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Globe Magazine

When my daughter was born, I became the most scared dad there ever was

Parenthood, for me, has been one long panic attack, and I surely have worse ahead

Josie Norton for the boston globe

I‘ve never really understood the point of 3-D ultrasound scans, those sepia-tinged snapshots that are bandied about in prenatal clinics. Presumably, these “windows into the womb” are meant to elicit a sense of joy, or at least relief on the fingers-and-toes front. What you end up with, however, is a window into a David Cronenberg film.

This, anyway, was the impression I got as a nurse presented a preview of my child-to-be, back in the summer of 2008. Once I’d gotten over the initial shock — the jump scare, as it were — I began jabbing at the creature’s shadowy blobs and hollows on the screen, asking questions like “Why is it smirking?” and “Where are its eyes?” All the same, we took the image home — our little bowl of peach cobbler, our wad of Dubble Bubble, our miniature Guernica — and applied it to the fridge, where it remained until our daughter’s birth a few months later.

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To my relief, Molly came out of it looking distinctly human (in fact, with her tuft of reddish hair and pinched little features, she came out of it looking like the actor Simon Pegg). But even this couldn’t dampen the feelings that coursed through me in that moment — a swirl of love, astonishment, and abject terror.

Our midwife that day was a plucky Irish woman named Stella, and she needed all the pluck she could muster with me in the room. Sure, it was my partner who was enduring the actual bodily suffering and strain of this miraculous ordeal, but I fretted over the possibility that the baby could get dropped on her head, or choke on her tongue, or have her feet on backward. “Calm down, Daddy,” Stella kept saying as I hovered over the de-gooing process. “Calm down.”

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I didn’t know it at the time, but these were the best words of parental advice I have ever been given. For sure, I needed to calm down when Molly suffered a horrifically prolonged febrile seizure at the age of 1. Same thing every time she went swimming with friends, or put her face too close to a dog, or ran. Parenthood, for me, has been one long panic attack, and I surely have worse ahead, as my little girl lurches towards adulthood, with all the perilous trial and error this implies.

There’s a temptation to poke fun at people like me, to label us with terms such as “nervous Nelly.” But parental anxiety is not a quirk or a foible; it is a real psychological disorder, with its own roster of symptoms (avoidance behaviors, morbid vocalization) and treatments (psychotherapy, diazepam). The impulse is as uncontainable as a fear of open spaces, as insistent as an addiction. And, as with all addictions, this one has a ripple effect on those around us.

Over-coddling, the experts agree, can impede a child’s cognitive, physical, and social development. It undermines self-confidence and prompts feelings of anxiety and shame. In some instances, it can paradoxically lead to heightened risk-taking behavior.

My daughter, for her part, approaches life the way an octogenarian totters out of a bathtub. Her tree-climbing exploits have never transcended the fourth branch. On slides, she would grip the edges and inch her way down, leaving bottlenecks of muttering kids at the top. Even now, at 15, Molly’s idea of a thrill ride is a twirling teacup. At night, she checks the locks 20 times before going to bed, harbors a deep mistrust of mayonnaise, and has me to thank for it.

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You could pin my repressive parenting style on an overabundance of love — or, less charitably, a controlling streak — but it runs deeper than this. Even before Molly was conceived, I was a world-class worrier, which has more to do with how I worry rather than what I worry about.

My specific talent in this area is the ability to go beyond the abstract. Where regular people might entertain vague concerns about, say, being eaten by a shark off Nauset Beach, I produce unflinching, visually spectacular mental reels providing a chomp-by-chomp account of the attack: the thrashing, the gurgling, the shark’s dead eyes reflecting my own.

Josie Norton for the boston globe

My daughter didn’t create this tendency, but she did help me perfect it — in this sense, you could say that she is my muse. My early work pales beside the cinematic horrors I have created on Molly’s behalf, including The Grape in the Throat and Death Bubble-Bath Time. Even now, a decade after its debut inside my eyelids, I cannot look at my child leaving the house without screening the full-length trailer for Away With a Stranger.

Logic occasionally intrudes on these morbid fantasies, but not for long. I remember coming across a blog post a decade ago, composed by an MIT instructor named Philip Greenspun, in which he calculated the probability of an unattended child being kidnapped by a stranger, a reliably recurrent night terror of mine. Greenspun concluded that, over the course of a year, a child had a 1 in 626,000 chance of being abducted. I still don’t like those odds.

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Molly is a teenager now, less tolerant of my hypervigilance, determined to confront the perils of existence on her own terms. “Let me live!” she hollered the other day, furious that I had called to inform her that she was walking home from school in the wrong direction, information gleaned from a tracking app. And that, I suppose, may be the second-best piece of parental advice I have ever been given. Letting a child live and keeping them alive are not the same thing.


For all my bleak prognosticating, I failed to anticipate the incident that almost led to my own demise.

It happened in the spring of 2022, while Molly and I were staying at a friend’s villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza. I’d gone to a local shop for barbecue supplies, briquettes and lighter fluid, but had instead been given briquettes and methanol — a highly toxic, explosive substance that has no business being near an open flame. When the coals failed to catch, I added a spritz of fluid — as you do — and watched as a flame shot up the spout. Boom.

Molly didn’t see the explosion, but she heard it — a sharp crack, like gunfire — and she saw me running across the patio and into the house, ablaze.

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When the flames had been doused (by a potful of water and mixed vegetables), I was rushed to an emergency room, then helicoptered to a burn unit in Valencia, Spain, where I spent the better part of two months in a coma and another three weeks in ICU. I had several skin grafts, but the mortal danger was the damage to my lungs. More than once, my friends and family were told to prepare themselves for the worst.

It was while I was out, pumped with ketamine and morphine, that I reached the peak of my cinematic powers. In terms of plot, the visions that came to me were nuts — in one, I was on a boat, watching as a tiny pirate waved his tiny sword at a procession of golden oysters toppling over a tiny waterfall — but the detailing was flawless, the feelings were real. Invariably, the fantasies devolved into dark thrillers, all of which involved me trying to save my daughter’s life.

Of course.

Weeks after my release from the hospital, when it felt safe to do so, Molly and I talked about the day I caught fire. She told me that she’d put her hands over her ears and run out into the street, away from the horror that was unfolding. And then she started sobbing, telling me she nearly lost me. I held her close and stroked her hair. “It’s OK,” I whispered. “I’m not going anywhere.” A moment later, I cuffed my darling girl around the head and said, “Now you know how I feel.”


Chris Wright is a writer and editor based in England. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.