I wrote this essay for The Dallas Morning News a few years back, and first posted it here sometime later.
My recent post about little girls and body image brought it to mind, because it’s all the same question: How do we protect our children, when we can’t? How do we teach them to live with their own fragility (and teach ourselves to live with our own powerlessness)? So I thought I’d run it again. It’s all still true – and the kids just continue to grow and grow.
Our children, so fragile
EMILY L. HAUSER – Dallas Morning News
Sunday, May 13, 2007
When pregnant with my first child, I had the opportunity to ask my graduate school adviser if we might discuss “my future.” With a glance at my belly, he looked me in the eye and said: “Thirty years of heartache.”
To which story my aunt later responded: “Only 30 years?”
If I’ve learned nothing else since the birth of that baby nearly eight years ago, it’s that your heart always aches. Happy or sad, there are many days when the heart feels it must surely implode from the weight of emotion, not least of course, the intense and impossible need to Keep the Babies Safe.
Right now my husband and I find our little family to be bathed in the glow of blessed days. The children – a beautiful boy and girl – are healthy, smart and funny, and in addition to delighting their parents daily, actually love and enjoy each other, too. We are the family Norman Rockwell was thinking of all those years.
It is impossible, though, not to think that this golden time will inevitably end. Human experience indicates that a day will dawn on which our idyll is at the very least tarnished. The fear, of course, is that it will be shattered.
Like everyone, I know my fair share of parents whose children have been visited by tragedy. I think of my friend whose baby died at birth and the one whose 10-year-old was shot in the head. I know a kind and patient man who lost his teenager down the hole to over-the-counter drug abuse and a warm and giving woman whose previously sunny son is now, at 22, in the grip of paralyzing depression. My grandmother buried my father when he was all of 35.
They are so fragile, these babies. So many things can go wrong, and at any moment.
Paradoxically, it is my rational self that blazes a trail for me down the road to fear. The cycle of life, human nature, acts of God – all act as constant reminders that nothing is forever, that everything, eventually, breaks, rots, dies. My children’s bones will one day lie in the earth, and there is no way for me to know that their end will not come far earlier than it should or that their days will not be filled with sorrow.
My absolute inability to keep them from harm takes my breath away. Limbs will break, hearts will break. Please God, not spirits. The maxim that joy is not complete without grief to shape it interests me not in the least – let their joy be shapeless, I think, but let it be joy.
And so it is tempting to see this time of blessing as a trick of the light, an ill-defined prelude to disaster. My siblings and I were struck by catastrophe before we could read or write, when cancer snatched our father from us as surely as it did from his mother; as I grew up, all happiness was, in fact, shaped by that grief. It is hard for me to stop.
But something about this boy and this girl who I hold so lightly, with so few tools or guards, has opened a place I couldn’t dream existed. Just as I have learned that the bittersweet ache never ends, so too have my children taught me that the heart can be quiet, and that the joy in a 3-year-old’s song and a 7-year-old’s hand is unending. That these things can never be lost, even if they are taken.
I curl around my daughter in her tiny bed and hold her warmth to my belly. I cover my son with the blanket he’s tossed aside, and watch his limbs stretch endlessly beneath it, an impossible length of boy. I pray that this time will never end. I pray for the strength to hold them when it does.