The ambulance bay seemed almost post-apocalyptic, lined with rag-tag gurneys and frantic, masked nurses in full-body scrubs, but I didn’t feel out of place. Instead, a version of myself I saved for emergencies surfaced—my attempt at a more evolved, elegant version of fight or flight. My newborn son’s pediatrician had called us a few hours earlier to tell us we had been exposed to the potentially deadly measles virus, urging us to get to the hospital for an emergency dose of human immunoglobulin to increase his immunity.
When we got there, I didn’t shudder. The hospital staff and I laughed about my baby’s monstrous thighs as we waited for his dose, and I chatted up parents of newborn twins who had been in our clinic the same day we were exposed. I’d made a habit of pursuing control in stress, or at the very least, feigning it—always under the guise of connection, but somehow also at its expense.
I found myself oddly at ease holding the reins during life-or-death scenarios, even as a child. When my dad became irate that my sick mother needed to go to the hospital again, I always stood up for her. I was both frightened and intoxicated by the prickly force of adrenaline that lit up my limbs as I made arrangements to get her there. Living with a chronically ill mother meant my life was punctuated by little emergencies: ordeals too ordinary for me think of them as traumas, but large enough that they felt heavy in my small hands. Still, I carried them.
No one really asked me to take the reins in my family, but that was part of the problem. There was no one to ask me not to, either. So twenty years later when the pediatrician called, packing up and rushing to the hospital felt like a familiar game, one I knew I could win. There in the emergency room, as my old friend cortisol coursed through my veins, waking each one of my organs one by one, my instincts exploded from protective to full-blown primal. And it felt like love.
Though she was small, my mother took up a lot of space in my life. I was her only child, and more often than not, her only advocate, my innocence the tourniquet that kept her from bleeding out completely. Up until her death, we had a Sunday ritual where I pushed her as far away from the ledge of mortality as I possibly could. Most of the time, I played parent as she slipped back into childhood, folded in a fetal position on her bathroom floor, crying out for the someone who always turned out to be me. “Please,” she’d cry as she choked up vomit. “Take me. Your dad is out of town.”
Each time, I’d chauffeur her to the emergency room, where I dealt with doctors on her behalf: Yes, she’s allergic to Compazine; no, I don’t know her guarantor’s social security number. I never really knew what she was doing there; it was usually some equation of migraines and nausea and potassium. But I guess I didn’t need to know: My mother’s kind of pain needed a witness—an antidote—and I rose to the occasion every time.
As much as it weathered me, the stress of growing up with a sick parent also mothered me, teaching me a crude form of empathy I now know as anxiety. Emergency rooms were my classroom, the backdrop for my most formative years. They’re the place where the fear of losing my mother became the current that stole me from my childhood and rushed me upstream to adolescence, and then womanhood. Hospitals are where I learned to believe that the worst in you brings out the best in me and that love is at its purest when demonstrated in the context of trauma—especially in one where I was the hero. That’s the artistry of anxiety: It’s a master shapeshifter, and it tricked me into thinking rescuing is the highest form of love.
The mother-child relationship is inherently visceral. From birth, the pair lives body on body in a symbiotic relationship powered by oxytocin, the love hormone. When mother gives and child receives, primarily in the contexts of birth, breastfeeding, and skin-to-skin contact, both parties enjoy a sense of peace and warm connection, as if they’re settling into their design. In the parent-child relationship, oxytocin means you’re doing something right. It means you’ve created an environment conducive to love and healthy attachment.
My mother may not have known it, but she taught me that attachment had a price: I could only have the connection I craved if I walked through the threshold of someone else’s pain. I soon found myself enmeshed in both anxiety and love, oxytocin and cortisol. In my world, the relationship between connection and stress wasn’t only inclusive, it was binding. So I spent my childhood at the mercy of a costly assumption: that trauma’s purpose was to blow through the mundane and make space for depth and meaning.
Like many of the stories we learn as children, this one came with me into marriage and motherhood, both of which afforded me a kind of stability I never experienced growing up. It was in the lackluster daily routines of being a mom where I first saw the ugly flipside of the lies I believed about love.
In the mundaneness of parenting my children, I not only felt bored, but aimless, unsettled, and purposeless. The little emergencies I responded to each day—diaper rash, fevers, skinned knees—didn’t feel big enough to contain the love I was desperate to give. I wanted something bigger and more dangerous, a wild and unkempt landscape in which I could rescue and uphold. Because mothering, to me, meant being someone’s hero. But so had being a daughter.
“I feel like I have a hangover,” I told my husband the morning after our jaunt through the dystopian emergency room. Instead of feeling accomplished and proud, this time, I was just tired. Tired physically, of course, but also tired of mining for meaning in other people’s pain. My exhaustion was evidence that the currency of fear I had relied on throughout my childhood no longer afforded me the things I wanted. Not only had it failed to connect me to those I wanted to love, it had in many ways altogether stolen me from them. What my sons really needed, and what I had needed as a girl, was the gentle, quiet assurance of a mother who simply mothered.
I have been taught that someone needs to suffer in order to receive the best of me and that love always comes at the expense of someone else’s well-being. Loving someone in the context of danger is certainly valiant and profound, but it’s too easy. Who wouldn’t try to protect a child in danger? To love someone without a predicament and move toward them both in and outside of their pain takes work. This is the kind of connection that outlasts excitement.
Like in birth, stress is one path to connection—the adrenaline of birth makes way for the magical oxytocin mothers experience holding our babies for the first time. But real love, the kind of love I want my children to pass down to their own children, grows best in the quiet moments. It’s undramatic and lackluster, but it’s in those places we find the unforced rhythms and soft edges that, if we let them, gently shape us into the people we become.
My sons don’t have measles, but they have hearts, and with them, they ask for me to be with them in the smallness of the everyday. I see it when my three-year-old rests his head on me while we watch that Pixar movie for the seventh time. When my baby boy wakes up too early from his nap, smiling like he just wanted to see me. When my children need me, but more often, when they simply want me. These in-between, adrenaline-absent moments aren’t dramatic, but they are deep. And if I do a little digging, I find love. I find soft edges and quiet mornings. I find a mother.