Inevitably my 18-month-old daughter will fall at the park. I will not try to catch her.
On a typical day, my daughter will ingratiate herself with the kids whose mothers thought to bring brightly-colored shovels and Fisher Price dump trucks to the park. I will come over and ask if my daughter can please borrow their toys. The mother will chirp, “Of course!” She will then turn to her brood. “We’re sharing our toys with the baby!”
I will retreat to my post. I will watch vigilantly for signs that my daughter is about to put a pile of gravel into her mouth or launch a handful of the tiny rocks airborne. I will watch as she explores the playground. I will also watch her take a tumble, the other mother jumping to her rescue before she’s even landed.
“Oh, honey. It’s okay. Your mama’s right here.” she’ll croon, her eyes searching desperately for the child’s mother, for me. My daughter, now hysterical, will be in this woman’s tentative arms.
I will walk over and take my red-faced child, who will wrap her legs around my waist and bury her face in my shoulder.
“Thank you so much.” I will say. It’s not genuine, but it needs to be said.
“Oh, it’s no problem. I didn’t see exactly what happened, but luckily I was right here.”
“I know, thanks,” I’ll lie again.
I will return to my perch. My gaze will be fixed on my child but my mind will be fixated on the scene that has just played out. In the small act of responding to my daughter’s fall, this other mother has undermined me. She’s assumed that the right action was to go with her instinct, to rescue my daughter. Wrapped up in this assumption is the idea that I would’ve rescued her myself if I had been paying attention – that I would have prevented the fall in the first place if I cared.
I want to tell this woman that I do care, that my aloof exterior belies an infinite reservoir of caring. I want to tell her that she has no idea what kind of mother I am.
I’m not the mother who brings a sippy cup of fresh juice and a Tupperware full of cheese cubes and sliced grapes to the park. Random fruit squeeze pouches from our last plane trip litter the bottom of my diaper bag, but this does not make me a bad mother. I trust my child can wait until the next meal to eat again.
I’m not the mother who rushes in when my daughter falls. I rarely get into a child-sized playground structure with her. This does not make me a bad mother. From a distance, I’m vigilant. Could her head fit through the slats in that fence? If she fell, how far would the drop be? How soft would the landing be? Is that structure designed for a toddler or a bigger kid? If I don’t need to be next to her, I observe from afar.
It would be so much easier to be by my daughter’s side, holding her hand, spotting her as she climbs her way through the park. Though I ache to protect her from every danger, I force myself to hang back. How will she learn what’s safe if I’m always protecting her? How will she know how far she can jump if she never falls short?
I want my daughter to love to play for its own sake. I may stand quietly off to the side, but as she zooms down the slide, her mouth open wide in a jubilant smile, my heart rejoices.
This is the kind of mother I am.