I am not a helicopter mom. In fact, I horrify many of my friends who live in safer, less populated suburbs with the amount of freedom I give my young city-dwelling children. At ages two and four they walk everywhere, including up and down the massive subway stairs to school every single day. As they get a little older I imagined them riding the city bus to school together, but without me. Until last week.
My son broke his arm and all my visions of their growing independence went swirling down the drain, round and round, just as the blades on my helicopter mom-ness started spinning.
Before this accident I was far more free range than anything. I frequently let my children out of my sight at the grocery store and the playground. I even let my son (the older of my two children) ride his scooter in the adjoining school lot on weekends while I push my daughter on the swings. To say I don’t overschedule them would be an understatement. We don’t do any - I mean any - extracurricular activities and their toys are basic blocks, puzzles and books. Figure it out kids! We have nothing planned for the summer but trips to grandma and grandpa’s house outside of the city. I threw all germ-phobias out the window once my thumb-sucking daughter started crawling around the city playgrounds.
After the accident? I want to hose them with rubbing alcohol daily, swaddle them in bubble wrap, and buy them both leashes. No, leashes have too much leeway. How about handcuffs? In the event any of these are not an option I plan to schedule their every living moment until they move out of my house. All activities will now take place in a room intended for learning rather than playing. Yes, the accident and the aftermath were just that traumatic.
We were walking home from the bus stop near our apartment. My son ran ahead as he always does to play in the brick-lined garden outside our building. I didn’t even see it happen. I ran up with my daughter to find my son writhing on the ground (presumably he tripped over a brick ledge and fell) holding his elbow which was swelling faster than my feet in summer.
This is when it sucks to live in the city. It was nearly five p.m. which is the double whammy of rush hour and taxi shift change. Which meant I was never going to get a cab and, if by some miracle someone wanted to give me a ride, it would take 20 minutes to go one block. So I picked my screaming child up and corralled my very worried 2-year-old across the street towards the nearest hospital. After one block my son’s hysteria infected my daughter who was now screaming “uppy uppy uppy” and refused to walk another step. I wasn’t sure we would make it. No one looked at us, not to mention offer to help. Normally I am happy when my kids are tantruming and no one even raises an eye to us, but today I regretted that attitude.
When we made it to the emergency room sweaty and hysterical I wanted to collapse from carrying 59 pounds of children there. My son’s arm was so swollen and deformed I couldn’t stand to look at it. X-rays revealed a broken ulna, or elbow bone, but there was too much swelling for a hard cast. With a splint, an ace bandage, and a prescription for Motrin they sent us home. The next day I called one of the best pediatric orthopedists in the city and literally cried to get an appointment.
This was the first time I realized I was morphing into a helicopter mom. The doctor was first, his college professors down the road - isn’t this how it happens? I didn’t care. I didn’t feel good about the level of care he received in the ER and I wanted a second opinion.
Turns out, I had reason to worry. The second doctor took a look at the x-rays and said he needed surgery immediately. The bone had broken in a way that a piece of it was floating among the mass of joints and tendons in his elbow. Without surgery, it would take a very long time to heal and probably never properly. Given that it was Friday afternoon, the doctor didn’t want to wait until Monday and he agreed to stay the night to start the surgery after my son was cleared to go under by the anesthesiologist. I frantically paged my husband at work and bribed my younger brother to miss his summer class and stay with my daughter for another six hours or so. They were about to put three metal pins in my 4-year-old’s elbow.
Seeing my little boy all dressed for surgery, walking him into the bright operating room -- cold and full of people -- knowing how shy and skittish he is of every little new thing in his life, holding his hand while he fought going under anesthesia, his eyes rolling back in his head, his body convulsing like a seizure, was the most terrifying experience of my life. The next few days weren’t much better. They kept him overnight in the hospital for observation and sent us home with a prescription no local pharmacy could fill. It took two days of writhing, crying, and sleepless nights to get his pain under control.
I understand that we’re not talking about a horrible illness or a rare birth defect. I know some families have it much worse than we did. We’re talking about a broken bone! This was something I had accepted as part of life, but when I saw the aftermath it didn’t feel like any real life I had ever known. After all, I made it 30-odd years without a broken bone.
Before his fall, I have always said “kids are supposed to rough themselves up a little!” but I meant some bad scrapes, some “thank goodness he was wearing a helmet” moments, and a lot of crying as they learned their safety lessons the hard way. I never imagined that scene in the operating room and the days that followed. Though I never thought I would be a hovering overprotective mom, the chance that something terrible could happen in an instant is now too real for me to ignore.
I’m officially a helicopter mom.
(photo: Chris Radley)