Control Is an Illusion: Some Things I Noticed While Spending Five Weeks in the Hospital with a Two Year Old (and a baby sidekick)

by | Feb 18, 2020 | Things I Think | 46 comments

Baby Barbara and I recently accompanied two-year old George for most of his five week stay in the hospital as he fought and recovered from bacterial meningitis. I’ve had people mention since then that I should do a post on what I learned during our little sojourn, but I’m . . . just . . . not . . . sure I learned much. I did notice some things though. Here’s one:

Note: This post is just my musings on this subject and is not a result of my having felt not properly supported during George’s illness. We were loved and supported well by our wonderful community both online and IRL. So, thanks!

That feeling of control that we want as parents . . . it’s an illusion.

I think on some level, when we hear about a tragedy, we try to figure out what that family did “wrong” so we can assure ourselves that it won’t happen to us. So if it was a car accident, we want to know if the child was buckled into his car seat properly. If it was a birth defect, we want to know if mom drank a glass of wine while pregnant. If there was a pool, we want to know if it had a gate. If we vaccinate, we want to know if an illness was the result of not vaccinating. If we don’t vaccinate, we want to know if the illness was the result of a vaccination.

If that family did something that *I* wouldn’t do, then I can move on with my life comfortable that my choices are protecting my children. But, of course, that means that in my head I’ve made that tragedy the fault of that parent’s choices. It’s not a very generous way to view someone’s suffering. And if I apply that same logic to my own family, I have to spend a lot of energy blaming or second guessing myself when things go wrong.

In George’s case, he was vaccinated against the bacteria that usually causes meningitis in children, but he was infected by a different strain of the bacteria, against which the vaccine does not protect. It was just a fluke that in his case a not-uncommon bacteria ended up someplace it shouldn’t be (the lining of his brain). During our hospital stay, we met other families with very different yet fundamentally similar stories. Sometimes bad stuff just happens.

We are such extraordinary creatures, so wonderfully complex and fragile. How many near-misses do our loved ones have every day, that we never even consider?

In our case, I really don’t believe there’s anything we could have done differently to avoid George’s illness. But in a hundred other cases–or a thousand–since he was born, I did or didn’t do something that might have ended up in his getting ill or injured . . . and he didn’t.

Be it the harvest, or how many children to have, or illness and injury, our ancestors understood that these things weren’t in our control, and that of course we would have to rely on our neighbors, and pray to God for the fortitude to get through. Not so much now. We want to believe that everything is a result of our decisions. And if it was your choice, it’s your problem.

Of course it’s our responsibility as parents to care for and protect our children to the best of our abilities. And to be responsible stewards of our lives in general. But when something goes wrong, even if it’s partially the result of, let’s call it “operator error,” it’s almost always also the result of things we couldn’t control. I think learning to view tragedy through the lens of happenstance rather than fault is profoundly liberating, in the way we treat ourselves and others.

God doesn’t will the tragedies in our lives, but he does allow them as a byproduct of free will and the natural world. Facing tragedy in our own families can increase our reliance on God and our connection to our fellow man. Seeing tragedy in someone else’s family can inspire us to love and prayer and acts of service.

It doesn’t really matter *why* a tragedy, if there IS a tragedy. Relying on God, and trusting him to help us persevere through difficult times should they arise, is a vastly different worldview than constant box-checking to try to make sure nothing bad could possibly happen. It’s a false sense of security that we are attempting to create. A false sense of power over our environment. My goal instead is abandonment to God’s will and acceptance of my current situation. It’s past blame and guilt and finger-pointing that we find the virtue of acceptance, of our own circumstances and those of others.


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  1. Amanda

    I honestly think a lot of this comes from birth control. We are going to have exactly the number of children we want exactly when we want them and then those children are going to be perfectly healthy because we planned everything perfectly. It’s all our decisions, starting with conception.

    • Kendra

      Yes. I think that’s true.

    • Jess

      Oh, wow! I never thought about that connection. That’s probably true.

    • Laura

      This has really been on my mind a lot lately.

  2. Caroline Merrill

    Trevor and I have been talking about this subject a lot since the corona virus outbreak. Just that we live in such a safe part of the world where we’re protected from disease, war, etc most of the time. So the sudden thought that a deadly virus might make its way to our little bubble is almost incomprehensible. But also so good for our reliance on God because as you said, it helps us to realize how NOT in control we really are. And how much we really NEED God.

    • Kendra

      Amen! I think there’s an anxiety inherent in trying to control our lives so closely, and there’s a despair in thinking the world is a scary dangerous place where no one cares. It’s about finding that middle ground of peace between the two, where we know that bad things happen and they could happen to us and we trust that we will be okay anyway. No matter what. That’s faith. 🙂

  3. Heidi

    The newsletter idea is BRILLIANT!! I love your social media posts, but they usually wind up more for my personal edification than much family culture building and celebrating. Being able to look ahead just a bit will be so helpful! Thank you!!

