What I Never Learned at Mommy and Me

(Originally published in Newsweek as a “My Turn” essay on 3/1/04).  A bit of associated trivia: Donald Trump was on the cover.)

My son sits tensely on the couch watching the nightly television news while the newscaster speaks words that no seventeen year-old child should hear. Because of heightened security concerns the terrorism alert has been raised to orange level… Another suicide bombing has been reported in Iraq. There are an as yet unknown number of civilian casualties… Next up, a special report on whether hazmat suits really protect against anthrax…

Add to that the scrolled messages rolling out beneath the news anchor. More doom and gloom – predictions of a recession, a canceled flight from London, street violence in Haiti, continued nuclear potential in North Korea.

I sit and watch the news with him. At seventeen, he needs to know what is going on in the world, but the continual litany of sorrow and fear that is somehow now part of the very fabric of our daily lives is almost too much to bear. I wish for a moment that I could just flip off the television like I would when he was a little guy, and say, “Hey, let’s go to the park!”

And I am surprised to find that in addition to all the other emotions brought on first by the terrorist attacks, and continuing with the war in the Middle East, I can now add parental guilt to the mix.

I feel guilty because my generation (and by extrapolation, myself) seems to have been looking the other way, and we let our children down. Or maybe we weren’t looking at all. We got blind-sided. Sucker-punched in the worst way. We really did think we had it all: prosperity always on the horizon, IRA accounts growing steadily, Volvo station wagons in the driveway, college funds for our children, carefree vacations at dude ranches.

That was then, this is now. And now is a seventeen year-old boy who came home from school one day joking grimly (ha, ha!) that his senior friends were kidding each other by sharing strategies to avoid the draft, “You shoot me in the foot and I’ll shoot you in the foot.” I remember similar conversations my college boyfriend had with his friends during the Vietnam War.

I want to tell my son how sorry I am that he has to hear words as terrible and graphic as anthrax, jihad, and suicide bomber. That he has to live, like the rest of us, with the constant underlying threat of personal and global tragedy, not knowing or even imagining what bad thing will happen next. I want to say how sorry I am that the simplest acts in life are now tainted – opening the mail, drinking a glass of tap water, going on an airplane to visit Grandma.

I also want to say that it won’t always be like this, that “I can make it better,” but the words feel like a lie and I can’t speak them. There is no way to explain what can’t be explained. I have yet to hear any rational person be able to “explain” how a young mother could attach explosives to her body, kiss her children goodbye, and hours later blow herself up along with innocent civilians. So far I have not found the language to discuss this with my son.

Is it so wrong to want our old lives back, to wish for that one thing so strongly, even knowing as you wish it that it is not going to happen? I remember when buildings like the Sears Tower and the Empire State Building were gleaming feats of breathtaking beauty, examples of man’s ingenuity – not possible targets for terrorists. I also remember, not so very long ago, when airplanes were not seen as potential weapons of hijackers with desperate political agendas. Rather, the main purpose of airplanes was to lift people, through a miracle of engineering and trust, to bring families and friends together.

Parents today are ever so vigilant over our children’s lives. We buy and read all the baby books, we take “Mommy and Me” classes, we go to parent/teacher conferences. We cover the electrical outlets with safety plugs, we check the width of the crib slats, we cut grapes in fourths, we buckle up, we scrutinize the movie reviews, we use bicycle helmets, we analyze food labels for preservatives. We get up at midnight to lay a cheek next to the mouths of our babies to make sure they are breathing.

Bandages and kisses and assurances won’t assuage our collective guilt, or heal the injured psyches of our children, or even ourselves for that matter. Logically I know that this paralyzing feeling of parental guilt is counter-productive, and that of course, none of us could have foreseen and prevented the attack on our nation, nor the domino-like consequences that have followed.

But true logic as I knew it flew out the window on September 11, and what I’m left with, watching my son biting his lower lip, as he scans yet another special news bulletin, is the hard, cold knowledge that I can’t fix this.

However, as a parent who truly is a product of my own generation that doesn’t stop me from trying. My contemporaries and I were brought up ourselves believing we could effect positive change. We may feel a collective guilt and responsibility over the turn history has taken, but the response to this guilt will be a productive one. We will try “to make it better” by doing exactly what we teach our children. By taking responsibility for our actions, by speaking out against injustice, by educating ourselves about both local and global issues, and by becoming involved in something that has a positive effect on the world in which we live.

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