"I won't. Ever. Not even when pigs fly. Not freaking ever."
So went an exchange I had over seven years ago, while pregnant with my son. I'd just heard about a mother who was so afraid of spiders, snakes, allergens, and imagined dangers that she'd kept her baby completely sheltered from the natural world. The girl was so unfamiliar with the outside world ... with outside, period, that when her aunt placed her on soft grass at ten months old, she freaked out.
"It's understandable," my friend had said. "You'll become like that. Just wait."
Of course, I was unequivocal in my insistence that I would never, ever, not once, be like that. So you can see where this is going.
This week, I killed a bunch of spiders in a maternally induced, poison-spraying rampage (some of which I did on the sly, to hide the carnage from my son) and I became paranoid about swine flu.
I'm not this person. I mean really. If you're rolling your eyes at me and thinking how ridiculous it is and it would never be you, it's even more not me.
When my son was growing inside me, I became obsessed with the fragility of small things. I signed up for no less than a dozen "what your baby is doing now" widgets and calculators. The third month: Your baby is three inches long and has his own fingerprints (assuming you cease vomiting long enough to read about the baby). The sixth month: Your baby is growing hair, hiccuping, developing billions of neurons in a head now graced with proto-eyebrows, and weighs a little over a pound.
The smallness of him freaked me out. Anything could happen. What if I bumped into a table or chair or fell on my face or ass, as I so often did? What if some idiot pulled out in front of me in traffic? What if I had exposed him to too much of the chemicals I worked around? I had always mucked around in the chemical vats, fixing and stirring and squeezing my body behind heavy machinery. I'm the opposite of paranoid, when it comes to my own safety. But I began to shuffle around, resisting the urge to shield my abdomen with my arms, giving everything a wide berth, doing paperwork while someone else fixed the machines.
It was real and frightening, but not frightening because it was real. I had dealt with the reality of the situation almost at once -- coping by scarfing down a platter of ribs and confessing to an ex-boyfriend and then my family. Much crying had been involved, and much much barfing, but my near-pathological pragmatism had been a blessing, slipping me swiftly from panic to acceptance to happy anticipation. No, the frightening quality was the size. The fragility. I was totally freaked out that I was going to be in charge of a baby, a whole person, or at least a potential one. An empty vessel; an innocent, undifferentiated being who, somehow, I was supposed to raise to be a full person. Through interaction with the world around him, through how I would present that world, he would learn ... what? Caution? Trust? Love? Fear? Indifference? What if I couldn't even keep him healthy and whole and uninjured?
It reminded me of when I was a kid. I saw a butterfly, some kind of swallowtail though I didn't know it at the time. Bright yellow and bold black. I reached out to it, caught it, very gently. I brushed a wing. I loved it. And injured it. I was scared to touch a butterfly for a while after that.
I'm reminded of this now because I'm still the opposite of paranoid when it comes to myself, or even those close to me. You feel sick? Suck it up. Sore muscles? Deal with it. Spiders outside? Give me a break. Worried about abduction or disease or vehicular injuries? Come on. Do you even realize the vanishingly small numbers of people, in the grand scheme of things, who suffer these things? It's confirmation bias, people. Get over it.
But with my son, it's different. I'm fully aware that season flu kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, and that there are only tens of recorded deaths from swine flu. If it was just me, I'd be acting like a total know-it-all jackass, going around telling anyone who would listen how hyped-up and silly this all was. But my son comes in and coughs, and it's all about potential. What could happen. You know, I tell myself, the real danger of swine flu isn't how many deaths there are so far, it's the lack of immunity from it. In just a few generations, a few months, the number of infections could rise exponentially. That's why it's got pandemic potential. It can infect anyone who is exposed. Anyone. In fact, I think I've developed magnification-powered super vision, and I swear I can see flu viruses crawling all over my son's filthy fingers right now, the same hands that rub his nose and play with other kids who probably don't wash after wiping their butts, and OH MY GOD he just stuck his hand into his mouth. And now I can see, just from where I'm sitting and without even turning my head, all the spoils of my newly acquired paranoia: pocket-size antibacterial wet wipes; anti-flu, anti-cold, virus-and-bacteria-obliterating wipes in a huge cylinder dispenser; a new box of bar soap; hand soap; hand sanitizer; and surface wipes for each time someone uses the computer.
I know I'm being ridiculous. But I can't keep my head from going there. What if? We had a black widow infestation recently around our house and garage, and my initial fascination was followed by an ill-advised online search about how much worse black widow bites can be for children.
But that isn't me. And I don't want it to be him. I'm the one who gets inches away from spiders, who looks up medical information before freaking out, who embraces the world. So is he, so far.
Here is my struggle: How do I raise a son who grows up taking chances, holding the cricket, going nose-to-nose with the python, climbing the tree -- but who also, well, grows up? As in, remains alive? How do I raise a human being to live, and also to live? How do I not go crazy balancing the two? I can't make him care about the world while telling him to run in the opposite direction.
I guess it's all about example. Engagement. He never did go near the widows' webs. But he goes near webs of every other kind, and he's kind of sad we had to get rid of them. We brought them in to study. He skinned his knee today -- apparently, he was horsing around really roughly. Could have gotten hurt badly. Could have ... well, that doesn't matter. He didn't. And now the bandage is hanging dirty and loosely, forgotten except as a token feel-better gesture, and he's running. He doesn't think, he acts.
For now, it's up to me to think for him, to make sure he both survives and cares, but not for long. He didn't run to me this morning when a few kids tried to harm a lizard on the playground. He marched right over to them, let him know he was almost-crying because he cared, and they should care, and it can't hurt them and they're big jerks if they think smooshing a lizard is cool. He's realizing the potential, becoming a real person, with his own thoughts and feelings influenced by me but not the same as mine.
Then he rescued it, found his friend and went inside, almost forgetting to wave goodbye.
We're exiting the potential-person stage and entering real personhood. I think we'll survive this stage. It may be seen from between fingers, but I'll be watching with pride.
As long as his fingers are sanitized. And not in his mouth.