When I first saw the headlines about 10-year-old Caleb Schwab's tragic death on a waterslide in Kansas City, Missouri, Sunday, I didn't even want to read about it. His sweet face and the horrific nature of his death seemed to be more than my heart could take. But eventually, my paranoid brain got the better of me, and I read the stories. Multiple stories. Eyewitness reports and statements from his family and comments about him by his pastor and his Sunday-School friends. Like I'm sure every other parent who read those very same details did, I thought of my own children, and my heart broke for what the Schwab family must be going through. And as much as I cannot possibly imagine what they are experiencing — and how unfairly grateful I am for that fact — Caleb Schwab's waterslide death is a heartbreaking reminder of my own parenting fears.
When I was a kid, my mom was pretty protective. Even from a young age, I remember getting the distinct impression that the world was inherently a very dangerous and scary place, and that things like walking home from school alone or riding my bike to the corner store weren't acceptable. She seemed to be worried about a lot of things — things which, even then, I though were overreactions — and as I grew, I began to roll my eyes at her protectiveness and at overprotective moms in general. I thought ahead to my own hypothetical children and vowed that I'd never be that way with them. I wanted them to have a more laid-back childhood, a more wild-and-free existence, and I didn't want to teach them that they should be afraid of everything around them, that they were always one step away from some imaged boogeyman waiting to harm them. That wasn't the way my children were going to be raised, I thought. I wasn't going to be that kind of mother.
The problem, I now realize, is that being so wholly in love with your own children, so acutely aware that your life as you know it would cease to exist entirely if something ever happened to them, stands in direct opposition to wanting to be a carefree, "come what may" kind of mother.
When I finally did have children — a set of boy/girl twins in 2012 — I was surprised at how instantly and deeply I loved them. I knew that this was how it was technically supposed to go, but I was also well aware that not all women feel that way towards their kids right away, and I had a history of mental illness, so I didn't have high hopes for instant bonding. But, my goodness, was I ever wrong. I suddenly felt as though I understood every tired cliché every parent in existence has ever spewed, and every cell in my body felt like it knew for certain that my children were the most amazing, beautiful, blessed creatures to ever be born in the history of the world. I loved them so much it was almost scary. And as they grew, so did my devotion to them.
The problem, I now realize, is that being so wholly in love with your own children, so acutely aware that your life as you know it would cease to exist entirely if something ever happened to them, stands in direct opposition to wanting to be the kind of carefree, "come what may" kind of mother I always envisioned myself being. I always thought that decision between those two options — overprotective and laissez-faire — was a necessary either/or proposition, that that was the choice that determined how safe your kids would be. But Caleb Schwab's parents lost their son because they had a fun family day out at a waterpark, and no matter what anyone's parenting philosophy is, summer day trips to the local waterpark usually aren't high on most parents' lists of "Scary Things That Could Hurt My Children."
The hard truth is that as parents most of us live in a state of willful denial. We have to, because paying attention to the alternative — that our children could be taken from us at any minute and we'd be completely helpless to do anything about it — is far too hard a pill to swallow.
Nothing about Schwab's death was his own fault of course, or the fault of his parents. While surely there will likely be some kind of safety investigation into the ride itself, it's also entirely possible that his death was no one's fault at all, just some terrible-beyond-words, freak accident that is every parent's worst nightmare. News stories like this are a brutal reminder that bad things happen. Bad, awful, horrific things happen to young children and good people and they can be no one's fault, and they can't always be avoided.
The hard truth is that as parents most of us live in a state of willful denial. We have to, because paying attention to the alternative — that our children could be taken from us at any minute and we'd be completely helpless to do anything about it — is far too hard a pill to swallow. We have to tell ourselves that our children could never die on waterslides or be eaten by alligators at Walt Disney World or choke to death on grapes, or die after swallowing button batteries or having furniture fall on them. Being cautious is good, it keeps us safe. But being overwhelmed and paranoid that the sky could fall any minute? It's too much to bear.
Lately it seems like all the parenting wisdom tells us collectively to back off, that helicopter parenting and other kinds of over-parenting is bad, detrimental to our children's well-being. And I don't doubt for a minute that it's true. But I also don't doubt that, for a lot of protective helicopter parents, the sense is not that what they are doing is best or optimal, but that it's necessary. They've weighed the pros and cons of backing off and determined it's too risky. Better to be safe than sorry, as my mom used to say.
I still don't know if she's right. I still don't know what kind of mom I'll end up being. Some days I watch my kids like hawks and have to remind myself to chill out already, and other days I mentally berate myself for not being more careful with them, just in case. Perhaps that will be the dynamic, the push and pull, for the rest of my children's lives. I really have no answers, just a heart that is breaking for a family in Kansas City I've never met. Eventually, sadly, I'm sure it will end up breaking again for some other stranger's child whose story makes internet headlines.
Tonight, at least, I'll hold my own children extra close, hug them extra hard. Even though Caleb Schwab's death is a crushing reminder of how cruel and unfair the world can be sometimes, perhaps it's also an invaluable reminder to the rest of us to make the most of the time we do have with our children, and to cherish it as best we can. It might be possible to ever find a way to keep harm from coming to our children, but loving them more? Not taking them for granted as much as we possibly can? That's definitely something we can do, not just for our children's sake, but to honor Caleb, too.