    • Kendra

      I’m so glad you think so!

  4. Katie

    Beautifully written and well stated. Control absolutely is an illusion. I find this to be even more true as our children grow into young adults. God is God, we are not.

  5. Emily

    My 7 year old spent a week in the hospital this summer after her appendix burst, and it has both increased my wonder at and trust in God’s providence and has also made me realize so many of the type-A things I do/did aren’t going to prevent a child from going to bed healthy and waking up in excruciating pain. This surrender of false control was initially scary but I’ve found it ultimately to be so freeing.

  6. Amy

    Hi Kendra,
    I’ve followed your writings for a few years now but this is my first time writing to you.
    My son was born four years ago with a limb difference. He was born without a left hand. I remember thinking over and over “did I do something wrong?”
    My priest came to visit us when my son was a few hours old and I said to Father, “what if it’s my fault… what if I did this to him?” My priest answered, “No, you are not that powerful.”
    For the longest time I was puzzled by his choice of words. I thought he was just trying to comfort me. Now I see that he was saying the same thing that you have written here. It wasn’t something I could control, I didn’t have that power.

    • Kendra

      Yes, that’s exactly it. It’s hard to hear, but somehow comforting at the same time, I think.

    • Lina Simms

      This was a great post. It reminds me a lot of Fr. Jacques Phillipe’s Interior Freedom book which I’ve been re-reading since he’s going to be in town to give a talk this weekend (hooray!)! Anyway, one thing he said has especially stuck with me. To paraphrase: a lot of our suffering is not from the suffering itself but from our (ill-fated) attempts to reject and avoid the suffering. Oftentimes it’s that battle that produces even more suffering than the initial diagnosis, death, pain, etc. So he advises, as much as possible, to “consent” to your suffering because you believe in the goodness of God and that He can bring good out of every situation, even if we don’t understand WHY things are how they are. Even when we don’t know WHY, we can rest in the goodness of His nature. The whole book is so brilliant, but that one point has really opened up a new source of “interior freedom” for me, and I think it really dovetails well with your beautifully stated point.

      • Kendra

        That’s such a good perspective.

  7. Katie

    This is exactly what I needed to read. I had baby #6 January 19th. I have been in and out of the hospital since that day. I had leftover placenta that was not discovered until 2 weeks later. I had a d&c and then back to the hospital for a uterine embolisation. Thank you for sharing with me that sometimes bad things happen. This post was very consoling for me.

    • KC

      Prayers for you, Katie!

    • Kendra

      That sounds like such a lot to bear. Prayers for you and baby. I’m glad the post was helpful!

    • Joy Fritz

      Hi Kendra, Thank you for this post. I clicked on it primarily because I’ve thrown myself into health research these past two years and learned so much about the disease vs. vaccine choice spectrum through reading medical literature and statistics for many hours every week, but as a Catholic have craved a discussion on the issues surrounding our need to control and the natural suffering/ spiritual benefit connection. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this if you are inspired to expound more one day.

      • Cami

        I’m also interested in this. I struggle with balancing the truth that God created our bodies for living and surviving and that we can heal and need healthy immune systems but that risks are taken with vaccines. Some are worth the risk perhaps, others not. How much do we try to control with vaccination if we also know we may be adding unnecessary risk? If we put it all in the Father’s hands, what does that look like as far as avoiding illness? I had a couple kids have adverse reactions to vaccines and since then I’ve held off on my other children. Generally speaking we eat healthy homemade meals and wash our hands frequently. We do seem to get sick less frequently and heal from colds and whatnot fairly well. So how much of it is due to my efforts versus what God the father has permitted? We do you have a few families who always bring their kids around when they are sick and we typically do catch it. This is very frustrating to me and I don’t consider it charitable to spread illness. But I do realize that health is a gift from God.

  8. Juli

    I do appreciate this post, I struggle with this so much. I have a hard time letting myself off the hook. If awful things happen as a result of free will, and God lets them happen… then I tend to believe that my free will and my choices (or that of others) CAN impact my children’s safety / outcome. How do we rectify those two ideas!? I’d love more about this because I really really struggle with this! Thanks so much for your posts and thoughtful sharing. I always learn so much from you!

