Safety Schmafety | Jamie Stambaugh


I have always been a nervous mother. I wish that wasn’t the case.  To be clear, I’m also a loving, funny, tender, smart, creative, and dedicated mother. The nervousness, though — it gets extreme and has long been one thing I wish I… wasn’t.  I know there is another way to be because I see it in my amazing girlfriends that, to my eyes, live their motherhood with the peacefulness that eludes me.

I can see danger lurking in everything, from sky to gravel, nothing escapes my wary eye.  For that to not seem quite so odd, you should know that part of my internal make-up was sculpted by having a brother that was killed in a awful collision between his bike and a reckless driver’s truck when he was 10 and I was days from that first teenage year. It was bad and I’m not going to go into it much here, but presumably my uber-nervousness has some roots in that experience.  For example, in the infinite wisdom only a newly 13 year-old can have, I soon adopted the mantra of making sure that all my energy and attention went into preventing bad things from ever happening again to the people I love.

‘Cause THAT’S a healthy goal.

It is now decades later and while my ability to find countless things to worry about can be burdensome to me, it has at least provided wonderful fodder for my husband over the years. Here is a photo that my amused spouse took of me as we left the hospital with our firstborn son in tow. Actively driving away from what to me was a wonderfully sterile environment stocked to the brim with trained professionals and high-tech machinery that buzzed and beeped signals of his health and steadiness for me round-the-clock:

That’s how you know you married the right man. He finds your neuroses funny instead of traumatizing. Provides perspective.

Fast forward to more recent history and let’s take this loving-and-obviously-completely-normal mother I’ve just described and drop her, with her young children, into the middle of a developing South American country for a decisively extended stay. Away from beautiful guiding girlfriends, any plastic resembling a BPA-free mold, and the familiar sterile environments stocked to the brim with trained professionals and high-tech machinery for those health traumas that require (for me) beeping reassurance.

If you are doing a white-knuckled grip on your chair right now, you are one of my kindred spirits.

If you are laughing at the foibles foreshadowed, you are one of my girlfriends.

If you are doing both, you’re my mother. Or a close relative. Hard to say.

Whoever you are, you probably already know that we have all had (and by “we” I mostly mean “Luke”) some serious scares here in our life along the equator. Horrible falls, monkey bites, malaria threats, parasites, painful and mysterious red welts, hyper-extended knees, theft, countless near-collisions on the roads, cuts, scrapes, sunburns –you name it. In fact, if it was something I feared before we came here, it’s happened.

Had Luke’s fall down the stairs in Ayampe occurred in the States, you couldn’t have gotten me to the emergency room fast enough.  Remote as we were though, a doctor, let alone an emergency room, wasn’t even an option. We just handled it as best we could and thankfully he healed. We then agreed to stop in towns only large enough for at least one medical clinic. In any case, somewhere along that list of maladies above I began to suspect one simple possibility:

It is absolutely, categorically, undeniably, IMPOSSIBLE for me to make all of South America perfectly safe.

Most of you were probably already aware of that, but I assure you, it was news to me.

I hadn’t realized how protected from ourselves we are in the United States (and how much that fed my compulsions) until we brought our family to live here. The playgrounds in Ecuador are, by American standards, shockingly unsafe. They are also, by anyone’s standards, vastly more fun. What’s not to love about thread-bare zip lines careening your child over the grazing body of an unattended and untethered stallion? In this life, seat-belts are as rare as unicorns and pedestrian crosswalks as adhered to as stop signs — which is to say not at all. It is not uncommon to see an infant in the lap of a driver passing a taxi that is loaded to the gills while another young child walks their goats home along the same road.

Suffice it to say, there is not time in my day for me to “find things to worry about”. This truth has forced me to force my children to become more aware for themselves. I cannot be their only eyes and ears and gauge, there are simply too many things coming from too many directions at too many speeds. I can’t pad every corner or plug every socket or geld every stallion. Ummm…okay, anyway…here’s the coffee snorting revelation:

Even if I could, I wouldn’t.

Yes, it was disconcerting for Luke to be bitten by a monkey in the Amazon Jungle. But he was warned not to stick his fingers at them like that, and he probably won’t make that mistake again. Plus, the scar and (slightly exaggerated) story will likely come in handy over his teenage years. He is now learning to control his body and take more responsibility for the consequences of throwing himself into the air above what is absolutely not the rubber-padded surface of his old American haunts. On the flip side, Vaughn’s slightly more timid nature is benefiting from the lack of people-afraid-of-getting-sued-saftey-codes as well. He is taking in his new environment with a keen eye and actively choosing to test his strength and endurance in ways and situations he would never have had to grow in back home. In short, they are thriving in the freedom they have here to flex both their muscles and their wits as they navigate this landscape. They are building strength in an oft-touted but rarely used muscle known as Common Sense. And they are having Amazing Adventures in the process. And I am letting them.

I am still a sometimes-nervous mother, but more days than not, I am a brave one as well.

That first ‘Don’t Slide with your Children or Risk Breaking their Legs’ story would have made me physically ill not 5 months ago. I’m not proud of that, but it’s absolutely true. Reading it now- it started the whole choking on my coffee episode and then elicited a puzzled shake of my head as to why it was even written. I much more related to the words that came next, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” from Helen Keller. There are a lot of things I want for my sons, safety is one sure- but “nothing” doesn’t even make the list. So I entwine my fingers with my husbands steadier grip, try to match his smile out on the world, and let go.

I am a loving, funny, tender, smart, creative, brave, and dedicated mother who is much less nervous than I once was.


Jamie Stambaugh is a writer, reader, traveler, mom, wife, and finder of everything from lost socks to rural Ecuadorian bus stations. She and her brood recently took an 8 month family sabbatical to South America where they stood on the equator, saw shrunken heads, ate cuy, lived next to an active volcano, learned to play polo, and had a monkey bite her youngest son’s middle finger while sitting on top of her older son’s head. She laughed. She often laughs at inappropriate times.

One comment

  1. Rachel Deans Krute

    Love this! I’m STILL a nervous mother, and my “kids” are both past 30!! Great lessons in Jamie’s piece.

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