Moving halfway across the country has been a bit traumatic for our kids and, in typical kid fashion, they manifest their discombobulation by suddenly refusing to eat, potty and/or sleep. (For the record, you can’t pee on a tree if you’re a girl. Jelly Bean proved this by first refusing to use a “stiiinky” biffy, then partially wetting herself when I tried to help her squat and then somehow managed to not pee at all for 24-hours straight causing me to panic that she was going to pull a Tycho Brahe on me.) So it was no surprise when Son #3 started crying hysterically right at bedtime, terror-stricken that he was going to be eaten by a coyote (a fear that is probably my fault, more mommy guilt in a minute).
First, my husband tried logic to calm him: “Have you seen how little coyote’s paws are? There’s no way they could undo a deadbolt!”
However, as any good nightmare-banishing mommy can tell you, logic is powerless in the face of beady glow-in-the-dark eyes. Not that I have any better suggestions, mind you. I was hiding (as much as you can in 500 sq ft shared by 6 people) and pretending I wasn’t on call. So I was all ears for my husband’s next suggestion.
“Do you want to hear about a time when I was your age and I was really scared of something?”
A chorus of tinny-voiced yeses resounded.
“When I was about your age, I moved to Hawaii with my family. [Husband’s dad was in the navy. Also, he would like me to add that living in Hawaii is not at all as fun as visiting it so you can stop envying him.] I was afraid of sharks in the water that would eat me, of volcanoes that would roast me and of tidal waves that would drown me. But did any of those things happen to me?”
I could hear my kids’ brains thinking that one through. “I guess not,” my eldest finally answered. (Awesome, since he’s living proof it didn’t. Critical thinking skills FTW!)
My husband continued, “But you know what I was not really afraid of? The black sand beach! I’d never seen black sand but I loved playing on the beach so I figured it would be fun. So one day my dad took me to one of those beaches and you know what happened? I discovered that black sand is really freaking hot and I burnt my feet so bad I couldn’t play on any beach that day!” He paused for effect. “So the moral of this story is that it’s never the stuff that you think is going to get you, it’s the stuff you’re not worried about that will do you in! Now GO TO BED.”
I was amused by this all the way until 2 a.m. when my son woke me up sobbing about nightmares of coyotes chasing him across black sand. (Kidding! He was sobbing about some stupidly menacing cartoon character. Any excuse not to sleep!)
But as I comforted him and reassured him that he was safe because I was there and would protect him, it occurred to me how much I wanted someone to be holding me and saying those same things. Sitting there in the blackest part of night, I realized how afraid I have been this past week. Heck, this past month. Ever since we found out that we were moving I have been deeply scared.
Now, most of the time I do a fairly good imitation of fearless. For being as much of a scaredy cat as I innately am, I’ve done some pretty brave things. But the truth is that I worry about everything all the time and when you take away all that is familiar to me I get absolutely rigid with fear. And it’s 100 times worse since I’ve had kids, little daredevils that they are.
I’m tired of living in fear.
For one thing, my fear often manifests as anger. I’m terrified of losing my kids in this huge, foreign place and so I yell at them to “stay by me or I will ground you until Kim Kardashian has her baby and then make you watch the 4-hour Special Delivery episode on repeat!!!” until I’m hoarse. So many scenarios of death, injury, kidnapping and dirty looks from strangers running through my mind but all my kids see is my mad face. And they think it’s their fault. I’ve become the fun-sucker.
Another problem is that being that scared all the time – the clenched jaw, the hypervigilance, the waddling so I can keep that stick firmly up my butt – is exhausting. By the end of each day, I collapse in my hotel bed completely spent both physically and emotionally. I avoid going to sleep (like I’m doing right now, oh hello Midnight!) because I’m afraid of all the unknowns in tomorrow. My sleep is interrupted every 20 minutes by children or nightmares. I wake up stiff and sore. But it all feels Worth It because, hey, we’re all still alive right? I’m a walking zombie.
And lastly, while this isn’t quite as severe, fear makes me a seriously crappy driver. I’m so afraid of getting lost that I’ve got my GPS glued to one hand and I’m so busy trying not to miss my exit that I completely forget to do stuff like, oh, check my blind spot. Confession: I ran into a pole at the zoo. No one was hurt thankfully but my van looks like we drove into the rhino cage.
So in the interest of public safety and not shortening my own lifespan, I need to find a way to stop being so afraid of everything. Part of the solution, I think, will be finally moving into our house (in two weeks!) so I can start to reassemble my normal coping/comfort mechanisms. But until then what else can I do? Telling myself not to freak doesn’t work in the slightest.
I stumbled upon an unlikely solution. And it turns out I have the coyotes to thank for it.
