One of the most natural things for a mother, in any species, is to protect your offspring. Be it the mallard flying at seagulls to stop them eating her chicks, or the fox running to draw you away from her cubs, mothers protect. Millions of years of evolution, survival and instinct are behind us when we do it. Of course for the modern human mother, it’s not quite the same, but all the drives are still there. The urge to protect and defend can come out in all kinds of ways, some more helpful than others.
You can’t wrap a child in cotton wool and insulate them from all risk, harm, or danger. Not if you want them to grow up and be viable, independent adults. They need to learn which risks are worth taking. They need the space to run and play, which can mean falling off bikes, and out of trees. Bumps, bruises, cuts, scrapes and often broken bones ensue from the natural process of growing up. Knowing when to hold them safely in the nest, and when to let them explore the rest of being alive, is hard. Apparently it doesn’t get all that much easier with practice.
I have heard it said that dads do not experience the protective urges in the same way and are better predisposed to support the child in the risk taking aspect of their development. This makes sense to me, and the idea that between two parents, or the wider culture of family and tribe, there should be balance between protection and support. Getting the child to cycle is usually a dad/uncle/granddad sort of job. It’s not to say men aren’t protective too, but I think they risk assess in very different ways.
There are things we cannot protect our children from as they grow. They will go out into the world and make their own mistakes. They will get hurt. Bad things will happen to them. We cannot individually make all the world as safe for them as we could when we were toddler-proofing the house. All we can do is equip them with stories, ideas, skills and confidence so that when the inevitable happens, and they hit something hard, they have the means to cope. And then try to be there if they need us to help them pick up the pieces. My son does not have a defensive layer of cynicism of apathy. He cares. I know that when he gets out there on his own, either the world will break his heart over and over again, or he will grow the kind of skin that doesn’t let him feel much. But he’s grown up with my shortage of skin, and he knows it can be lived with, and maybe he will dare to keep caring.
The hardest thing, is seeing something I cannot protect him from. However much I may want to be the tiger mother (he’s a tiger boy) there are things I cannot do for him, things I cannot get in front of him to shield him from. And I would. Seeing fear in a child’s eyes is an awful thing. Seeing deep emotional pain that you can’t take away, and knowing that the only possible way forwards means that those young shoulders have to lift a heavy burden, and there is no way to carry it for him. All that can be done is to give him words of love and support, to be there, to listen, to trust him, to remind him that he is a brave and bold sort of tiger and that he will come through. Nine is a very young age at which to be tested to your limits and beyond. It’s a very young age at which to have to stand up to adults, fight against a system and bear responsibility for the shape your future is going to take.
There are plenty of children who face far worse. The ones growing up in war zones, or who have to watch famine and disease kill their families. The ones who cannot do anything as their father beats their mother. The ones who live in fear, in pain, with hunger and all the misery the world can inflict. And there are also the mothers who are not tiger mothers, who have succumbed already to despair. In nature, mothers eat their offspring when they feel too threatened. Human mothers get that most dreadful impulse too. There are the mothers who kill, the mothers who neglect, or who are so damaged that they simply cannot do the job. There are tiger children who do not have anyone to growl on their behalf, and because I have no skin, that thought makes me want to weep.
There are days when all I can offer him is my tiger growl, to tell him that he is not alone, even if he does have to deal with some very hard things for himself. I can only hope it’s enough.