The love I felt the first time I held my son was overwhelming. My doctor placed him on my belly and it brought me to tears, brimming with joy, overflowing with gratitude, evidence of these blessings weaving their way down my cheeks. Mothers had told me about this moment. It was, in part, the reason I wanted to become a mother – to explore the emotional landscape, probe its depths, its heights and discover new terrain. As Jack cried and searched for my breast, holding his own hands, I marveled at the intensity of the emotion that washed over me. I’d never known anything like it.
I grew up believing that emotion was something to be controlled, denied, manipulated, and eventually chosen. I never asked myself how I felt; I always asked myself how I should feel. In one of the most important seasons of my life, I discovered the prison that mindset can create and learned new ways to cope. But (there is always a but, right?) two days after my son was born, another emotion brought me to my knees: fear.
Overwhelming, incapacitating, life altering fear. Without going into the details, Jack had an ALTE – an “apparent life threatening event” – involving his breathing. While we never discovered why this occurred, Jack was dehydrated and jaundiced at the time (my milk was late to come in). The next few days were harrowing. As I tried to recover from child-birth, I refused to sleep, intent on watching each breath he took, even though he was hooked up to monitors and had a NICU nurse to patient ratio of 1:2. I was convinced that I was the only thing standing between Jack and danger, that my vigilance and devotion would protect him. I still sometimes feel that way.
Everyone will tell you that you will spend the first few nights with your baby checking to make sure they are breathing – and it is true. Even before Jack displayed any trouble breathing, I popped up from sleep to watch his chest rise and fall. But after the ALTE, it became an obsession. I would wake up from sleep (when I did fall asleep) and compulsively check his breathing; I would drive in silence so I could listen for his breathing; I was terrified to leave him alone for even small periods at a time, sure no one would be as vigilant as I was about protecting his airway. Until one day, I had an epiphany: I cannot, no matter how much I love this little boy, watch every breath he takes in his life. I cannot protect him always or from everything. Holy Mary, Mother of God, I can no longer protect myself.
Until that point, I thought that I had accepted vulnerability as an important part of meaningful living. I learned to lean into discomfort in order to open. But this was different. This is different.
Naming the fear I felt helped. My logic and emotion still wrestled each day, with each new milestone, with each new perceived potential threat. I learned there is a name for half of my fear: vulnerable child syndrome. Characterized by a parental perception that a healthy child is at greater risk for illness or death than what is actually likely, VCS has the potential to interfere with the parent/child relationship in an inability to set appropriate boundaries (check), increased separation anxiety in both mother and child (double check), and sleeping habits (um, definitely), among other things. I was lucky enough to be informed by my caring pediatrician that my response to our experience was perfectly reasonable, but that as a result, I may need to work harder to separate my fears from my perception of Jack. This has worked remarkably well for me in dealing with that half of the fear.
I’m still struggling with the other half: I will never be able to protect myself as ably as I used to because my well being is wrapped tightly and inextricably around another person in a way it never has been before. And that will never change. I can only hope that I become increasingly comfortable with my heart in Jack’s tiny hands and with the risk that inherently entails.
While I wish someone could have explained this to me before I had Jack, I’m not sure I would have understood it. It’s kind of like the difference between explaining the pain of burning your hand on a hot pan and actually burning your hand. In the first instance, you can imagine the feeling, even if you haven’t felt it. In the second, the feeling is visceral and, in some ways, is more faceted than words can describe. You see, the conjoined twin of this vulnerability is the deepest, truest, most all consuming love I’ve ever felt. I wouldn’t trade that for all the safety in this world.
*I am not a doctor and nothing in this post should be construed as medical advice or a definitive guide to Vulnerable Child Syndrome or ALTEs. If you have more questions regarding postpartum anxiety, VCS, or postpartum depression, please consult you or your child’s medical professional.