I am learning that for better or for worse, the way I react to present situations is largely shaded by past events. Each of us brings to the table our own set of personal experiences that are the lens through which we perceive our present situation. On a larger scale people call it baggage, but even the seemingly small instances can permanently shape our view. There are things we have seen and heard that can never be unseen or unheard. Remember that show Rescue 911 where they did cheesy dramatic reenactments of 911 calls? Yeah, I may still be afraid of the drain at the bottom of the pool from an episode I saw when I was 10. No matter how much we try to block them out or how many years pass, these memories have become such a part of our being that any traumatic event can bring them right back up to the surface.
Sunday, we had quite a scare with our sweet Josh. We were at my Aunt's pool and Joshy was being his usual stinker-y, spunky, almost-two-year-old self. He was standing at the top of the concrete steps that lead down to the pool area, laughing and jabbering. We had let our guard down a bit since he was far from the water, but even if we were looking straight at him there was no way we could have prevented what happened next. As he was teetering on some stepping stones at the top of the stairs, he lost his balance and toppled forward. I turned my head to witness Josh landing square on the top of his head on the middle step- not even a hand or arm to break his fall, somersaulting over and landing flat on his back at the bottom of the stairs.
A pause of shocked silence- then the exhale of relief. A flood of baby tears started to pour from Josh's eyes and we knew for the moment he was OK. I ran over and scooped him up in my arms. As Joshy was bawling and I was holding him tight, my mind instantly went back to a place over 15 years ago.
I was in junior high, sleeping in my bed as the early morning sun peeked through the edges of my roller shade. It must have been a weekend, or the summer. . .I remember being grumpy as my mom rolled me over because it was way too early for a wake-up call from Mom. I have never really enjoyed being woken up, and my mom was usually the recipient of my grouchiest morning greetings. I remember Mom was in her matching satin nightgown and robe, which she has had a continuous supply of for as long as I can remember. Her curly hair was messy and she looked as though she had been crying. I don't remember her words but I remember exactly how I felt when she told me that our neighbor across the street, a little boy just about the same age as my own sister, was dead. Suddenly, just like that. Hadn't we just seen him playing in his yard the day before? Today, he was gone. My mom told me the details and the picture filled my mind. . .Climbing a short fence, just playing around with all of his family close by. . . toppling over the top. Bumping his head, apparently in just the wrong place.
Nothing they could do. Gone. In a heartbeat. With his family right there.
My mom left my room, probably to go call a neighbor and check in or just go hug her own little daughter tight. On a normal day, I would have just rolled back over and gone right back to sleep, but not this day. What had just happened was seared into my mind. My adolescent heart had never known what it was like to feel the love that these parents had for their sweet son gone too soon, but I grieved for them. I still live right around the corner from the blue house where that family lived. Many families have lived there since, but I don't think I ever pass that house without a tug in my heart for that little boy. I most certainly have never let the feet of my children come near our chain link fence, and my disproportionate reaction to their "offense" of stepping on it probably makes them think I am crazy. Someday, I will explain to them where I am coming from, but not just yet.
So, when Josh bumped his head, my mind went into high alert. The memories of the little neighbor boy flooded my mind. My mom and dad were there at the pool, too. Although no one said it out loud, their minds went to the same place mine did. . .it was the elephant in the room. Pupils were checked, bumps were inspected, questions were asked, things were Googled. We held our breath tight and looked at him closely over and over again as he gobbled up his pizza and jabbered away at dinner. Josh seemed to be OK, but none of us were ready to let our guard down. I probably went in and checked him a few too many times as he was sleeping that night, but I don't regret it. I remembered. I knew the potential of a situation like this. Life is precious and too short not too take something like that seriously.
Paul kept telling me not to worry, Josh was fine, he would be OK, look at him talking and answering questions, he's no worse for the wear, and he was being a stinker anyway when it happened. I may or may not have snapped back at him and given him some deathly glares. My reaction may or may not have caused my husband some grief. My dear husband was just trying to be reassuring, but since we did not share the same personal experience with this, I could only interpret his reassurance as criticism of something that was a part of my being.
From my biologist perspective I am sure this part of our nature gives our species an edge at survival. We learn from our past experiences and the experiences of those close to us and use those internalized lessons to influence our future decisions regarding our own safety and the safety of our young. However, since we humans can be complex and dramatic creatures, problems can arise in the areas where you and the person with whom you share your parenting responsibilities share different past experiences. Really, the problem arises when those things that have shaped you, no matter how small, have not been shared with the other person. It was my own fault- I had never told Paul this story. He had no idea where my fear was coming from (or that of my Mom and Dad for that matter). In the times in the past where he has known, it has much easier for him to extend comfort and understanding. For example, when we were looking for a house, he understood that I would never live close to a retention pond. He remembers the day when my friend lost his grandson in a freak early morning drowning in a retention pond. I don't just remember it, it is seared into my heart, but Paul at least knows that and can extend compassion and modify house searches accordingly. On the other side, Paul is a car seat designer, so I am careful to honor his obsessive attention to safety for our children. He has seen way too many crash tests to not have those thoughts run through his mind each time he buckles our own children in.
For me, there are two lessons that came from this. One is a specific application- we need acknowledge feelings within ourselves and share openly with our spouse the things from our past experience that influence our present reactions. We cannot expect our spouse to magically understand where we are coming from, and they may think we are a little crazy when they see us gripping our child for dear life on an escalator if we haven't told him about the time we fell on an escalator during our own youth. Yeah, I am still the crazy lady who is afraid of escalators. Just sayin'. :)
The other lesson is the broad application to all parents. We need to extend a healthy measure of understanding to all of our parent friends (and parent strangers as well.) Judging parents seems to be a trend everywhere from the playground to the internet. It is important to remember on a broader scale that everyone is doing the best they can, and the things that are important to them are largely shaped by their own personal history and experience. Anytime I catch myself thinking, "Wow, I can't believe they actually WORRY about that", I think about my worries of bumped heads and escalators and retention ponds and know that their worry is probably coming from a very personal place, too. Lesson learned.