Safety Devices

In the newspaper I read a story about a woman at a Laundromat in Pomona who tossed her two-year-old daughter into a front-loading washing machine and slammed the lid, causing it to start up. In progress, the machine lid automatically locked, and the girl began to tumble and drown in the rotating cylinder. There was no stopping it. When the police arrived and knocked out the glass, a man reached in through the broken shards and held her head above the water. The police not only had the unconscious girl to resuscitate, but also had to patch up the man's severely bleeding arm. The girl and man recovered; the mother was jailed.

This story hung about me all day like a furied fog. There was a reflexive rush to condemn the mother. I imagine the pandemonium in the Laundromat, the startled girl in the clutches of a relentless machine. And I struggle to understand, to piece together the fragments of information, because outside of placing the child in the washer, the mother is left out of the account.

When my son was newborn, there wasn't much he could do: he couldn't settle his body to a more comfortable position, he couldn't control his arms to swat a menacing fly. He could only lay and wait to be cared for. I brought him milk, clean diapers, warmth, and comfort. When Leif cried, his arms waved all around him in a wild pattern. And he wailed a lot, for hours on end. Now that he's five and I know him better, I suspect the crying had to do with the abhorrence of his dependency on me, of my inability to get it right, to know what he needed and provide it. I, on the other hand, listened with anticipation to each breath as he slept.   He had to be watched, watched, watched, because even in sleep there was no safety. If he rolled onto his stomach, he could stop breathing and die of SIDS. I was fearful that if I lost my guard for an instant, he might slip away from me forever, like water down a drain.

As the days went by, he learned to roll over and to reach for toys with purpose and determination. Each of these steps was welcomed, the maternal responsibility gradually eased. Soon everything within Leif's reach became objects to explore, and he began advancing into my territory. To protect my books, I placed them higher and higher on the bookshelves. The shelves closest to the floor were completely bare.

The newspaper article hints at a story, but leaves the real one out. It leaves you with the horrific end, but misses what comes before. It's like picking at a bit of cotton fuzz, trying to find a core that's not there. I struggle to understand the mother, to find an explanation for inserting a child in a washing machine.   Could this have been a desire to cleanse a soiled child, to remove the dirt stained by childish devilry? The grime that comes from the sassy talk and wild carelessness of a two-year-old learning autonomy? But, of course, this act of laundering batters the child--causes her to lose her breath, prevents her from taking in life-providing air. The mother ultimately hurts the child.

Soon after my son was born, I started getting catalogues in the mail for child safety products. There are pictures of happy children on each page--cheerful, safe children, protected by fences, socket plugs, VCR and toilet locks, items to soften sharp table corners, latches for cabinets, and monitors to listen to your child sleep. On one page, three children play happily with scattered toys on beach sand, unaware that their freedom is ringed in by a circle of plastic fencing. An open-eyed toddler reaches his arm up towards a blazing hot burner, but is stopped by a plastic shield. These children are content because their parents had the foresight and the money to prevent heinous accidents. The other side of this, what is implied, is gruesome, grotesque, out of an Edward Gorey book--the child crushed by a fallen chest of drawers, burnt to toast from falling into the fireplace, poisoned from swallowing cleaning products kept in an unlatched cabinet, his skull smashed from hitting a sharp table edge. The catalogues prey on parental fears. A mother I am acquainted with hired a professional child safety expert to come and child proof her home.   Something horrible might happen that not even she could imagine.

My own imagination was working hard and wild. Leif might scald in hot bath water, sizzle from the electrical outlets, or tumble down the steep stairs that lead up the hill to our house. He could choke on a button and I might forget the CPR I studied. Did I fasten him securely enough in his car seat, in the stroller, or the high chair? Did I remember to close the door to keep him inside? At the park he didn't stay within the sandy playground boundaries with the other children, he played at the periphery, searching for the way out, hiding in the public restroom, or heading for the street. We took a winter trip to the mountains and he headed off towards the woods   to experience "the deep snow." He lightly skimmed the surface of the snow while I plodded along behind, sinking in. Soon I couldn't see him anywhere; he was gone, disappeared into the tall fir trees. He didn't look back once, confident that I would find him, because eventually I always do.

