When I Can't Stop Fearing for my Children

“The world was more dangerous than it had been a few weeks ago. It was a world that slipped and slid beneath you, where children died because mothers forgot to check the latch. How did you keep your child safe in that kind of a world?” -Sharon Guskin in The Forgetting Time 

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It started during pregnancy for me—the terrible feeling that something could happen to my baby, possibly something that was my fault. So I tried to be careful. I remember the relief I felt when my son was born—carrying him outside of me seemed to assuage the fear. I could watch his chest rise and fall and know that he was okay.

But the fear didn’t leave for long. There was always something new. I slept with him on my chest for months because I was so afraid of him dying in his sleep.

Then there were the articles—button batteries, falling furniture, pools. He learned to eat, and I had to fear choking. He learned to walk, and I had to fear stairs and falls. It’s relentless.  I think that the most exhausting part of being a parent is the constant vigilance and the fear that you aren’t being vigilant enough. I’ve had a slightly sinking feeling in my gut that has never quite gone away since my first pregnancy. 

I've always been fearful for those I love; I've struggled with worry, prayed for strength to trust God with my husband and family and friends. But with my children, there's an element of responsibility and control I don't have with others in my life.

Lately, the news has been full of seemingly preventable tragedies—children drowning in pools or being left in hot cars or the terrible Florida alligator tragedy. These parents are often shamed and blamed. And sometimes I quietly join in, thinking, “Oh, well that would never happen to us!” just because that gives me some control over the situation. But most of the time, there’s a deep element of fear because I know how easily those or similar stories could be us.

I’ve had so many nightmares lately, mostly involving my toddler drowning. It’s a kind of exhaustion that is really, really hard. I fear odd things—like my baby grabbing the railing of the bridge we're standing on and somehow catapulting himself over the side. But I also fear legitimate things. I’m not sure where the line of fearful vs. careful should be drawn, and I long for some list that tells me exactly how to parent in a cautious way.

The other day, I cooked some eggs and thought about offering a bite to my almost six-month-old. Last week we started giving him bites of things here and there because he is so interested in food. But I hesitated because what if he did have an allergy. Then I would be the irresponsible mother who gave eggs to a five-month-old. But if he didn’t have a reaction—if he did take just a bite of the egg on his chubby finger and stick it in his mouth and eat it—then I would be the relaxed mom, the one who intuitively knew her baby was ready for solids and cheerfully gave him some. Am I being fearful or just cautious?

We see so many articles about how to make our homes and lives safer, and these are juxtaposed with articles about being relaxed enough to let our kids fall on the playground and not hovering, and it’s just so hard to know what to do. “Be vigilant!” screams one side. “Loosen up—for your kid’s sake!” screams the other.

And I have typed and retyped this waiting for the answer. I want some easy formula to follow that will guarantee that nothing outside of my control will happen to my child. I don’t trust myself. Where is the line between what I can control and what I can’t?

And what about all those “calculated risks” I take each day—the ones we have to do in order to survive or get anything done. When I step out of the room to grab something, leaving my baby alone with my toddler for a minute. When I put a blanket over the crib sheet because it gets too cold. When I ask my toddler to put his hand on the car door while I open the trunk, counting on him to listen.

The list goes on, and I’m sure you have your own. In fact, I’m confident that you would see things on my list and say, “No way! Never!” or "Why not? "That won’t hurt a thing.”

But we can’t know. We can take all the precautions and bad things can still happen. On the flip side, we can always be more cautious.

We’re so lucky in this time and place. We have vaccinations and amazing medicine and child locks and so much awareness of the many things that could go wrong. 

I still want answers. I turn to God to figure out “why?” and to ask, “Can I live without this suffocating fear? Will my children survive if I give it up?”

According to Creation, the way God intended the world to be, these things shouldn’t happen. Children aren’t supposed to die. The world is meant to be perfect and whole; children should be perfect and whole too. We shouldn’t have to live in fear.

But because of the fall, we do. The brokenness of the world is all around us and within us. I am broken, others are broken, and this world is broken. We will make mistakes, and others will make mistakes. By God’s grace, our mistakes often result in nothing more than inconvenience. But sometimes our mistakes may be more costly.

The Fall also reminds me that we can’t foresee everything. We shame parents for these preventable tragedies because our own desire to control is so strong. But if we parent long enough, we all have stories of something terrible that almost happened, something that would have been our own fault. Though I might not be able to imagine leaving my child in a hot car, there are things I may have neglected—dangers I can’t foresee. This world is broken; it’s not the way it’s meant to be.

As a Christian, I can’t stop at the Fall. Though mistakes can and will be made, we do owe our children the utmost attention we can give them. The near-misses or the tragic stories often help me to be more vigilant in the right ways. Often our systems become better due to these stories.

But there’s a deep fear in realizing that we may be one glance away or one misjudgment from disaster at all times. Having kids has made my brain run constantly, almost always trying to see ahead and plan for their safety. 

I remember one day I hit a car in a parking lot—just a little bumper ding (that cost a lot more money than it looked like it should). I was frustrated and asking God, “Why?” on the way home. It was just a tiny misjudgment. Why didn't God just prevent it? As I got off the interstate, a car swerved in front of me, and I barely missed hitting it. Still shaking and glancing at my toddler in the backseat, I breathed a prayer of thanks. Something so much worse could have happened. I’m thankful for a God whose restraining grace prevents tragedy and keeps me safe so often.

Stories of preventable tragedy can cause me to live paralyzed by fear or sit in judgment. But my faith teaches that a true response involves acknowledging that this is not meant to happen, that tragedy will happen in a fallen world, and that though I can learn from it, I can’t control everything.

In the midst of my fearful dreams, I had another dream last week as these ideas kept spinning through my mind. And in that dream, I realized that Jesus dying for us was a preventable tragedy. He could have said, “No.” God could have said, “Not my son!” But he didn’t. Because he didn’t prevent the worst tragedy, we don’t have to live in fear. In the midst of tragedy or just the fear of it, we have hope in a God who didn’t spare his own son.

There are still no easy answers. I still don’t know the balance between fearful parenting and careful parenting. But I do have faith in a God who didn’t prevent the greatest tragedy so that we could have hope. 

He entrusts these little people to us, body and soul. But he does this knowing we are fallible, that we will make mistakes. I can be thankful for his restraining grace as I navigate this fallen world. I can look to him for wisdom and comfort. And I can trust that he is in control even though things weren't supposed to be this way. The one who said, "Let the little children come to me" and counts every hair on our heads and the heads of our children is worthy of my utmost trust even when I don't have answers.

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