Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Bravery and Fear

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My son hates to have his teeth brushed or his nails trimmed. Each is a struggle that results in violent cries and tears; both require that he be pinned down, either between my legs or with someone else holding him while I do the job. I have learned that the best place to do either is in his car seat, while he's strapped in. And so I trim my son's nails and brush his teeth in the parking lot of his school, the theory here being that since he loves school, no matter how hard he screams he will recover, knowing that he is on his way into the classroom. "It's okay, Evan," I'll tell him, as I snip at his nails or shove the toothbrush in his mouth, "as soon as you're done we're going to see Mr. Chase" (or Miss Myrna or Miss Lesley or Miss Kami or Miss Judy, depending on which day it is and which service provider's turn it is with him.). I have yet to be questioned about this Draconian abuse; most assume that if I am the mother, I can't be hurting him too awfully. Most assume that there must be a purpose to my cruelty, snipping off those nails while he's strapped in, brushing his baby teeth around those awful cries.

I'm not sure when and how I developed the talent to pin my son down and endure these terrible moments; in the hospital, certainly, during the six months after he was born and I witnessed IV pokes and arterial cut downs and extubations and reintubations. From the pediatrician, too, who has to immobilize Evan with his thick forearms during examinations. I remember one dentist teaching me the more sophisticated technique of holding his head between my legs and pinning his legs between my own. "That's how to get his teeth brushed," the man told me. "And you can do it all by yourself!" What I do know is this: when it's time to put Evan into a human straight jacket, mama knows best.

~

One day, a few weeks ago, I snipped a bit of Evan's pinky finger along with his nail, precision being a tricky thing with a child who is professionally squirming out of one's grasp. In a flash, the blood trailed down his hand, all the way to his forearm. I got him into the classroom and enlisted the help of his teacher in applying a band aid. The cries that began with the nail clipping only grew worse once the band aid was on. I consoled him as best I could, then left for work.

Half an hour later, the phone rang. "Evan's in the nurse's office. He took his band aid off and his finger's bleeding and we need you to come put it back on."

"You need me to do what?"

"We're afraid to do it ourselves. He's so upset. We don't want to get him angrier."

Back at school, I explained to the nurse, who knows Evan but who typically hands over duties like this to me, how to immobilize my son. "You put his legs between yours like this, then clamp down his hands like this, then strap your legs across his chest like this...." When I was done, and the band aid reapplied, I looked into the nurse's eyes and said, "Now you know how I do it. Now you'll be able to do it yourself."

"Sure," she said, but on her face I could see what she really thought. No way am I ever pinning a child down like that. I could lose my job.

~

I have become a master at motherly acts that go beyond brave: I can shove medicine into my son's clamped mouth; pin him down for any task, from doctor's appointments to teeth-brushing; ignore his cries in the middle of the night when I know there is no consoling him, when I have already tried and failed. The memories of my older, typical daughter taking a fall or crying in the middle of the night are like phantom ghosts, pale shadows of the bravery I now know. I have seen my son into nearly a dozen surgical rooms, heard from specialists that he will never see, that he very well might not talk, that his seizure disorder has the potential for devastating outcomes. I have learned to hear it all, and to do it all. And now, rarely, does my heart even stop. I pin him down, I change the band aid, and not once do I stop to think about what I have learned to do.

But I also learned that bravery is impossible without fear, and that in so many ways these two qualities are inextricably bound. From the day Evan was born I have been faced with primordial fear: of his future, of all those surgeries, the hard facts of his disability. Of how my life has changed. I bless the truths these fears have taught me, the friends I have gained along the way and the courage I have learned. But the fears are still there, frequent, just a hair's breath beyond the bravery. For every moment I muster the strength to pin my son down, there is another moment when my breath catches in my throat and I recognize that fear.

Fear that the doctors might be right, or that I will always be the only one strong enough to trim his nails, brush his teeth and change the band aid. That some day even my own strength and bravery won't be enough. Fear of my son's future, of the day our beautiful, typical daughter leaves the house for college and my husband and I are alone, in the quiet, with our son.

~

If I am the bearer of pain to my son in the form of toothbrush and nail clippers, my husband provides the joy. He loves to play bongos with Evan, who giggles with him in these nightly drum sessions as loudly as he cries with me in the morning over the tooth brush. One night, while Evan laughed and my husband drummed, I shared with him this fear of being alone with Evan, with Josie gone. Of how it might exaggerate for me the reality of Evan's disabilities.

"I will be so sad when Josie leaves, and it's just you, me, and Evan."

"You mean, you, me, Evan, and the bongos."

"I guess . . . "

Cliff drummed louder, and Evan laughed hard. "Listen to that," my husband said. "You won't be sad. You'll be happy."

I hope my husband is right, and that I will be happy when it's just him, me, Evan, and the bongos. Right now I don't feel very brave about that inevitable day. But in my time as Evan's mother I have come to learn that like fear, which can sometimes feel endless, bravery has a way of showing its own boundless nature too.


