Saturday, September 13, 2008

Parenting in the Shadows of Atrocity

Pictures from a few hours ago:

We're in the mountains. The sky is preternaturally blue. Maybe I'm in Colorado.

An airplane approaches, too low. It breaks into two pieces. There's no fire, smoke, or explosion. The fuselage just snaps in two, breaking right behind the wings. It goes down instantly, silently.

In the dream, everyone knows it's September 12. Oddly, I'm the only one who immediately realizes that this isn't just a technical malfunction.

I wake up. Sometimes, commemoration doesn't involve flag pins or pious moments of silence. Sometimes, it's neurotic and lonely and feels as real as the rubble of history.


We haven't yet told our kids about the 9/11 attacks. Each year, we keep the news off the TV and radio so that the Bear won't pick up on the story. I realize he needs to hear about it from us before he hears about it from other kids; I know that time is running out on our policy of avoidance. He was not quite two in 2001. It was easy to shield him, then, and he was too young to ask why my eyes were so red-rimmed.

Now, as he approaches his ninth birthday, he's a very sensitive kid - so much so that he asks me to turn off NPR if a report about the Iraq War comes on. He understands that war is not a game, that it's about death and destruction. I've never discouraged him from gun-play because it's never really come up; he's scared of guns, plain and simple.

He's familiar with the word "terrorist." He knows about the shoe bomber. We fly regularly and he hates taking off his shoes for security. I explained that a bad guy tried to sneak a bomb onto a plane in his shoes, and that it won't happen now because the TSA is watching for it. I believe this is true. Something else will happen, but it won't be a shoe bomb.

It's much easier to provide reassurances about those attacks that never happened.

How do I explain falling buildings? How do I make sense of the kind of zealotry that guides a plane into a skyscraper? How do I assure him that we can still get on a plane without fear?

I'm not looking for advice. Legions of child psychologists dished out tips on managing our children's fears after 9/11. None of it struck me as very helpful. These are questions without an answer, and I know it.

Maybe I'm overprotective. I think it's more complicated than that.


I'm a historian. I don't understand how people can be "history buffs." History is not a hobby. History is a chronicle of atrocity, disaster, and horror. Every once in a while the archives give you a glimpse of love or heroism or honor. Mostly, it's war, plague, oppression, and one child in five dying as an infant.

I am as thin-skinned as my Bear. I cried the first time I saw Night and Fog - not discreet, dignified tears, but big gulping sobs. My doctoral adviser was sitting right next to me. I was afraid she'd conclude that if I lost it while watching a documentary on the Holocaust, I wasn't tough enough to study German history professionally. Instead, she kindly told me: There would be something wrong with you if this left you untouched. Once I'd calmed down, I realized she was right.

It's possible to be that thin-skinned and still stare down history without blinking. I want that for my children. I don't want them to become impervious.

Given that my kids are half German, they'll have to live with the legacy of the Holocaust. From me, their American mother, they inherit the legacy of slavery and the persecution of American Indians. We've talked about this things in age-appropriate ways. The Bear knows about slavery, Martin Luther King, and Huckleberry Finn. He knows Germany had a very bad ruler who was mean to the Jews and started a huge war when his Oma was a little girl. There's time enough for the harsh details when he's old enough put them into context: A great-grandfather who made his peace with the Nazis. A great-grandmother who was killed in an air raid while his Oma was buried alive. The deportations and the death camps.

Is it ever possible, really, to put such stories into context? Or do we just learn to hold ourselves at an ostensibly safe distance?


I also don't want my children to be ruled by fear, which is surely what will happen if they're exposed young to all the world's dangers. We have become a nation of cowards that specializes in saber-rattling. We are "governed" by chickenhawks who think invading Iraq worked out so well, we might as well take on Iran and Russia next. I don't want to raise my sons with the sort of false bravado that becomes a defense against otherwise unmanageable fears.

The same people who peddle fear promise to deliver us from it. Vote for them, and they'll snuff out the evildoers all around the globe. Give them power, and we'll be freed of the stuff of our nightmares.

I don't want that freedom, bought with the blood of innocents. I want a leader who will say yes, there is evil in the world, and I can't make all your bad dreams go away. I want to hear that even when the world bristles with real threats, we can be brave without being belligerent.

I want to be told that it's our job to be the grown-ups.


hesperia said...

This is such a moving piece. My mind is so much on my children these days, now adults. Perhaps because pretty late middle age forces me to confront mortality in a new way. I think of what they may face, and I won't, and wonder what it will be like for them. A grandchild will be born in the new year. I can't imagine his life in the world. Learning to tolerate the times when my children have been in pain or fear - to "allow" it, as if I could stop it - was and still is the most difficult task of parenthood. I can't help but think of the parents who can't protect their children from the consequences of events far worse than any my children have experienced. I remember a woman in South Africa under apartheid, when children were being murdered outright, who said she constantly wanted to take her children back, into her womb. I'm sure I could make some political point here. But I don't want to.

Sungold said...

Thanks, Hesperia. I can imagine it takes a leap of faith every day to have grown children, out in the world, and just believe that they'll be OK.

The Bear deals with a lot of fear. It's mostly because he's got a terrific imagination and loads of empathy, so I actually wouldn't want to be different, even though that would be easier for him (and for us, his parents). And yes, we can offer comfort and reassurance but some days - like recently when he got upset because people have to die - there's just not much we can do but give hugs and tell them you understand. It's one thing to tell your four-year-old that monsters don't really exist; quite another to have to deal with those monsters that *do* exist (war, terror, death).

You bet my kids are privileged - as am I - in our safety and relative wealth. This shouldn't be a privilege, it should be a birthright.

Thanks for a moving response.