Amy Welborn -- whose travel with her two youngest sons was one of the things that inspired our family to take the plunge and take our five kids to Europe this past September -- shares a story of a "travel disaster:"
[W]e each had a suitcase, plus a backpack. And remember, the boys were two years younger then – Michael was seven and Joseph, twelve. My point being that getting these suitcases in and out of trains without letting gravity pull an overloaded child determined that I CAN DO IT MYSELF under the tracks was…a challenge that required speed, negotiation skills, and balance.
As we pulled into the station, I knew that we would only have a couple of minutes, since trains don’t spend much time at all on these stops. I also didn’t want anyone – especially Michael – to take a tumble as they struggled with luggage.
So I told them, as we gathered near the door, that what I wanted them to do was get off, stand on the platform and take the suitcases as I handed them down to them. Sounds good.
The train stopped. The door slid open. The boys got out. I handed one suitcase down. Check. I reached for the other.
The doors shut.
There was some sort of green button next to the door. I pushed it. Then punched it.
The train started to move.
I punched and started shouting. I tried to will the doors back open.
The train sped up. As trains do.
And the last thing I saw as we slipped away, doors shut tight, was Joseph on the platform, arms outstretched, trying to run but being held back by someone, crying out, “MOM!”
I had to skip to the end of this one to be assured that it all did turn out fine, because my heart was in my mouth reading it. Oh yes, I can imagine what it feels like to be in the train and seeing your children trying to get to you and not be able to.
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It's very interesting, being a thinking animal.
I remember being a child and learning about "instinct," which I (being a child) conceived of as some inborn knowledge of HOW TO DO IMPORTANT THINGS -- how, and when, I guess -- that animals had and that human beings did not have. Animals have instinct to make them eat the food that is good for them, to make them mate, to make them protect their offspring. I could not feel any instinct inside me that told me how to live my whole life; I certainly hadn't, to give an example that occurred to me when I was nine or ten, figured out where babies come from all by myself. (I had deduced that bit by extrapolating from the chapter about breeding in a book about miniature schnauzers that I found on the shelf.)
We humans, I decided, had to do everything we do on purpose, because we are taught to, and because we know we are supposed to.
When I was a bit older, though, it occurred to me that humans do have something that corresponds to my crude idea of animal instinct. A thing inside us, a response to outside stimulus, that does not rely on our intellect to make sense of it for us to act. We have pleasure -- more than that, we have something transcendent, spiritual, that gives our pleasure meaning -- we have joy.
It is good for us to eat a variety of different food -- and we find the different flavors and textures of food pleasurable, so pleasurable that we reward ourselves (and each other) with all the different tastes and sensations that food has to offer. We can, of course, go overboard with it, but we can also elevate food-gathering and food-preparation and food-presentation to an art form. To social ritual. To reinforce relationships and have those relationships in turn reinforce the rituals. All of it connected to that base pleasure, pleasure in flavors and textures, and the base desire for food, hunger and appetite.
I thought to myself -- Maybe this is what "the animal instinct" to hunt or to graze, to search for the right food and to consume it so that it may be digested and give health, looks like when it has been transformed and elevated into human-ness.
That made me look for other human glimpses inside the so-called animal instinct, such as the great pleasure we take in crawling tired under the covers in our beds and falling asleep, and the instinct I had (as a child) to stay close to my parents and to want to be with them and to fear them leaving me behind. Much older me had an opportunity to see inside the mammalian drive to mate, and to muse on its particular transcendence as I prepared for marriage, reading the theology of the body.
The funny thing about such instinct (as it is with grace) is that it never appears until one needs it. So, of course I hadn't figured out where babies come from all by myself at age nine. It's funny to me now that I thought, if something is inborn, then it would be inborn as knowledge. That I should understand it from birth, rather than carrying it within me as a sort of vegetable embryo to blossom (and not as knowledge either) when needed.
So it is that I looked forward to becoming a mother, in part, because I felt that it would answer the question of What is this like -- this human form of the instinct to lay down one's life for one's offspring? Because even as we hoped for our first baby, it was almost impossible for me to understand this concept. I had been told that mothers "instinctively" love their babies and would do anything to protect them. I understood that, as a mother, I would be supposed to protect my baby at the cost of my own life. But I really didn't, you know, grok it. I couldn't imagine putting myself in danger on purpose for anyone, really. I certainly couldn't imagine wanting to.
So I waited, part of me wondering if I was some kind of monster for not having figured it out in advance (even from books), and part of me hoping this "maternal instinct" thing would turn up when necessary.
I was pretty confident (from books) that the easy desires -- to feed the baby, keep it warm, and cuddle it -- would show up right after birth. And they did.