On my first birthday as a mother, I take a shower. Not wanting to leave Leif alone, I bring him into the small bathroom with me. Maybe the droning monotone of the shower water will calm his colic. I don't want to place his bouncy seat down low on the tiled floor, so I put him on top of the lidded toilet seat and jump into the shower stall, until I hear a piercing scream. Jumping out wet and naked, I see him face down on the hard floor, still tethered to his chair on top of him. He is wailing, a good sign. I snatch him up and soon join him in his tears, reeling with fear that I have harmed his skull, that he is damaged. There are no safety devices that can protect him from me, from my ineptitude.


Or from my temper.   Leif, at five years old, looks for ways to hurt me, to press my anger button. Today he threw my reading glasses over the tall chain-link fence into the ivy on the neighbor's side. This was only the end of a stream of events that started when I wouldn't buy him a drink at a fast food restaurant next to the nursery. He refused to get into the car to take the three-minute ride home. Grabbing some loose paper napkins from the car, he flung them on the dirty sidewalk. Like me, he is quick to anger, quick to turn into a red fiery ball. He succeeds. I am livid, but from years of experience I suppress it, swallow it up, struggle for the calm voice with just a little bit of simmering edge. I'm like a cartoon character with steam pouring out my ears, but my voice purrs, "You know that means no T.V." I have to have some mud to sling back at him. And now we are both trapped in this struggle, unable to find a way out, furious at each other. I know that parents shouldn't threaten or punish, that it really doesn't work.   But at this moment, as he stands on the busy street in a fit of rage, I don't know any other way to get him in the car without buying the damn drink. But, this isn't really about the drink. Moments ago his thirst was forgotten as he ran through the aisles of the nursery stopping to view the fishpond, the steaming gargoyle fountain, and a Venus Fly Trap. This is a game of tug o' war, each of us straining to pull the other under our influence. And while I win for the moment, when we get home, my glasses get tossed over the fence.

I have a theory that terrible things can happen to children of women who are alone, unsupported, expected too much of, women whose husbands won't even change a diaper--like Andrea Yates, who methodically and purposefully drowned her five children in a bathtub. As these mothers are vilified, the rest of us mothers are reassured. These women have crossed the line that separates the good mothers from the bad, and we are left securely within the realm of good.   Within decency, we can breathe a sigh of relief and pat ourselves on the back, because our mothering is not called into question. We may be blamed for the low-test scores, obesity, rude behavior, or criminal delinquency of our children, but we are not murderers. We are not them.

The weather is warming up. There will be T. V. news stories of children forgotten in hot cars, strapped in their car seats with the windows rolled up, their mothers enjoying air conditioning somewhere else, maybe drunk, maybe with a lover. We don't want to know too much about these monstrous women, because if we did, we might see ourselves in them. And we might realize our own culpability, or the responsibility we have as a society to support mothers. It's more than just the predicament of mothers left alone to deal with cranky kids, to negotiate temper tantrums, or to reason with a child who might run into a busy street without warning. As mothers navigate through seemingly shark-infested waters hunting for adequate and affordable childcare, good schools, and safe play areas, the television that beams into their homes attempts to exploit their children by either tempting them to buy useless products manufactured by profit-minded corporations or by numbing their minds and preventing critical thought. The responsibility shouldered by mothers is enormous, yet taken for granted, forgotten as a child left alone in a blistering car.

I worry about cars in differing ways. My neighbor in his large black pickup rounds the curves of my street at a breakneck speed, oblivious to all the children playing. I don't let Leif cross even the most protected street without grasping my hand. When Leif becomes a teenager will he drive cautiously? Will his friends be reckless drivers? But that's just the beginning of future anxieties. There are many more and they range from Leif becoming addicted to alcohol or drugs to someone acting cruel, saying something unkind, and wounding him deeply. I want to prevent all those things from happening to him and at the same time, I know that I can't. This desire to protect him, to wrap a loving cocoon about him, could harm him, could smother him. I don't want fear to hold him back; I want him to take risks, to face up to the world, and at the same time, I just want him safe and nearby.