Vicki Forman is the author of This Lovely Life: A Memoir of Premature Motherhood and
teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart and has appeared in Philosophical Mother, The Santa Monica Review, Writer to Writer and Faultline. She lives in Southern California with her husband and child.


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"I have learned that bravery is impossible without fear, and that in so many ways these two qualities are inextricably bound." Thank you for sharing another powerful piece of writing.
Well (big sigh)...I can relate to these challenges, I too worry about a time when I may not be strong enough to perform these tasks. Thank you for sharing your story, as I often wonder what people would think if they saw the lengths I go to just to brush my daughter's teeth or clip her nails.
It's hard to be the mama, isn't it? At our house, too, I'm the one to give the medicines, I'm the one to cut hair and nails and pull the slivers (oh how I hate the slivers). Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I were the one to offer the laughter, if it were ME who played the bongos...
Vicki, I so desperately want to express how beautiful and honest and complete your writing is, but I can't find the words to do it justice. Thank you for another wonderful column and for sharing your story in such a way as to make us all just a little more aware, just a little more compassionate and just a little more respectful of what the "mother at the swings" might be going through.
Thanks for 'translating' special needs for the world at large. My two autistic boys [and a zillion other special needs children] have the same/similar issues. Since Mother's Day is just around the corner, I award you a set of 'golden' nail clippers, but that's 'only' because 'golden' is a magic/trigger word around here at the moment. I suspect [hope] that maybe another colour might work for you and yours. Best wishes http://whitterer-autism.blogspot.com
You are brave Vickie. It is innate within you. The love of your son will keep you strong. Many people speak of heroes - parents such as you, are my heroes...you go beyond every call of duty of motherhood. xo
You are one tough and tender mother. You have my undying awe and support. Beautiful, honest, REAL writing. Brava...
I hope I can always hear the drums. Beautiful as always. (I'll cross post this, again, if that is okay)
How beautiful. And how true it all rings for me. Who would have thought that tooth brushing and hair cutting (in our case) would require so much emotional and physical strength!
Beautiful as always, Vicki. You are simply amazing! Evan is lucky to have a mom who loves him enough to take such good care of him.
This fearless piece brought tears to my eyes. I remember pinning my son down in the way you describe to give him a dose of antibiotics as a toddler. It was heart-wrenching but I knew it would be over in ten days time. But here you are, without the countdown to get you through it. Thanks for sharing so much of yourself in your powerful writing.
Wow, you just told my story (and so many others' as well, I am certain). Fortunately, Nik will let his Daddy clip the nails and Mommy brushes the teeth (we have a special song I sing). I've really enjoyed discovering your column and look forward to more.
I am running out of adjectives for you, Vicki. It's odd but I think the daily tasks are the ones that bring out the most powerful emotions--and then those tiny, silly moments in between can be the most healing.
Vicki; I have a blog where I share triumphs and trials of raising my 5 year old daughter with Down Syndrome, but I never condidered sharing the very same struggle.I suppose I was ashamed at having to pin Christina down (I'm taking notes on your technique) and force her to brush her teeth, take medicine, cut her hair, comb her hair, suction out her stuffy nose, and, oh, yes, cut those nails. I've tried it while she was sleeping (you should see THAT haircut), with or without assistance. Once I cut the tip of her finger and she bled so long I considered going to the ER)/
oh, vicki. you are such a powerfully strong and loving and yes, BRAVE mama. i am so moved by your writing, by your honesty, by your pulling back the curtains on your life and your heart. by doing so, you keep opening something in me, in all of us. thank you for your voice.
Thanks, Vicki. It's the same when my niece's prosthetic eye falls out. I'm trying to teach my niece to meditate or find some way to calm herself down when this happens. I'm so glad Evan loves school! I love the image of your family playing bongos. . .
Amazing and poinant(sp?). I always feel less alone and understood when I read your articles. I can just hear the bongos and the laughter now. Thank you for being Brave to share your fears with us.
Wow!! As the mother of three "typical" children, I know our journeys have not been the same; however, as the mother of children, I feel we are kindred. You write beautifully, emote honestly and reveal heartbreakingly. Thank you for your story and for your courage. Whenever I think of toothpaste, I will forever hear bongos. Brava!
It takes bravery to live it, and a whole extra measure to write about it. Thanks for your candor and for your example of strong mothering. It's amazing what we can find ourselves capable of doing, if we stay in the ring.
Strength in words. Reality of little yet huge moments. I cried not only for you, but for me. I wrestle with children. I feel these things. I fear.
This is the part that got me: "I have become a master at motherly acts that go beyond brave: ... ignore his cries in the middle of the night when I know there is no consoling him, when I have already tried and failed." It struck a chord this week, when my son's mystery illness led me to many sleepless nights. Finally we determined it was an ear infection, but for several days we had no idea what it was or how to console him. I couldn't give up the fight, felt I must keep trying to console him even though there was no way to. And I know the day is coming when I will have to learn to ignore his cries. But I can't do it... not yet. I love your glimpses into this world I know so well. Thanks for sharing.
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