Worry Doesn't Equal Love

If you're super-careful about safety you may not like what I have to say. But hear me out.

Mom holding daughter's hand
Photo: Elli Thor Magnusson/Getty Images

Lately I've felt as though I'm part of a competition I didn't enter. It's called "Who Loves Her Child More?" And I seem to be losing--if the only way to succeed in it is to worry.

It started at the church carnival. My almost-4-year-old found one of the few rides she was tall enough to go on, the kind where you sit in an "animal" that goes up and down while rotating around the center pole. Each time my daughter passed me in her flying unicorn--roughly every 30 seconds--she'd gleefully wave and shout "Hi, Mommy!"

A mom I know appeared at my side. "My boys kept asking to go on that," she said by way of greeting. "I was like, 'Forget it.' There's no way I'm letting them on that thing." She visibly shuddered.

"This is Lila's fourth time," I replied, not taking my eyes off my child's delighted little face.

The mom shook her head. "I would be sick if my kids went on that. It looks so rickety. And check out the guy running it." While not the most attractive man I'd ever seen, he seemed to be doing his job perfectly well. Mother Doomsday moved on, perhaps to spread fear at the teacup ride.

A few months later I was chatting with a woman in the pediatrician's waiting room. The subject of drop-off birthday parties came up and I shared my view: They're awesome, and I couldn't wait for the day when my younger girl was old enough for them.

I rely on those precious 90 to 120 minutes to scramble around and complete as many family-related errands in a 15-mile radius as I can. The woman explained, "I'm not big on drop-offs. But that's just me. I'm a worrier. I'd never forgive myself if something happened to my daughter when I wasn't there." Translation? A better mom--"a worrier"--uses that time to stand at the ready as her child performs such risky acts as jumping in a supervised bouncy house, getting her face painted, and gorging on pizza.

Cut to a scene last summer, when I mentioned to a mom I'd just met that my children go to day camp at our town pool. Her reaction: "I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if my kids were at a pool all day without me." But between the lifeguards and the camp counselors, my daughters were under the close watch of more than two dozen staffers. They were making new friends and becoming better swimmers every day. I could sleep.

The toughest moment in this competition came in the days after Sandy Hook, when the country was reeling. As a parent, I felt a kind of sadness I'd never before experienced. A discussion arose on Facebook when a mom in my town mused that it was too easy to get into our elementary school--that all you have to do is state your purpose ("Helping with art class") and you're buzzed in through the locked door. But the secretary checks the video monitor first, I wrote. Can't we assume she lets you in because she recognizes you? No, many responded. Not good enough.

The women then offered solutions that ranged from bulletproof glass and bars on windows to pat-downs. After I questioned whether some of the ideas were necessary, one mom garnered a handful of Likes when she wrote, "If you have nothing to hide & want the best in safety for our children, you would not mind going through extra security measures."

I felt like I'd been slapped. If I disagree with certain safety precautions, it's because I don't want the best for my child?

I forced myself to stop reading the thread. But my dejected and angry emotions helped me put words to the bad vibe I'd felt during all of those earlier interactions. I realized that many moms seem to believe there's a correlation between how much you worry about your children and how much you love them.

I reject this notion. I'm well aware of all the dangers our children face. I'm the health director at Parents, so I spend my days editing articles about childhood illnesses and injuries. I read the medical studies, I attend the conferences, I talk to the researchers. And I regularly hear from parents whose children have been badly hurt or who are very sick or have died. In short, my eyes have been opened to every awful thing that could possibly happen to a child, whether from a genetic disorder or a freak accident. I frequently feel horrified by all the ways that life can go terribly wrong; I feel grateful for and even amazed by my own family's good fortune. But then I have to move on. I can't torture myself with what-ifs. I won't fill my daughters with fears or feed them my own anxieties, either. I do my best to keep my children safe and healthy, but I need to let them have a normal life.

So I allow them on appropriate carnival rides. I drop them off at birthday parties--now that I think they're old enough. I let them swim, supervised, while I'm at work. And though it's against school policy, I've even held the front door open for a fellow parent I've known since our children were in preschool together.

No aspect of parenting should be a competition. Let's all assume that we each love our children as much as one is capable of loving another human being. We may differ in how much we worry about them, but that doesn't make anyone a better mom.

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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