Little Dude, my 4-year-old son, is afraid of the dark. For the first three years of his life, he slept like a rock in a pitch-black room with the door shut. For the past few months, though, he wants the room illuminated. He solemnly counts his two blue Ikea lights, the glowing alarm clock and the hall light to make sure they are all on and insists that his door stay open. There's nothing specific about his fears. He doesn't complain about monsters in the closet or under the bed, he just says, "I'm scared from the dark."
I tried explaining to him that nothing changes when the lights go out. I would flip the light switch on and off to show him that his toys are in the same place, the pictures on the wall have the same images, and his books are in the same piles. None of it reassured him. He was beyond logic, demonstrations, or persuasion.
Then I realized something that made me stop trying to change his mind.
His world is different in the dark because he believes it is. Something, he thinks, is qualitatively changed in the shadows. That's all that matters.
Most of us have something that triggers our fears or anxieties. Maybe it's a serious life event -- the death of a parent or a spouse, a divorce, the loss of a job, a medical diagnosis. Maybe it's something less monumental, or less rational -- clowns, small spaces, heights, dolls, or bald people.
For me, it was becoming a parent.
When the nurse put Little Dude in my arms for the first time, purple and squashy and gooey eyed, my world shifted. It wasn't dark, but it was not the same. In the moment I became a mother, everything got scarier. My rational brain knew that nothing changed outside the hospital door, but that didn't ease my fears. My irrational sense of foreboding seemed justified when we found out 48 hours later that our perfect baby had a hole in his heart. It was small, the doctors weren't overly concerned and it healed on its own, but that tiny imperfection ensured that I'd never again be completely at ease.
I don't suffer from panic attacks or insomnia. My concerns aren't paralyzing. I'm just aware of a vague sense of anxiety that reminds me that a small and vulnerable someone relies on me now. I fret. I wonder if our doors are really locked, if our car is a death trap or a necessary suburban mode of transportation, and if the Method cleaning products we use are safe (sure, it smells like geraniums, but have you noticed they don't list the ingredients?). I worry about global warming, nuclear proliferation and the rising rates of cancer. I think about mortality more frequently, especially my own. Everything from the mundane to the profound has a patina of fear and uncertainty.
Even my Internet addiction is different. I used to read real news. Now, not only do I lack the time to read the thoughtful pieces I used to curl up with on Sunday mornings, I shy away from anything that involves war, environmental disasters, and suffering of any kind. I need lighter fare. I surf the web hoping to find headlines like "Curse You Blender!" and "Dwarves, Chastity Belts And Why Pippa's Missing The One Man Who Could Rein Her In." I'm particularly happy when I find kitten videos and political gaffes. It's my own personal buffet of the absurd. Yesterday though, I came across a story about a newborn antelope who tried to make friends with a leopard, which I assumed would be an uplifting tale about cross-species friendships. I realized too late that this was not one of those stories. Baby Antelope was young and innocent -- how could he know that cuddling up to a leopard was going to end badly? His mom had hidden him away in a bush but he wandered out into the open. You can guess the rest. Mama Antelope had to watch helplessly as her son's deadly new friend had his fill.
I feel like that Mama Antelope. Every. Single. Day.
I want to hide Little Dude in the bushes and make sure nothing happens to him. I want to protect him from broken bones, speeding cars, really bad mistakes and predators. I know the things that lurk in the shadows, but I don't want to freak him out. He shouldn't live his life afraid of what waits around every corner. That being said, I do not want him to become leopard lunch. My job is to see him safely out in the world whole of body and mind and, preferably, without a rap sheet. If that means I live in a mildly heightened state of alarm, so be it.
Little Dude makes sure I don't become complacent. There was that pesky hole in his heart. Now that he's older, the dangers I fret over are of his own making. Falling out of the playhouse because he refuses to go down the ladder butt-first. Toppling over the slide and getting his first bloody nose. Helping his grandfather cut down a tree with a chainsaw. (Yes, the words "chainsaw" and "preschooler" should never be used in the same sentence, because chainsaws are DANGEROUS and can CUT YOUR ARM OFF, but when my father said "helping," I'm sure he meant that Little Dude sat on the tractor and watched from far away while wearing safety goggles. I hope.)
Sometimes it's exhausting to pay attention to the potential dangers Little Dude faces. But the alternative seems worse. I'll gladly take a little bit of uneasiness if it means I can keep him safe.
Last week, Little Dude and I spent a long weekend at my parents' house. They live in the country and the nights are inky and quiet. We were in the bathroom getting him ready for bed. He was down to his underwear, arms crossed over his chest, shivering a little, knobby-kneed and big-eyed. The bathroom light was bright, but all the other lights in the house were off.
"I'll be right back buddy, I'm going to go get your pajamas."
He stopped me. He was scared.
"Mommy, will you please close the door while you're gone? I don't like looking at the darkness."
Neither do I, little guy. Neither do I.
I shut the door and surrounded him with light.