Leif and I go to the park with my friend, Valerie, and her preschool-aged children. She is jittery: fearful that they will fall off the steps, that they will walk in the mud, that they will grab a toy from another child, maybe they are thirsty, maybe they need a ball to play with, maybe they will hit their head on the swing, or get mowed down by a racing older child. She keeps the perimeters about her children short, leaving them little room to think or make a decision. One moment, while we are in the midst of chatting on a bench, her body tenses and she hollers out to her child in an overly pleasant tone, "Don't climb up the slide, Jason, go up the other side, and slide down properly." The voice is half way between the lilt of a nursery rhyme and a sharp reprimand. She runs over to correct his error. I am left dangling mid sentence, wondering if children ever do anything as they should. Isn't it their task to make many mistakes, explore all the possibilities before settling in on the conventional, before climbing up the ladder side of the slide? But it can be hard for the parent to step back and watch the laborious trial and error process. Sometimes it is easier to move the course along to its obvious end and just shout out the solutions to the conundrum, figure it all out for them. Maybe it is because I don't think I have it all worked out so well myself, that I allow Leif to come to his own answers. Perhaps climbing up a slide backwards is more fun.

Last night before bed, Leif and I sat in a wicker rocking chair in his bedroom. He sat on my lap wearing pajamas sprinkled with dinosaurs, and we read a book about houses. There were four pictures. "Which house do you like?" he asked. They seemed all the same to me, but I chose one. "Well, I like the other three, not the one you like," he answered quickly, defining himself separately from me.

Leif can be difficult with his teachers. In his swimming class, while the other children practiced kicking, he walked around the shallow end of the pool on his toes with his arms out-stretched for balance, rejecting   any of the activities the teacher suggested, but clearly enjoying the water. At every music class, he sat on the floor behind a chair, peering through the legs at the teacher and the rest of the class. On his baseball team, he refused to go outfield; he stayed under the bleachers playing in the dirt where it was cooler. And during the beginning stretches of his dance class, he models the opposite of the teacher's directions. As the rest of the children sit up and bend to touch their toes, he lies on his back and lifts his legs over his head to touch his. Sitting with the other parents, outside the children's circle, I squirm at his consistent desire to flaunt authority. I was the good child in school. I followed directions; I aimed to please the teacher and not call attention to myself. So I find myself in his movement class doing the positions with the children and imitating the teacher exactly as if to show that I am not like my son; I can adhere to the rules. But his teacher takes his cue, and decides everyone should follow Leif. I admire his difference from me--his self-procession, his strong will, but I'm not comfortable being the mom with the oddball child. There are those he infuriates: his soccer coach threw him out of games when he preferred to look for ants on the field, rather than pay attention to the game.   I want to protect him from those who don't appreciate him; I want him to always feel that it's okay to be who he is; he doesn't have to lose his spirit and become a team player. I want his teachers to recognize his quirky individuality as a positive trait, something that needs polishing to fit social needs, but not to be squashed to fit the needs of the institution.

Leif is going to lose his kindergarten teacher next year. The school had initially promised that he would have the same teacher through first grade. This would have been a good thing since he seemed to trust her and she understood him. Instead his teacher was assigned to kindergarten again. I call a school administrator to complain about the change. As if to diminish the school's negligence, she tells me not to worry, kids are resilient, more than we think. He will recover from this loss.

What it comes down to is, as much as I want it all to be good for Leif, that every sharp corner be covered with soft padding, I must face that I can't be perfect, the world isn't ideal, and his life will be determined by how he negotiates these sharp edges. Like the girl in the washing machine, his character will be shaped by his ability to be resilient to what life throws at him. Watching from the sidelines, I have to let go and trust that he will find his way, that he can keep his head above the water.