I like to feel calm.
Living in Israel for 10 years, where I’ve had to run to bomb shelters more times than I can count, walked miles to avoid riding on busses for fear of bombs, surveyed each street as I walk my dog to check for terrorists who might stab me, and seen many friends and family members embark on dangerous military operations, I understand that calm is something you conjure up from deep inside — not something you rely on your environment or other people to provide.
Ironically, before I emigrated to Israel, I suffered from a couple of years of bad panic attacks. But when I arrived here, I quickly understood that daily anxiety was not something I could afford when there was terrorism so close: I had to learn how to calm down.
So I began regular yoga and a round of cognitive behavioral therapy. I stayed away from drugs and off alcohol when I felt anxious. I prioritized sleep and fresh air and stretching my legs. I limited my social media usage. I laughed with friends, face to face, instead of watching TV. And I put my phone on airplane mode a lot.
This didn’t stop me from worrying when times were hard, but it did stop me from spiraling. It gave me the tools to know when and how to find my way back to that inner calm.
I didn’t know it at the time, but acquiring these tools was the best preparation for becoming a mother. That goes for being a mother in general — breathing through childbirth, toddler tantrums, another doomed workday due to another kindergarten virus — and as a mother in Israel.
Modern parenting advice is full of warnings that your children are hugely impacted by your emotions. I’ve seen this to be true: When I’m stressed trying to balance a work deadline with a tired, whiny child, we all end up in tears. And when there’s a military operation or a war, and my husband and I have to take two toddlers and a dog down three flights of stairs in 90 seconds to our building’s bomb shelter, my reaction determines whether my children are blissfully unaware of rockets exploding above our heads or looking nervously to me for a hug.
My task, as a mother at that moment, is to keep my kids not only physically safe, but emotionally, too. This is how I do it:
The first step is to prepare. I keep shoes and the dog’s leash by the front door and make sure there’s nothing to slip on on the apartment floor.
The second is to calm myself down. I take a lot of deep breaths as I’m running down the stairs and speak in a slow, quiet voice. Outside the shelter, I release some of my tension with dance parties or wild games of Simon Says, which the kids love. I try to limit how often I check the news, force myself into bed before midnight and make sure I eat even if I’ve got no appetite because I can’t afford to be weak or lightheaded if there’s a siren.
I do not discuss the war in detail in front of the children (even when worried family members abroad really want to talk about it on the phone), but I do talk to them about it a little: “When we hear the sirens we go down to the shelter and stay there for a little while.” I answer their questions in an age appropriate way, using various resources shared by their kindergartens.
When we get to the shelter, distraction is the name of the game: We talk about what delicious food we will eat for dinner, a fun activity we’ll do when we arrive back home (transfer tattoos and playdough are very popular) or the array of cute dogs that live in our building. I sing songs or talk louder if our neighbors are reacting to the “booms” overhead.
On Saturday morning, when I awoke to sirens and booms in the distance that hinted at what was to come for us, I packed a bag with small toys, water bottles, diapers and wipes, fruit pouches and Bamba, and grabbed it as I ran down to the shelter during that first siren. Now it stays in the shelter, waiting for us. On the advice of the home front command, a couple of days ago I added enough food and water for three days, plus a torch and extra batteries, changes of clothes, medication and various other things.
The best distraction, though, is a happy accident: We’ve kept my son’s bike in the bomb shelter for the past year or so (alongside various neighbors’ surf boards, suitcases and, oddly, a broken sink) because it was too big to keep in our apartment. As soon as we arrive in the shelter, he asks excitedly to sit on the bike. Instructing him how to push the pedals also provides a physical distraction from any war-related conversation. When the booms are over and our neighbors wearily make their way upstairs, I push him around the empty shelter really fast while he laughs.
Before returning to our apartment, we go outside for some fresh air and a toilet break for the dog. I take big gulps and look up at the trees and the sky. The shelter is quite dusty and stuffy, so this serves multiple purposes. Then we head back home and do the activity we planned in the shelter.
It is hard to keep calm for my children in these times. But that hardship can’t be compared to what happened to other Israeli children — to our nation’s children — in the last five days.
Innocent, energetic, beautiful kids subject to unspeakable atrocities simply because of where they lived. It could have been us; it shouldn’t have been anyone.
So I take a deep breath, I make myself smile and I look at my children. And soon the smile becomes real, because they are a gift, and the least I can do is make sure they feel safe.