Monday, October 31, 2011

The wonderful world of maternal anxiety: Sept. 29, 2002

I have always been scared of babies, and having them did not cure me. It did, however, quickly teach me that I will spend the rest of my life held captive by a stunning level of simultaneous anxiety, love and protectiveness. This was the first time I had the dispiriting experience of adding helplessness to that mix. 

It was unfun.

Parenting is a series of peaks and valleys
    No one tells you when you become a parent that all your points of emotional reference are about to lose their meaning.

    What you thought was fear was just a shadow. What you thought was joy was a hiccup. And there is no easy way to set aside the context of your old emotions and begin a far more harrowing existence.

    In June, when I first found the lump on my son’s back, I thought it was probably an injury or maybe a bug bite. In July, when I felt that lump again, I laid my palm across my son’s warm, narrow back and gave myself a mental lecture about all the good reasons I shouldn’t panic.

    Every day for weeks, I pressed my fingers to the lump, waiting for it to disappear, willing it to go away. When the lump was still there in August, we visited the pediatrician.

    I had a fantasy about how this would go: I would point out the lump, and the doctor would feel it, shrug and say: "Just a cyst. No big deal." Then, Jack and I would go get ice cream.

    Instead, the doctor felt the lump and frowned a little. "Hmh," he said. He referred us to a surgeon and told me to try not to worry.     

    "OK," I said.

    And I worried.

    My son is 2 years and 4 months old. He calls me "Mominy" instead of "Mommy." At 23 pounds, Jack is tiny for his age. He has a mass of curly hair the color of caramel, dark blue eyes and a fondness for fire trucks.

    We often walk to the fire station in our neighborhood, and he trots around ecstatically, shouting adjectives. "The fire truck is HUGE," he yells, flinging his arms wide.

    We visited the pediatric surgeon. The doctor felt the lump and said it was probably benign but needed to come out. The word "benign" brought a rush of relief that made me realize I hadn’t taken a truly deep breath in weeks. That relief was immediately followed by the alarming realization that my baby was going to have surgery.

    Jack’s surgery was very simple, very routine, nothing to worry about, the doctor assured me. The procedure was set for Sept. 17.

    In the week before Jack’s surgery, I saw the return of the acne I haven’t battled in nearly 10 years and the start of a chronic, dull stomachache.

    On the morning of the surgery, Jack awoke and announced he was thirsty. I explained that he couldn’t have anything to drink until we got to the hospital. The nice people there would give him some special juice, I said.

    "OK," he said, logically. "Jack to go to the hospital."

    We did. The nice people there weighed him and put hospital issue pajamas on him and gave him a cherry-flavored drink that made him loopy. He giggled and waved his hands in front of his nearly closed eyes as we waited for the surgeon.     

    "Funny," he said, grinning sloppily. "Funny hands."

    When the nurses came to take him to surgery, Jack laughed at their hats. But as they wheeled him away from my husband and me, our son began to cry. I heard one of the nurses comment as she reached the end of the long hallway with my stoned, terrified child, "This one is sweating bullets."

    I fought a powerful urge to chase Jack down, to steal him back. My husband and I trudged to a room where we watched a slow-moving clock. I didn’t cry, though I’d brought plenty of Kleenex. And when the doctor came in 45 minutes later I calmly received the news that Jack had done fine and was in recovery. The lump was just a benign mass of tissue, he said.

    I followed the doctor to recovery and held my disoriented son while he tried weakly to pull out his IV and drank apple juice from a sippy cup. I carried him back to the room where my husband waited and cradled Jack in my lap while he slept off the effects of the anesthesia. After about half an hour of watching our son sleep, my husband tiptoed out of the room to get us some Cokes.

    That’s when I cried. That’s when I finally let myself realize how scared I had been, finally acknowledged that I had been afraid Jack would die, that they would put him under, and he would never wake up and his last memory would be of his mother receding in a long blue hallway.

    I cried because Jack was all right, and because all I have ever wanted, from the first moment I saw him in a grainy black-and-white ultrasound image, was for him to always be all right.

    Before my husband returned, I had regained my composure. Everything logical in me knew I had overreacted, that this was all very routine, very simple, nothing to worry about.

    But logic has no place in the way I feel about my son.

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