How a Trip to the ER Made Me a Better Parent

20 Feb

To tell you the truth, I don’t remember a lot about it.

I remember the panic. I remember the dark smudges on my son’s face. I remember sitting in the emergency room watching “30 Rock” on mute, desperately hoping we’d be able to go home soon.

I had accidentally spilled some prescription pills on the floor while my son played nearby. After cleaning them up and being unable to verify how many were in the bottle beforehand, we were terrified that he might have ingested one. It was just an accident. The bottle fell. It wasn’t sitting there open, it wasn’t within my son’s reach. It simply fell. But accident or not, it was still my fault.

Yeah, I definitely remember the panic.

It’s the mistakes that matter. It’s your failures, not your triumphs, that linger and change and shape you. When people talk about having “experience”, they’re simply talking about their mistakes and how they’ve learned from them. This holds true for all aspects of life, and parenting is no different.

I used to be wary of sharing my shortcomings as a parent with the world. But in writing this blog and reading others, I’ve come to realize that it’s our mistakes that bind us. That’s why judgment is so repulsive to me. It’s not superiority that creates community, it’s vulnerability. 1295069047894 1861347 300x210 How a Trip to the ER Made Me a Better Parent

When I bitch about my son, I’m not trying to scare anyone off, or warn anyone away from, having children; I’m sharing the challenges because the challenges are nothing to be ashamed of. I’m laying out the ups-and-downs of being a dad in an attempt to express how little the downs even matter. But the positives are obvious, and talking about them is pointless. As Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Happiness is boring. Parenting is not.

I’ve spent much of my time on this blog professing my own idiocy when it comes to being a parent, and never was my lack of knowledge and experience more extreme than in my first year as a new father. Before I had one of my own, I knew nothing about babies – I’d never held a child, never changed a diaper, never taken a temperature, never prepared a bottle. Nothing in life can truly prepare a person to be a parent – the only way you get parenting experience is by actually parenting – but nothing prepares someone less than hearing about how easy and fun it is.

On the day that those pills hit the floor, my son only 13 or 14 months old, still crawling, not yet talking; still a baby – it was anything but easy and fun.

I had no idea if could have swallowed one of the pills, or even if his pudgy fingers were able to pick one up in the first place. They were pretty big, and at his age Detective Munch wasn’t exactly facing down Kobayashi in hot dog eating contests. In fact, so cautious were we in those early days, we always made sure everything on his plate was cut into tiny pieces; he’d barely eaten anything bigger than a fingernail. (As you can see in the photo on the left, things have changed.) It seemed unlikely, but we couldn’t know.photo 6 225x300 How a Trip to the ER Made Me a Better Parent

Luckily, we lived within a few blocks of a hospital, and it wasn’t more than 10 minutes later that we were walking sprinting into the emergency room and being pushed to the head of the line, because: baby drama. A baby who, for the record, was showing absolutely no signs of distress. But that didn’t matter. It was the uncertainty that mattered, and with stakes that high, uncertainty can’t be tolerated.

The hospital staff was as uncertain as we were. Both about the possibility that he could have swallowed a pill and the possibility that we had done it on purpose. One of the nurses asked us a series of questions designed to determine if there might have been foul play involved, and we were too disoriented and upset to be offended. Besides, she was only doing her job; they didn’t know us from a villain on “Law and Order: SVU”. I’m just glad they hadn’t read my blog or I might have been arrested on the spot!

The rest of the night was an ordeal. We ultimately stayed in the ER for six or seven hours so doctors could monitor my son in case he had pulled a python and choked a pill down, and so they could administer of couple of helpings of charcoal juice (to neutralize the medicine he may have ingested). (It left my chubby-cheeked son looking like a Cabbage Patch version of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.) It was a long, nerve-wracking night. I’m pretty sure it’s to blame for the emergence of the salt in my otherwise peppery hair.

My son turned out to be fine. In fact, the doctor confirmed that it was highly unlikely he could have swallowed a pill at that stage of his development, but they had to be safe. Again, uncertainty and babies aren’t something to be trifled with. Luckily, that was the only time we’ve been uncertain enough to bring ours to the hospital; aside from that time I nearly let him smash his face open on a sewer grate, and that other time he fell off the bed in a hotel room, and the day he needed a gas mask because he had trouble breathing, the phantom-pill incident was our closest call.

I learned a lot from that night, and from those other incidents. I learned that my son is so easy-going he can have a good time in a tiny, curtained-off section of an emergency room with no toys and no food and no sleep even as his parents are sweating bullets and barely holding it together. I learned that he somehow doesn’t mind drinking charcoal even though it’s often torture getting him to finish his milk. I learned that I was more capable of being calm under extreme circumstances than I’d anticipated. And I learned that parenting is about making mistakes, and using them as an opportunity to grow, not about castigating yourself for them, or congratulating yourself for your milestones.ccc02 300x180 How a Trip to the ER Made Me a Better Parent

Being that this is the internet, and I’m writing about parenting, I’m sure there will be people “tsk-tsking” their way through this post, judging me for my carelessness, secure in the fact that they would never endanger their child this way. All their pills are always secure and isolated and safe. And that’s fine. Maybe they’ve never blown it as a parent. I hope they never do.

I’m not perfect and I’ll never pretend to be. Where’s the value in that? I’m grateful to be flawed; my awareness of my own weaknesses makes me even better than perfect. It keeps me on guard and it gives me room to grow.

The last thing I learned from that trip to the ER is that, despite how much I already knew I loved my son, the true depth of that love can never truly be measured, or even felt. It’s too indefinable to articulate, too powerful to completely feel.

Too big to swallow.


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4 Responses to “How a Trip to the ER Made Me a Better Parent”

  1. Josh Misner February 20, 2014 at 6:18 pm #

    Beautiful post, Mike! I had a similar experience, in that, my youngest, when a baby still, was burned by a curling iron he had pulled down off the bathroom counter. It all happened in a split second, but that, along with the recovery process, taught me more about good parenting than any of the sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns moments prior to it. I wrote about that incident, as well as other failures here: http://www.mindful-dad.org/2013/07/a-lesson-in-importance-of-failure.html

    • Dad and Buried February 21, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

      Thanks Josh! I think the point is that we ALL have similar experiences. Pretending you don’t, or worse, acting superior to someone who admits it, is the wrong way to go, and using it as a learning experience is the right way. Thanks for reading!

  2. Mike February 20, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

    Nice post. We had the same thing happen, only my daughter was 2 and had climbed up to get the pills on our kitchen island. They were only that low because we took the medicine chest down to get aspirin for our then-infant son, who was on his way to the emergency room for a very high fever. One mistake, forgot to put the box back up,and we were in two different emergency rooms for the afternoon. All turned out fine, thankfully.

  3. Cass February 23, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Thank you for this. Yesterday my son, whilst sitting between my husband and I, fell backwards off a bench seat and cracked his head on a hard floor. So far he is fine, but there was much panic.. And now it’s 5am and I’ve been in anguish all night about how it could have happened, feeling so gut wrenchingly guilty about how I should have prevented it. Finally I prayed for relief and randomly opened your blog to read this. Thanks for the reminder that mistakes happen and that they shape our parenting. Its a huge relief to know in not the only one making trips to the ER!

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