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Culture of Worry
Our children, ourselves
I was on my way to pick up my son from school yesterday here in Vienna when I saw someone else's son get lost. I was walking up the stairs from a subway platform, exiting into a train station. The boy was beside me, running up the stairs by the short wall that separated them from the escalator to our left. I saw him crouch down by the wall at the top of the stairs, and knew what he was doing: hiding from a parent, planning a surprise. He could not both crouch low and look back, so he kept popping up to look, planning when he would jump out. Without thinking, I looked over to the escalator to see if I could identify the approaching mother or father. I noted one woman, a kid's school backpack over her shoulder, neatly alongside her own bag, neatly alongside her ponytail. I was pretty sure that this was the mom. But when she walked past and into the train station, I doubted my guess; the kid remained in hiding.
When I got to the top of the staircase, I turned around and waited to see what would happen next. I watched the kid, focused on him, trying not to look like a creep. He hopped up several more times from his crouch, but he never saw the person he was looking for. Something had gone wrong. He finally sprang from hiding and up the last few stairs, and then began to look around. He turned his head quickly, like an animal emerging from its hole, but did not cry or panic. He looked to be about seven years old. I was already thinking about what I would say to him, plotting it out in German: "I saw what you were doing, your mom will come back, just wait here, don't run, she will be right back, don't worry." Then he ran. Little kids can really accelerate. I followed him with my eyes, thinking that I might have to follow him with my feet. But he was fine; he had seen her. The mom was a good sixty yards away, and had still not missed him or turned around.
He was there in a flash; and I could see, though not hear, the interaction that followed. The mother was startled, clearly thinking that her boy had been behind her all along. He had surprised her, but not in the way that he had wanted to! She bent down for one moment, one index finger came out, one face-to-face remonstration, and it was over. She didn't yell. She stood straight up again and walked, without looking behind her. Her bag, school bag, ponytail, bounce, out of sight, kid close behind. It was the brevity of her reaction, and her relative calm, that caught me by the crook of my American parental mind. Unless I misread the situation completely, she was really not that worried. She expected her son to stay with her. That was his responsibility. And if he did not, things would turn out fine anyway.
Several years ago, when my kids were about six and four, I took them both to the fine aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut. The site was less than ideal for parental supervision: half-lit rooms, hidden passages, corners you could not see around, and hundreds of children. Mine were enchanted by the beluga whales; the visit was a success; and we were nearing the end of our little tour. And then, in a dark green room, I saw her: a little girl running around in circles crying, with no parent in sight. She was four or five. I put both my kids on the bench in the middle of the room, told them to sit still, went down on one knee, and put my hand out to the girl. I picked her up, intensely conscious as I did so that I was breaking an American taboo by touching a stranger's child, and put her on the bench between my kids. I asked her to sit between them for a minute, and to tell them what her name was. Standing by the bench, I explained the situation to a man who had a wedding band but seemed unencumbered, and asked him to go find an employee to make an announcement.
What I won't forget is the evaluative look he gave me. He took in the scene: three little kids, one in tears, me claiming urgency. He was plainly assuring himself that I was not abducting a child, that this was not some kind of a scam, before he left the room to do anything else. He did go for help, though. I crouched on the floor next to the three kids and waited. I let them interact, just making sure that the little girl did not run off. I was pretty sure that the mother would appear before long, and so she did. She had black glasses, a black bag over her shoulder, and two other kids trailing behind. She was wailing. When she saw her daughter, she wailed louder. She picked up the child from the bench and ran off with her, without a word or a backward glance.
A moment later the guy I had asked for help came back with an aquarium employee and a security guard. "The mom came," I said. No need to talk about any drama, it was built into the situation. Again that querying look, but then a smile: "That's good." He looked again at my two kids, the tokens of my trustworthiness. He was a dad, I could tell, an initiate into our American culture of worry.