The other night my husband wanted to go explore some of the magnificent scenery here in Colorado so we packed up our kids and headed out to Red Rocks. A mere 50 feet up the Red Rocks trail, we ran into a very friendly fellow hiker who told us that a mountain lion was sighted further up on the trail. Then she added this dire warning: “That plus all the coyotes around – you’d better keep a grip on your kids. They love toddlers!”
I went into full mom-panic mode. I picked Jelly Bean up (and didn’t set her down for the entire rest of the hike – which also might be a reason I woke up sore?) and yelled at my husband to grab Son #3. What had been a beautiful twilight hike in some of the most gorgeous territory on the planet suddenly turned into my worst nightmare. As we climbed the rocky trail, all my husband could see was the soaring stone cathedrals. All I could see was the phantom image of a burly cat snatching my baby out of my arms and bounding off into the wilderness, never to be seen again. I kept my eyes firmly in front of me, looking for tracks or snapped branches or – heaven help me – beady eyes glowing in the dark.
I desperately wanted to turn back, get my babies back to the (battered) metal fortress of our car, but my husband insisted we go all the way to the top. Which we did. We saw nary a trace of a predator but the view was even more breathtaking than promised. My kids loved it. My husband loved it. I wish I could say I loved it. But I was still so locked in my fear spiral that I just couldn’t. I couldn’t let my guard down enough to appreciate the beauty that always accompanies the wild.
On the way back down I carried my son, completely unaware of the mortal terror I’d been instilling in him drop by drop all evening. “Mom,” he whispered in my ear, “I think I see glowing eyes! They’re going to eat me!!” Trying to comfort him – that’s my job, right? – I sounded as brave as I could and repeated something I’d been told as a kid. “Well, if you can see their eyes that’s actually a good thing! Mountain lions usually jump you from behind so if you can see them looking at you, it means they’re just curious!” Who knows if that’s even true? But it seemed to make him feel better. And then I sprinted down the rest of the mountain.
[Side note: Jelly Bean, like toddlers everywhere, was completely un-mired by fear. Her only note about the wildlife was when we pointed out a deer to her and she exclaimed, “Why he not fly?! WHERE IS SANTA?” Haha, wrong deer. I love little kids’ brains.]
The next day as I scurried through a park, herding my children angrily (fearfully) away from the river made both beautiful and dangerous by the class III rapids, I suddenly felt someone staring at me. It was a man. He was standing right at the edge of the river, his own small children running up and down the shore, not even within arm’s reach. As I looked back at him, I expected to see pity or even judgement in his eyes (crazy over-protective mom!) but instead he just grinned at me. And that was it. He turned back to watch the kayakers (that I’d barely noticed) doing amazing tricks.
His casual smile unlocked something in me. I remembered what I’d told my son about the coyotes’ and mountain lion’s eyes – that if you could see them it meant they weren’t going to attack you – and realized that I needed to stop treating everyone like a threat. And while I don’t know how to make myself unafraid, I certainly do know how to look at someone in the eyes and smile. So that became my mantra: look at everyone – animal or human, surly teen or grandfather, hotel maid or librarian – meet their eyes and smile. Say hello. What I discovered is that everyone inevitably smiles back. Seriously, everyone. And all those smiles make the world feel a lot safer!
I can’t change the fact that we yanked the kids out of a school they loved. I can’t change the fact that I lost all my dearest and deepest friends in one fell swoop*. I can’t change the fact that we’re living in limbo. I can’t change the fact that at least ten times a day my husband and I look at each other and say Did we do the right thing? Really? I certainly can’t change the fact that there are coyotes and mountain lions and stupidly menacing cartoon characters in this world. But I can look up, meet someone’s eyes and smile. I can do that. (And I can remember that for as difficult as this is right now, honestly it’s going as smoothly as it possibly could. I have much to be grateful for.)
So the moral of the story is, it’s never the big stuff that you think is going to save you, it’s the little stuff you weren’t even thinking about because you were too afraid to look.
Everyone is scared sometimes – how do you deal with fear? Do you have any other tips for me? Also, do you say coyote “ky-o-TEE” or “KY-oat”? I’ve heard it both ways since we’ve been here and it’s driving me NUTS. I mean it’s clearly “ky-o-TEE” right? Kind of like Spanish??
*A few of you have pointed out (rightly so) in previous posts that neither my friends nor I am dying and that this is what Facebook is made for. And while I agree with the general premise, there is a certain amount of intimacy that only comes from proximity. While I am sure that all the gym buddies and I will remain friends forever, without being a part of the everyday minutiae of their lives much of that closeness is lost. It’s a new phase of friendship and while it’s just a part of life, so is mourning the loss of this phase of our friendship. Allow me that, please:) I promise it won’t last forever!