Mama Bears (and Papa Issues)

It’s been a tough week.

First, this senseless, incomprehensible shooting in Orlando. Then a two-year-old is drowned by an alligator at Disney World, of all places. My heart can’t take all this madness. And the social media circus that has followed is just as frightening. But I am like a moth to a flame; I get sucked in with the best of them. And it ain’t pretty.

There have been many posts defending the poor parents of this sweet 2-year-old boy, who have been judged and attacked for their “negligence”. So I guess this could count as another one. Although I’m going to take the long road to get to the point. So bear with me.

When I was pregnant for the first time, with Jack, I had a peace and calm I had never felt before. I was creating a miracle, a sweet baby boy who would love me unconditionally and make me whole. I mentioned before that my anxiety pretty much disappeared during my pregnancy. I was filled with a joy and a purpose that patched up any previous holes in my heart. I finally had someone to call my own, who promised to stay forever. Which was a huge relief for me, because I’ve lived through the opposite.

In my darkest days, while in therapy with Wendy and right before I started medication, I had a breakdown. In, fact, this was the session when, after a year of lots of talking and digging but little progress, she suggested I seek help from a psychiatrist. I really did try, I tell you.

My anxiety was so bad then that I could barely sit in her office without feeling terrified. I think I mentioned that we had to meet downstairs in a restaurant a few times just so I didn’t have to sit in there. This time, she suggested sitting in the office next to her, and maybe the different environment wouldn’t trigger any panic. Again, I really did try. I was laid out on a couch (like you would totally picture in a therapy session) trying to relax, but I was so anxious that I was shaking in my boots. Literally, I had my cowboy boots on that day. So at least I looked cute. But I was an anxious, panicky mess.

I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but somehow we got on the subject of my dad. I have an incredible, loving step-dad that I refer to as my dad, but my biological father has been estranged for about 11 years now. The last time I talked to him was on the phone, when I asked him if I could mail him an invite to my wedding. We’ll see, honey. We’ll see. And that was it.

Of course, I kind of expected that answer. After all, he had failed to produce any child support for his fourth child (from his third marriage) and he was trying to stay as low profile as possible. We always joked that if he had ended up coming to our wedding, it would have been like an episode of COPS. So of course, he was a no-show. I mean, he’s only the Father of the Bride. Sure, it was to be expected, given the circumstances. But it still hurt.

I remember getting upset about my dad when Jason and I were engaged. I was excited about marriage, but also terrified that one day he would leave. Because that’s what the men I love in my life do. They leave. There were a few nights I remember the flood gates opening up during our pillow talk (usually after a night of binge-drinking at the local bar) when I would ramble on about my fears of loving him with my whole heart and then being left in the dust. This has always been hard for me, to trust someone with my whole heart. To know that they won’t leave me. It’s easier to put my guard up and not get too close than to risk being heart broken.

Then I had a child. My resentment towards my dad really ramped up after that. How can a father leave his child? The question became even more infuriating after I became a parent. For that is probably my greatest fear of all; losing a child. But to just give up on one? To abandon them voluntarily? I was hurt and confused more than ever.

Back to Wendy’s office. Shaking in my boots. And somehow, we get on the subject of my dad. And I finally let it all go. I just don’t understand how he could leave me! I cried a terrible, organic, ugly cry right then.   And I’m not much of a crier. The hurt was deep, and it finally came to the surface. Slowly, eventually, the tears dried.  I stopped shaking, I calmed down, and I actually felt better. It was like an emotional cleansing.

She looked at me, with a comforting but bewildered smile. I think it would be best to refer you to a psychiatrist. Yeah, time to throw in the towel. Sweet Wendy. We tried, girl.

When you have a child, there is such overwhelming joy in your heart. You automatically love with your whole heart, no questions asked. There are no trust issues, no drama, it just IS. It is full-throttle LOVE. It is yours to keep, to cherish, to grow. But then, as big as the love comes, comes the WORRY. The realization that there are no guarantees. That it is your job to keep your child safe. The world becomes a threat. You adopt a whole new set of fears, and the stakes are higher than ever. The responsibility is stifling. You have finally given your whole-heart, and now you must be its protector.

They say when you have a child it’s like your heart has left your body and goes out into the world. That’s a pretty accurate way to describe how big your love is for your children. You would do anything for them.

You become a mama bear. 

My anxiety took a turn for the worse after my little hearts were outside my body out there in the open. I was responsible for keeping these precious loves safe at all cost. No pressure. 

Losing my children. 

When I worry about crashing on the highway. When I travel without them. When I feel like I am dying in the middle of a panic attack. I worry about my children. 

This is most likely fear number one.

And the sweet mom of the boy at Disney, I’m pretty sure it was hers too. 

And of course the father, the papa bear, trying to wrestle an alligator to save his child. I can’t bear to think of what it was like for those poor parents, to watch their worst fear unfold before them. I can’t.

I also can’t believe this family has to be defended. Of course this is a living nightmare for them. We owe them our complete support and compassion and those who dare think otherwise do not know what it’s like to have your heart out there in this big world, at risk of being swallowed up at any moment. Things can happen in the blink of an eye. We do our best to keep our children safe, but there’s only so much control we have. It is the heart-breaking, terrifying truth of parenting. We as parents, as humans, should be lifting this poor family up instead of judging and criticizing. It makes me sad to think I even have to say that.  Come on, people! Where is the LOVE?

Not too long ago, I was talking about my “real” dad, taking the usual bitter tone about how he doesn’t even know he has grandkids, yada yada, when my mom chimed in.

Poor Pete. He was always so down on himself. He never felt like he was good enough. 

My heart opened up right then. All of a sudden, I felt like I knew him, like our hearts shared a moment. Maybe we’re more alike than I realize. Maybe instead of harboring this bitterness and hurt, I should realize that he may be hurting just as much. Maybe I should practice compassion and forgiveness instead of anger and resentment. After all, he’s living out my worst fear. He’s lost his children. 

He needs love, too. 

Of course, we are not completely lost. We are very much here, carrying on our beautiful, messy lives, open to reconnecting at any moment. It just takes a little bit of effort, and a whole lot of courage.

Another Father’s Day has come and gone. I celebrated my wonderful step-dad and loving husband, and had an amazing weekend with my family. Of course, I also thought of my “real” dad today. I wondered how he feels on a day like today. I can’t imagine it’s warm and fuzzy. I assume he feels loss and regret, but I only assume that because I am a parent now. And if he and I are related, I trust that he has a compassionate heart like I do. A heart that loves deep and yet doesn’t know how to show it. A heart that feels like it’s not good enough and therefore may be reluctant to try. A heart that is only human.

One of the phrase I tell my kids often is: I’m doing the best that I can. I feel that it’s important to teach them that life is hard and complicated, and all we can do is try our best. We are not perfect. We will make mistakes. But we must give ourselves grace. And more importantly, we must give it to others, too.

Unless you’re a terrorist or an alligator. In that case, the mama bears are coming after you.