My son, my elder child, was born here in Vienna, and, as I wrote in Our Malady, I had some trouble adjusting to parenting styles when we brought him to America. When I took him to baby music class, I was surprised that all of the tiny kids were supposed to stay in front of their own caretakers the entire time. Another parent berated me once when her child got too close to mine. I didn't get it. Wasn't the point to get out of the house and let the toddlers socialize? Afterwards I asked another one of the moms about all this concern about the proper place of the children. Her response stayed with me: "I guess it's because at the end of the day we know we are doing this alone."
Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think the Austrian mother in the train station thought that she was doing it alone. And that was because she isn't. She had subways and trains to get her and her son to school and back. She had a network of public schools; her kid went to one, because he was not wearing a uniform. Had she wanted to send him to a private school, she could have done so at little extra cost. This summer her kid will have nine weeks off from school; if she is a working parent, she will have five or six weeks of paid vacation, not counting thirteen days of annual paid holidays. She will be able to spend most of the summer with her child and with pay. Before her son began school, she had access to day care, which, like school, is essentially free of charge. Before that she had maternity leave and, if she has a partner, her partner probably had leave as well. Together their parental leave was counted not in days and weeks but in months and years. Before that she had four to seven days in the hospital with her baby after childbirth, free of charge. Before that she had obstetric care, also free.
Why are we Americans so worried about our kids? I think we focus our anxiety on what we think we can control, on the things we can do alone: watch the kids. I think we also feel guilt, tremendous suppressed guilt, about the time we cannot spend with them when they are very young, when they really need us, because we have to work. I think we worry because the care and school they need is unavailable, of low quality, or too costly. I think we torture ourselves because we think that we need more money to raise our kids correctly. This feeling gets us back to work, and back to the guilt about the time away. Some things really cannot be done alone, and child-rearing is one of them.
We don't just feel lousy about ourselves; we mistrust others. We cannot do enough for our children, and don't expect anyone else to help. That is how we have been trained. That is what we think is normal. But this idea of normality ruins lives. Our children do not get what they need: the breastfeeding, the contact, the unhurried time. And we cannot parent without a barrage of feelings that we cannot really alter because no mom or dad can change the overall situation. The anxiety, the fear, and the guilt flow into our interactions with one another, and not only in situations like the one in the aquarium. The absence of help and the oversupply of feeling separates parents from non-parents, making their lives all too different. Too often it sets parents against other parents, since we feel that we must compete for things that are all too scarce.
The emotions also flow into our politics. What is Q-Anon, after all? The idea that the enemy steals and abuses children is ancient. Q-Anon is a post-modern version of the antisemitic lie that Jews steal Christian babies and use their blood to bake matzoh. And for this reason and a thousand others no one should take it seriously. But many of us do, and I think I know one reason why: because, deep down, we worry about our children, because, deep down, we know that we cannot raise them alone, and we have to. Q-Anon aside, all of the negative feelings that arise from guilty parenting disable our politics. We are supposed to raise children privately, and we are each subcontracted to provide our own advertising for our private enterprise: we are supposed to say how easy and wonderful it is.
We are supposed to lie, in other words, to perpetuate a system that fails us. Parenting is sometimes wonderful, but it is not easy. And I say this from the very privileged position of a parent who has a partner and who has resources. We still cannot do it alone. While we are in Austria, we marvel at what other parents have, and how they are used to what they have. We see what it means to take for granted long weekends and long vacations with a family. We notice how much time parents have when they do not have to solve every problem individually. We see what a difference it makes, even during a pandemic, when people have easy access to affordable health care.
Why do we not have all of these things? We are a richer country than Austria, after all. Why do we deny them to ourselves? Why do we deny them to our children? In the name of freedom? It seems to me more like sadism, like punishing parents for being parents, and punishing children for being children. We could all use less fear, less anxiety, and less guilt. We would all benefit from children who get more attention, more time, and more love. Having all of this would leave all of us much more free. At the end of the day, we should be doing this together.