I was still not so sure about the willingness to lay down your life for the child bit.
But eventually, after having had a few frightening scrapes of the completely ordinary type -- as parents and children together are wont to do when they are learning how to be in the world --
-- like sitting up all night with a wheezing, coughing baby and finding that, tired as I was, it was not difficult because I wanted to sit up with the baby more than I wanted sleep --
-- I figured out what that looks like from the inside. At least for me.
And what it looks like for me is a terrifying empathy, the dark side of the self-protective "instinct" I had as a small child, the one where I wanted to stay near my parents and not to be left behind. The power to lay down my life for my child is the mental image of my child reaching out to me for help and being left behind. The thought (the image) fills me with a stark, animal horror, and rehearsing it in nightmares and idle thoughts that turn dark, I know that in that situation my life would be worth nothing to me, nothing at all, in comparison with doing everything in my power not to leave a child behind, not to leave the call unanswered, not to have the child realize I am alone and in danger; My mother will not help me.
Such visual replay comes to me again and again after near-misses and even not-so-near ones. Like the time that my second son, aged three, started to slip down a slope on a family hike and was caught by the trailside fence, put there exactly for that purpose; I might never have thought of it, but there was a gap under the fence a few feet away, and for months after that my brain happily played vivid reels in which the three-year-old slips under the gap and, calling for help, slides down and down and down.
My brain also likes to play such reels for me even when no near-miss happens. Riding ski lifts with a small child (the kind where the cable soars over the tops of the pines and carries you over steep cliffs) is a particularly fertile ground for the maternal visual imagination, I find. I avoid news articles about people being swept away in hurricanes and about children being removed from their parents by social services. I find them... not pleasurable.
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So Amy's description of the scene in the train station as being "one of the worst moments...of...my life. Second worst, I’d say. Yup. That bad" rings true. It's literally the stuff of nightmares.
The stuff of being a thinking animal. Which is nightmarish, sometimes.
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When I sat down to write this blog post I thought it was going to be about me wondering if we, taking our five children to Europe (ages 14, 10, 8, 4, and 8 months) had done enough to prepare them for the possibility of just such an accidental separation. Or, as Amy puts it, the thing that gave her some confidence was having rehearsed:
What do you do if you all get on the train, and I don’t?
We get off at the next stop and wait for you.
What do you do if I get on the train, but you get left behind?
We stay where we are and wait for you.
So I knew they’d stay there. Well, that’s comforting. They’ll stay! In Padua! Italy! By themselves!
We hadn't done much train-riding, and there being two parents on most trips we had gone with the one-parent-in-the-front, one-parent-bringing-up-the-rear method of child-herding, plus the 8- and 4-year-old were usually held tightly by the hand. We probably should have worked something out with respect to Roman buses.
Maybe we did tell them something like that, and maybe I only don't remember it because no one ever got separated and so our emergency plans never got seared into my memory. Mostly we relied on our cell phones: the older kids carried cards with the numbers, and how to ask for help, in French and Italian; the younger kids had the same information on a strip of masking tape inside the hem of their tee shirts, with instructions written in the appropriate language to a hypothetical helpful bystander. Not long ago, doing laundry, I peeled the remains of one of those pieces of tape, well-washed, from a summer shirt, and thought of those rehearsals fondly (not with horror).
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A terrifying empathy.
Those are the words that come to mind when I try to put words to the feeling of loving a child, really loving him to the point where you would, in fact, lay it all down to answer a cry of terror. It is an instant of seeing the terror through the child's eyes, so that even if (I, the grownup) can see "The child is mistaken, there is no real danger," I must respond, must not let this small person remain terrified. It's unbearable.
The psychologists tell us that some people are born without such a thing, or maybe it is killed in them at a young age, an adaptation to a fearfully bad environment that is protective and yet maladaptive to normal human relationships.
I can believe that. This is a supremely uncomfortable feeling. I can believe that, faced with its unbearableness, perhaps combined with a kind of fear or powerlessness, some people become hardened to it rather than becoming driven to act.
I am grateful for the discomfort, even for the nightmarish visual imagery that seems to be part and parcel of motherhood. (Do fathers get this, I wonder? Are all mothers like me? I don't know, I can only see inside myself.) It is a rehearsal, an emergency procedure: an internal one that keeps me (I hope) ever ready to act without thinking if it becomes necessary. And it helps me to know -- without having to trust in books -- that I do love my children, deeply; that I can (and do, many times a day if not every time I get the chance) set aside my own selfishness for their good. It is a grace, one that I did not earn, and one that I intend to safeguard.
Pity those who lose that pain and terror and fear, that empathy, or who never have it in the first place.