What I Would Have Done Differently That Day on the Playground

A vivid memory has been haunting me lately day and night.

The memory is from not so long ago, about a year-and-a-half. It was a sunny, blue-sky day and I brought my toddler to the playground alone. She was old enough to walk, but I remember she was still a little wobbly, her balance not quite perfected.

The playground was busy, booming with the sounds of kids laughing and shrieking, parents yelling, dogs barking. It was one of the first real nice-weather days and everyone came out to play. And so we played, my daughter asking to be pushed on the swing and caught at the other end of the slide. We made our way to a metal-bar firetruck she wanted to sit on and hold the wheel as if she was driving. I picked her up and put her on it, her tiny feet not able to reach the other side. In between her seat and the wheel was a big gap but I remember feeling confident that with her hands on the wheel she would have enough room to easily reach.

And so with her hands firmly grasping the wheel, I zoned out for what felt to me like one single split of a second. I don’t even know if I turned away or looked away, but the next thing I knew, BOOM. Her head was face down on the metal bar that once seemed so far in my own perspective and as I peeled her body back I saw a gash in her nose, a swelling bridge, tears as deep as little lakes on her soft face. The sound was the shrillest cry I’ve never heard before or after from her.

I remember the awful, disgusting, all-consuming guilt I felt in that moment. I remember freaking out, wishing I could take that one second back, dreading calling my husband and telling him our toddler would need a nosejob! I remember rushing her to the bathroom to get cool water on her, praying her face wasn’t broken, feeling shameful wondering what all of the other parents on the playground were thinking of me. I had what felt like millions of thoughts in one single moment, but today, so many moments later, I keep flashing back to just one.

What was I paying attention to instead?

I know better than to beat myself up over this thought, especially almost two full trips around the sun later. Mom guilt can get the best of even the best moms. The ones who constantly put their phones down and pay attention to their children. The moms who only feed their children organic foods. The moms who limit screen time, hand-sew Halloween costumes and hold their children to regimented nightly bedtime routines.

For the record, I am none of those moms but even if I were I would know that there’s no use in beating myself up over a quick attention diversion. But this isn’t what’s bothering me lately I don’t think. I think the idea of this fall, this teeny tiny slip, has become symbolic of the cross that so many of us bear as we carry the weight of so many different worlds on our shoulders. Our responsibilities at work, our responsibilities to our children, our responsibilities in our marriages, our responsibilities in our friendships. We are so many things to so many people, so often we are not enough for ourselves. When we have to be so responsible all the time, when a moment comes along where we think we can take a quick pause, when she will be fine as long as her hands are on that wheel and we can allow a split-second break for ourselves, we take it. And maybe that’s OK.

If given the opportunity to repeat the past, I don’t know that I would again choose to not be completely focused on my young daughter as she played on a big steel firetruck for which she was probably — no, definitely— too small. But I do know there have been so many times in my life, both before having a child and after, that I didn’t take care of my own self. Times that I knew what I needed but let it fall by the wayside. Or worse, times that I didn’t know what I needed and didn’t take the time to investigate it. There were times when I needed just a few minutes of silence, of sleep, of writing. There are still times I need to focus on school, on work, on folding my big laundry pile (ahhhh, the sanity that comes with a clean and organized home).

Yet that mom guilt still creeps its way in and tells me constantly “you need to be more selfless for your daughter.” You need to shut the laptop, put down your phone, leave the house a wreck— do something, anything for her.

I don’t really know why I keep coming back to my daughter and her fall on the firetruck, but I know that she doesn’t remember it now and certainly won’t remember it in 20 years. I sort of hope I do because even though I wouldn’t wish it on her again—the swollen nose, bloody scratch and tears— and even though I wouldn’t wish it on me again — the gut-wrenching “oh shit” feeling, the panicked rush to the bathroom—it was the first mom thing I really screwed up and it taught me a lot. It taught me that I will have moments where I’m not laser-focused on her, but I’ll continue to be there for her. That even if I am an arm’s-length away, something can go wrong. And that if it does, ultimately we will be fine.

And for those reasons and reminders that I am only human, I hope it continues to haunt me.

A playground with lots of metal bars for kids to fall on, and my kid who once fell on some bars. Credit: Ariana Sheehan

I like to write for fun, but mostly for sanity. By day I'm a Senior Digital Strategist. By night I'm a non-laundry-folding mom.

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