. Never mind the stories of abuse and inadvertent neglect, never mind the car and bicycle accidents, the illnesses (“I thought he just had a touch of the flu”), never mind drowning, dog bites, and, heaven forbid, crib death.

When Rakaya was a toddler, I learned that a girl I’d gone to school with had lost a baby to SIDS. I’d known Roxanne all my life and knew she’d make an exemplary mother. She said she’d put the baby down for a nap and came back twenty minutes later to find the child still and blue. Bring her BACK, the first reaction has to be, hurry hurry something my God anything bring her BACK. But it’s too late. Twenty minutes and it’s already too late. How does the globe have the audacity to keep on spinning when such a thing is happening all over the world?

And really, the wonder is that any of us survive it. Crib death, polio, playground accidents, abductions, car crashes, heart murmurs, football practice: anyone who makes it to twenty-one is either tough or lucky.

When my daughter was little, we lived for a time in Africa, and my husband and I would argue over letting her play with the doorman’s son; the boy had a nasty cough that my husband insisted was tuberculosis. I protested that he was being classist, and anyway Rakaya was a fat American baby with all her vaccinations. But I had to remind myself that my husband had been raised in this country where children really did die, habitually and without fanfare, from diseases we in the West no longer concern ourselves with. Our parenting magazines talk about self-esteem and getting kids to do their chores. Theirs talk about preventing typhoid.

And yet I still believe I was right, still believe that our fat American baby with all her vaccinations should have been allowed to play with the boy. I reassure my mother that Rakaya and Aaron will be all right as long as they don’t cross highways or railroad tracks (even as I’m not quite sure myself) and I send her off to the Science Museum in the company of friends who would be merely sick with guilt–not quite suicidal–should anything happen to my only child. I do this because I remember riding unbelted in the back of our old pick-up truck, remember playing with my friends in unsteady abandoned houses, remember climbing trees and later mountains, remember taking flights as an unaccompanied minor, remember that adventures are what make life worth living. My daughter’s babysitter could have strapped her down to avoid that bruise-on-the-coffee-table incident, but then my child would never have learned to walk. Would never have learned to run.

Still, the risk we take as parents makes me angry. Before I had children, I didn’t know how hard a person could love another human being, and it horrifies me that this love is coupled with the responsibility for keeping that same human alive. How’s that for comic tragedy? How’s that for totally unfair? As it turns out, the biggest adventure of all is to love with such intensity.

On the night we brought Rakaya home from the hospital, I had to stop by my husband’s workplace and pick up our house key. She was all of forty-eight hours old, brand new, sizzling with perfect Apgar scores, as yet untouched by danger or the weariness of life. When I got back to the car, my mother told me that they’d come this close to being broadsided by some idiot tearing out of the parking lot. I was immediately livid. Never mind the car. Hell, never mind my mother. Someone almost killed my child! That bastard! Why, I’d track him down right now! Screw the baby’s homecoming; I was a mama lion; I was going to find that sonofabitch and eat him for breakfast.

I was overwhelmed with the force of my own reaction, overwhelmed at the blunt awakening to the fact that I was going to feel this way not for the rest of the ride home, not for the next eighteen years, but for the rest of my whole damn life.

Now my daughter and I play a game.

“I love you,” I say.

“I love you more,” she responds.

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t. Mamas always love their babies more. If you have babies, you’ll understand.”

“I’ll love them more than I love you?” she asks (and, feed my ego here, the child is skeptical, bless her heart).

“Yes,” I say, “you will.”

But sometimes the unthinkable becomes reality. Sometimes we really do lose our children, through miscarriage, through stillbirths, through accidents and illnesses. Every cemetery is littered with pint-sized gravestones: unnamed “infant sons” and “infant daughters.” Every religious tradition and every scientific textbook has a way of making sense of this, and every one of them is inadequate. “My whole life was good,” says my grandmother, who’d survived war, disease, and abject poverty, “except for losing Willie.” Willie, my uncle, who was killed in a car crash when he was seventeen.

Recently my mom and I were reminiscing about living on the farm where I’d grown up, and I reminded her about “that thing”–probably a baby badger–I’d seen under the car when I was around ten years old. Now that I was an adult, she shared with me the darker ending to that story: how, after I’d told her about it and then gone off to play, she snuck off and called my dad, who came home from work in the middle of the day and shot it.

It was the responsible thing to do. Wild animals rarely came that close to the house, not with the dogs around, and when they did it was usually indicative of rabies, or something worse. My sister was only three or four and played outside unattended. There really wasn’t any other choice.

But for days after that, my mother told me, she’d look out the kitchen window and see the mama badger sniffing around the garage, at the edges of the field, wandering up by the house and then disappearing back into the tall grass, beyond the windbreak.

She was a mama like the rest of us, unexpectedly unencumbered, and she was searching for her baby.

Author’s Note: I’m interested in the cultural treatment of parents and parenting, particularly where risk is involved. Modern American parents are expected to protect their children from all manner of danger, emotional and physical, yet simultaneously produce independent free-thinkers capable of dealing with anything life throws their way: goals that seem contradictory to me. But parental attitudes toward “acceptable” risk change throughout history and across cultures, and exploring the origins of these trends (and, often, questioning their wisdom) is the common thread in most of my writing about motherhood, whether I’m talking about homeschooling, education, single parenting, or traveling with children.

Brain, Child (Fall 2003)

Laura Fokkena’s essay, “Watching Them Grow Up,” appeared in Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad (Seal Press, 2002). Her writing has also been published on AlterNet.org, PopPolitics.com, PhillyMama.com, Linux Iran, Egypt Today, Home Education Magazine, and other publications. She lives in Boston.

Art by Caty Bartholomew