Something they never tell you about becoming a parent is all the fear that suddenly invades your life when you take that precious, miraculous, fragile little bundle home from the hospital. Watching your heart (captured in the body of your child) grow, and discover, and slowly move away from you is both breathtakingly joyful and breathtakingly frightening.
In my experience, the fears of parenting run the whole spectrum of terrifying possibilities. I am afraid of the things that could happen to my children (be that physical pain and illness, or car accidents, or rejection by friends, or failure to achieve their dreams), and I am afraid about what they will be exposed to (from societal evils like consumerism and bigotry to the very individual dangers of evil people who might try to harm them). I worry about their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. I worry about their present and about their future. Moments of intense pride in their character and accomplishments are tempered by moments of fear when their whining, or selfishness, or timidity conjure up imaginings of how these traits might hamper them as they mature.
Added to fears for my children are the fears for my own failures as their mother: failures to protect them, failures to guide and teach them, failures to give them all that they need and deserve, and failures to back away so that they can learn independence and develop their own coping strategies when life is imperfect.
I don’t mean to give the impression that motherhood is an endless labyrinth of fears and forebodings. In fact, the apprehension I feel is so powerful only because the love and joy of parenting my little ones is so intense. It is because there is so much to lose, so much indescribable happiness, that my hands occasionally shake when grasped by soft, plump little fingers. My life is incalculably better because of the two invaders who so completely upturned it with their presence and their needs.
And yet, I am unavoidably aware that my relationship to fear has undergone a qualitative shift since I became a mother. Fear now has a secret entry to my heart that was never there before. When my body gave my children entry into life, with all its dangers, it also opened a door for fear to fill the empty space where they once nestled under my heart. It’s as though the intense, physical dependence that began our relationship has reprogrammed me. I will now – I think forever – know myself as the one whose responsibility it is to protect and nurture my children. What that looks like changes as they grow, but the imperative does not slacken. A central part of my very identity is the absolute obligation to seek their well-being, and for me that includes a persistent awareness of everything that threatens it.
Perhaps that is why I was so struck by the story of Heather and Cameron Von St. James when I was introduced to it a few weeks back. Eight years ago they shared the awesome experience of bringing home their baby girl and encountering the joy of discovering all the wonderful ways their lives were now changed. That part of their story is intimately and sweetly familiar to me. The fear they faced just a few months later, however, is something I struggle to even imagine. Heather was diagnosed with Mesothelioma – a virulent form of cancer that usually results in death within 2 years of diagnosis. She was given just 15 months to live.
Fifteen months! That kind of diagnosis would be devastating to anyone, but for new parents … my parenting fears pale in comparison. Such a huge element of my fear as a mother is my immense sense of responsibility – the need to protect, and love, and guide my children in all the ways they need me. But what if I faced the near certainty that I wouldn’t be there to do any of those things? I really don’t think I can imagine what it must be to face that kind of fear.
What I can do, is to share my awe-filled respect for what Heather and Cameron did with their fears: they named them, and then they rejected them. They began a unique ceremony of inviting friends and family to join them for a backyard bonfire. In the light of that fire, a symbol of danger, they write their fears on plates and then throw them into the fire. They use the destructive power of the flames to smash their fears and reclaim their lives, and in the process they embrace each day they have with each other and with their daughter, Lily.
As it turns out, those days have been more numerous than the doctors ever imagined. It has been eight years since the lung removal surgery (the “lung leavin’ day” as they have dubbed it) that is the date for the Von St. James’ annual ceremony. Heather has been at every one.
Heather’s life, and her ability to be present in her daughter’s life, is miracle enough. But this amazing family has gone a step beyond by sharing their miracle with others as an inspiration for fear-rejecting parenting. They have taken a source of unimaginable fear and changed it into a chance to embrace love instead.
I have often been comforted by the words of the apostle John (I John 4:18) that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear,” however I have also struggled to really experience them in my life. In all the relationships that matter most to me – those where my love is the deepest – fear seems to hold the opposite relationship to love. Especially as a mother, fear seems to grow with love, not be banished by it. But here, in this inspiring example, I think I am beginning to understand a bit more about how to claim this truth in my own life.
The Von St. James’ are not without fear. They hold their fear-smashing ceremony every year, because fear is not something that can be banished once and for all. The fact that Heather has beaten the odds does not remove all the fears that come with a cancer diagnosis as a young mother. She still has fears about the cancer coming back, about missing out on her daughter’s life. And so each year she rejects those fears – rejects their power to control her life and to tarnish each day of love that she has with her daughter.
“Perfect love casts out fear.” Casting out is a willful act – a decision. By writing a fear onto a plate and then throwing it into the fire this special family, and a growing crowd of others, make the decision to reject fear’s power to rob their love of its joy and beauty.
So, this blog post is my plate today. I am writing down my fear of failing as a mother – whether through my own imperfection or my inability to control all the evil in the world that can harm my children. It’s out of my control but that does not have to tarnish the joy of loving them. Perhaps, if I learn the discipline of regularly rejecting that fear, it will even help to liberate that love.
May today and every day be a day to throw fear into the fire and instead embrace the joy I have today.
(To learn more about Heather and Cameron’s story, or to help them raise money for Mesothelioma awareness, you can visit their webpage: http://www.mesothelioma.com/heather/lungleavinday )