I finally understood my parent’s dread of loss when I became a mother

My parents see death at every turn. Not exactly in a morose way, I mean in a respectful, live your life to the fullest because you could die at any moment way. They’re not fearful that they’ll die, but are ravaged by the fear of losing one of us, of our family being split by the tragic losses that splintered their families when they were younger.

It’s a fear I’ve lived in the shadow of, rolled my eyes at, and laughed at with my siblings. It’s even become a bit of a running joke.

I am oh-so aware of my own mortality, of how easily I could be torn from this full-of-life toddler. And also of how easily he could be ripped from me. Credit:Stocksy

I’ve grown up being told to swim between the flags, to stay out of the CBD on New Year’s Eve, to keep a fire blanket in the boot of my car, to wear a life jacket … Oh, and to always keep an asthma puffer in my pocket, my suitcase, my desk at school, my locker at the office …

Sitting at a cafe recently, as a car pulled in to the vacant spot adjacent to our table, my mum was watchful and I knew what she was thinking: elderly driver ploughs through lunchtime diners, killing dozens.

My parents travelled on the last train carriage while on holiday in the UK at the time of the London bombings, to better their chances of at least one parent surviving and making it home to the nest.

When I told a friend this, she gaped at me in amused horror. “Bloody hell, that’s next level,” she said. And yet, my parents aren’t weirdos. Well, no more than the next pair of 60-year-old worriers. Generally speaking.

Perhaps it’s not just a history of loss and trauma that cements this all-consuming comprehension of mortality in us. I, too, have gained a heightened sense of the fragility of life since becoming a mother. Wow, author Elizabeth Stone was right when she said that having a child was akin to wearing your heart on the outside of your body. The vulnerability is intense!

Suddenly, I am oh-so aware of my own mortality, of how easily I could be torn from this full-of-life toddler. And also of how easily he could be ripped from me. It’s ingrained in us from the start, ofcourse, with stats on stillbirths, cot deaths, infant accidents and parental “carelessness” – all the tiny little moments that make up one extremely busy parenting day.

But I knew I needed to back off with my warnings when my son began reciting a list before bed: “Be careful of cars, Mumma, don’t touch spiders, watch out for snakes …”

I have become my parents, yes. I understand now that this worry is a lifelong affliction. It’s only a matter of time before I reel off the old “I don’t care what time of night it is, you call me, you hear? I don’t mind if you’re drunk but never, ever get in a car with someone who’s been drinking.”

When the youngest of my siblings turned 18, I said to my dad, “You’ve done it! Four kids safely to adulthood! Now you can relax!” His response?

A laugh and “You’re kidding, right?”

With this new-found fear, there is a silver lining. Suddenly the beauty of that fragility of life has become apparent. Toddlers are exhausting, but what a joyous breed. It’s a tough nut who won’t smile at a grinning toddler, or an amusing toddler question.

When was the last time you skipped down the street? Fed a goat? Played at the beach, not just dipped your body in the water before returning to your towel? We’re here, who knows for how long, but we are here. And isn’t it, mostly, truly (dangerously) wonderful?

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale September 29.

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