I stood over my son’s crib, watching as gentle snuffles lifted his chest. He slept the same way he lived his days—wearing nothing except for a diaper, his arms and legs sprawled wide. He flipped onto his side and drew his worn out teddy bear beneath his head.
Anxiety, razor sharp and familiar, pierced my belly. I was leaving in a few hours, before dawn turned the sky pink. Headed for India and Nepal with sixteen others who hoped to pour their time and love into women and children they’d never met.
But in that moment, and every moment since I’d signed up for the trip, regret pummeled me.
God’s going to punish you for being so selfish.
What type of mother leaves her children for two weeks?
If you’re not here, anything could happen. What if there’s an accident?
A History of Worry
I’d been diagnosed with postpartum OCD after my second child was born, but symptoms cropped up when I was five. A tiny child, not much older than my toddler, crippled by taunting fears every night. I’d say my specific prayer, starting over from the very beginning if I said something out of order, as though my whispered meditations had the power to keep fire and tornados and death at bay.
Magical thinking. It sounds like something peculiar to preschoolers and board books. In psychology, it’s the preoccupation with superstitious beliefs. The incessant, obsessive thought that one event happens as the result of another, without any logical link. For me, it meant every time I wasn’t with my children, something awful could happen to them. My very presence kept them safe.
And I was about to get on a plane to travel halfway around the globe, leaving them without their superhero.
Should I Back Out?
It had been three months since I’d paid the trip deposit. Three months of driving myself and my husband crazy with my doubts and dread.
I looked across the bedroom at my luggage piled up against our bed. I considered backing out.
But that meant disappointing my supporters. So many people believed in this trip. They’d sent me money. They’d prayed. So many hours invested.
So I went.
And it was amazing. The work we did there necessary. Restorative. And as I interviewed women who had been freed from unimaginable abuse, there was a loosening of my own chains.
I came home unafraid.
My anxiety, my magical thinking, my unwanted thoughts? Gone. Poof. Just like that. It was a supernatural thing.
I began going out more often. I let my daughter go to the lake with her friend for a week. I signed up for a writing conference, then planned to stay in Nashville an additional three days with friends. I stopped worrying and fretting. When I was with friends, I was really with them, not envisioning all the awful, terrible, no-good things that could happen to my children while I was gone.
I no longer thought my kids would die in a horrific car accident if I wasn’t in the vehicle with them. I didn’t worry when my husband didn’t respond to my text right away. There were no more visions of mangled bodies and broken bones and orphaned children.
But God wasn’t done.
Two months after I returned home, my husband and I went to an India-trip reunion party thirty minutes away. My mother stayed with our children at our house while we swam and drank wine and reminisced.
Then my mother called. My two-year-old was gone. The door open.
Still dripping water, I dashed into the car and urged my husband to drive fast. Faster.
I sobbed and begged God.
Oh, please. Let him be okay. Let them find him. Let me hold him again. I want my baby. I want my baby.
And those long-familiar thoughts, ugly and accusatory, swirled between my prayers.
It’s your fault. You left your kids. You should have been there. You’re being punished.
I entertained those thoughts for a moment. A lot of moments, actually. Thirty minutes worth of moments.
Then we got a call from a police dispatcher who told us our son was found half a mile away, barefoot and inexplicably holding a party cup of water. Safe. Sound. Supremely angry his jaunt had been cut short.
And God’s voice, so much louder than the fear, spoke to me.
I have your son in hand. I love him. I love you.
That’s the crux of fear, isn’t it? Do I trust in God’s love for me—and more than that, his love for my son?
But bad things still happen.
Yes, they do.
My son could have gone to the community pool. He could have gotten lost in the woods or hit by a car or kidnapped or attacked by a dog. Those things happen. But they don’t always happen.
Those three months leading up to my trip—when I was so consumed by the what ifs and maybe thats—did nothing but perpetuate my irrational belief that I had control.
I couldn’t control if the plane crashed. If the car crashed. If my life crashed.
My being in the same city as my child couldn’t prevent something awful from happening. My being in the same house couldn’t prevent something awful from happening.
A mother’s presence isn’t some magical protective shield.
As I labored in a land bathed by monsoon rains, I learned something—I do not have to be at the mercy of fear. Sometimes, stepping out and plowing forward is enough to shake free from shackles that have held us captive for years. Decades even.
God blesses obedience. Even when it seems we’re being choked by doubt.
He loves his children. Even when his children struggle to allow him to love their children.
I haven’t written anything about my son’s half-mile expedition until now. It felt too fresh. Too real and close to something devastating. But I’ve realized that those thirty minutes, piggy-backed onto my two weeks overseas, taught me more about faith and fear and love than my preceding thirty-eight years.
Cover photo by J W.