Four years into being a father and I still have paternal performance anxiety.
On Sunday, we got together with some friends who have a son the same age as my son Detective Munch. They have a shared interest in superheroes and also in being loud and annoying, so they get along famously, despite the fact that our little guy is a bit less adventurous than theirs. I’m sure his parents are used to it, judging by how well they dealt with what happened this weekend. When the going gets tough, will I perform as well as they did?
Their son is fearless, and he spent most of the afternoon hiking up, hopping onto and climbing over rocks and tree stumps and hills. Detective Munch is … less intrepid, so while he tried to keep pace with his friend, he often called for my help to get up or down various rocks. I was in the midst of helping him when our friend’s bad-ass son attempted one jump too many, fell and hit his head. The resulting cut was not insignificant, and there was a lot of blood.
Upon seeing him fall, his mom and dad immediately sprang into action. My wife grabbed Evel Knievel’s little brother (who’s only two but does a pretty good job of keeping pace with the older kids) and I scooped up Detective Munch. We did our best to keep them both distracted and occupied while our friends tended to their little boy.
Paternal panic and the anxiety attacks
Parents aren’t supposed to panic. Parents are supposed to know what to do in situations like that, though unless you’re a doctor, I’m not entirely sure how you gain that knowledge. But either my friends already knew or the mythical parental instinct kicked in or both, because they stayed calm, and they kept their injured son calm while they quickly assessed the cut and determined the next steps.
They had the situation under control with nary a nerve exposed, despite the fact that they had to have been FREAKING OUT on the inside. I know I would have been. I was unsettled – both by the lack of clarity around the severity of the injury and by the sheer amount of blood on display – and I was only standing on the sidelines. I didn’t panic either, but that was because I was basically catatonic. If it had been my son, I’m not so sure I would have been so even-keeled and in control.
Staying calm in those situations is important. Children take their cues from adults, and the best way to cause kids to panic is to panic on front of them. Neither of them did, which greatly reduced the hysteria of both of their sons (in fact, their youngest was entirely nonplussed; he’s likely seen his big brother take a licking and keep on ticking plenty of times before) and made for a much more manageable situation. Soon, they whisked their little daredevil off to the ER (he got some stitches and is doing A-OK!) while we The Detective home.
Parental anxiety starts early
Let’s face it, raising newborns and toddlers and preschoolers and whatever comes next has its challenges, but the real stuff comes later when it’s less about keeping them alive and more about actually raising them into decent people who can survive out in the world. But when they’re still young enough to need to be taken care of, situations like this one will occasionally arise, especially when you’re raising reckless little boys! And with such situations come chances to test your parenting mettle.
Our friends passed with flying colors. I mostly stood there going green. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I were in their shoes if it were my son who had gotten hurt and needed help. I’d like to think that my love for him would prevail, that my anxiety, my fear, my occasional queasiness would fade into the background, and that I’d react as quickly, confidently and calmly as they did.
Maybe I will. Maybe I’m worrying over nothing and parental instinct and adrenaline would help me step up in the name of protecting my child. But until it happens, I can’t be totally sure.
I want to know. And yet I hope I never find out.
A version of “Paternal Anxiety” first appeared on Dad and Buried. Photo: © Kay Abrahams/peopleimages.com / Adobe Stock.
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