The moment I became a mother, I knew my days would be filled with both good and bad. After all, the feelings I felt when my son entered this world were juxtaposing and overwhelming: I was happy and scared, nervous and excited, elated and even a little sad. I knew motherhood would be a compilation of days in which I felt powerful and productive, and days that would make me feel ineffectual and weak because of the mistakes I would inevitably make. And, of course, it was during one of my worst days, when I made my biggest parenting mistake, that taught me it wouldn't be my last.
That day began like any other normal day, filled with diapers and naps and meetings and assignments and homemade meals and endless emails and a steady loop of Sesame Street episodes. My son promptly woke me up at 6 a.m., never one to deviate from his sleep schedule, a trait I’m sometimes grateful and sometimes resentful of. I'd finished my first conference call of the day while preparing my son’s breakfast: sausages, eggs, and tomatoes. He'd just turned 1 year old, and now required a high chair whenever it was time for him to enjoy a meal. Our apartment is small, even for Seattle standards, so instead of a full-sized highchair, my partner and I purchased a mini, the kind you can attach to a chair or, in my case, set on a counter. I could feed him without bending down or sitting on my knees, and no matter what, he would be at my eye level. I could multitask much easier and he could survey his surroundings like the king of the mini-castle he is.
That particular day, I was behind on a deadline and so I was eager to situate my son in his chair on our counter so I could get back to writing while he ate his breakfast. I turned him toward me, sat down on our living room couch facing him, and started as he ate and talked his gibberish and occasionally threw a piece of egg on our kitchen floor. I was feeling as confident and productive as any other day, almost more so, which perhaps made the entire experience that much harder. I thought I was doing everything right, but I wasn’t.
Before I knew it, he'd pushed himself — still attached to his mini-high chair — off our counter and onto the floor with a loud crash that stopped my heart.
I didn’t notice that he'd grown enough in the past few weeks that his feet could now easily reach the counter. He was becoming increasingly impatient and I was imploring him to wait just one more minute while I finished a thought, but before I knew it, he'd pushed himself — still attached to his mini-high chair — off our counter and onto the floor with a loud crash that stopped my heart.
Suddenly, everything happened in slow motion. My movements were quick, but the air felt like tar, heavy, thick, and impossible to move through. My son, immediately on contact, started screaming and crying and I had no way of knowing if it was because he was scared or because he was severely hurt. But the screams that came from his mouth were the kind I'd never heard before. I dialed 911 as I checked on him, all the while battling my maternal instinct to pick him up and hug him close. What if something was broken? What if holding him only did more harm? But because he was moving his arms and legs and head, the dispatcher on the other end gave me the OK to pick him up. I detached him from the now-broken chair, and soothed him as the ambulance and fire truck arrived. The paramedics cleared him of any major, obvious trauma, but suggested a trip to the hospital to be sure. My mind raced with all of the possible, hidden issues: a blood clot in his brain, a pain he can’t articulate or understand, a broken bone that is small, but vital. I carried him to the back of the ambulance and let two strangers strap my son to a gurney. I fought back tears and vomit.
He looked at me, and I felt myself breaking. Up until this point I'd kept it relatively together. I didn’t want to cry or panic or give my son any additional reasons to be distressed, but now that my parenting partner was there, my edges were unraveling at a tempo I was powerless to stop. What had I done?
That over-priced drive in the ambulance from our small apartment to Seattle Children’s Hospital was one of the longest drives of my life. I sat next to my son, stretched out as far as the mandatory seatbelt would allow, letting him lean on my arms. He'd stopped crying by then, and was laughing and smiling and enjoying the ride and the extra attention. But halfway through the trip, my son threw up. Was it the trauma of what happened? Was something wrong inside? The what ifs only added to my anxiety and debilitating feelings of inadequacy. I had failed him. I had been neglectful. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention. I was a bad mom.
At the hospital we were treated by smiling faces and hushed tones, as doctors and nurses assessed his important vitals and the story of what happened. My son had appeared to be fine, but the staff wanted to keep him for a few hours to observe him in case anything changed.
When my partner arrived, he walked in our room, hugged, and held our son and then turned to me to ask if I was OK. He looked at me, and I felt myself breaking. Up until this point I'd kept it relatively together. I didn’t want to cry or panic or give my son any additional reasons to be distressed, but now that my parenting partner was there, my edges were unraveling at a tempo I was powerless to stop. What had I done? I removed myself from the room and walked outside, only to break down right in front of a team of nurses and doctors.
She told me that this wouldn’t be the last time I felt this way. That, even as a doctor, she has been to the emergency room because of her sons countless times. She assured me that those feelings of helplessness, of defeat and failure, are normal and commonplace and part of being not just a parent, but a good parent.
Outside my son's room, one of the doctors said something I will never forget. She asked if I was OK and I told her what happened. It turned out that she was the attending physician, and a mother of three boys herself. Her eyes were weathered with wisdom and understanding and sympathy and support. I felt like I knew her, even though I clearly didn’t. She told me that this wouldn’t be the last time I felt this way. That, even as a doctor, she has been to the emergency room because of her sons countless times. She assured me that those feelings of helplessness, of defeat and failure, are normal and commonplace and part of being not just a parent, but a good parent. She said,
You care. You feel this way because you’re a good mother.
Since then, there have been plenty of other days where I’ve felt like I’ve failed as a parent, though none have been as dramatic or scary or, it turns out, expensive as the day my son fell from his chair. I’ve had my days where I’ve felt like my son deserves better; someone who doesn’t make the mistakes I do; someone who provides more than I can. But in the middle of those days, when I am at my lowest, I remember the doctor’s words. It feels this way because I care. It feels this way because I’m human. I feel this way because I’m a good mother. I repeat it again and again and again until I believe it, and then I go back to doing the very, very best I can for my son.