My 3-year-old, Peter, has always been the kind of kid I’m afraid to leave alone. It’s not because he’d destroy anything, but because I’d likely return to find him swinging by his toes from the chandelier exclaiming, “Hey, Mom! Look at this!”
Peter is our kid who at 9 months of age started flipping over the edge of his crib and hitting the floor so hard that the window in the room below would actually rattle. I always dashed up the stairs afraid he’d incurred a spinal cord or brain injury only to find him cruising around the room looking for an electrical outlet to lick.
Of course that’s not all. Like an unsupervised kitten, Peter would climb anything — bookcases, ladders, fences, poles and mountain faces. And when he reached the very top, he’d jump off — whether he was 2 or 10 feet from the ground.
He’d pick up snakes as I ran to catch up with him, grab bugs without fear of bites or stings, and run up to hug strange dogs, whether they were wagging their tails or growling at him.
But about a month ago, for the first time ever, Peter stopped himself after starting to jump off a steep ledge. Teetering precariously on the edge before catching his balance, he screeched, “Mom! I’m scared! I need help getting down.”
I hurried over to help him, delighted that he’d made a decision that
hadn’t resulted in my feeling weak-kneed with my heart pounding in my throat. Had the part of his brain that is supposed to make him think twice about jumping off steep precipices suddenly clicked on? Could I breathe a little easier?
But it wasn’t just physical danger that suddenly had Peter worried. The boy who spent last summer chasing bugs with a butterfly net is now terrified of insects and spiders. If a bug skitters across our floor, Peter jumps onto the nearest piece of furniture and pulls his legs into his chest. If a bug flies through the sky, Peter flies through the front door. He even refuses to get into the bathtub when he spies a piece of towel lint, thinking it’s a bug.
And it’s not just bugs in the bathtub. Now whenever I pull the drain from his bathtub at night, Peter jolts out of the water and lurches from the tub, collapsing in my arms in heaving sobs about the “drain monster.” The boy who once flushed our toilet to see if things like apples, watches, cell phones, and earrings went down suddenly refuses to flush because of the “sewer monster.”
In fact our house is apparently infested with monsters because Peter now refuses to go near the basement door (the basement, furnace and crawl-space monsters), pick out something to wear (the closet monster) or even fetch a snack (the pantry monster).
Peter now nervously feels for the light switch before he enters any room, refusing to walk in if isn’t brightly lit, even if it’s at high noon with the sun blazing. At night, he not only needs a night light; he needs the hall light on, too, so that it’s as bright as the midday sun in his bedroom no matter the hour. At 3 a.m., I often hear his bare feet padding across our hardwood floor and then suddenly, his face looms an inch from mine. “I had a bad dream,” he will say. “I think I need to stay in here with you.”
There’s part of me that welcomes this new cautious version of Peter. When he was leaping off of tall buildings in a single bound, I could almost feel my life span becoming shorter as I watched Peter’s daring nonchalance, his amazing ability to leap without looking, his gift for getting back up, brushing himself off and moving forward, no matter the obstacle or size of the monster in the closet.
But there’s this other part of me, even as I ran to catch him as he fell, that always loved the way Peter charged forward to explore everything that life was offering up: chandeliers, slithering snakes, snarling dogs and all.
Because it came on so suddenly, I am fairly certain that Peter’s fearfulness is just a phase and that soon our little explorer will be climbing, jumping, grabbing and swinging his way through life once again. I’m sure I’ll be there, 20 steps behind him, yelling for him to stop, be careful and not to pick that thing up, covering my eyes as he shouts, “Hey, Mom! Look at this!”
Sara Groves is a freelance writer who lives in Helena. Check out her blog at helenair.com.