Mother, Protector: Would You Give Your Life to Save Your Child?

A mother reflects on the innate desire to protect our children.

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Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Stephanie Decker and her daughter Reese, 6, wave to President Barack Obama as he leaves the White House in Washington, on June 29, 2012.

This week, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scrambled to close a massive barge gate in an attempt to protect New Orleans from Tropical Storm Isaac, I couldn’t help but also think about Stephanie Decker, an Indiana mother of two. A couple months ago, President Barack Obama met in the Oval Office with Decker, who had lost both of her legs while shielding her children from the tornadoes that destroyed her home this spring.

I remember that Friday afternoon in March, as my family and I huddled in our Kentucky basement as the sky grew dark, but the storm spared us. Houses, and people, as close as a county over, weren’t as lucky.

I’ve followed Decker’s story of bravery closely since then. All mothers are brave, but few of us—even those from a very different time and a very different place—are truly put to the test.

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Before I became a mother, my husband and I spent a weekend in New York City visiting friends, one of whom was a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History. He took us to places in the museum not covered under the normal ticket, including a large storage room filled with rows and rows of shelving units, all filled with dinosaur bones. It was incredible.

Near the door I stopped and spent a long time looking at a perfectly preserved female Citipati, a bird-like oviraptor whose wings were stretched wide to protect the perfectly preserved eggs underneath her. According to my friend, the dinosaur and her nest had been buried in a massive dune collapse.

I think about that Citipati all the time, just as I think about Decker all the time. So much has changed, since the Late Cretaceous period. And yet, so much hasn’t.

One of the first places I took my newborn daughter (Sophie is 4 years old now) was to one of my husband’s softball games. I will never forget the shame I felt that day. Someone yelled, “Heads up!” On this particular evening, I was holding my firstborn, and my reflex should have been to shelter my baby. Instead, I ducked, arm sheltering my own head, leaving Sophie defenseless. We weren’t hit. But I was (rightfully) made fun of by my husband’s teammates, who imitated me shielding myself rather than my baby. The entire situation scarred me. I worried that I didn’t have the natural mothering instinct so many other women seem to get instantaneously, upon giving birth. I worried that when it really mattered, I wouldn’t be able to protect my children like a mother should. I assumed the universe had made a mistake.

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Many months later, I remember complaining about a constant backache. My husband pointed out the fact that I spent my days walking around the house bent at the waist, arms outstretched, following Sophie so that I would be able to catch her, immediately, should she fall while toddling about. “Stop it,” he said. “You’re protecting her too much. She needs to learn to fall as much as she needs to learn to walk.”

It wasn’t immediate, but sometime between that softball game and Sophie learning to walk, the primal protectiveness mothers have for their children finally kicked in.

I was thankful.

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These days, I strive for middle ground. My heart stops for a moment when one of my 2-year-old twins takes a tumble. A little yelp almost always exits my mouth. But I also know that sometimes, falls have to happen. I can’t be there, arms outstretched, always.

Strange as it may sound, though, given the still-sharp sting of that softball incident four years ago, I know now that should the unthinkable happen, I would give up my legs, my life, for my kids. Feeling this certainty is comforting to me. It makes me feel strong. And it makes me feel connected to a brave and beautiful woman one state over whose children survived two tornadoes without a scratch, thanks to their mother’s arms and legs, outstretched. And it makes me feel connected to a brave and beautiful Citipati, tucked away in a museum basement, who eons ago did all that she could to save her unborn babies, wings outstretched.

I suppose all of this simply has to do with the survival of species.

But I’d like to think it has a lot to do with love.

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Either way, I’m comforted thinking about this connection, this sameness we mothers have with each other throughout time—since the beginnings of time. And I’m comforted believing that this deep desire to protect, no matter the cost, will remain, tomorrow, through many tomorrows. Tornadoes hit. Softballs fly. Dunes collapse. And yet we’ll be there. Stretched wide. Saving. Protecting. Braving. Loving.

Perhaps these words, these acts, should be the definition of motherhood.

Uhl is a writer and mother of three in Fort Thomas, Ky. Follow her on her family blog, Pleiades Bee.

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It's a beautiful and touching essay and I have no doubt in my mind that a huge majority of mothers all over the globe would gladly give an arm and a leg to prevent a scratch on their little ones. However, when you write your last sentence, won't you consider writing "parenthood" instead of motherhood? I know it wasn't your intention (I hope at least) but by excluding dads from this behavior, don't we run the risk of being "sexist"? I speak this as the father of a 2 week old baby and whose wife underwent 2 surgeries before her daughter turned 2 weeks. I know I would have gladly given an arm and a leg to be able to reduce some of the pain and trauma to either my wife or my daughter....


Her story makes me think of the dog and the slave girl from Pompeii who died protecting children, immortalized in ash. It's not just a parent who will sacrifice her/himself for love of a child.


What an uplifting read at the end of my day. As an archaeology and paleontology buff, I could almost feel that mama Citipati's concern in my bones.

You seem like a fine mother, Ms. Kara. Keep doing what you do so well.

Christine Mersch Den Herder
Christine Mersch Den Herder

Great essay! And now I, too, will think about Citipati all the time while trying to balance protecting my kids and letting them explore.


I'm glad you got your "maternal instincts" after a while, but you shouldn't worry constantly about them, if possible. I know my mother does (she would die for us if she could), and it is extremely unhealthy, and wears her down. And my sister and I are both grown. Even with her daughters in their 20's, she still worries about us as though we are young children (which, I admit, is party my fault, since I was extremely ill last year, added to her "worry wart" personality).

Kids need to fall to learn to get up and go on.  It has been observed that when parents are too over-protective of the children when they are young, they grow up to not be able to fend for themselves when they grow older, and leave the protection of their parents.

Also, many infants and toddlers do not cry when they fall if the adults around them do not make a fuss, because they are usually observing their surroundings and reacting in response to people around them.   (Unless, of course, they are actually hurt- but usually, if their heads do not hit anything, and the ground isn't rocky gravel, being as close as they are to the ground makes their falls not as bad as would be for us, and are usually not a big deal.)  If the adults around them freak out and make a huge fuss, they take it as an opportunity to get attention, and they will start crying.  If the adults react with calmness, maybe offering a few words of encouragement, or smiling, "You're okay!" they tend to get back up without a fuss.

Babies and toddlers are extremely observant of their surroundings, and while some parents may consider not showering a fallen child with kisses and smothering in hugs "neglect" or "abuse," I think it's important for them to learn that there's nothing wrong with falling or tripping, as long as they can get back up.

This all is given that there is no injury sustained (above a slight scrape, of course- having cute bandaids help with those loose tears).