I used to tell this great story about the time my dad took me to the ER…
…because he thought I was having a heart attack. I was three. We were cozied up reading a bedtime story, and he realized that my heart was racing a mile a minute. He was in such a lather by the time we got to the hospital that they rushed me in for an EKG. This part I found hilarious. Me, sitting there with wires and patches all over my chest, and my father sprinting around the ER like Shirley MacLaine in that scene at the end of Terms of Endearment, so panicked that he convinced a team of medical professionals that his sleepy toddler was having a cardiac event. Once I’d been diagnosed as absolutely fine, the doctor pulled my dad aside and gently explained why my heart was beating so fast: Because I was three. And three year olds have faster heartbeats than middle-aged men.
Thirty-two years later, I have a new baby girl of my own: Margot. The other night I asked my husband to check on her, sleeping in the bassinet next to our bed. He got up, leaned in for a good look and gave me a thumbs up.
“Is she breathing?”
“But did you check her BREATHING?”
“She’s moving, so…”
At this point, I rolled my eyes and got up to check her breathing myself. This has become our own little bedtime ritual: First, I check the baby, make sure she’s alive, etc. Then I ask Harry to check her, just in case I was wrong about the alive part. He inevitably does not do a good enough job assessing her aliveness, and I have to get up and go put my hand on her tiny chest and in front of her tiny nose to confirm that air is moving both in and out.
I nod. “She’s breathing.”
Harry scrolls through his phone. “Imagine.”
We do this once, maybe twice a night. I would like to do it more, but I would also like to stay married, so I don’t. Instead, I lie there wondering if Margot is alive and then deciding she is not and then wondering if our marriage will collapse under the weight of this unspeakable tragedy, because if I’m going to get divorced anyway, then why not just go ahead and check her again? And then I fall asleep. This, by the way, is what managing anxiety looks like.
Nervousness is to be expected when you’re a first-time parent. A few weeks of late-night breathing checks? That’s normal. It’s just that for me, it’s always been normal. Just ask my husband, the person I used to stare at in the dark, imagining him to death. To be clear, I’m not suggesting this kind of behavior is a-okay, and if you’re a new parent struggling with anxiety and intrusive thoughts, please do get yourself some help. I can only make light of this stuff because I do. I’ve been managing anxiety and intrusive thoughts my whole life, and I prepared myself to manage them even more — with medication and therapy — when parenthood dialed them up to 11. Yeah, that’s right, checking the baby’s breathing only twice before bed is actually me on a good day! Having a baby may change your whole life, but it doesn’t change who you are. At least, it didn’t change who I am. Oh God, am I doing it wrong?
Am I Doing It Wrong is the queasy motto of all new parents. Babies bring with them endless opportunities for you to screw them up, mistakes to make and things to be afraid of. But don’t worry, there’s a Facebook group for every one of them! Sleep training, colic care, reflux management, weaning, diapering, babywearing — turns out there are dozens of ways to do these things, and whichever route you choose will define you as a parent in the eyes of others. Of course, the only eyes that really matter to me are Margot’s (is what I tell myself).
One night I blew it. I leaned in just a little too close and Margot startled in her sleep, jerking her head and whacking her little nose against my arm. She blinked her eyes open, squinting and disoriented, and then her face cracked into a pissed-off wail. Harry’s jaw dropped and he looked at me like — well, the way you’d look at a person who’s just woken a happy, healthy, sleeping baby for no good reason.
Like my father before me, I had become Shirley MacLaine.
A few days later, I bemoaning this to another mom friend — stressing out about stressing out, if you will. She reminded me of the concept of “the good-enough parent,” made famous by the legendary psychoanalyst D.W. Winniccott. In a nutshell, Winnicott suggested that children don’t need “perfect” parents. In fact, it’s the opposite: they need parents who make mistakes and fall short sometimes. Imperfect parents are how kids learn that the world is an imperfect place, that people are fallible, and that life is not without hardship — and that it’s okay. They’ll be okay.
I think of that phrase every day now. I think of it when I find myself obsessing over finding the “right” teething toy, while Margot is quite happily gnawing on a book. I think about it after spending 20 minutes Googling “how to tell if baby bleeding internally” only to pick her up and realize that she’s crying because she has a wedgie. I think about it when I catch myself wondering if maybe her heart is beating too fast, and perhaps my dad wasn’t so crazy after all.
But of course he was, and so am I — and both of us are good enough. One scary night at the ER didn’t scar me for life, nor did it change the love and closeness I have with my dad. If anything, that story has gotten even better since I became a parent myself. Now it reminds me that parental missteps are important, not just because they help kids learn to accept life’s imperfection, but also their own. And if there’s one thing I would give my girl with absolute confidence — perhaps the only thing — it is the bone-deep belief that she does not have to strive for perfection. She is already, and always will be, good enough.
Thank you, Kelsey! And congratulations on your beyond adorable little one.
P.S. 15 things Joanna would tell a new mom, and Kelsey’s body acceptance during pregnancy.
(Photos courtesy of Kelsey Miller.)