Parent Moments: Bug Off
A banshee shriek pierces the quiet of our home. I stand, stricken, until I realize it's just Julia's "bug wail." Running to its source, I find Julia in mid-jump-and-flail. One leg bends in a crooked arc and the toes of her opposite foot curl as she launches herself in a series of skips. Her rabid-bunny-hop is comical, but Julia's expression of genuine terror breaks my heart. I fold her into my arms and carry her out.
Julia comes from a long line of women who -- how should I put this? -- have strong reactions to bugs. Through desensitivity training, a.k.a. becoming mothers, we've learned self-control. Although I retain a vivid memory of my mother's howling driveway seizure when a large grasshopper became entangled in her hair, she rescued me from countless spiders and multilegged creatures when I was a child.
I was happy to do the same for my daughter, but Julia's hysterical reaction to insects intensified exponentially this spring, becoming the stuff of daily drama. The bugs had checked out for the winter, but when April bloomed, so did they -- along with Julia's terror. Her phobia was indiscriminate -- no bug was deemed too small or too cute to be scary, and dark lint and fuzz were demonized, as well. No amount of gentle reasoning or zealous bug massacres would put her at ease.
Why don't you watch 'A Bug's Life' with her and buy an ant farm?" suggested a mom friend of mine. And so began our Bugs Are Our Friends campaign to quell Julia's phobia. We bought and borrowed cute plastic toy bugs and a set of child gardening tools so she could play in our small yard. We found and read books on bugs and talked about those to avoid (mean bugs) and those we liked (nice bugs). We bought adorable bug stickers and even sank so low as to buy bug-shaped candy.
A few weeks of pro-bug propaganda seemed to do the trick, and we saw fewer and fewer insect-related outbursts. We relaxed a little, and our speeches about the benevolence of bugs (without them, the Earth would be lost!) grew few and far between.
A month later, I heard the all-too-familiar bug wail and came running. I found Julia sitting on Dave's lap, both of them eyeing the interloper -- a small piece of lint in the carpet. I boldly picked up the miscreant and held it between two fingers. "See honey, there's nothing to be afraid of," I said in my best Stepford-mommy voice, and started out of the living room to toss the evil fluff in the garbage.
Dave's expression was the first clue that something might be amiss. What I first read as my-wife-is-wonderful admiration was really you've-really-lost-it-this-time, because when I looked down, I saw that the "lint" was, in fact, a hairy jumping spider -- and a live one, at that.
It was at that moment that I truly understood my mother's howling seizure. In fact, I considered recreating it as a sort of homage. But how could I screech with my impressionable daughter watching me? I walked towards the kitchen in a slow-motion swagger like a broken bionic woman. I had to move slowly for fear of jostling the stunned spider into action -- a frenzied scene I didn't even want to imagine.
Once out of view, I raced to the sink and dumped him in. A shudder of disgust started somewhere around my stomach and spread, and I gasped with relief. I returned, smiling, to Dave and Julia and slumped into a comfy chair, longing for a hankie to place over my sweaty face.
In retrospect, it was ridiculous to stifle my reaction to the spider, but when you're really scared, there's no middle ground -- I was either going to embody a full-throttle screaming ninny or an emotionless, roboticized half-self. It was a powerful reminder to me that fear is not rational. Whether it's yours or your child's, you can't always reason it away.
Today, Julia, while not exactly unafraid of bugs, is not what I would call "terrified," either. But given her inherited proclivities, who can blame her?