Thursday, September 20, 2012

The "Bad Parent of the Year" Club

Before I was a mother, I'd often hear stories of children falling out of windows, or sticking objects in electrical outlets, or being scalded in the bathtub. When I did not have offspring of my own, I'd just give the parents a proverbial Darwin award and move on, with appropriate levels of sympathy for the suffering of the children because I'm not heartless and children don't deserve suffering. 

Then, when I became a mother, my son fell off the couch when he was two weeks old, after I'd set him down right beside me to reach my glass of water.  I felt awful. I cried. He was alright after I nursed him and held him for awhile. I felt like a bad parent for the rest of the day. I asked myself, "how could I have been so stupid as to let that happen?"

Eventually, after mothering for a short while, I think I struck a good balance somewhere between hypersensitive helicopter parenting and outright neglect.  The kids are always in my line of sight, but I don't hover over their every move.  Despite our home-renos, the house and play spaces are safe, and we let our two boys explore and entertain themselves while we're doing our housework or cooking.  There are falls and scrapes and I do a lot of "kissing it better" when one of them has tumbled, but they do learn quickly not to slam the toy box lid, or not to step on rolling toys.

When I go out in public, I sometimes feel the judgy eyes of helicopter moms and on me.  My older son climbs the ladder on the slide at the playground very well, so I feel no need to stand behind him each time, or to hold his hand as he slides down.  My other little guy sometimes gets a rock or two in his mouth.  Since it's pea-gravel and not choking size, I don't worry too much if he swallows one, or if he's got his mouth on some playground equipment for three seconds.  I watch to see if he's got something worse, like a cigarette butt or garbage, carelessly littered there, and that's where I draw the line.  Perhaps these overprotective parents have written me off as careless, and have waited for the day when my kids end up in the hospital as a result of my neglect, but I don't believe in the unnecessary stress of monitoring every step of each child.

Two weeks ago, the fateful day came when we made our first trip to the emergency room with our second son, Carter.  It had been a little chilly during dinner, so my husband turned on the gas fireplace to warm up the family room that serves as our dining room while the real kitchen and dining room are built.  After dinner, both my husband and I began to clean up, each thinking that the other had an eye on our boys. The phone rang and my husband answered it, and I carried on with the dishes. Then we heard the shrill scream of a hurt baby.  I ran from the sink to find baby Carter with both hands on the glass of our fireplace.

The end result was a trip to the emergency room to find he has second degree burns, which will take up to a few months to fully heal. He is on pain meds and has to go for dressing changes twice to three times a week. He'll need physiotherapy and will have to re-learn his already-developed fine-motor-skills due to being unable to use his hands for a month or more. 

It took 3 seconds for our life to go from manageable chaos to overwhelming.

We felt like the worst parents in the world.  Not only did we have to repeat what happened over and over to every doctor, nurse and med-student we encountered, we had to endure the cries of our baby in pain, our toddler's clueless disobedience and cries for attention, and all of this in the middle of a busy workweek for my husband and the beginning of the school-year for me, the student-mom.

Then, we began telling people around us what happened, and that's when the stories came out.  A little girl who fell in a firepit; a little boy who touched the burner of the stove; another child who dipped his hand in boiling water.  We were not the only ones!  Knowing this, of course, did not make our situation that much better, but it alleviated the horrible feeling that we should be tried for being unfit parents. 

My time sitting in the hospital as my baby was being treated gave me time to think a lot about what we face as parents.  I began to think over my pre-motherhood attitude toward children's injuries and attitudes about parenting in general.  What we face day to day is a lot of judgement.  Everyone has an opinion about how children should be fed, clothed, soothed, bathed, educated, disciplined, supervised, immunized - you name it.  But when kids get hurt,  it is no time for judgement. It is not the time to think "Wow, that'd never happen to my kid."

And maybe it won't happen to your kids. Maybe you can successfully keep them in a vacuum and never have to deal with a cut, fall, scrape or worse. 

Quite frankly, that isn't reality.

I sat in the waiting room today, watching the parents of kids who had also ended up in the Children's hospital for one reason or another.  I talked with another mother about her son's burned fingers.  We both felt the need to explain exactly why our child wasn't being watched at the very moment that they injured themselves - perhaps as a safety net, just in case the other parent decided to judge. 

But then, it occurred to me to say "These things happen, don't they?  What are we supposed to do? Tie them down?"
That got a laugh from her, as she said "I've been saying that to my mother-in-law for a week!"
With the tension broken, we were able to sit and enjoy each other's children and company for that short while, knowing that there was no judgement or apprehension about the other's ability to parent. 

It'd be wonderful if all our interactions with other parents were judgement free, so that we could just sit back and enjoy our children, and their impulsiveness and utter joy while they freely play.