When I was young (I can’t honestly remember how young but old enough to remember and young enough to still be scared of things like witches), I would sometimes have a nightmare that the witch from Hansel and Gretel had come to our house to get me. My parents would be in the living room talking to another grown-up, and I would run to them (my mom or dad), jump in their lap and bury my head in their chest expecting them to protect me. Instead, they would slowly but forcefully break my grip on their clothes and coldly hand me over to the witch. It was as though they were handing her a bag of groceries. They wouldn’t even be looking at me; they would keep talking to the other adult in the room, completely indifferent to my screams for help. I would wake up terrified and, I’m sorry to say, a bit distrustful of my parents.
Obviously, my struggle to trust as a child was based on more than just a dream; the dream just illustrated what my fear was. Most likely, it was something totally innocent and simply insensitive or overly authoritarian on their part that made me doubt. As far as I know, my parents never really did anything to warrant my not trusting them in a life or death situation and these days we enjoy a healthy adult parent-child relationship. The memory of that though, of being unsure of my parents, has definitely influenced my own parenting style with my main goal being for Hiccup to trust us and feel safe. (If he trusts then things like obedience should naturally follow. Too many parents get that backwards thinking that trust is something children need to obediently do, but they can’t. We obey because we trust, not the other way around.) Not recreating whatever scenario had led to such awful dreams has been of the utmost importance to me as a mother. Clearly, I was doomed to fail from the start.
Fast forward many years from my mysterious childhood anxiety to Hiccup’s recent 18 month check-up. Up until six months ago, taking him to the doctor had not really been a big deal. He would fuss while they weighed and measured him and of course cry during the vaccinations, but it was always a brief cry that lasted only while it was happening and then he would instantly recover. He would flash his flirty smiles at the nurse and be relatively calm as the doctor examined him. Then came the 12 month check-up at which babies now receive up to six shots (one in each arm and two in each leg) in addition to having blood drawn. He was hysterical; my heart was in shreds; it was a bad day. He slept well that night though (because trauma is exhausting); and the good news was that we wouldn’t need to go to the doctor again for six whole months.
Except that we did, exactly one week later, because he had a fever that went from 99º to 102º rather quickly and scared us. He was fine, it was just a brief reaction to one of the vaccines, but it was too soon to be back at the doctor’s. Even though all they did was take his forehead temperature and weigh him, Hiccup seemed to remember the place and was inconsolable. He was frightened still a month later when I had to take him back for an ear infection, and again a month after that when the doctor decided he needed to double check Hiccup’s head circumference (seriously, a whole appointment just for that), and then again right before Christmas because of some tummy trouble that required consultation. Perhaps if we had made it the whole six months without stepping foot inside any sort of clinical space, Hiccup would have fully recovered from his last well-visit, but instead my son now has a full-blown phobia.
So there we were again for his 18 month well-visit, sitting in the doctor’s office with Hiccup having been temped, weighed, and measured (barely – it was sort of like trying to bathe a cat). The pediatrician hadn’t even come in yet and my little boy was already in extremis, arms clamped tightly around my neck, head buried. The doctor came in. He had a children’s book about a dog to give Hiccup. It was sweet, he remembered the last couple of times we were in and was trying to win his patient over again. He checked what he could with Hiccup clinging to me – ears, eyes, lungs – but then needed to listen to his heart and feel his abdomen. Hiccup needed to face the doctor, but wouldn’t let go of my neck. I had to pry him off of me and press him towards the doctor and as this was happening – I suddenly remembered my dream. Correction: I was hit with the memory of my dream like a deer being hit by a truck. My nightmare was happening in real life only I was the parent pushing my child towards their fear. It was all so completely blindsiding and depressing. Needless to say, I cried all the way home.
Maybe we’ll be able to avoid any extra visits between now and Hiccup’s 24 month check-up. Maybe this one thing won’t be enough to undermine all the other times we have successfully protected his heart. Maybe he will even forget – truly forget without being plagued by nightmares later on. God willing. Here’s hoping. If anyone out there has advice for helping little ones overcome their fear of the doctor, I’d be grateful to hear your suggestions.