June 12, 2010

Parenting and Irrational Fear

Sometimes, life is a little too perfect.  And then something has to happen to remind you that life doesn't actually work that way, and that it's still hard and complicated and there's always room for improvement.  There's always an opportunity for you to completely fail to meet your expectations, to see conclusively that you're still a little kid without any damn sense on the inside, and that you have a long way to go before you're that person you always wanted to be when you grew up.

In general, those events are tiny, insignificant moments.  Like when you realize that you've been using really offensive language in front of a toddler on the bus, or that you're checking out at the grocery store with about 6,000 calories worth of junk food that you just KNOW is all going to get eaten before dawn the next day.  And you're always having such a great time you simply don't see it coming.  But then it's right there in front of you, and you have to accept once again that you've still got a long way to go.

My little family just returned from its first real vacation.  It was amazing, we were just like a real family, endlessly driving and driving and driving... I believe we spent 32 hours in the car just getting from point A to B etc., to the tune of about 1,700 miles.  Yeah, it was THAT kind of vacation.

We started by heading off to a family event- my cousin's bar mitzvah.  It was the first time most everyone I'm related to has had an opportunity to meet my children.  We got to see all my cousins on my mom's side, everyone was duly impressed with the girls, and it was really a lovely time.  Then we headed back to my childhood home.

You see, my family moved around a fair amount when I was a kid.  The place I lived for the longest was New Jersey, and (no offense to those of you who hail from the Garden State) I HATED it.  I wasn't exactly a popular kid, and the whole state seemed to me everything that was wrong with my childhood.  But every summer, for the whole summer, we went to my family's property in northern Michigan.   My mother inherited a plot of rusticated heaven from her grandfather, with a smattering of cabins on it dating back to the 1800's.  There's an old barn we called the Presidential Suite, where my sisters and I stayed.  It wasn't just our own room, it was our own BUILDING, and we had a few to call our own!  There was an old chicken coop that we'd transformed into a play house, complete with kitchen and dining room, and a little jail cell.  We roamed the woods, hiding out under felled trees and swimming in the spring fed pond, picking wild strawberries at the beginning of the season and apples at the end, rushing out to wave at the freight trains, marveling at the endless sky...  In many ways, those summers shaped my personality and emotional development more than any other aspect of my childhood.  How many kids these days have the chance to just PLAY outside all day?  To spy on herons and deer and to play pooh sticks on the bridge and to chase frogs into the water?

Unfortunately, all this nature and tree climbing and all could not cure me of my CRIPPLING arachnophobia.  Yes, I am terrified of spiders.  There's nothing rational about it.  In an effort to cure myself, I would study spiders, I would grit my teeth and hold my breath and tell myself, "I'm going to be brave!" and then I would fail.  As I've gotten older it's gotten a little better, but after a surprise spider I tend to spend the next several days- yes, DAYS- snatching my hair out and hyperventilating.  As you can imagine, my sisters and many friends found this hilarious, but I certainly didn't.  After all, I knew these creatures were harmless.  I knew they were my friends, eating the mosquitoes that would brutalize my ankles and the flies that bit my shoulders, but I couldn't see one without having a full blown panic attack.  And, as you must also imagine, in a place like Guppy Lake there are spiders EVERYWHERE.

Now I'm an adult.  I am a grown woman with my own children.  I was happier to be bringing them to the site of my greatest childhood joys than I can adequately describe.  But I knew what I was likely to find- spiders.  Those early summer spiders that are just hatching and coming out of all their hidey holes- spiders that my very conscientious parents would have no idea had moved in.  There were likely to be spiders everywhere.  "I'm going to be brave," I told myself.  "If I see a spider while the girls are around, I will be brave, and I won't panic, and then the girls won't be afraid of spiders like me."

We had a big bonfire one night, and in the car driving the sleeping babies back to the main cabin, I saw a daddy long legs looking spider crawling on my husband's shoulder.  I squealed and squawked and my husband jumped out of the car and shook off the spider, and all in all I was very proud of myself.  I hadn't screamed, I hadn't disturbed the girls in the slightest... and after all it had been ON my husband, IN my car!  I felt I was to be congratulated, and that the worst must be over.

Oh, how wrong I was.

On our last night at Guppy Lake, I was bathing my daughters in the double kitchen sink.  DD was all clean, and just playing in the water.  SI only needed her face to be washed off, and then we would be all done.  It was then that I felt a sort of tickle on the back of my hand.  I looked down to see a GIGANTIC black spider, with thick short legs and a fat body skittering across my hand.

There was no thinking.  There was no deep breath, no counting to three, no serene removal of the bug.  No, there was only panic.  Blind, animal panic.  I shrieked and frantically waved my hand, and then the heart stopping, most awful moment of all... the spider, now running around just as frantically as me, landed on my bathing baby.

Here my memory gets a bit fuzzy.  I know I was screaming, I know my father pushed me out of the way and removed the spider from my daughter, and I know I somehow ended up doubled over in the doorway with my husband holding my arms at my sides and calmly assuring me that everything was fine.  But everything was not fine.  That THING had been on my daughter, and I had put it there.

There are things that we fear with good reason.  Child molesters, nuclear holocaust, car accidents... spiders just plain don't make the list of rational fears.  But there's an ancient, lizardy brain fold somewhere in there that for some of us never shut down properly.  Something that makes those awful creepy critters worse than anything.

Seeing that spider on my daughter, BECAUSE OF ME, was easily one of the worst moments of my life.  My parents laughed and laughed, how could they not?  The whole thing was absurd.  But it still makes me sick to my stomach.  Not because SI was actually in any danger.  Not because of the spider itself, even.  But mostly because I completely and utterly failed.  I was going to be brave.  I was going to be a calm, rational adult.  Instead, I was a useless panting mess.

How does a person overcome a phobia like that?  Therapy might help, of course, and there's never really a bad reason to go to therapy.  But that doesn't really satisfy my need to meet my expectations for adulthood and mothering.  As a hippy-dippy nature-chica earth-mama lady, I should raise children who are happy to pick up frogs and bugs and to get dirty.  How will they learn to be better than me if I can't teach them?

And that's it.  The heart of the matter.  How do you teach your children to surpass you?  The short answer, I expect, is that you can't.  I am a human being, a limited, imperfect human being.  It is my hope that my children will be better than I, that they will be stronger, smarter, and in every way an improvement.  If they succeed, I succeed alongside them.

But I have failed them this time.  I've failed myself.  It certainly isn't their job, but I somehow expected my daughters to teach me to be a better grown-up.  For some reason I believed that simply being a mother would improve me.  Perhaps it has, but not in every way.  Certainly not it that deeply rooted, primordial way.

Will I keep trying to be brave?  Of course.  I have no doubt I will have to somehow suck it up and push it back and evacuate spiders from my children's bedrooms, and if not spiders than something else.  But thankfully I at least know that this horrible wellspring of terror is completely irrational.  I don't have to worry that they'll grow up and a spider will crawl on them, because I know that if that does happen it will be completely harmless.  I only have to worry about seeing it.  And I just keep telling myself the same thing...

"I'm going to be brave."


  1. If the first time you felt you "failed" your children was at age 8 months, you're doing pretty well. The good news is that by the time you're a grandparent, you know you failed your children many times, but you can't remember most of them. Yet another reason being a grandparent is more fun than being a parent!

  2. I'm scared of bugs. But, camping, we all had to go potty in a room which had multiple spiders on every wall, ceiling, floor, and in the potty. My 5 year old son was not scared at all.
    You win by taking your children to Guppy Lake. They don't need to learn everything from you personally.



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