Kim Brooks is the author of Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear.
Not long after becoming a parent, I stopped watching movies about the end of the world. The last one I saw was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, back when my kids were still toddlers. It’s a haunting film from beginning to end, but at the time it was the penultimate scene I found most excruciating. Claire, a young mother played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, has come to accept that a planet is hurtling toward Earth. Disoriented and distraught, she scoops her small child into her arms and stumbles toward the forest. The sky darkens. Hail pelts down on them from every angle. The child begins to sag in her arms as she grows increasingly frantic, searching for some safer place, and then finally collapses.
Now, years later, the scene seems to me a perfect dramatization of the emotional landscape of parenthood in the modern world – the way our primal, unwavering urge to protect our kids seems to come in constant conflict with our own smallness and limited ability to control the forces we read about every day. Even without an extinction-sized planet overhead, I often felt overwhelmed by the vastness of the problems our children will inherit – and that was back in 2011. That was before Donald Trump, before the coronavirus, before social distancing and quarantines and an impending, worldwide recession.
So what now?
Much of my work over the past several years has involved talking to other parents about irrational fears – where they come from, how popular culture and media exacerbates them, and how we as parents can stand up to them. But I’ve realized in recent weeks that rational fear poses an equally daunting challenge for parents, particularly in a situation such as the one we face now where we can’t simply hide behind the comforting routines of daily life, the lulling rhythms of work and school and sports and errands. On the one hand, there is suddenly good reason to be afraid, not simply because our fears reflect real uncertainty about the future and the present reality, but because these fears, when contained and translated into concrete action – social distancing, hand-washing – can protect us. Yet on the other hand, even rational, well-founded fear can take a lasting toll on our relationships with our children.
As my therapist, Elena Crossman, put it our video session last week, “regardless of their age and ability to understand things rationally, kids are taking their cues from us – not just from our behaviour but from what they feel in the empathic web that exists between us and them. For this reason, it’s never been more important to take care of ourselves.” This is easier said than done, particularly at a moment when many of us find ourselves with our children in a way we haven’t been since they were babies, our daily lives suddenly intertwined as the normal routines of work and school and sports and play are put on pause for the foreseeable future. If we are scared, if we are anxious, even if we are closer to terrified, there is nowhere to hide with these emotions, no easy place to hide them.
Those on their own might have the luxury of giving in to terror or despair or posting on every social-media outlet at their disposal their most nightmarish fantasies about where this crisis will lead. But it’s hard to indulge our fears in this way when you also have to make other people’s breakfast, and lunch, and dinner, and remind these people to wash their hands before they eat for 20 full seconds, and read to them, and comfort them, and explain everything that is happening in a way that is somehow both honest and reassuring. The challenge brings to mind a recent talk I gave and the incisive comment of one mother in attendance: “I feel afraid all the time,” she said. But then she went on to say that, despite feeling fear, she tried not to capitulate to it. “I sit with it. I talk to it. I talk to my kids about talking to it.” This mother had observed in her own life something I’d been thinking and writing about for years – how much time and energy people, but especially parents, expend in pretending we’re okay, and the way this pretending impedes the connected feeling that makes us feel safe.
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