A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

How Parenting Makes You a Superhero

Outsmarting danger at every turn is a parent's job.

I was 11 when I caught the falling baby.

No one praised me for this heroic act. I'm not even sure anyone saw what really happened. But when the baby toppled over the edge of the snowbank above me--as I'd known he would--I was prepared. Clumping into the ski lodge for lunch, I'd spotted a small toddler playing with a ski pole stuck into the snow. When he yanked it free with a sudden jerk and tumbled backwards, I was in just the right spot to put my arms out and stop him from crashing onto the paving stones, ten or twelve feet below. Technically, it was less a catch than a pinning against the hard snow wall, but the end result was the same: he was unhurt. My memory of the aftermath is gone--I suppose his parents must have been grateful to have him returned in one piece, though I don't recall--but I do remember, even then, having a sense of disjunction. No one else clearly saw what happened, so the vast relief I felt at having averted a nasty accident went unshared. Because it ended happily, the moment came and went for everyone else, but it was irrevocably seared in my memory. And it's not the lack of praise that haunts me, but the knowledge I acquired, in that split second, about life's turning points: deep chasms of disaster surround us, and it's only a crazy combination of luck and reflexes that keeps us from tumbling in.

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I've always been highly attuned to the presence of danger; becoming a parent has magnified this trait tenfold. I don't know whether I'm more pessimistic or more paranoid than most, but there's a part of me that's always expecting something awful to happen. Just last week I pulled a little girl out of the path of an oncoming car as her distracted father let her walk ahead into the street. Each time this kind of thing happens, a mental reel plays for some time afterwards in which I picture what would have happened, and those images can take a while to shake off. I know I'm not a superhero, and that there are others who perform acts of true heroism every day in our world, but I also know there are those on the other end of spectrum, people who are oblivious to or even, in the worst cases, drawn towards danger and accidents. I'm firmly on the end that's always anticipating disaster and trying to keep one step ahead of it.

What strikes me now is how well that strange moment from my own childhood, the unheralded act of catching a falling baby, works as a metaphor for parenting. We bring these hapless beings into existence, and then we walk around in terror for the rest of our lives, eyes straining in every direction, senses keening to the presence of danger, arms perpetually outstretched...just in case a child falls from the sky. Our chances of preventing those terrible moments are pretty good--sometimes it feels as if we do it more times in a week than an air traffic controller--but not perfect, and it's the fear of the moments beyond our control that keeps parents up at night.

So the best we can do is to keep our eyes open and reflexes sharpened; don't expect anyone to praise or perhaps even notice when we pull off a superheroic feat of danger avoidance. And we must also ultimately accept that however hard we try, the time will come when we can't protect our children from everything. They will fall, they will fail, they will get hurt, and there's only so much even a superhero parent can do to prevent that. But in the meantime, let's catch those falling babies.

What I cooked this week:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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