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.