The past year has been particularly brutal for parents, a year of dead children.
The world is at least/ fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative/estimate, though I keep this from my children./For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird./For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,/ sunk in a lake.—Maggie Smith, “Good Bones”
The fear descended on the day we left the hospital: January 20, 2014. Four days after my daughter Benna was born via unplanned c-section in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where a -75-degree wind chill pounded against the windows of our room. The task that undid me was this: We had to get our newborn from the hospital to the car without exposing her to a wind so icy the meteorologists called it a polar vortex.
The ride home from the hospital was interminable, my stomach lurching every time we came within 300 yards of another vehicle, eyes darting toward any peripheral movement—bare tree limbs whipping against the power lines, down-jacketed students penguin-walking to class at the university. The city of Eau Claire used cheese brine from the local dairy farms to salt their roads and sidewalks in winter, but the mixture was too diluted to clear much of the ice that was three inches thick in some places. One of my students had already broken her leg trying to walk home from a party. Another had fallen hard enough to get a concussion.
Once we got inside the house, we stayed there for months. Other than mandatory pediatrician appointments, Benna and I lay together on the green couch in the living room, nursing and listening to the wind. I felt menaced by everything in those early days—the dog’s tags rattling on her collar, my husband closing the bathroom door, the neighbors stopping by unannounced bearing a “hot dish” (the Wisconsin equivalent of comfort food). Any sound other than my daughter’s breathing was unwelcome, threatening.
It’s possible these were the symptoms of postpartum anxiety, but I’m already such an anxious person that it would have been hard to tell for sure. What I did understand as I fretted about the ice, and the tightness of my baby’s swaddle, and the position of her head in the carrier (could she suffocate pushed up like that against my chest?) was that parenthood had peeled back the layers of safety I once felt in the world, exposing danger everywhere.
Three years later, and I’m still there, overly vigilant and quietly terrified. Though I’ve written in advocacy of letting girls take risks and the arrogance of a culture that believes it can keep kids safe by padding their worlds with rules, I’m just as susceptible as the next mother to scream, “Be careful!” as Benna jumps on our bed or uses our bookshelves as a jungle gym. And though we’ve already lived through the horrors of Sandy Hook and the Charleston church shooting, which dissolved the last vestiges of feeling safe in schools or places of worship, the past year has been particularly brutal for parents, a year of dead children.
It began with the image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on that beach in Turkey, and continued with the unfolding in photos of the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Omran Daqneesh, covered in blood and dust after an air strike in Aleppo, shocked into a statue. Another Syrian boy, heard on camera after a chlorine attack, asking a hospital nurse if he’s going to die. I began following several Syrian activists on Twitter, scrolling through their candid cell phone photos of parents holding their dead children after Assad blanketed Aleppo in bombs. For months at the end of 2016, I refreshed the Twitter page of 7-year-old Bana Alabed as her family tried to flee Aleppo. I sobbed anytime too many hours passed between her posts, fearing the worst for Bana, knowing that even if she did make it out of Aleppo, many of her playmates would not.
Bana did make it out, but soon after, images surfaced of the chemical attacks in Idlib province, where many of Aleppo’s civilians ran—children being sprayed with water as they writhed in pain on the ground. A father holding his dead twins.
Amber alerts texted straight to our phones. Child is 6 and was last seen wearing a dark blue t-shirt, jeans, and black Converse sneakers. Another school shooting at North Park Elementary in San Bernardino. One special education teacher and one child dead, another child wounded in the gunfire.
There is no such thing as other people’s children, the saying goes. I understand the sentiment, but I think the implication is more selfish: We look at other people’s children and we see our own.
This year, Benna started at a new daycare. Her teacher—a wild-haired woman who runs a pigeon sanctuary, owns three shelter dogs, and has decades of childhood education experience—believes in fostering resilience in the kids she teaches. Theoretically, I am thrilled that my daughter, who already displays signs of high sensitivity and gives up easily when she finds a task difficult, spends so much time in the tutelage of someone who values a proportionate response to fear. But in practice, I often disappoint the daycare teacher by indulging Benna when she cries at drop-off.
“Sixteen good-byes are too many,” the teacher said recently when I came to pick Benna up after an especially tearful morning.
I felt my face go hot with embarrassment as I realized it: I’m that mom. The one who is inadvertently teaching her daughter that feelings of discomfort are the same as an emergency. A future helicopter parent.
A few nights later, my husband and I watched that HBO documentary about the heroin epidemic on Cape Cod. One of the young addicts, a beautiful, dark-haired woman in her early 20s, spoke about the judgmental looks she received the last time she went to the hospital following an overdose. “I could be your daughter,” she said, explaining how she wished the hospital staff would have treated her.
No such thing as other people’s children.
At the end of the documentary, I burst into tears. I told my husband what the daycare teacher had said to me about my overbearing good-byes, but finally admitted what those good-byes were really about. “The thing I fear most,” I said, “is that something will happen to Benna and I won’t be there when it happens. It’s worse than her dying—the idea that she could die, and I wouldn’t even be there to hold her.”
Listen, I know every generation has experienced their own apocalyptic moments. I know the 24-hour news cycle being projected from 50 different outlets in our immediate vicinities magnifies the fears that have always been for every parent in every corner of the world, and in many corners, much more founded than in the U.S. And yet, I can’t help feeling that the threats to Benna’s life—namely, nuclear war and environmental disaster—are bigger, closer, than those threats ever were in my childhood. This Easter weekend, we watched helplessly as tensions between the U.S. and North Korea escalated over the possibility of North Korea launching its first nuclear tests. The likelihood of nuclear war felt anything but abstract.
The amalgamation of this year’s atrocities was enough, despite Trump’s backlash against the arts, to elevate a poem to iconic status, a single voice representing the collective terrorization we’ve recently experienced. Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” began making the rounds after the shooting at Pulse nightclub that targeted the LGBTQ+ community in September 2016. By December, “Good Bones” had been declared the poem of the year by Public Radio International, which said of Smith’s 17-line masterpiece, “It’s about making the most of a world that is far from perfect.”
But Smith didn’t write the poem as an answer to any particular travesty. “It was a poem written from the point of one mother feeling anxious about how to raise kids, and explain a world to them that is as wonderful as it is terrible,” Smith told PRI. “How to keep the worst parts from them while they’re young, while not lying to them.’’
Sometimes, I wonder if it’s not the children who need reassurance, but their parents. My father died five months before I became pregnant with Benna in a death totally ordinary and un-tragic, except that it was my father’s. I entered motherhood in grief, but much bigger than my mourning was the knowledge that my father’s death provided me no insurance, no immunity from other loss. Smith’s poem ostensibly works on balanced lines—“For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird”—but Smith knows that balance is probably a generous estimate. “Life is short and the world/is at least half terrible, and for every kind/stranger, there is one who would break you,” she writes.
The daycare teacher is right about the prolonged good-byes—they aren’t helping my daughter, and it’s for her well-being that I must learn a hastier retreat. I know it is my job to do as Smith advises in her poem: to sell my daughter the world. But the world is at least half terrible. I hear the wind screaming.
Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.