    • Ann Marie

      You can impact outcomes, for sure. What we can’t do is insure outcomes. That’s where trust and prayer and humility takes over. There is terrible disappointment, even sometimes to the point of despair when we are under the impression that if we do x, y, and z we will get this particular positive result and that does not end up being the case. We feel like a failure. We feel like nothing is in our control or, worse yet, that what we do means nothing. Well, we have made ourselves like little gods in our childrens lives. God works all things to good for those who love Him. Trust in that fact always, even in the face of horrible things. Work like everything depends on us, but pray like everything depends on God.

  9. KC

    Last February, I spent the whole month praying for us to not get the stomach bug and then on day 21 had to send my five-month-old off in a helicopter to the nearest children’s hospital for what turned out to be a kidney infection. It was such a lesson in trust in God and also not ever even knowing the “right” thing to fear! Then we were on a floor of pediatric cancer patients and I couldn’t mind for a second about the kidney infection, b/c it was easily “curable” and nothing likely to ever cause us a problem again. I’ve thought of and prayed for those other families all year as we’ve just resumed normal life. This is also good reason for not worrying TOO much about the future. We have no idea what will happen tomorrow. Today has enough worries!

  10. Cydni

    I really needed to read this. I never thought about how uncharitable it was that I was trying to find the mistake that was made to prevent it in my family instead of just accepting it as a tragedy and praying for the family. Thank you for your wonderful posts!

    • Sarah

      I’ve been thinking a lot about blame in the context of my failing marriage. There was a long time that I was angry and blamed my husband for things and then I got to the point where I knew I didn’t want to live a life where I was blaming someone all the time. So I worked really hard at letting go of the blame—or at least I thought I was letting go. I’ve realized recently that actually instead of letting it go, I’ve just transferred it to myself. So now I just walk around in this cloud of guilt and failure. It’s different than the feelings of regret and remorse I have for things that I know I did wrong or ways I sinned against my husband during our marriage. It’s this overarching feeling that we failed and someone has to take the blame and if it’s not him, then I guess it must be me. Anyway, I’m stuck here for now. I don’t really know how to move beyond this way of thinking.

      • Sue Bee

        Hi Sarah! I’d really like to recommend that you watch the very long (almost 3 hours) but very interesting you-tube by Ann Barnhardt on “Diabolical Narcissism”. It may be a help to you. God bless! Of course, He (Our Lord) is the Master at bringing good out of everything! If you want a shortcut, you might be able to get the gist of it by reading the comments. I don’t know if it will help you in your particular case, but it won’t hurt, either.

  11. Meredith

    Thank you Kendra. While I thought this post was going a different direction from the title, I appreciate it so much. I agree (with one of your other readers) that as a culture we have become accustomed to having so much control; I attribute some of that to contraception as well. While now pregnant with #7, some members of my immediate family found it very difficult that I would “let” this happen because “what if something happens to you”…”how will you love all of them and meet all of their different needs..” among some other off-putting comments. And through this hardship for me, I come back to the fact that these people are ultimately thinking “you could have CONTROLLED this and prevented it…so why didn’t you?” Ugh. Anyway, this is what your initial quote (at the top of the blog) made me think of. Thanks for sharing and reminding us that we are not “all that powerful” and ultimately bad things just happen! The question is how can we respond with faith, charity, and love when bad things do happen.

  12. Shannon Seiberlich

    I agree! When my youngest son was just 18 months old he took 3 quick, determined, unknowing steps and proceeded to take about a 10-foot fall over the steepest side of a stairwell in our home right in front of me. I was standing no more than a foot or two away from him. Maybe it was serendipitous that it was January 17, 1994, the day of the Los Angeles earthquake?! It happened so fast, and I was so stunned that it took my brain a few seconds to catch up with what was happening before my eyes. As I raced down the stairs after him, thinking the worst—that maybe such a fall had possibly killed him—I heard God’s voice in my mind loud and clear: “You-are-not-in-control.” I thought at first it was a strange thing to run through my mind, but then I recognized the Holy Spirit within me. It was seconds…but I understood. The words weren’t condemning, but they were firm. God wasn’t punishing me (I’d learned that lesson when my first son was born with a unilateral cataract!). He was alerting me…reminding me to hold loosely and trust Him.

  13. Elizabeth

    So true, you perfectly expressed everything I’ve learned since my 6th child was born with various special needs three yrs ago. Hospital stays are so difficult but allow for much spiritual growth. Thank you for this post!

  14. Anastasia Heder

    Andrew Pudewa points out in his talk, “Fairy Tales and the Moral Imagination” that because we encounter death and physical suffering so much less frequently in the modern world, we don’t have a harder time accepting them as part of the mortal experience in a fallen world.

    Thanks for taking time to record and share your thoughts. I appreciate them.

    • Kendra

      So true. Memento mori . . .

