Parenting Through a Week of Hard News

by Danielle Veith

There are nights when, putting my children in their comfortable beds, asleep or nearly there, it seems like an absolute miracle that I have managed to keep them safe for another day. Not an accomplishment, more like dumb luck.

And when there’s a story of a child whose parents ran out of luck, it’s easy to hold onto it and hard to let go. I’m a sponge for grief. I soak it in and hold it like it’s all that fills me, like I’d be empty if I wasn’t able to breathe in the sadness of the world.

This has been a very sad week. Ridiculously sad. The story of the eight-year old boy who hugged his father who’d just finished running the Boston marathon, just before returning to his mother’s side to be killed in an inexplicable bomb attack, that’s just one of the of this week’s sad stories.

Yesterday, as I flipped between CNN and MSNBC, immersed in the anxiety of a breaking news day, I felt a deep sadness for the mother of the two bomb suspects, the 19-year-old who was still on the run, his young face plastered across the screen, and his 26-year-old brother, who was already dead.

Of course, I felt tremendous grief for the victims of these violent acts. We all say prayers for them while the world watches and we hope we don’t forget them long before they heal. But our sadness does not end with the images of those hurt and killed in the bombings.

There was a photo (on this Facebook page) of the younger son in the ambulance after his capture. I just kept staring at it last night and imagining—what if it was my son laying there and I’m half way around the world and hear that he has done this terrible thing, and maybe I believe it or maybe I don’t, but if I do, I don’t understand how the child I love could be so full of hate and I don’t know why or what led to this, but I see that he is seriously injured, bleeding, in an ambulance with people who hate him and wish he was dead or worse, and he’s alone and I’m not there.

I found it utterly heartbreaking to imagine what his mother must have been feeling. What an evil nightmare. What if my child committed a horrible crime, took away the lives of other people’s children? Would I still love him and want for him not to be alone? Of course, I can’t say, but I imagined myself wanting to be with my child, even in this horrible moment, and wanting to hold him.

As David Remnick of The New Yorker wrote, “…as the day was coming to an end, you could not help but feel something, too, for the parents of the perpetrators, neither of whom could fathom the possibility of their sons’ guilt, much less their cruelty and evil… their sons were gone—one dead, the other wounded, hospitalized, and under arrest.”

I’m heartbroken as I imagine these parents trying to understand what happened. Heartbroken even after I hear the mother claim her sons were framed by the FBI, and even after the father brushes off his older son’s domestic violence incident, saying, “In America, you can’t touch a woman.” I’m heartbroken for all of the mothers whose children grew up in war-torn Chechnya, a place that may only be tangentially related to these boys, these men, but the point remains. There are mothers across the world whose children become radicalized, who become pathological, who become murderers, terrorists. And it’s not easy to say how this happens. And it’s incredibly sad.

Every bomber is someone’s child. And their violent acts injure and kill other people’s children. Would it change anything to think of things this way? Maybe not, but it’s hard not to when the perpetrators are so young and when those killed are so young.

There are mothers across the world whose children are not safe tonight. And some nights, it’s hard to sleep, thinking of them, even if those thoughts alone do nothing to help. Maybe it was Chechnya a decade ago, but today the mothers of children being killed in Syria are not able to keep their children safe. Mothers in Pakistan are not able to keep their children safe, mothers in Iraq, mothers in Gaza and in Israel are not always able to keep their children safe.

Honestly, I can’t name every place in the world where children are not safe, where improvised explosive devices are just as devastating, though perhaps not as shocking as they are to American mothers. I do know that American mothers have been shaken at least twice just in the past few months from our operating assumption that our children are safe. Though mothers in places like Chicago and Detroit may have been disabused of this notion for some time.

I live with my children in the national capital region, so it’s not as if emergency preparedness is a foreign concept. But the feeling that my children may be in danger when they go off to elementary school, as my daughter will this fall, or that we would be in danger of being killed by an IED while attending a nonpolitical public event, these fears are new.

And there are other stories that shake me as a parent, of mothers who could not keep their children safe. Before Boston and before the mass killings in Connecticut, it seemed that more and more often, I had to turn off the radio so my four year old daughter wouldn’t ask me about pedophilia or child sexual abuse. So I wouldn’t have to tell her that I won’t always be able to keep her safe.

Watching and listening to the news is important to me as an intelligent, informed adult. It’s important to me as a stay-at-home parent. There are times when my life feels very small and isolated. When I turn on the news while the baby’s napping, it’s a kind of grown-up time for me. As bad as cable news can be, it still makes my world a bigger place, connects me back into what’s going on outside my house at that moment.

So I watch. But it’s come to seem as if, every day when I come downstairs after getting my son to sleep for naptime, CNN has breaking news of another incident of gun violence. One day there were two at once. And I can become so caught up in it. So afraid. All the time. For a while, every quiet moment I had in my home brought on intense anxiety about someone breaking in and hurting my children.

