I felt confident walking into the New Jersey post office that afternoon. I had set clear rules beforehand for my children. They knew to avoid the automatic door buttons. As tempting as the buttons were, an open door would land them right on Main Street with oncoming traffic while I was still in line.
In typical 2-year-old fashion, my younger son was not persuaded after our arrival. He wanted to push the door buttons. My left hand held his; the other was juggling two large, rather awkward packages of art that I was sending to his grandparents. What started as a gentle pull, a slight lean toward the door really, soon became a full-body pursuit.
“Mom, let me goooo! I want to push them!” he exclaimed. He threw himself to the floor, hoping the weight would cause me to drop his hand. But I knew that trick from raising his older brother. I held onto his hand tightly when I saw his attempt at a jump.
My son swung from my arm, a few inches off the ground until he stood back up. He started crying. Here comes a tantrum now that he knows I will not give in, I thought. Line, please hurry up! I made it to the front, quickly paid for the packages with embarrassment, and left with my two sons, one still screaming.
When we got to the car, he told me his arm hurt as I tried to strap him in. I was gentle with my movements but emotionally raw. I wanted to get home and get him down for his nap. I needed a quiet moment to compose myself. I tucked him in as soon as we got home. I told him he would feel better after his nap as he often did after boo-boos, real or imagined.
After about ten minutes of a quiet room, he started crying again as he had in the post office. It was the first time it clicked that something was wrong. I rushed into his room to see my son sitting up in his bed, telling me his arm hurt. It was lying motionless. He couldn’t move it. Panic ensued. What was going on? I rushed him to the ER.
After an X-ray, the doctor told me that nothing was broken, but my son had nursemaid’s elbow. I didn’t know what that was. Then he said these simple words: His elbow is dislocated. And it had happened when he swung from my arm.
While the doctor reassured me that this condition is common in young children, I was devastated. In an effort to protect my son, I had hurt him. Further, I hadn’t listened to him. He had told me that his arm hurt. He had been screaming at the post office, and I had misread the signs.
The latter particularly stung because I’m a minister who’d worked for two years as a hospital chaplain. It was my job to listen to people’s pain and accompany them through their healing process. I had learned the best chaplains erase their own agendas and become skilled at empathizing with patients. I had done this with countless cancer patients and high-risk pregnancy mothers. I had held hands with those who were dying. I had helped others, but not in this instance for my own vulnerable child, whom I adored.
After the doctor had manipulated his elbow back into place, I looked at my now pain-free son. I recognized that sometimes listening was easier at hospital bedsides. There, it was typically a conversation between two adults. With my children, I was used to knowing better and instructing them. They often depended on me for that.
I’d spent the afternoon talking nervously on my cell phone with my husband, keeping him informed. When he got home from work that night, our 2-year-old bounded toward him with his arms flung wide for a hug. My husband picked him up gingerly and let out a quiet sigh as he held him close; meanwhile, our son chattered about the events of the day. He seemed unfazed. I, on the other hand, was different.
Parenting is one of God’s best character crucibles. Even the best parents have imperfect moments. I learned that day that good parenting doesn’t just involve sincere attempts to keep my children safe. It doesn’t just involve imparting necessary care and guidance. It also involves pushing aside my preconceptions and agenda, getting down on my children’s level, and saying, “I want to listen.” I still needed to learn something.