I was not surprised to learn, upon becoming a mother, that I would be of the “over-protective” variety. In fact, one of the many factors that brought me to procrastinate having children as long as my dear spouse could tolerate was fear that I wouldn’t let them leave my arms, never mind my sight, ever. Today, my son reminded me of this when he asked where the closest college was to home. When I answered that Middlesex Community College had a campus right across the street from Mommy’s work, he lit up. “That’s where I’m going to go, and we can have lunch together.” He’s not a teenager yet, so less than two miles from home sounds great to me. He has also informed us that we need to add a bathroom to the basement, for when his family moves downstairs. Since the basement isn’t even finished, I’ll need to start saving some extra cash. At least we won’t have to put out for dorm fees.
In the past few weeks, two separate incidents have made me realize that being over-protective can be somewhat normal for parents, but can also be triggered by what’s happening in life. My work life, as a social worker with families who’ve experienced violence, is both rewarding and difficult. It is tough to witness so much pain. It is also scary to watch and witness families trying to stay safe when they are, at times, actively being pursued. Witnessing and being with so much pain and fear has an impact. That impact is called vicarious trauma, and it’s common in many more fields than social work.
There are both positive and negative effects of working with those who’ve experienced suffering, and you can experience it whether you work in social services, nursing, hospice, criminal justice, the military, emergency medical response, veterinary care or even climate protection. If you witness pain, suffering, terror or destruction, you may be more vulnerable to the impacts. For some, it may be expressed through withdrawal, sleep problems or a loss of hope. While I am known to struggle to sleep soundly, when things are particularly up, I overdose on the
suffocating over-protective parenting. A few months ago, my son asked “why” about a safety rule, and I responded that I wanted to help him be safe from accidents. He lovingly and jokingly replied, “safe from accidents, safe from burns, safe from fires, safe from sickness, safe from animals,” he paused, smiled, and went on, “safe from comets and planets.”
I got it, and we were able to share a good laugh. Yet, the truth is that I do want to protect my children from all the pain I know exists. I want to protect them from “comets”, but also from violence, discrimination, greed, natural disasters and even their own limiting beliefs. It’s important in times like these to remind myself that while I may be over-protective already, doing what I do means that at times, my over-protection might increase to suffocation. That’s when I need to take a deep breath, hold up the yellow (slow down) sign and take stock. Managing the vulnerability of vicarious trauma depends on being aware of it. It’s downhill from there. Once aware, I need to up the self-care. It may mean an extra solo hour or even vacation; but it may also mean a family trip to the corn maze or running after my kids on their bikes. When I am able to manage the vulnerability while connected to my friends and family, I’m reminded of the amazing positive impact of doing what I do: a greater appreciation for my life and its many blessings.