Some days it feels like the world is conspiring to make middle class American women like me feel terrified all the time. Like it would be an act of resistance if I could be fearless. Have you seen an ad for a home alarm company recently? Apparently those alarms are made solely to keep young, white women and children safe in their nice homes. At times, it’s not healthy, and I do try to turn it off when it’s stops informing me and becomes nothing more than fuel for panic.

For instance, if you want to bring on a panic attack, I recommend going to the gym and watching coverage of the Boston marathon bombings while running on the treadmill. Which I did on Tuesday because I wanted to know what happened and putting my kids in gym daycare while I watched the horrible news seemed like better parenting than watching at home.

After the Connecticut school shootings, I took some time away from the news, even from NPR, which is often better at maintaining perspective during breaking news moments than is cable news. It wasn’t easy for an amateur news junkie, but it was clearly a story to keep away from my daughter, who is nervous enough about going off to kindergarten without knowing this about the world. It actually felt weird not telling her, sheltering her from the idea that there is suffering and danger in the world. But she’s four and that’s my job right now.

An elementary school teacher once offered me this guide: Tell them about difficult things when they can do something about it. If knowing some hard news would keep my daughter safe, she should know. There’s plenty of time ahead for her to be crushed by the full weight of the awful tragedies that unfold every day.

Or maybe she will be more resilient than her mother. I would feel very accomplished if the sadness of the world only ever leaves my children feeling crushed to the extent that they can do something about it.

A few days after the tragedy in Connecticut and all those babies lost, I found myself at a monthly parents meeting at my daughter’s preschool. During a discussion of how to talk to our kids (there was general agreement that our preschoolers didn’t need to know a thing) and what kinds of emergency procedures are in place at our school, I became more and more panicked until I didn’t want to ever let my kids out of my sight again. Not really, of course, but how was every parent not feeling that? Instead, I heard parent after parent speak in calm, reasonable voices about their kids being at greater risk riding in the car every day. When I hear these things, I usually think, these are the facts you repeat to yourself in an effort to restore calm. Instead, these things were spoken from a place of calm. One mother reversed the tide, saying “Actually, I don’t know what to say to my kids. I don’t feel safe. I can’t tell them the world is a safe place,” quieting the room for a moment before the general tone of reassurance returned.

Mostly, these tragedies come and go and the impact most of us feel fades away. For the mothers, the fathers, the families, the suffering is personal, private, the impact is lasting. Still, what is often called “normal” follows the shootings and the bombings. But for some of us, the loss accumulates in a different way. We are depleted or we are numbed. I know we can’t live our lives under the full weight of all of these tragedies all day, every day. As people keep saying, We Can’t Let the Terrorists Win. I don’t know that the terrorists lose if we forget quickly, if we are back at work the next day. Of course, we can’t stand still and feel the tragedy the same way, day after day. That’s insanity, or at least PTSD.

I struggle a lot with the guilt of letting go, of shutting it out and moving on. I’m someone who has long struggled in this way. And now I’m also a mother. My instinct is to obsessively watch tragedies unfold until they are over. But now I try to turn it off. I want to cry, but I make lunch and take my kids outside. It helps no one who is hurting for me to feel this way. Maybe it will make me healthier, being forced to continue as if life is just the same. Maybe not. But I hope with every fiber of my being that it will make my kids healthier. Maybe if my children don’t learn to react in this way, they will have something left inside to figure out what they might do to help.

At her preschool, my daughter learns resiliency in countless small ways. The teachers talk about “hard news,” how some things large and small are hard to hear, and they work through it in dramatic play. They teach the kids about “getting stuck.” When there are tantrums and meltdowns, her teacher goes to the child and says to them, “I see that you’re feeling stuck.” And the kids learn to use these words themselves and to let go and move on. I watch them do this and I wish someone had taught me. I don’t do well with trouble. When hard news hits, I get stuck.

My daughter’s teacher reads stories that would have scared me as a child. They learn about “trouble” and how “If there’s no trouble, the story’s over.” As she’s reading, no one wants for the story to end, so they read through the trouble. My daughter, once very afraid of any mild tension in a tv show, has begun to sit longer with her discomfort. She remembers what her teacher said and will tell me, “This is the trouble. But it’s ok, it will get better.”

There may be no promise of a happy end to real-life trouble, but it’s still true that if there was no trouble, the story would be over.

Today we feel some resolution as a country. There is a collective exhaling as the police apprehended the second bombing suspect. The good guys got the bad guy. Even if it is so much more complicated than that, we all need, eventually, to feel like the trouble is over, to feel safe, even if next to nothing has changed. Our life is full of small stories. Today we need for our next story, the story of this day, this sunny spring day when the kids want to go outside and play, to begin. 

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