“What are you scared of, mommy?” My five-year-old is snuggled up against me, tucked safely under the covers of my bed, drying her tears. Her fears are keeping her awake tonight.
I take a deep breath. I am not quite sure how to respond. I want to reassure her that she is not alone in being afraid. Everyone gets scared, even mommies. Especially mommies.
My daughter’s active imagination beats me to a response.
“Would you be scared if me and brother got lost?”
I immediately imagine my two children, standing together on a busy sidewalk. Blurs of people are whizzing past them. They are crying. Alone. My daughter is trying to be brave for her younger brother, keeping him close, keeping him safe.
“Are you scared of us eating not safe food?”
Now my brain floods with images of the horror stories I read in the news. Children with severe food allergies, like my own children, eating a bite of a chocolate bar and not knowing it contained peanuts. I imagine ambulance rides, clutching tiny hands, their sweet faces hidden behind oxygen masks. I remember the close calls of the past and just how lucky we have been so far.
I tread carefully in conversations like these. Moments when my five-year-old asks me the deep questions, the hard questions, the simple questions that always have the most complex answers. I want to tell her enough to answer her questions. I want to give her the information she needs. Even if it is painful. Even if it is scary. I try to break off tiny pieces of the world and pass them along like crumbs. I fight against all my instincts to protect her. I know that won’t serve her in the end. If she is old enough to ask, she is old enough to know.
“Yes, those things are very scary for mommy.” Now my fears may be keeping me awake tonight.
“What else are you afraid of?” she asks.
There is so much more in the world that I’m afraid of. None of it is appropriate for me to share with her in this moment, for this night.
“I’m afraid of different things. I’m not ready to talk about them right now.”
I want to answer her question, but I don’t want to influence her fears. I don’t want to create new fears for her or feed on fears she may already have. I want to help her recognize her fears. I want to help her face them, and maybe even conquer them. I want to give her the power to know that she is in control of her fear, that fear does not control her.
“I can tell you what I do when I feel afraid," I say. "I like to make a plan. I think about what I can do when something scary happens. Even though I feel afraid, I will know what to do to help myself feel safe.”
I know she will want concrete examples. I think about the questions she asked me about my fears. I wonder if she is trying to do more than ask me questions. I wonder if she is trying to tell me something. Maybe she is projecting her own fears onto me.
“I have a lot of plans to help keep you and brother safe. We always stay together when we go places and if you get lost, you can always ask a grown-up who has kids for help. We also have plans about keeping you safe from foods you are allergic to. We always ask friends to wash hands and we make sure all of the foods that you eat are safe.”
Fear is a natural defense mechanism. She will always have fears, but she doesn’t need to live in constant fear.
She’s quiet, processing my plans, sizing them up to see they are enough. I can’t tell if she is still feeling afraid.
I pull her closer and wrap my arms around her so that she is completely held. “I’m right here,” I remind her. I want her to feel completely safe. Not just for her comfort, but for mine, too. “It’s okay to be scared, but your mommy is right here with you.”
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