Over the years, I have confronted many opponents. I have faced the trials created by youth in an immature marriage. I have gone toe-to-toe with fertility doctors and their treatments. I have survived the “terrible 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s,” twice. I have persisted through health challenges and have balanced the demands of running a business while homeschooling children. I have even steadied myself (repeatedly!) in the turbulent waters of these teen years. I have triumphed in tough times.
The other night, I tossed and turned. I struggled to quiet my racing thoughts. I lay awake in the middle of the night fighting the only real enemy I have had in parenting, in marriage, in life. Fear is the only adversary I have yet to conquer. It finds me during the quiet of the night. It is unpredictable. It is invisible. It spreads throughout every fiber of my being, infecting my reason. It is a formidable opponent, especially where my children are concerned.
When my older daughter was 21 days old, she was taken from my arms by a surgical nurse. At just over two weeks of age, I had found something leading me to take her to the doctor for a check. With urgency, we were referred to the head of pediatric surgery to repair abdominal muscles that had not finished developing in utero. It was an easy surgery, they assured me–two small incisions, perhaps an hour-long, easy recovery–and he was the best pediatric surgeon. All the words you would want to hear, and still, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t stop the “what if’s.”
She cried when they took her from me that morning. I could still hear her cries after they disappeared behind a heavy door. I looked at the parents of the other children there for surgeries that morning and felt nothing for their pain, only mine. I cried helpless tears. I fought my worries. I paced. I prayed. I pleaded. My body ached. I had been told not to feed her after midnight before surgery. My body reminded me. As my milk let down, I pumped. I focused on her hunger. I just wanted her back in my arms. I was swept away. I lost myself in fear.
An endless hour passed and a nurse arrived to take us back to the recovery area. I was afraid to lift her. I feared hurting her. I asked if she needed pain medicine. I was reassured she was too young to understand the “physical pain from her procedure,” but I could give her Tylenol if it made me feel better. I was angered, but I held my baby again, and she held my focus. She was fine and, finally, so was I. My darkest fears had vanished. Like a thief in the night, they snuck away without notice in that recovery room.
Fear is the sole opponent capable of overwhelming my rationale. It hides cached in the crevices of my mind. It creeps out, disguised as “what if’s” and contingency plans. Throughout the years, I have developed skills to quiet the doubts and worries. I no longer fret over disagreements. I have learned to let go of the smaller worries such as missed appointments, messy kids, and the size of my clothes. Even some of the bigger worries such as bills and homeschooling have lost ability to dominate my thoughts.
However, those worries are in areas I feel I have control. Fear attacks me where I feel vulnerable, the areas I can’t control. It ambushes me where my children are concerned. In the night, I am confronted by my familiar foe when a cough doesn’t sound “quite right” or my thoughts turn to my girls’ futures. “What if’s” thwart sleep. I toss and turn. I pray. I plead. I curse the bandit even as I see the pattern.
The other night, I reminded myself of the lesson I had recently shared with my daughter. I told her how we often give away large chunks of our life to an imaginary monster called fear. We worry, we fret, we plan contingencies. Rarely do we consider the lost time when our fears don’t materialize. Fear, I explained, stands for:
F: False E:Evidence A: Appearing R: Real
(I don’t remember where I learned that acronym, but I love it!)
In the past week, I witnessed fear’s varied ways. It was in a mom’s steps, heavy from several sleepless nights, her youngest sick with high fever for six days. I heard it in the voice of a friend grappling with finances and uncertainty. It showed on the face of a father struggling with his teen’s choices. It saw it in my daughter’s eyes just before a test. I felt it in my muscles after a phone call with indeterminate news. Fear does not discriminate.
In the bedroom darkness, I repeat the defined acronym like a mantra. I remind myself of all the worries never realized. Regardless, a chorus of contingency plans floods my mind, flowing fast like a swollen river. Fears crowd out reason. I worry about the days when we are (truly) empty-nesters. Who will care for my girls when they are sick? Who will protect them? Who will reassure them in times of doubt? Who will reassure me when they no longer sleep just down the hall?
Yep, fear is a formidable opponent. It’s opportunistic, waiting for any chance to take root. It sneaks into the imagination and plays by unwritten rules. It favors exhaustion and mental manipulation. But, it can be banished, even if temporarily, by staying in the “present moment,” and in this moment all is well.
Denying my fears may not eradicate them, but I can eliminate their power just as a child can shoo away “the monster in the closet.” I know that when I feel weak or scared, I can remember I am not alone. I can turn to my husband. I can lean on my friends. I can pray and release.
I’ve faced some pretty rough challenges over the years. Haven’t we all? In the past week, fear snuck in once again. Like the ghost in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” it took me out of present time and far into the future. I realize the empty-nest fears may bring some of the toughest worries I have faced yet, but I’m on to you fear.
Thankfully, I have already learned that being stoic does not make me strong, knowing when to ask for help does. To those I have called upon over the years, I thank you. To those needing help, never be afraid to ask. And to my fears, bug off!