06/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Does Hurting My Child Make Me A Bad Mother?

I consider myself a good mother.

I'm intelligent, educated, young enough to read the right books, and old enough to use common sense. I have a toddler son and an infant daughter whom I love more than life. They are well-fed and well-dressed. They have toys, but not too many, and watch TV, but not too much. I don't spank, and I try, sometimes successfully, not to yell.

I'm not a perfect mom, but I always thought I was a good one. Then one day I broke my daughter's leg.

I was at the top of the stairs, baby on my hip, and when I took the first step my foot went out from under me. The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back on the stairs with her leg caught underneath me.

I didn't protect her. I didn't pull her around in front of me as I was landing, which would have spared her leg and prevented her from landing so forcefully that her head bounced. I didn't do anything to protect my child. I didn't have time.

Nor do I know why it happened. I wasn't hurrying. I wasn't upset. I was just going down the stairs with my socks on.

At the emergency room, a receptionist, a nurse, a doctor, and then a social worker asked me what happened. Apparently it's standard procedure when confronted with an infant with a broken bone, although I didn't help my cause much by pacing the waiting room, clutching my baby and crying, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry, mommy's so sorry."

The fact that it was an accident did not remove the sting of being questioned for hurting my child. And as mother and daughter sat crying in the too bright, sterile hospital room, the doctor very kindly, and very astutely, said, "I promise you, she will never remember this. Unfortunately, you will never forget it."

My daughter came home in a full leg cast, right up to her diaper. It weighed almost as much as she did. But she adjusted quickly, and in fact didn't even seem to notice.

We were supposed to attend a friend's child's birthday party the next day, and that evening my husband said, "You know, if you don't want to go, we don't have to. It might be a little uncomfortable."

"She'll be fine," I said. "The doctor said as soon her leg was set in the cast, it wouldn't hurt anymore."

"Actually," he replied, softly. "I was thinking about you."

I bristled, because I suddenly knew what he meant. Infants with broken bones aren't a common sight.

"It was an accident," I said, finally. "I'm not going to hide for the next month. I didn't do it on purpose. If people ask what happened, I'll tell them. If they don't ask, then
they already have an opinion and there's nothing I can do about it. But for God's sake, I can't be the only person this has ever happened to."

And apparently I'm not.

It started at the birthday party. One by one, parents came over to see my baby. It was natural curiosity, and it didn't bother me. What did bother me was the conspiratorial manner in which some of them confessed that they'd had a similar experience.

It continued at the grocery store, the mall, and anywhere else we went. And when I explained what happened, it seemed that some people felt an almost visible relief -- relief that they weren't the only ones whose child was a victim of mommy's or daddy's clumsiness, or carelessness, or just plain humanness.

They told me their stories as though sharing a shameful secret. They stepped in a little closer, and in hushed tones said, "When my son/daughter was young, I accidentally . . . " They laughed nervously upon revealing their demon, but I could tell that in most cases, it was somehow cathartic.

I realized then that many truly were sharing a secret. Some of these people had probably never told anyone else the truth about how their kids had gotten hurt, for fear of the social -- and legal -- consequences. In today's climate of pervasive child abuse, it is simply unthinkable to admit to hurting one's child -- even absent the element of intent.

While I understand the caution, the truth is we're human. We trip, we slip, we fall, we turn away for a moment. I learned the hard way, and I'm sure it won't be my last lesson. I'm not perfect, but I love my children, and I'm a good mother.

And even good mothers make mistakes.