I've always been a weenie. I duck in a crisis. I get queasy watching my blood drawn. Mine is a cautious life, one that carefully avoids actions that might lead to broken bones, stitches, or other encounters with medical supplies. While it's true that I endured four natural childbirths, this was only because I was terrified -- nauseated! -- by the very idea of a big, long epidural needle stuck in my back.
Then came motherhood.
Ta-da! My inner superhero revealed herself. In the right situation, talents I never knew I possessed sprang into action. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound -- if one of my beloved children was in peril, that is.
It's not just me. It's mothering itself. One minute a woman stands in an empty nursery, battling butterflies and Braxton-Hicks contractions, wondering what she's gotten herself into and whether it's truly possible to love anyone as much as her DH. Then, pow! Ka-boom! Zounds! She gazes into that squinchy face and she's ready to lay down her life for a virtual stranger.
Is it the power of love? I like to think so. Scientists believe a mother's "vigilant protectiveness," as Japanese neuroscientist Madoka Noriuchi calls it, may be rooted in brainpower, too. Last year, researchers in Tokyo used MRI to show that particular areas of mothers' brains lit up when their children were in distress. They believe this means that a highly elaborate neural chain reaction orchestrates certain responses to cries. Having a baby also creates subtle changes in the brain that result in sharpened perceptions, says Katherine Ellison in her book The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter. A keen sense of smell in pregnancy keeps a woman away from spoiled food, for example, and more attuned hearing allows her to distinguish her own baby's cry -- changes that aren't merely cool, they help her keep a new life alive.
Frankly, the reasons for mom heroism matter less to me than the miraculous fact that it exists. Holy weirdness, Batman! Why didn't anybody tell me about this? So my own mother wasn't the only one to have "eyes in the back of her head" and a sixth sense about how the kids who were playing quietly, not the shriekers, were the ones up to no good. Each threat I've vanquished brings confidence for the next crisis. And a secret relief, too: "Phew! I'm good at this mom thing!" So let's celebrate some heroic traits you never knew you had.
There's a reason parents on airplanes are urged to adjust their own oxygen masks before helping their children. Safety experts know how strong the parental instinct is to save one's child without regard to one's self.
That's surely the impulse that drove me to completely ignore my lifelong fear of bee stings and plunge into a hole absolutely swarming with bees. From across the yard I'd seen my daughter, Eleanor -- still wobbly as a newly minted toddler -- take a tumble. Jogging over to help her up, I saw the in-ground nest -- and the angry bees, on her clothes, tangled in her downy hair, even inside her howling mouth. They could have been butterflies for all I cared as I snatched her up and raced inside.
I didn't notice the welts all over my legs until hours later -- after the dash to the ER, where some 30 stingers were removed from my little girl, after I was assured she was okay.
During a child's emergency, everything in the world -- including regard for one's own fears, or safety, or life -- recedes. Selflessness may be an unhealthy way for a mom to live 24/7, but it clearly has a time and a place.
Another survival instinct is one we share with mama bears (and maybe mama bees). It's a primal protectiveness that's ignited when a mom sees her cub threatened or suffering. Mother rabbits have been known to stand tall on two legs to intimidate coyotes eyeing their newborns. Mama badgers can scare off grizzlies. Maybe you've seen the mom next door make short work of the playground bully or put a thoughtless soccer coach in his place.
While Kim Moldofsky's family of four was out watching fireworks last Fourth of July, their Chicago home was robbed. The 911 operator they called to report the crime told them to leave the house immediately in case the thieves were still around. "My boys ran out in their summer pajamas," she explains. "But it was ten-thirty at night and chilly. So when my husband commented that they were shivering, I just took off." Leaving him with the boys, she ran back to the house to get them clothes, grabbing a big stick on the way. "I kept banging it so the supposed robbers would know I was there."
Was she scared? "No. My adrenaline was flowing," she says. "I was P.O.'d!" The robbers may have made off with a few valuables, but they weren't going to leave her children cold!
Adrenaline fuels more than bravado. It's part of the "fight or flight" response to stress. It raises the heart rate, releases glucose for energy, and increases oxygen flow to the muscles, making them work harder. Net result: a burst of superhuman strength. Ever hear stories of people fighting off sharks or lifting cars and heavy machinery off other people? They're not urban legends.
Laura Patyk was sitting with relatives on the deck of her Indian Trail, NC, home, watching her six kids swim with her husband, Paul, in their in-ground pool. She had just removed the water wings of her youngest, 3-year-old Priscilla, and changed her into play clothes. One minute the preschooler was walking carefully around the outside of the pool within everyone's view, and the next, Patyk glanced over and screamed, "She's in!"
"I don't remember getting from A to B. It was a blur," Patyk says. But everyone else saw her leap from her chair on the deck, run barefoot down six steps, dash across the lawn, and dive into the pool, fully clothed, to rescue her daughter -- all in about ten seconds, even before Paul made it over from the opposite end of the pool a few feet away.
Such feats are known as "hysterical strength." These stress responses aren't recognized by medical science because they're almost impossible to study. But they sure are handy in a crisis.
Super presence of mind!
1-800-222-1222. Stephanie Chandler picked up the phone and "just started dialing." She'd been helping 3-year-old Luke brush his teeth when she suddenly noticed her 18-month-old daughter, Evie, "gulping down a bottle of bubble-bath soap like some hobo with a paper bag," she says.
She checked the label: Keep Out of Reach of Children. And then she dialed Poison Control, as if on autopilot. "My pediatrician had given me a sticker with it ages ago and I'd placed it on one of our phones. But I'd never tried to memorize the number, since I assumed I wouldn't be able to," says the Queen Creek, AZ, mom.
Nevertheless, it popped into her head when she needed it. "A part of me worried I might be calling a vending-machine supplier in Vermont, but sure enough, Poison Control answered," she says. (Thankfully, she was told that guzzling the soap is harmless.)
You'd think that the fear and hysteria triggered by a crisis involving a child would erase all presence of mind. Yet many parents report the opposite. It's only later -- when everything's okay -- that they fall apart. "Your son will be fine," an ER doctor once told my sister-in-law, who had calmly wrapped her toddler's bloody finger when it was mashed in a van door and then driven him to the hospital and nursed him through stitches. "But you're whiter than he is, and I think you need to sit down before you leave." By then, she could.
To think that my husband (to-be, at the time) once chased me around his apartment with a piece of raw chicken, coaxing me to touch it in a vain attempt at exposure therapy. (He'd just learned that I avoided the meat counter at the supermarket because the sight of those bloody, glistening cuts made me nauseous.) One word changed all that: rotavirus. Six months before the Attack of the Killer Bees, Eleanor had contracted a horrible case. Who knew a 20-pound human could lose so many bodily fluids and live? Who knew I'd unflinchingly cope with it? As one mom said, "No one ever told me that becoming a mother would at some point require me to cup my hand in front of my child's mouth in an attempt to capture as much vomit as possible and keep his clothes intact. And they certainly didn't tell me what to do with a handful once I had it."
And yet we find ourselves routinely managing situations right out of horror flicks -- the gushing blood, the bones bent at unnatural angles, the terrifying sound of a skull colliding with the metal interior of a refrigerator (don't ask me how that happened). A child's pain seems to trivialize a mother's own reactions, like the desire to gag.
How a sissy like me grew into this brave face, this quick-thinking calm, this comics-page courage, I'll never know. I'm just grateful these superpowers are there, clicking on in the nick of time. No phone booths or invisible planes necessary.
Parenting contributing editor and mom of four Paula Spencer is the author of Momfidence!