Fear and Parenting

By Gregory Keer

In my pre-fatherhood days, Saturday night meant excitement. There were the pre-marriage nights of cluelessly searching for women, followed by the post-wedding evenings of double features and an apartment all to ourselves.

But now, Saturday thrills have a new description: rushed family meals, bone-rattling screams, and calls to the paramedics.

Let’s rewind that last part and explain. It’s a recent Saturday night at the house of our friends Julie and David. Everyone gets along famously. The moms complain about the dads. The dads watch football. The kids tear the house apart, pitting the girls against the boys with the littlest ones on the sidelines, crying to be included. The parents try to pretend that this is fun, smiling through clenched teeth and yearning to go to bed by 8:30—three hours before the once requisite Saturday Night Live.

Around 8:30, we attempt to wind down. I get Benjamin through a “flash” bath, then work on my overtired toddler. At 14 months, Jacob likes to stand in a slippery tub and fling toys with reckless abandon. He wriggles from my reach five times, laughing mockingly like a swashbuckler in an Erroll Flynn film. But I finally grapple-hook him, braving waves of bawling, and wash his pudgy physique in the available watermelon-scented body wash.

His crying escalates as I lay him in a bedroom to dress him. With the instincts of a mother pterodactyl sensing her fledgling’s imminent demise at the claws of a velociraptor, my wife rushes into the room to ask, “What are you doing to him?”

“He’s tired!” I retort, my voice rising above the now powerful wailing. In Alias fashion, she bends down to help me defuse the timebomb by taking one side of the diaper while I tape the other. Jacob kicks and flails his arms, shrieking in what sounds like pain mixed with too much snot.

Our host, David, comes over to ask Jacob, “What’s the matter, little man?” My son changes octaves and shades of purple. I try to distract Jacob by kissing his chubby legs to make him laugh. The screaming gets hoarse. His complexion goes vermilion—Jacob passes out.

Surreality sets in. I stare dumbly at my small child, not fathoming what just happened. My wife shouts, “Is he breathing?” In a daze, I pull Jacob’s limp body to me. He slumps unconscious in my arms. I am numb.

But Wendy springs to action, running from the room, shouting, “I’m calling 911.” I stand up with Jacob, gently shaking and patting him. I want him awake. My heart thumps and my head feels like it will pop from the strain of not freaking out. “Jacob. Jacob. Jacob-Jacob-Jacob,” I sternly say as if scolding him for the lapse in his “good behavior.” His eyes flutter and roll back in his head. This is some kind of fit, right? What do people do in these situations?

I bounce him in my arms and…he…awakens. Jacob cries, a little more softly now, as I walk jelly-legged from the room, relieved, saved.

In our friends’ living room, Wendy is finishing the report to 911. Her reddened eyes brighten at the sight of her groggy but alert child. “Oh, my baby,” she says as she kisses him. I won’t let him go, fearing something else might happen if I do. Benjamin comes over and rubs his little brother’s back saying, “You’re OK, now, Jacob.” And we all hug each other.

Jacob thinks this group embrace is funny and starts giggling. Actually, he laughs through most of the next hour, during which two sets of paramedics and phone calls to two different pediatricians (including my calming father). The final diagnosis is that Jacob passed out as the result of a massive tantrum. Given his temperament, we’re told it may even happen again! 

Our son finally drifts off into a peaceful slumber (still in my arms) and we thank our amazingly supportive friends for hosting this “very special episode” of ER.

At home, we decide to let our boys bunk with us. We want to watch over them, feel them breathing. We’d been rattled, unprepared for the fright we had. Though this was only a blip on the parenting nightmare scale, we’ve come away with a respect for what Saturday night excitement now means. It means that the mysteries of childcare never cease. It symbolizes that parenthood is full of surprises, both joyous and terrifying. It signifies that we no longer can take a weekend break from responsibility. And, as we lie there with our two kids, we are quietly excited to have them here with us, safe and sound.

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