I recently joined the ranks of mothers who were just half a second too late.
It’s not that I was careless or inattentive or even distracted in that moment; it’s just that I was being a human, and with humanity comes margin for error. That margin is fine when we’re talking about political polls or scientific calculations. But when we’re talking about my own kid’s safety, the distance between perfection and reality suddenly changes from normal margin to steep drop-off.
Selah is standing in the bathtub, and I try to be clear and firm that we only sit in the tub. She does not listen. I’m sitting next to her, reading my book, and I have just three more sentences to go before the end of the chapter. But I think, rightly, You will never forgive yourself if something happens in the next 15 seconds, all because you just had to finish a few lines.
I put the book down and sit Selah down too, letting her play for a few more minutes, splashing water and grabbing at bubbles. I wash her hair and her body and then help her up, supporting her the whole time, so I can rinse the soap from her limbs before she gets out. I pour the warm water down her neck, across her tiny shoulders, over her belly and down her legs. I lift her out of the tub and set her gently on the memory-foam bath mat, reaching above her head to grab a towel.
In that half-second space of time, when she is under me but just out of reach, she takes off running, leaving the bath mat and reaching the tile. Her feet slip out from under her and I watch desperately as her head hits the ground with a deafening crack. My arms are already reaching out for her, trying to save her before she hits the ground, but I am not fast enough.
I scoop her up before she’s even realized what has happened, letting her wet limbs wrap themselves around my waist, soaking my shirt. She begins to wail as I place her tan bear towel around her shoulders. I cradle her against my chest, listening as her shrieks turns to whimpers, and then she is quiet, safe.
As we sit there together on the closed lid of the toilet—gently rocking back and forth, back and forth—I see not Selah’s accident looping through my mind, but thousands of other accidents that thousands of other moms were half a second too late to stop. I have reached another mommy milestone, one I have dreaded.
Like many of these mothers who have gone before me, I whip out my phone and consult Dr. Google: What are the symptoms of a concussion in a toddler? Vomiting, dizziness, headache, lethargy or sleepiness, inability to focus eyes, irritability. I make sure Selah’s eyes are open, that she is not getting sleepy.
And also like many of these mothers who have gone before me, I call my own mom.
She doesn’t answer the phone, so I take Selah into her bedroom. I sit her up on the changing table, brushing her hair gently, watching her for signs of dizziness, but she immediately picks up her tiny toys, shouting baby babble at them and then looking to me for a response. I feel a slight bump forming where her skull met the tile, and I touch it gently to see if she’ll respond. She doesn’t seem to notice the pressure.
I dress Selah and then we go downstairs, and when I set her down, she trots off to play in her kitchen. She is walking a straight line. My phone rings, and relief courses through my body when I see “Mom” on the screen. I swipe right, and hearing my mom’s voice, I lean back against the living room wall and sink to the hardwood floor. I tell her, in the space of a single breath, that Selah is okay and I’m okay but she hit her head really hard on the bathroom floor and I was only half a second too late and it was so horrible and do you think she has a concussion?
I watch as Selah squats down, crouched so low that her butt almost touches the floor. She is inspecting two felt strawberries, and I ask, “Surely she would topple over if she had a concussion?”
After talking with my mom, I consult Selah’s pediatrician and a friend who is a nurse, and we all decide Selah is fine. She is resilient. She probably doesn’t even remember what happened.
But I do.
My child is okay, but I can’t stop asking the question, What if, what if, what if?
What if she’d hit her head just a bit harder and lost consciousness?
What if her skin had split open and blood had come pouring out?
What if the symptoms are delayed, and I put her down for a nap only to find her unresponsive hours later?
What if I could have prevented it?
What I’m really asking is this: What if I’m a bad mom?
My worst fear is that something horrible would happen to my child on my watch, or worse, that somehow I would cause it. This is the definition of a bad mom, right? Someone who doesn’t love her child deeply enough to watch him or her carefully enough to prevent the preventable.
I know this is a lie. I also know this is also how helicopter parents are born.
For the most part, I fight my instinct to hover. I try to let Selah do her own thing–explore, run, fall down, scrape her knees. She’s learning cause and effect, safe and dangerous, wise and not wise. I don’t rush over at every little tumble she takes. I don’t gasp and scare her every time she trips. I don’t comfort and coddle until I see she’s clearly upset or hurt.
But in these moments when it goes wrong, when I feel like I should have done better or been more prepared or prevented it altogether, I hoist myself on the hook and let the guilt wash over me like ice-cold water.
As I sat there with Selah, going through the motions of this mommy milestone, I realized that perhaps part of getting past it is facing down the guilt and fear and shame of not being perfect.
Maybe this milestone is less about the scary thing that happened to my daughter and more about how I define myself as a mother: Not perfect but human. Not careless but still fallible. Not thoughtless but loving. Not bad but good.