I was sitting in the dark on the floor next to the door to my son’s room, ready to make my escape as soon as he fell asleep. The light from my phone was the only illumination in the room, and as I mindlessly scrolled through Facebook I noticed that some people were posting about Paris. What had happened? I quickly switched to a news site and was shocked to see that the city had been attacked in several different incidents. My gasp was audible, and I worried LM would wake up.
“What kind of a world is this?” one friend posted. That simple sentence summed up my initial response. Even after witnessing with my own eyes the horror of 9/11, I was still surprised that such evil could happen in the world. I looked over at my sleeping, innocent child. What kind of world would he grow up in?
As my shock subsided, I realized that the world he would grow up in is the same as it’s always been — filled as much with bad things as with good.
It’s tempting to let our emotional response to the horror of that night in Paris take over. I’m a super worrier, so you’d think I’d be the first one to let my fear run my life, and my son’s. But let’s look at the bigger picture.
Statistically, the world is much safer now than in years past. Whenever I see moms worried about predators ready to snatch their kids up, saying things like, “Such a sad world we live in,” I remember that child abduction is actually very rare. And, despite our nostalgia for the seemingly innocent world of our own childhood, there were more kidnappings a generation ago than there are now.
Let’s expand that line of thinking. Our own parents had to deal with the threat of nuclear war, as well as the war in Vietnam. Our grandparents had to deal with the threat of Nazi Germany and the holocaust. War, terrorism, fighting over land and religion — these are nothing new. As a history major, I remember the atrocities that were committed hundreds of years ago. Would I have wanted to live in the Middle Ages? Um, no.
Putting things in that perspective, we can realize what a comparatively safe, privileged world we live in. Our daily life is generally worry-free, and the biggest complaints we have are about coffee cups and how to appropriately celebrate Christmas.
Even the Christmas debacle, though, is evidence of an underlying fear that everything we hold dear as Americans is under attack by foreigners and immigrants. But again, this is an emotional response. We are looking for scapegoats for the growing sense of uncertainty in our world. We are letting our fear take over.
Isn’t that what the terrorists want? Isn’t this the most they can accomplish?
I am not immune to the fear. I am worried about going into Manhattan this weekend to celebrate my birthday. What if the restaurant I’m going to is the target of a terrorist attack? And should I cross Paris off the list of places to travel to next year for my tenth anniversary? It’s enough to make me want to hole up in my house and never leave.
But as I pull back again from that sense of insecurity, I know I shouldn’t change my plans out of fear. As one of my favorite travel experts, Rick Steves, points out, “There’s a difference between fear and risk.” (He responds further in this followup post.)
Worrying about travel plans, though, is also evidence of my first-world privilege. While we are shocked by an event that rocked our western world, people in other parts of the globe deal with such terror on a daily basis. We don’t think about them, maybe because of our feeling that that’s just what happens there. An attack on a city that we identify with, one we would normally consider safe, is a different story.
So what does any of this have to do with parenting? Nothing directly, if you have a toddler. Fortunately my two-year-old doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, and I don’t have to figure out how to appropriately discuss it with him. But indirectly, my attitudes about the world will rub off on his. My beliefs about foreign people, war, fear and guns will all affect my son’s as he grows up. My worldview will become his.
It’s another reason to try to rise above, to try and think intelligently and not be ruled by fear or complacency. Who I am will affect who he is. And that might be the scariest thing of all.
How will your response to the Paris attacks affect your parenting?
Just like everyone else in America (and probably the world), I’ll never forget where I was on September 11, 2001. I was living in Hoboken, NJ, across the Hudson from New York City, and working my first job at a small publishing company on the banks of the river just north in Edgewater. I didn’t have to be there until 10 am, so when I woke up the first plane had already hit the World Trade Center. I heard about it when I turned on my radio to listen to Z100’s morning show as usual, but then I swiftly switched on the TV. My first impression was that it looked so small it must have been a tiny plane whose pilot didn’t know what he was doing. I got in the shower. When I emerged there was more news. A second plane had hit.
