My 3-year-old son called out in the middle of the night to tell me he was wet—no doubt the result of drinking a big glass of water to quench the mysterious thirst that strikes children at bedtime. His pajamas and sheets were soaked. I quickly analyzed how much work I felt like making of the situation. Instead of changing the sheets, I asked him if he'd like to sleep on the top bunk for the rest of the night. He liked the idea and I was relieved to avoid the difficult task of putting a fitted sheet on a bottom bunk with a bed rail.
I got Eli settled and headed back to our room, where my husband, Michael, sleepily asked what was going on. I told him about the situation, making it sound as safe as possible and mumbling the “top bunk” part under my breath. But I already knew what was coming. Suddenly Michael was not so sleepy.
“Is that safe?” he asked, sitting up. “The sticker on the bed says kids have to be 6 years old to sleep up there.” Michael is the only person I know who takes warning stickers as actual instruction rather than just corporate protection from litigation. This has been a theme in our marriage. I think something is “fine” or “okay” or “safe,” but my husband thinks we’ll end up on the evening news as a warning to all other parents about poor decision-making.
In his book The Undertaking, Thomas Lynch writes: “[My father] saw peril in everything. Some mayhem with our name on it lurked around the edges of our neighborhood, waiting for a lapse of parental oversight to spirit us away.” Although not an undertaker like Lynch’s father, Michael too has mastered the art of parental fear.
I am not a careless parent; I just have a more relaxed view of danger. I’ve been known to put baby seats on raised surfaces, let the kids use empty grocery bags as pompoms, and fill the bathtub deeper than most. I assume the instinct of self-preservation will keep my kids from flinging themselves down from the top bunk. Michael hates that I keep Windex under the sink, but I can’t get even my kids to drink skim milk instead of 2 percent, so I’m betting they’re simply too picky to try it. I don’t leave my kids unattended (though it’s tempting at times), so I feel confident that I will be there to foil the dangerous plot or issue the stern warning before it’s too late.
Lynch continues, “My mother, who had more faith in the power of prayer and her own careful parenting, would often override his prohibitions.”I am not suggesting I have more faith than Michael; I am not immune to fear either.
Recently, a tragic farm accident has been on my mind. I do not know the family, but I know that these parents’ young son could not recover from his injuries and was taken off life support. It gives me chills to think of the parents and siblings who now have a gaping hole in their family. It also makes me think back to the harvest seasons of my childhood. My father would often leave me to unload grain trucks while he attended to other work. I operated the truck hoist and worked the power take-off that ran the auger, sometimes even ducking under its rotating shaft as I had seen older and more careful people do. I remember kicking at the grain, my laces dangling over relentless sharp edges before climbing tall silos to open and close hatches in the sky.
Did my parents have hushed conversations and battle one another from their corners of fear and faith? Did my mother’s value of safety and my dad’s value of learning by experience collide? Maybe. But I vividly remember one stormy night. Afraid of the thunder, I took refuge on the floor of my parents’ room. They turned off the light and my dad began to pray, his deep voice ringing out in the darkness. I’ll never forget it. He was praying for me. There I was, holding my breath in my sleeping bag so I could overhear my father going before God on my behalf. It was a powerful moment for me, even then.
Dad trusted that God heard every word. Maybe that's why my dad allowed me to do things that would make most modern parents—including Michael—shiver.
It’s not that Michael and I don’t believe God hears our prayers. But when we grip our kids so tightly in a fist of fear, it might say something about our level of trust. It might reveal that we think it’s all up to us, forgetting that our children belong to God. It’s also not to say that we will never lose a child just because we pray. God’s ways are higher than my ways, and I do not know the future. I hope that is a sorrow I will never have to endure. For every family that has lost a child, Lynch observes, “the little graves are never quite big enough to contain the grief.”
Michael won the bunk battle. He told me he refused to sleep another wink while Eli was up there. He made sweeping statements about the damage that could occur if Eli rolled off and fell onto the bed rail below. His description was dreadful enough that I wasn’t going to sleep anymore either. We went to Eli’s room and put him on the floor instead.
That decision annoyed me in the moment. But when I pray for the safety of my kids, I wonder if God’s answer is to provide the ideal partner for me. Michael will keep me from being on the news because of a boneheaded parenting mistake. He will always check on the kids to make sure their arms aren’t losing circulation through the crib slats. He will take the grocery bags away from my cheerleaders, and he’ll put choking hazards up on high shelves. Michael will tighten car seat straps and read warning labels so that I don’t have to or because he knows I just won’t.
Together we will soldier on in our mostly careful parenting with a lot of capital-F Faith and a little bit of lowercase-f fear. We will pray our kids through their lives and believe that God hears every word. We will grieve with those for whom this equation has broken down in ways beyond our limited understanding and who are searching for threads to repair the tragic tears in the fabric of their families. And we will listen to each other—to my practicality and faith as well as to the alarm bells going off in Michael’s head (they must be so loud!). We will keep the grip we have on our children tight enough to protect them and loose enough to give them over to God.