I had one of those moments today when I felt a fearless love for my daughter. Nothing special was happening. I was waking her for school. I crawled into bed with her to start the slow process of pulling her from sleep, finding no alarm works better than the gradual nudges and coaxing of a mom. I felt a love I could breathe through. I felt trusting, and open to see her as she is. I didn’t feel that I had to DO anything, shield her from anything. I saw her as a strong, confident 8 year old with a life force all her own. She growled at me about waking up but then shifted into a surprisingly alert “what’s for breakfast? I’m hungry.”
I noticed this sensation because I have come to notice the opposite experience. Fear-filled love. Love stirred with a sprinkle of vigilance on some days, and larger servings of outright panic on others. The fear-filled love happens when I watch her climb into someone else’s car. When I bring her to the stable and watch her saddle up her 1100 lb horse that seems edgy today. When I’m letting her go for stretches of weeks with her other parent or the year when she was 5 and I had to let her go to Germany for the co- parenting time, losing contact for days on end. When she dangles from a tree branch upside down, 8 feet from the ground or rides her bike around the neighborhood for the first time when she is hanging out with friends in town. When she wants to go to the woods on the edge of our farm, alone. I’m attentive. I’m a parent. It’s my job.
From my pregnancy that followed a miscarriage to these moments of everyday letting go, I am aware that my feeling of loving her is very often associated with thoughts of what might happen, of what could go wrong.
Intrusive thoughts catch our attention when they are large and interfere. But when they are quiet chatter we simply live with them. I know that at times, as a mother, I have been uncomfortably anxious, neurotic in my worry. In my daughter’s first year I suffered from perinatal depression and anxiety and I know how devastating it can be when fear gobbles up joy until there is nothing left. I’m gratefully not consumed by the thoughts as I once had been. I feel fortunate that what I am describing isn’t this darkest edge of parental fear. I’m referring to the circling and fluttering thoughts, not the gripping choking, paralyzing ones. *
I was relieved recently to have a conversation about fear with a friend. She is a healthy, easygoing, joy-filled person, at ease in so many ways. She is a parent of school-aged, athletic, active, and confident children. She is much more permissive than I am and I assumed more trusting, less fearful somehow. But when we started to talk with one another about our fears and thoughts about letting our children go into cars for trips, or overnight camps, or even get on the bus for school each day, we find that our minds will both touch upon the ‘what if’s ‘ and that we send our love with a fluttering thought of the exact possible catastrophe that might befall them. We say “I love you” and give that extra squeeze with the brief but always present fear “because you might disappear”.
I think fear/love is an equation that is with us always and I believe that we are wired for a degree of vigilance to be good parents. When we become aware of fear-filled love we can notice it, accept it, but not cling to it. We can trust that all is well- that the bumps and the challenges are not avoidable in this life. I think as parents we have to relieve ourselves of the responsibility of avoiding them.
The perspective of loss, of impermanence, can also guide us to appreciate each present moment. If we are gentle with ourselves, we may notice those moments as I did this morning, when love is simply love and I’ve been brave enough to allow it to just be. She got on the bus today and I gave her a final squeeze and drew a heart as is our ritual on the frosted glass of the storm door. It is layered with finger –trails from prior frosty mornings: a palimpsest of a mother’s love. And I was grateful for her, for the day, for a moment, just a passing, grace-filled moment of fearless love.
*In my work with parents, and in my writing, I often stop at this point to give the disclaimer- that if you’re having intrusive thoughts that interfere with your activities, affect your sense of wellbeing, that you should seek support from a mental health professional. As I’ve moved more and more to a commitment to help families thrive, and not merely survive, I think all of us should take the opportunity to cultivate greater peace and take advantage of the tools available to us. You don’t need to be ‘diagnosed’ with a mood disorder to seek relief from the thoughts that keep us from being our most present, or most joyful selves and that keep us from parenting fearlessly.