I didn’t really know how to process what was happening. Should I go to work? Unsure of what action to take, I quickly got dressed and left my apartment. The day was beautiful and brightly sunny, but the streets seemed deserted except for a lone UPS guy. I passed him feeling like I should say something, but what? “Hey, do you know what’s going on across the river?”
I felt like I needed to be with people, so I got in my car and drove up the Hudson to work. I could see the smoke rising from the city. As I listened to the radio I found out that another plane had hit the Pentagon. I started to feel like it might be the end of the world. I drove faster, needing to be reassured by human contact.
When I got to work I found my colleagues sitting on the rocks on the banks of the river, staring at the smoke’s plumes. We could see that the first tower had already collapsed, although I scarcely could believe my own eyes. I went inside to see my boss, and someone yelled that the other had come down as well. When I went back outside there was nothing left, just a huge cloud of smoke.
We stared at each other, dumbfounded. Our company was closing, my boss said, and we could go home. I didn’t want to leave everyone. I felt helpless and alone as I got back in my car. But I couldn’t get home anyway, because the road to Hoboken had been shut down. I called everyone I could think of — my parents, my sister, my friends, to see where they were. I was extremely worried about my friends who worked in the city. Unable to reach anybody or to make any headway in my car, I parked and planned to walk the five or so miles back to Hoboken. Then my phone rang. It was my sister, who told me she thought I should try to get to our parents’ house in the New Jersey suburbs. I got back in my car, only to find the Turnpike and most other major roads closed. I finally ended up on Route 46, which was nearly deserted, and made my way to my childhood home.
Once there, I was alone once again with only the scary news reports on the T.V. to keep me company. Finally my mother came home, and I felt safer. I was not able to reach any of my friends until that evening. One of them, who worked in midtown, had walked home over the George Washington Bridge. One who worked at another of the World Financial Center buildings felt the vibrations from the planes hitting, and luckily was able to leave on a ferry to Hoboken before the towers collapsed. I had a few acquaintances who worked in the towers themselves, but they were all safe: One had been downstairs getting coffee, one had been late to work, another had exited the building when they told him to stay put (if he had followed the rules, he’d probably be dead). My friends all got together for a mournful “glad we’re still alive” night of drinking that I unhappily missed, although I was grateful to be with my family.
When I finally was able to get back to Hoboken the next day the smoke was still rising. Even across the river, you could smell the burning. Little pieces of paper and ash floated in the air. Flyers for the missing were posted all over town. People gathered outside, talking about where they were and what their story of the day was. My roommate and I attended a candlelight vigil at Frank Sinatra Park, which overlooked the former site of the WTC. It all felt a bit surreal to me; I was somewhat removed from it, having not been in the city that day and not having anyone I knew perish. I was lucky.
Everyone says it feels like yesterday. And it does; although at the same time it’s hard to imagine the world before it. I believe our sense of fundamental security about life was shattered that day. Anyone, anywhere, anytime could do something horrific. We realized life was not a given — which it never was anyway, so maybe the sense of security we had was a false one. But now we are watchful, we are on alert, we look for possible suspicious packages and people everywhere. This is the definition of “terror.”
Although I was not a mom before 9/11, I do believe that day changed not only our collective social psyche, but the way we parent. People talk about “the world today” as if it’s a much scarier place than a generation ago, when in reality it’s statistically safer. Maybe part of what’s behind helicopter parenting is a drive to keep our kids safe in a world that we now realize is out of our control.
I’m not sure what the answer to this is. Being a super worrier doesn’t help matters; although I try to remember the feelings of my childhood — of safety and warmth and fun — and impart those to my son instead. No, the world is not “safe.” But it never really was. All we can do is enjoy each day that is given to us, and hope for more to come.
How has September 11 affected you as a person and as a parent?