I gave birth to my son in November 2015 and watched the news of the terror attack in Paris from my hospital bed; a year later, the devastating presidential election took place just days before his first birthday. Since then I feel like I’ve been living parallel lives. The one life is that of adjusting to motherhood, with the concomitant work and family balance struggle and the more elusive questioning of what it means to take on the identity of “mother.” These are normal adjustments, or recalibrations, as I like to think of them.
But then there is that other life, the one in which I consume the news and try to hold it together in the face of a not-at-all-normal new reality. And the dissonance between these two lives is often striking.
In the days after the election I would wake up in the morning and see my son smiling in his crib, and sometimes I had to leave the room as I burst out crying. The sight of his big gleaming eyes and wide-mouthed grin, his blissful ignorance, was too stark a contrast to what was happening in the world around me. It still is. He is now a year and half and learning new words: bus, cat, hi, bye, abba, mom. In the most fundamental way, he is assigning labels to his world to make sense of it, to make it manageable, communicable. Yet I have no words for the reality we now live in. It’s not surprising that the word “unprecedented” keeps coming up. None of this is normal.
There are too many terror attacks and random acts of racist violence to process on a daily basis. When I heard of the stabbing of three men trying to protect Muslim women from a white supremacist on a bus in Portland, I thought: What would I have done if I had been there? Would I have the courage to protect a stranger? Would anyone have the courage to protect me? Should I teach my child to intervene in cases like this even when it might cost him and me? My husband says, “You can’t live in fear,” but in truth, I’m afraid and sickened.
Every day I hear the news and go on taking my son to the playground, teaching him words, listening to him giggle with a joy that knows nothing of what’s out there. I sometimes have to force myself to smile and laugh, because the contrast between his pure heart and the terrors of the world are too great, too incompatible. And I stand between the two, feebly, the mother, determined to protect him, to keep the wider world at bay, just a little bit longer. How will I ever let him go into that world?
It will take enormous effort to present my son with a vision of hope for a more just world. When current events show a bleak picture of humanity, it will take radical acts of imagination to insist there is another way. Lucky for children, imagination is in limitless supply. But for us, the adults, the way is more complicated: how do we access that sense of possibility?
Well, we don’t have the luxury of blissful ignorance, but we have the examples our children set for us. They don’t start out life judging each other, subjugating each other, wanting to hurt or demean. Sure, this comes around soon enough, playground fights and uncontrolled emotions. But for a while they’re just happy mammals, who find joy in spotting a big yellow bus coming down the road, or in the touch of a cat’s fur, or in the taste of a strawberry. Our babies inhabit the same world as we do; they just see it very differently. We can learn from their joy, take it in and give it back to them.
My friend who is an underwater photographer recently shared a picture of a glorious sting ray floating above her deep in the ocean. As I gazed at this photo that appeared in my newsfeed among the usual litany of horrors that is our daily news, I felt that same sense of dislocation and disjointedness at the sight of my son smiling in his crib the days after the election.
How could these two realities coexist? Yet I also felt immense gratitude at having a glimpse of that other world. Like the world of motherhood, which is deep and often hidden and beautiful and strange, that image of life in the ocean felt like an assertion that our current reality is not the only one. There is a more beautiful world, right here, on this same planet. If we remember that, we can teach it to our kids, and one day when we need it, they can remind us of it, too.