  15. Holly

    We are kindred souls. This post could not be more timely to me. My almost two year old son, Killian, died in his crib last week. Though the feelings are so very raw, your words are still spot on to what we are processing. Thank you for blessing those in your influence, you are truly an amazing woman. I aspire to be more like you.

    • Kendra

      Oh Holly, I’m so sorry. May little Killian intercede for you and help you find peace. I’m grateful to be a small comfort.

    • KC

      Prayers for you Holly! So very sorry for your loss.

  16. liz

    I’m naturally inclined to be a control freak, yet I find so much relief in knowing that most things are actually completely beyond my control. Of course if I did not believe in a good God who loves mankind, this thought might not be as comforting.

  17. KC

    Coming back to add that I think this is also why it is so good to read the lives of the saints (to yourself and to your children) regularly. Then you’ll come to realize that hardship is more likely to come than not and yet holiness and happiness can still be found!

  18. Margaret

    My sister just had a scare with melanoma. And i can list off on my 10 fingers in my 15 years of marriage the number of tragedies I’ve seen come upon families i know. You have put into words what i have been unable to express. Fantastic blog post! God bless and God’s speed Georgie!

  19. Elizabeth Bates

    Thank you, Kendra.

    With all the things that COULD happen to us, every ordinary day should treated as the miracle that it is.

    I am a doctor. Today I had to give someone what will likely be a terminal diagnosis. She asked me, “What causes this cancer?” I thought a moment, then answered with complete certainty, “No one knows.”

    Let’s try to spend every moment loving.

  20. Fiona Carolan

    Kendra, thank you for these thoughts. In Australia many of us with faith have been praying about similar thoughts the last few weeks. On Feb 2, in Oatlands, Sydney, 4 children (3 siblings & a cousin) were killed (with other cousins still hospitalised with serious injuries)by a drunk driver as they were walking to buy icecream. The family are Maronite Catholics & the almost immediate statements of forgiveness & acceptance from Danny Abdallah & his wife Leila Gagea Abdallah are filled with deep faith, fortitude & love of God’s will. The good that is already arising from this tragedy is astounding. Their heroic example has been widely reported in secular & Christian media. Please pray for their family, the children still hospitalised & all involved. The 13year old son visited the Blessed Sacrament with his Dad on the way to a basketball game on the day he was killed, every week the family helped out at a kitchen for the homeless. The example of this family illustrates your thoughts precisely.

  21. Ann Marie

    This is just SO on the money. And, even though I know you weren’t meaning it this way, it struck me as particularly applicable also for our childrens’ life of faith as well. I’ve been in a conversation with friend of late about just this topic. There is no magic formula to insure your children will grow to have a flourishing faith life or that will insure that they will never fall away from the faith. Conversely, we can’t look at families who have had children fall away and think that they MUST have failed them in some way. If we think we are doing all the right things, so surely or kids will never fall away, you’re setting yourself for despair if that in fact happens in your life.

  22. Josephene Kealey

    I have these fears and questions and control struggles in regards to facing life with my children as teens and wondering if I’ve done enough and done enough “right” to help them stay with Jesus through these years when so many children slip away from God.

  23. Jaime Shirey

    As a mother of a child diagnosed with leukemia one year ago…wow, thank you and the Holy Spirit for delivering this to my inbox! So very true!!
    My motto is “All is God’s plan” instead of asking why. He has been with us every step of the way and I will continue to praise Him on the mountaintop and in the valley.

  24. Mark

    Another great post, Kendra.

  25. laycistercians

    Faith doesn’t mean we don’t hurt. Faith doesn’t mean we don’t grieve. Faith means in the end, it’s all going to be ok.

  26. Natasha

    Your thoughts reminded me of this article I read several years ago.

    It had a big impact on me and I’ve thought about it often when I’ve watched people blame and attack grieving parents on social media.

    Thanks so much for sharing Kendra. I think this is a really important topic.

  27. Marie

    So glad your boy has recovered so well. It’s always hard when someone we love gets so ill. My oldest son was admitted to hospital with acute appendicitis the day my father died unexpectedly some ten minutes after I had finished talking on the phone to him. He was in Melbourne and we live just out of Auckland. Leaving my son in the hospital to face the surgery alone (he was 11 at the time) was one of the hardest things I had to do – and there has been plenty of tragedy and drama in my life – Mum needed me and my husband stayed behind to look after our son and other two children. It was a very difficult time but we got through it. Two years ago our son survived and walked away from a car crash that nearly killed him. I do believe that our blessed Mother protected him that day as she has always done. He is 20 now and at university. The latest drama we have is with number 2 son who has recently been diagnosed with a rare but not life threatening medical condition that will involve many, many tests before treatment can be determined. We cannot control the dramas that enter our life but we can give them to God and grow closer to Him.

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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