My toddler woke up and after a half-hearted rendition of Wheels on the Bus, I managed to get him to stay in his bed and go back to sleep. It’s the dead of night and I’m now wide awake, considering the possibility that if we ever move to or holiday in North America, the children might be attacked by a bear. The scenario could play out thus: we are all going on a drive and my husband stops the car to take a leak behind a tree, when out of nowhere a great big grisly bounds towards the car gnashing its gnarly teeth. What would I do? Gnash my own gnarly teeth at it? Aim the Dettol antibacterial spray in its eyes? Play the Peppa Pig soundtrack on full volume until it collapsed on the forest floor paws over its ears, defeated? I probably wouldn’t even have phone reception to call a ranger, but the only one who springs to mind is Yogi Bear’s adversary, Ranger Smith. Why am I even thinking about this? The gruesome bear attack scene from The Revenant is clearly still with me.
There was a time when I would have laughed in the face of the bear. On a driving holiday through California circa 2011 with my boyfriend (soon to become fiancé on a beach just off Highway 1), we stopped at Yosemite. ‘Beware of the bear’, said the signs. Ha! Bring on the bear, I thought. Once we left the glorious park I was a disappointed not to have spied a grisly. We saw some deer, but it’s not really the same. Likewise canoeing through the crocodile-infested rivers of southern Venezuela in a dugout boat, I was searching eagerly for the crocs. In a floating raft somewhere in Southern Africa I enjoyed the steady gaze of the watching hippos from the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees (it wasn’t the Limpopo but you get the drift). Clearly had I been confronted by a potentially deadly wild animal, I would have been terrified, as any sheltered middle-class English girl would be. But also I think I would have been more than a little bit thrilled.
Now I’m here in blissful suburbia, perfectly safe and warm in the middle of the night, having cold sweats about bears I will most probably never see. What has changed? Yes, I’m older but in my mind there’s only one difference: the C word. Children. I am now a mother which means that I will never again – or at least until they are old enough to get their own mortgage (and maybe not even then) – view motor vehicles, open windows, open water, and any implement with a sharp point as anything other than a object of danger to be avoided. But I’m mostly talking about irrational fears here. We all know that there are plenty of accidents and illnesses that can and do happen to children of all ages, which are too terrible to even contemplate here, but there are also things that if I stopped and thought about it, probably aren’t going to occur. When my baby was very tiny, I used to be anxious about being so tired that I would put him in the washing machine with all the clothes by mistake. My stomach would churn with the washing machine drum as I imagined the horror of realising my terrible error. Could it really happen? It would be a bit like putting a baby in a handbag and a manuscript in a perambulator. In reality, I don’t know how tired I would have to be to make that mistake.
There’s a wider point here, in that if I’m cosseting my children (and I think I’m not the only one?), is it because of truly rational concerns, or am I shielding them from my own improbable fears? They are already scared about the Gruffalo in the cupboard without me following them around like a shadow lest they escape from the house and attempt to hitchhike to the airport or (more likely) unscrew the battery compartment of the remote control. I’m not suggesting that I let my four year old scoot alone to school and play solo in the woods, but perhaps I need to mindful of imparting my own fears onto her and her brothers as they grow older.
To have a child is to sign up for a lifetime of worry; it is a pure and primal parental instinct. Like the mother bear in The Revenant, we take offensive and defensive action to keep our offspring safe at all costs. We’re all animals, after all. And if my over-active imagination burdens me with irrational night-frights, it’s not such a high price to pay. Once the dawn and three demanding children have helped me to regain my sense of perspective, we will watch Jungle Book under a blanket on the sofa and I will pretend that bears are all like huggable Baloo.
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