What is it Every New Mother Fears?

11/02/2006 01:40 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What is it every pregnant mother fears? That her child will not be born, that her child will be born dead, that her child will be born unwell, unable to live a whole and healthy life. The day my son arrived I counted his toes and fingers and gazed into his huge blue- brown eyes and was flooded with gratitude. We had made it. After nine months covering my mouth to avoid even a waft of cigarette smoke, eating only organic foods, avoiding fish (and of course alcohol was out of the question) we had done it, he and I. He was here and he was whole and there was nothing that I ever wanted more than this child in my arms.

What is it every new mother fears? That her child will become damaged. That the perfect wonder of her baby will be undone, somehow. That she will turn her head at the moment of a slip. That the spill of scalding coffee, the out-turned handle of a pot, the stray pill fallen from an unclosed vial will find her child. In those early days, I could never be awake enough. Even when I slept I didn't, awakening to the phantom cries of my own vigilance. What is it that I feared so much I could not even frame it as a thought? That something I might do in service of that vigilance might actually cause my child's demise.

I don't know if the vaccines I insisted upon, as a responsible parent following responsible medical advice, caused him harm. Or if the antibiotics prescribed to fight off Strep did him in. Or if the toxins in the air and water which pervade everything we eat and breathe crescendoed, after generations, to a breaking point. Or if none of this was causal. Maybe this was my son's genetic destiny, a ticking clock that would strike when he turned two, no matter what I did or did not do. Or perhaps my fear itself had called it forth, as some sort of extraordinary response from an unkind God. Or perhaps my very fear was a harbinger, the throbbing intuition that pulsates within a mother's heart.

What I do know is that when my alert, engaged, charming and vivacious son turned two he began, hour by hour, day by day, to drift away. As if by helium, he lifted away from us, from our family, from our world and inwards towards a remote and private one. The doctors called it Autism. I did not know what to call it. I still don't. It is too big for words to organize.

I have a friend whose faith is stronger than my own, more reliable. He tells me that faith and fear cannot coexist. That one eventually prevails out of an eternal pull. That it is the gift of our individual will to cast in with either source, but not with both. Not simultaneously, at least. That fear presents the opportunity to rise beyond itself, and into the commanding power of faith.

I don't know if my faith is has what pulled me past my fear for these ten years. Or if I simply did not have the luxury to feel it. Fear had become, in the face of my child's immediate need, an indulgence. He was here and Autism was engulfing him and I could either reach beyond myself and into the fog that gripped him and pull him out. Or I could fear that I would lose him. Faith is what emerged as I tugged and he followed. Faith is what manifest in the tiny triumphs of his returned gaze, his smile, a newly acquired word. Faith is what rose up around me like scattered weeds with every other mother or therapist or doctor whom I met to share this struggle, devoted to reviving the light within each child as it flickered. Faith is what taught me that what I want is not necessarily what is need, that love is not what I prefer but what it required, that rising to the challenge of what is required enlarges the heart and fills it with more love than I ever knew was possible. That love is the fuel of faith, that by loving my son as he was in our struggle to restore what was not, faith found me. Faith found me through the urgency of living. Fear had to wait.