Risk and protection: Addressing real and imagined fears we have as parents

Some months ago, we received a piece from Bhavna Negi about a family conversation. With the post, we wish to initiate a discussion of our anxieties as parents, and to question why, although our lives have become more secure, fears have also escalated. We are more worried about children’s safety than ever before. What can we do about this troubling emotion? A commentary to this post will follow in the coming week.

PART 1: Shhh! Don’t say it out loud

By Bhavna Negi

Our family spices up each day with news updates that are usually followed by discussions that sometimes become heated, but mostly from my side. Also, what’s planned for dinner is another major topic for conversation within the family. As I imagine it is for other families too, our children’s well-being is a central issue around which news is exchanged, and I am reminded of a conversation with my husband a few years ago. There had been a serious incident in the city and all of us were shaken by the event and the outcome. A child had been murdered at school and we were scared. Yet, it was hard to have a candid discussion in the presence of our daughter. Anyway, I recall addressing this question to him: ‘What is your biggest fear?’ His reaction was unsurprising: the avoidance of any direct response, but I persisted. He simply followed it up, somewhat reluctantly, with a wordless indication towards our daughter. For her part, although our 8-year-old was engaged with something else, she had been trying to make sense of our conversation, as we realised a bit later. Regarding my question, the target of my husband’s worst fear was clear, what exactly he worried about was never spoken out loud. Being a child development professional can often place a heavy burden on us (and I am sure on our loved ones as well) to try to get to the bottom of everything!

I thought about his reluctance. Perhaps we worry that if our fears are articulated, the revelation may turn out to be prophetic, magically making us more vulnerable. Perhaps we want to protect our loved ones, ourselves from our worst nightmares by shutting it out, looking the other way, feeling the fear but stopping short of saying it out loud. Is that something you do too?

Meanwhile, at home, the discussion (rather one-sided, I must add) continued. Sometime later, our 8 year old sidled up to me and asked, somewhat hesitatingly, “Can I tell you, Ma?” “What?” I asked. “Ma, the answer to your question”. I was stumped, the object of our fears had turned the tables on us and turned participant. As adults we often forget that children are around when we talk, and despite trying to make conversations too cryptic for a child to understand, we always seem to underestimate their capacity and engagement. Her interjection came as a surprise, but I asked her to go on. She said something like: “My biggest fear is of losing you….”, her voice trailing as she looked away. Her blunt response came as a second shock wave. Really? I hadn’t really thought about my own mortality, and at least in our little world, I had acted as if I would live forever, eternal and invincible! It was others who I was supposed to worry about, not myself. And in doing so, I had, perhaps, failed to realise what the child was going through.

Although completely unintended, parents may land up creating a myth of their own immortality, or at least, they avoid discussions about their own vulnerability, creating this larger than life image of themselves. But children have fears of loss too, and are especially preoccupied with them at around this age. The consequences of my demands for a discussion suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea. I felt I had been put in my place.

Although I really don’t remember the details of how I handled it with her, I want to talk about this as a parent. I have, for some time now, become a bit anxious about life and the looming danger that surrounds us every day, especially the children. As their lives are expanding, items from the morning newspaper seen to loom large. An avid reader of the morning paper, I have started avoiding picking it up. I realise I’ve become fearful of reading any story involving children because it brings back waves of anxiety about the children’s welfare. Does this sort of thing happen to you as well? Our earlier discussion was related to a specific event and that haunted me for months together. I wanted to recover from the consequences of that for our domestic discussion group. The knowledge of the crime, the expressions of despair on the parents’ faces, and the arrival of the child’s mortal remains continued to haunt my life and our home, so I created a distance between our little family and the news, at least for a while. The feelings had become so intense that I became unable to distinguish what it was that I was afraid of, and who? What was I feeling, was it empathy, fear or anxiety? Perhaps all of the above.

What is fear?

Just the way I do at home, in our domestic debates, I have a list of questions for you, dear reader. I want to ask you, What is fear? Where is it located? How does it start? Is fear located at the scene of the crime? Is it in our imagined anxiety? Or are we afraid to imagine ourselves in the situation of those hapless parents? I wanted so badly to shift my attention from fear of something else, and I guess addressing the question to others may help. In my case, I wanted so much to shift my thoughts and search for simple answers. This has proven to be a huge challenge because in my head, it is all jumbled up and confused. Unfortunately, I do not have the clarity of an 8-year-old.

I believe that live reporting and visual images has an important role to play in this dynamics of fear, especially in the case of our discussion. The arrival of images in our homes has escalated out direct experience of crime, and it hurts us all. Yet there is nothing that can be done other than domestic censorship. But too much of that and one’s children become insulated from caring conversations, only accessing information from the outside world anyway. And that is likely to be distorted if the sources are unreliable. In the past, people were limited to viewing only what happened around them, and perhaps, their understanding of their own vulnerability or resilience was far more realistic, whereas we are bombarded with news all the time and from all sides. Among the several fears that we live with and within us, my biggest fears are constructed around visions I see on TV and in the newspaper, of buses burning, of children being attacked, and of receiving that dreaded call from somewhere. The iconic photograph of Alan Kurdi lying face down on the sand in his red and blue attire, burns in my chest.

Among the several anxieties I live with, my biggest fears are somehow constructed around visions I see on TV, of buses burning, of children being attacked, and of receiving that dreaded call from an unknown number. The iconic photograph of Alan Kurdi lying face down on the sand has burnt a hole in my chest. But tell me, dear reader, what are your fears? Maybe you too would prefer to respond by saying Shhhhhh…!

Bhavna

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