Do you know what an “empath” is? I didn’t either until I started dating my (now) husband. Of course I knew what empathy* was, but an actual “empath”…say whaaa? It turns out that on Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was a character they referred to as an “empath” because she was half human, half (stay with me here, pretty please) Betazoid. Betazoids were fully telepathic, but because one parent of the character was human (read as: completely lame and not special in science fiction-land), all she got in the telepathy department was being able to fully sense other beings’ emotions.
My latest theory is the creators and writers of this character were new parents.
It’s not that I wouldn’t consider myself a non-empathetic person before children, and it’s not that I think you can’t be empathetic (or, for that matter, extremely empathetic) without them, it’s just that all of a sudden in my life I have found myself actually being able to truly empathize everything with another little person. Do I realize it’s completely irrational to cry over not being allowed to climb on the dishwasher and rummage through dirty dishes and knives? Of course I do. Do I still feel all the feels of the frustration of this spectacle? Sigh, alas, I do.
This is why when Wee Connor broke his leg my heart just about shattered.
It all started the day before Thanksgiving. I was doing something super dumb and selfish by washing a dish at the sink while Connor was toddling around. All of a sudden he was on the ground sobbing. Not crying in the “oh, I fell down and mom pay attention pleeeeeeease” kind of way but in the “sh*t just went down and got really real” way. Bummer, I think, as I scooped him up, thinking that in a few seconds he’d be back to pointing at the dog and laughing, which is his usual reaction to falling down. A few minutes went by. More sobs. Then more minutes and more sobs. In the back of my head I knew something wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what. I tried to feed him and see if he’d go down for a nap, but no luck. This is when I started realizing he wouldn’t – nay, couldn’t – stand up.
When he was calm enough to stand up next to me he perched his left leg up at the knee like a flamingo. By a grace of a miracle my husband was working from home that day and when I went in to confirm something was wrong it had been 30 minutes and there were still tears. We called our pediatrician who told us to go to the children’s hospital if he was still crying. X-rays were in order.
We rushed down to Lurie Children’s Hospital and after a few hours the doctors came in to say that while nothing came back on the X-ray Connor could have what is called a “Toddlers Fracture”, which is a spiral fracture of the tibia, most commonly seen when kids are going down a slide and their shoe gets caught on the side but they keep going down. The recommendation was to wait 7-10 days, see if things improved or stayed the same, and follow up with the ortho folks in a week or so. For a few days Wee Connor continued to be our Wee Flamingo refusing to put any weight on his leg. He was pretty unhappy until he learned how to crawl again, which gave him his mobility.
Then, just as quickly as he couldn’t put weight on his leg the day before his ortho appointment he started standing and walking again! We went anyway, but the doctor said it was still probably too early for another X-ray, but there was no way he would be walking and playing like he was with a fractured leg. Ta-da! Probably a sprain! No cast needed! No need to zap him again with X-rays! All of the yaaaaaaaas!
Three days later, though, it all came back down again. Connor and I were playing around, he caught his foot on something and it was deja-vu. Screaming sobs lasting more than two minutes, unwillingness to stand on his two legs, the whole kit and kaboodle. He went down for a nap, and then after was still hurting so back to the ER we went. And here’s the thing: while we were in the ER he started walking again. And playing! And generally being his adorable little playful self! “Great,” I thought. “This cannot be all for naught, can it?!” The doctors suspected it was just a flashback and he was fine because again according to them there was “no way on earth he could possibly be walking around like that with a fractured leg” but they X-rayed him to make sure. Lo and behold (during this time I made the discovery that every ER room at Children’s has every single Disney/Pixar/other children’s movie ever made on demand…score!) the doctors came back with the news: they found healing bone, which is often what it takes for it to light up on the X-ray…so yes…Connor did, in fact, have a broken leg. And no, they had no idea how he was able to walk on it all this time.
The pediatric ortho doctors on call were all in surgery, so the “permanent” cast would have to be put on in the next day or so. This cast stayed on for three weeks until New Year’s Eve. New year, new leg!
Some time has passed since this all happened. My emotions aren’t as raw. My guilt has somewhat assuaged, especially since we discovered that with some grippy slipper socks Wee Connor was just as mobile as before, only when he walked somewhere it was much louder on our hardwoods, which gave us the definite advantage in figuring out where he had toddled off to. We “splurged” on the waterproof cast so baths, rain, and snow were never a worry (by the way, if you have the extra $50, do this if you have a cast put on, there’s my pro tip to you, free of charge).
However, I can’t forget feeling those feelings. Connor was hurt and scared and I felt hurt and scared right there with him. It wasn’t a guess as to what he was feeling; I was half-Betazoid. I knew. I had become an empath.
It’s an impossible feeling knowing that someone you love is in pain, scared, or suffering and knowing there is nothing you can do to make it any better. Every father I’ve talked to has said that was the worst part of labor for them, having to watch this person they love suffer immensely and not be able to do a single thing about it (other than do and say everything wrong while by her side, of course). There are many more times when the little person I’ve been tasked with raising will be scared, or hurt, or something else, and all I can do is feel scared, hurt, or something else with them. It’s what we signed up for when we became parents, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
The only thing I can do is to think about the upside of this newfound half-Betazoid life I’ve found. Things I never knew could make me happy make me feel happy, such as the theme song to Bananas in Pyjamas (Australian children’s television show found on Hulu streaming and highly recommended so as not to suffer through Caillou, who is strictly forbidden from entering our house). So with those additional lows are the highs of the simple things, and the great news is those peaks are much, much higher than the valleys.
When people ask me if I was stressed through this whole thing, I was, but I knew things would be fine. The difference is that while feeling the feels, I have the power of adulting the adult as well. I might be an empath, but I also have a choice in how to react to it, unlike my 14-month-old. Panicking would produce zero worthwhile results, if not make things immensely worse. Both my parents were in the airline industry – my dad was a pilot and my mom a flight attendant – and the one trait they and every other in-flight airline person I have ever met has taught me is that when the going gets really rough, the calmer you need to be. In our house when things were really seriously wrong there was an almost eerie sense of silence and calm and an ernest “oh, we will figure out this solution and get.sh*t.done.” Bad choices lead to making a situation worse, and the one thing you don’t need in a bad situation is a worse situation. My husband and I made the best calm decisions we could make at the time, and being calm helped someone who is 14 months old and can’t make those types of rationalizations stay calm. Feel the feels, adult the adult. It’s a new mantra of mine I developed while Connor and I were watching Frozen in the ER room.
Finally, I knew a broken leg wasn’t a picnic, but there was a child in the hospital at the same time as Connor whose situation warranted every pediatric orthopedic surgeon on call to be in an hours-long surgery. No matter who you are and what you’re doing, someone else is fighting their fight, so I said a prayer for the family whose child was on that surgery table while thanking goodness that my little one was in my lap with me watching Disney movies.
So there you have it. The saga of the broken leg from Thanksgiving to Christmas. We’re all fine, we now all know what a Toddlers Fracture is, and more importantly, we all now know the secret to the creation of the empath character from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Parents, we are all half-Betazoids.
*If you are ever confused on the difference between empathy and sympathy – or if you’re not confused but find yourself constantly appalled at the continuing decline of empathy in our society and want to explain how to be a human to people – I cannot recommend this 3-minute video enough.