In 2009 I was walking in front of a hotel with my two-year-old son, Tristan. He was checking out some flowers, when I told him that we needed to go inside. I was holding his hand and started to pull him away. He went limp and I felt a pop in his shoulder. I didn’t realize at the time that a two-year-old’s shoulder can slide around like a foot in an untied shoe, so when Tristan screamed out in pain, his right arm hanging limp at his side, I was terrified.
I thought that I’d permanently injured my son.
We were staying in Southern Utah, attending a Shakespearian Festival with my in-laws, and I was outside trying to keep Tristan quiet so Mel could sleep.
I was 24, a new father, Tristan was my first, and I really had three overwhelming fears during this stage of parenting. Although up until that point Tristan had seemed very durable, always falling and getting back up, I had a deep fear that I was going to somehow kill him. This was my first fear. I think this is a normal anxiety for new parents. Before having Tristan, it seemed like I was bombarded with tragic stories of lost children due to simple parental errors.
My second fear was that I was somehow not fit to be a parent, and it was just a mater of time before people found out. I wasn’t the greatest teenager, often getting in trouble, and when hearing that my wife was pregnant, I had more than one friend say, “are you sure it’s legal for you to have children?” I often imagined a state representative knocking on my door and taking away my son for some stupid decision I’d made. To make matters worse, my father left when I was nine and died when I was nineteen. I felt very under qualified to be a father because I didn’t have a great example (in fact, I still feel this way sometimes).
The third fear was that I’d somehow permanently injure Tristan, which would lead to the state coming to take my child away. As a new parent, my future seemed bleak, and as I looked at Tristan, his right arm limp against his coveralls, tears streaming down his face, I felt a rush of anxiety. I was pretty sure I hadn’t killed him, so it was easy to check that off my list. But the final two fears of permanently injuring him, and having my son taken away, sat heavy on my chest.
I cradled him in my arms and took him into the hotel. Mel was up, doing her hair, when I brought Tristan into the room and sat him down. When he saw Mel, he lifted his left arm, and it was clear that he had intentions of lifting both, but the pain was just too much. And when I saw that, I nearly wept. He was so little and sweet, and it seemed like he shouldn’t have to feel pain. I’d never had thoughts like that until I became a father.
“What happened?” Mel asked.
I told her about Tristan going limp when I tried to get him to come inside. I told her about the pop, and how I’m pretty sure I broke him.
“I honestly have no idea what to do,” I said. “Do you think it will just fix itself?”
Thinking back now, what to do seems obvious. Take Tristan to the doctor. But honestly, I’d never had to take him to the doctor for anything other then a regular checkup, or a cold. We didn’t have very good insurance; I was still in college. I will admit that I was worried about how much taking a child out of network would cost. I’d never done that, and I didn’t really understand how it worked.
I was also afraid that the doctors wouldn’t believe my story for one reason or another, and I’d be put on trial, which would lead to Tristan being taken away. In hindsight, all of this seems very paranoid and crazy, but the fact is, whenever one of my children has been hurt, I find myself in stew of emotions, and it’s always difficult to act rationally. Over the years, and with each new child (we have three now) I have gotten better at handling situations like this. But right then, as a new father, I was shitting myself.
Mel, who is usually the voice of reason, held Tristan on the bed until he calmed down. Then she said, “Let’s call a nurse.”
“We can do that?” I asked.
Mel looked at me like I’d been living in a hole, and said, “Yeah. There’s a number on the back of our insurance card.”
“Don’t they have better things to do?”
Mel let out a breath that seemed to say, “There is something wrong with you.”
I looked, and sure enough, there was a nurse hotline listed on the card. I called the number, and as I explained things to the nurse, Tristan began to stomp around the room. He seemed to be acting fine, even laughing a little, outside of his right arm hanging limply at his side. The nurse told me that when Tristan went limp while I was holding his hand, it probably resulted in a partial dislocation of his elbow’s alignment, causing an injury known as nursemaid's elbow. “It’s very common. You will probably need to bring him into an urgent care, and they should be able to pop it back in. Pay attention to how they do it, so you can do it yourself next time.”
“Do it myself?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s a good skill to have with kids.”
This all seemed so practical, like learning how to change my own oil, or shampoo a carpet.
I was feeling better as the nurse spoke, until Tristan tripped over my foot, fell on his right shoulder, and started crying again. I told the nurse to hold on for a moment. Mel picked him back up, and suddenly he could use his right arm. I told the nurse what happened, and she said, “That’s great. Sounds like he popped it back in.”
While I was happy that the problem fixed itself, I couldn’t help but think about a line from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when Uncle Eddie said this about his daughter, “She falls down a well, her eyes go crossed. She gets kicked by a mule. They go back. I don't know.”
Suddenly I found myself confiding in the nurse. I don’t know if I was searching for her approva, or just trying to make myself not sound like a shitty father.
“This is so embarrassing,” I said. “I feel like a terrible parent. I mean, I’m trying. I love the kid. Gosh, am I doing something wrong?”
She let out a forced laugh, and I couldn’t tell I’d crossed some line, or if this was something she heard all that time. She took a breath, and then she said something that really stuck with me: “I’ve been a parent for a long time. And I talk to a lot of nervous parents. It’s not easy taking care of little kids. Sometimes they are like a ball bouncing around the room, and all you can do is try to catch them. And even then they still get hurt. The fact that you are clearly very worried about his well-being says a lot. I think you’re doing just fine.”
I got a little misty, and I couldn't tell if it was from the relief of knowing that Tristan was okay, or if it was because of what she had said. Perhaps it was both. But what I do know is that I said this: “Thank you. I needed to hear that.”
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.