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What I Needed to Hear in My Darkest Parenting Moment

Photograph by Twenty20

A few months ago, my husband and I decided to take our toddler on a whirlwind tour of Mexico. He loved the pyramids, the colorful alleyways of Guanjuato and the white sandy beaches of Cancun. We loved spending the time with him but, as our return came closer, there was one thing that truly terrified me, and that was the thought of our three-leg flight home.

Apparently I was on the phone with the airline long enough for my precocious toddler to learn how to climb onto our high king bed, and when I looked up to see why he was giddily calling "MA! MA! MA!" it was already too late, and he had taken a swan dive straight into the tile floor.

I screamed. Time stood still. And I was certain he was dead.

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I immediately rushed to his side, checked to see if his neck or skull was broken, and grabbed him up into my arms. He immediately latched but screamed and sobbed while he nursed, as I frantically dialed the emergency line back home. As the patient nurse walked me through possible symptoms and complications, my little boy dozed off, and she encouraged me to let him sleep as long as he could be woken up. I slipped him a little Advil, stuck an icepack on his head, and furiously started searching the Web to discover what complications lie ahead and when I could stop worrying. Icy droplets rolled down his cheeks and pooled in my lap, and hot tears dropped down my chin.

Most of the stories I read—and there were more than I could imagine—were about what to do, but one story, written by Nicolle Cliffe, allowed me to finally take a breath.

I swallowed hard, and finally worked up the nerve to ask: "I feel like the worst mom ever. Can I ask you if this happens a lot?"

In her piece "The Best Time I Took My Baby to the Emergency Room," Cliffe recounts the story of her baby taking an equally scary dive off a kitchen counter, and the following words immediately cut through to the heart of everything I was feeling:

"I wanted to kill myself. I remember thinking, very clearly, that if she died, I would have to kill myself. It was the worst moment of my life."

That was exactly what I felt, and thankfully the story doesn't end there.

After calling 911, Cliffe and her baby girl were whisked off to the ER in an ambulance. It turned out each one of her paramedics had a number of kids and spent the ride to the ER keeping her up to date on her daughter (she was fine), sharing stories of all the terrible things their own kids had survived, and reassuring her that suicide was not at all necessary or called for.

After two hours (with nudging every 10 minutes), my toddler woke up with a goose egg and in great spirits. It was almost as if nothing ever happened, though my friends might have wondered why we were only shooting photos from the side all of a sudden.

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Later that day, the pediatrician called to follow up, walk me through the symptoms, and schedule a follow-up a few days later. She asked if I have any more questions. I swallowed hard, and finally worked up the nerve to ask: "I feel like the worst mom ever. Can I ask you if this happens a lot?" I could feel the warmth come through the phone as she replied: "You know, I get at least one of these phone calls a day, sometimes up to five. I know you're a good mom. Just remember to be careful, because these little guys are fast, strong and smart."

And there it was: Not only was my baby going to be ok, I was going to be ok as well. My heart didn't stop racing for a week and even now my stomach turns whenever I think about what happened and what might have happened. But the events of that day also led me to realize that maybe all the stupid mistakes and oversights that happen to new moms aren't a sign of mothers who need to get it together, but a rite of passage and a reminder to be forever vigilant, loving and grateful.

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