Be My Safe Space

I can’t explain it, but here goes anyway: I’ve been consuming all things Madeleine McCann […]

Stephanie Phillips / 5.20.19

I can’t explain it, but here goes anyway: I’ve been consuming all things Madeleine McCann lately, and by all things I mean two specifically: an Australian podcast called Maddie, and the recent (critically lambasted) documentary on Netflix, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann. This obsession is inexplicable because, since being pregnant with my first son eight years ago, I’ve sworn off one of my former favorite genres: horror. I delved into the first season of American Horror Story with vigor alongside my husband but had barely learned the secrets of its haunted house before the baby kicking within me brought with him an influx of hormones and protectiveness that left me unable to watch even the silliest of scary stories.

So I have no idea how I’m able to tolerate the real horror story of the three-year-old British girl who went missing from her family’s holiday apartment in May of 2007. Perhaps it’s a need to dissect the case so that I can affirm there are no similarities with my own life: no way I would leave my kids alone in an apartment while I dined nearby and checked on them occasionally; no way I’d even bring them on a trip to Portugal in the first place; no way I’d stay in an apartment rather than a full-service hotel. Maybe I watch to assure myself this could never be us.

Then again, maybe I watch because now, more than ever, I’m outraged on both my own behalf and my kids’ when grave injustices go unpunished, and the amateur detective in me harbors secret aspirations of solving this long-cold case. It’s been a dozen years, after all — surely a fresh look could lead to an answer?

I think it’s simpler than all that, though. I think I want to feel safe.

It beggars reason to think that an abduction story with no happy ending could function akin to an extra lock on the door, but listening to and watching the case unfold left me looking around at my own life feeling grateful and, yes, protected. These feelings didn’t result in my hovering less over my own children, and I’m still likely to walk them to school into their twenties, but as I watched and listened while they were safely (I trusted) at school or asleep down the hall, I felt overwhelmingly fortunate to have them around, seven and four years now respectively. One day I will release them into the wilds of the world as adults who, presumably, will not need their hands held to cross the street or a babysitter to keep them when my husband and I go out, but for now I can just track their every move, check the locks at night, and assume Jesus will do me a solid by not allowing them to be the subject of a true crime podcast!

This perspective may need some adjusting.

From day one, I have felt the weight — and then some — of being my boys’ primary caregiver: their protector in all things physical, emotional, and mental. Just the realities of everyday life would have been enough to leave me breathless with anxiety over their safety (hello, SIDS), but factor in a first child who had spinal surgery at age 2 preceded by a loooong road of diagnosis and you end up with a mother who ends up in a pretty rabid advocate-warrior pose (and no, that is not yoga). Follow that up with a move across the world when those kids are two and five and you have something — someone — even fiercer. I have sought, always, to be my kids’ safe place, their spot to land when the world is big and scary, their home, essentially, and this idea can be both wonderful and suffocating.

Wonderful: when my husband wrestles with them and they call out for “Mommy Protection Agency.”

Suffocating: when the pressure of it all gets to me and I have to realize, yet again, that they are not ultimately mine and I am not their ultimate safety.

From The New Yorker.

I was away from my family recently for nine days, the longest I’ve been separated from the kids since I became a mother, and despite the detailed pages of instructions I left behind for my husband and the warnings I provided their teachers and my friends, I was sure that this voyage would create an irreparable fissure in our foundation (or, at the least, one that would take months to re-solidify). Fast forward nine days and we were all returned to each other: I definitely more a mess than they, no vitamin deficiencies evident, and smiles on their faces. They’d had a blast with Dad and seemed none the worse for it. I wondered if I was as indispensable as I’d estimated.

Answer: never. BUT…

That squeal-run the little one did when he met me in the driveway. And the way the big one bounded down the steps of his classroom when I picked him up that afternoon from school, he constantly turning back to look at my face the rest of the day and grinning, satisfied. “Order is restored,” a friend texted me, and though I think that it never (fully) left, I did find refuge in how…necessary I felt. How my protection of them takes different forms than just the physical. How it is, perhaps even more so, a comfort.

Julian of Norwich, my current Mystic Mascot, connects this to what truly matters:

And our Saviour is our true mother in whom we are eternally born and by whom we shall always be enclosed.

This is some woo-woo stuff when compared to traditional church teaching, but maybe that’s why it was gifted to a woman who had the sentimentality and fierceness to impart it. I, for one, take refuge in its revelation of the full nature of God, in his completeness. I need this God who is both Father and Mother and yet beyond them and more than them, who both thunders and whispers, who protects and comforts, who is in both the fire and the meal it cooks.

And I am floored in awe of how he reveals his love and protection not just through my own motherhood, but through my children as well. How I saw him when my older son brought home the gifts he bought me at his school’s Mother’s Day stall: a hand cream to, he said, keep my hands soft, and a coaster, to protect them from too much heat. Those kids, and this God, who think of just everything, covering every base.

How I’d love to end this post there! With the gilded image provided by the recognition of something sacred between mothers and their children, God overlooking them with tenderness. And some days, this is what my life looks like: the kids enjoy me, and I them, and we’re all humming along in this life with clear eyes and full hearts, not losing. It is on these days that I engage the foolhardy thought that it will always be like this.

Then the next day happens, and I remember that we’re all going to need more than hand cream, coasters, and a view of God as our friendly sponsor to get to bedtime without bloodshed.

In the Netflix documentary, Julian Peribanez, a private detective hired by the McCann family, is interviewed about an approach he took to trying to find Maddie: he spent hours and hours on the “dark internet,” on sites of child trafficking, building virtual relationships with some of the most unsavory criminals you can imagine, all in the hope of obtaining any information as to her fate. Not only was he unsuccessful, but you could see the end result of this foray all over his face.

Peribanez says the images that he saw will stay with him forever. “I’ve done thousands of cases. The Madeleine case, I’ve seen the worst things a human being can see,” he said.

I’m still haunted by the look on his face as he said that.

And to a lesser but still-notable degree, I am often haunted by the mistakes I make as a parent, by the interactions my kids and I have in our own dark moments, by the fear that this is what they will remember: not the grins and safety, but the impatience and harshness; the moments—oh so many of them—when I am anything but their safe space.

It is in these moments of deep regret and fear that I am met with a grace that often feels anything but safe itself, yet is our ultimate safety: the promise of a home, of a parentage, beyond what I or my children can imagine; a wholeness beyond what we now inhabit; a forgiveness deeper than any mistake we’ve (I’ve) made. This grace that fell in drops of water on both my boys’ heads when they were babies and protects and comforts them now, just as it does their mother, promising all of us that we are more than safe: we are, in him, always home.

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker’s hand