Lynn Beisner discusses the risks of parenthood in the wake of the deadly Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting.
Like most parents, I felt a huge wave of sympathetic grief last week when I learned of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. A friend of mine with children in school called to talk about how anxious she felt in the wake of the shooting. She said, “At least you don’t have to worry about such things now that your kids are older.” I wanted to laugh. Of course, I worry about such things. Are you kidding? My kids are in college. There are plenty of things to worry about. In addition, they work part-time in places where such things happen, they drive home late on weekend nights when there are drunk drivers on the roads, and they go on dates. I could go on for the entire piece.
We as parents have a lot to worry about. We joke about wanting to send our kids out wrapped in bubble wrap, but most of us would if we thought it would help. That worry is perhaps the one part of parenting we all share. So regardless of what wisdom or wit I put in this article, I can almost guarantee that you will worry as much after it as you did before it. Parenting is such dangerous business. We have to shepherd a living human being from being a helpless and vulnerable infant to a self-reliant adult. In addition to all the external dangers posed by our society and environment, perhaps the biggest fear of parenting is that we will fuck it up.
Unconsciously or consciously, that worry has changed the way we parent in thousands of ways large and small. As I write this, it is late afternoon on a sunny day, unseasonably warm for December. My desk looks out the window over a small, lightly wooded area. It is filled with the stuff that would have fascinated us as children, and drawn us like a magnet. But it is empty, as is the playground further down the block. The sad and truly frightening thing is that no matter how vigilant we are, as individual parents, we can only slightly lower our children’s chances of being injured or killed.
Here is what worry does to our brains. Instead of asking ourselves: “Could my kids have fun or learn something or run off the calories from that horrible lunch he ate?” we ask ourselves “What could go wrong?” What is worse, it primes us to blame ourselves if something does go wrong.
When my kids were in grade-school, I had a rule that no child was to go out bike-riding without a helmet. Seems like a rule not only designed to keep children safe, but also to tamp down maternal anxiety, right? Well, one day I was busy taking care of a fussy foster baby when my kids called from the other room asking if they could go ride their bikes. I couldn’t see them, so I asked the obligatory question, “Do you have on your helmets?” When I got a chorus of “yes,” I reminded them to stay within the two-block limit we had given them, and to check in every few minutes to let me know they were OK.
My kids had been out playing no more than a couple minutes before my daughter ran back inside screaming. My son had fallen off his bike and hit his head. As I ran outside, I was not particularly worried. I thought that we might need to buy him a new helmet, but I was sure that his head would be protected.
When I saw my son sprawled on the ground with his head covered in blood resting near the curb, I almost fainted. Then I saw that he had been wearing a cheap plastic army helmet from his dress-up collection. Just as I got to him, he regained consciousness. We rushed him to the emergency room, where they put him through what seemed like hours of testing. As it turned out, he had a concussion and needed a butterfly bandage to care for the small cut on his head.
Throughout the trip to the hospital and all during the testing, my mind veered wildly from worry about all of the possibly tragic outcomes that my son could suffer to self-castigation. Why hadn’t I visually checked for helmets? Why hadn’t I talked with them about which helmet qualified for bike-riding and which did not? While I was at it, I blamed myself for the fact that he hadn’t been able to find his real helmet quickly and easily. If I were more organized, I berated myself, none of this would have happened. But in truth, I was a very cautious mother, more vigilant than most. And still, while trying to care for one child, another had been injured.
Even though the helmet incident is hardly indicative of my style of parenting, it is one of those events I will never forget. And that is how it is for so many parents. When we review our children’s lives, often we think about all the things we have done wrong, all of the missteps we have made that could lead to unimaginable pain and loss. I forget about the hundreds of times that my kids went for bike rides, had a great time and were perfectly safe. I forget about the hours of imaginative play my kids had and focus on the one time my daughter turned her sleeping bag into a sled and slid down the stairs, putting her head through the drywall.
It’s as if we have Nancy Grace embedded in our brains, putting the worst possible spin on our parenting. And with that accusatory voice in our head, spinning all of our parental decisions in the worst possible light, we stop making decisions not based on likely benefits versus rewards, or even on an exaggerated sense of what dangers our child might face. Instead, we make decisions based on how we will live with ourselves if something bad happens to our child.
As painful as it is, we cannot allow our worry to dominate our decisions about how we parent. Our world is a frightening place to raise a child. But it has always been this way—from the time we had to worry about wild animals and rival tribes to the 1990s when we worried about head-injuries and stranger-danger.
Parenting is like any other form of loving: intensely risky but infinitely worthwhile.