As parents, we know the ease with which the flip side of our love for our babies -- the crush of our responsibilities for them, our lack of control over what can happen in this world -- can lead us down a dark road to a dark, dark place in our minds.
I'm not talking just about our usual, understandable fears of loss or even death. These, and their political consequences, I discussed in an earlier entry on this blog (see "The Politics of Fear and the Urge to Control (a Parenting Perspective)") These understandable fears -- let's call them "social no nos" fears -- are dangerous and can be corrupting, but they are kinds of things which you can discuss at a dinner party if you want to end it awkwardly.
No. I'm talking now about those fears that you wouldn't even think to bring up at a dinner party. You might choose not even to mention them to your spouse. Fears that religions have spent millenia trying to capture in images:
I'm talking about those horrible oddities, those imaginings which trouble you in an unnamable way even when they are yours alone, those scenarios which lead you to despair of ever regaining your sanity if they happened to occur.
A story from India yesterday, about a little girl, took me on a journey from this dark, dark place and back, and I believe it will do the same for you.
The abject terror that I felt come over me (that word is extreme, but it applies) when I saw the photograph of this girl -- in the condition in which she was born -- conjured up for me, all in a rush, my own nightmare vision at the birth of one of my children. It made me reflect on the way that nightmares affect us, and the fact that they so often are not as bad as we thought.
So first the story of my son Cole's birth two years ago, then the girl from India's story.
I have never been good with blood and guts and dismemberment, disruptions to bodily integrity, that sort of thing. And when my second-born, Cole, was born (by C-section), the back of his head appeared to be missing.
He had been a "brow presentation" baby, and had spent the previous 24 hours or more pressed firmly against his mother's pelvic bone with his brow, unable to move forward despite the strong contractions of his mother's womb and his own (no doubt, knowing Cole) mighty efforts. As a result, his brain (with the plates of his cranium willingly accomodating to its wishes) had moved to the front of his head.
The result: a little round head, closely resembling a tennis ball, protruding above his eyes, and then a sudden dip down to the neck where the rest of the skull would normally be visible.
I looked up to see him in the arms of a nurse on his way to the "just born" station, and I thought: "Okay. Something to deal with. Next!"
My reaction had no emotion in it, no disappointment. It merely ascertained the facts and resolved to incorporate them into future planning.
It turned out that my fears were ungrounded. Within hours his little head looked suprisingly normal. The plates just float back into place, a doctor explained to me -- like a self-solving jigsaw puzzle.
But my reaction that instant has sustained me in the years since. I realized at that time that despite the nightmare visions I may have over a lifetime, the truth is that my wife and I will deal with whatever comes along. We are the parents of these children, and that is our responsibility. Based on my reaction to misreading the situation with Cole, I believe that this sense of unemotional, tough, stand-and-face-it responsibility is hard-wired into us as parents in some strange way, even from the moment of each child's birth.
This is not to understate the anguish, hard work, depression and even trauma that parents all over the world experience when dealing with nightmares come to life. But it gives me consolation and pride to know that these parents have a source of power from which to draw right from the beginning, the power of "Next!"
The terrifying aspect of a nightmare is the running away from the monster. When you stand and face it, you wake up.
Which brings us to the news story about the little girl in India.
At first you will see a nightmare in the "before" photo.
But then look at the beautiful face of the mother in the "after" photo. Know that she was prepared for anything. Know that this mother (and this father, seen in this photo) were just the people to see this through. After all, they are her parents.
And then look at the little girl's gorgeous, smiling face and know that the nightmare was never as bleak as it seemed.
(And after all that, I suggest looking once again at the "before" photo and seeing her beauty even there!)
Here's the girl, Lakshmi Tatma, and her parents. ("Before" and "after" photos are off to the right.)