The week after Jackson was born I read a story about a newborn who’d been bitten by rats over 75 times while his parents were high on drugs. The baby was almost the exact same age as my son, but with a lower birth weight. Only 5 pounds.
It was a story that had been reduced to click bait and shared on social media. I didn’t want to click. I clicked anyway.
For days after reading the story, I’d spontaneously burst into tears thinking of rage and sympathy. I’d look down at Jackson’s scrawny, red belly and wonder how a child that size even had room for 75 bite wounds.
Taylor looked at me sobbing at the other end of the couch. “It’s a terrible story.”
Something no one tells you about motherhood is that it gives you a new and vivid imagination for the suffering of other children.
For months after Jackson was born, I tried to avoid the news. I didn’t have full control over my new imagination — or the news articles populating my computer screen. I tried to focus on the child at hand.
At the salon a few days later, I heard a customer in the chair next to me chattering on about her housing search.
“I just don’t want my children to have to see homeless people every day,” she said, as the hair stylist painted a strand of hair with bleach and folded it into a piece of foil.
I swiveled around to look at her, not even trying to conceal my contempt.
Later I wondered what had compelled me to openly glare at a complete stranger. Was it wrong to protect my son from the heartbreaks of the world? Did I want to render him a weepy, dumpster fire of neuroticism like his mother? Should I hide him away from the heartbreaks of the world in a cocoon of Costco-sized abundance?
Should I hide myself?
I know that being able to turn away from the suffering of other children in the world is the essence of privilege. But maybe, the compassion I feel for other kids isn’t just a burden. Maybe there’s a way to weaponize the overwrought empathy I feel into something that looks more like activism and less like sobbing on my couch.
Recently I read — again — about the children separated from their parents at the border. Children who’d done nothing wrong except for being born to parents who were trying to escape poverty and violence. So I called my senator.
I’d composed a passionate monologue about compassion and duty and American values, one that I hoped would sound a lot like a Law & Order closing statement. I planned to tell her that children don’t belong in cages. That they need clean clothing and toothbrushes. That they need real blankets and beds. That they need their parents, most of all.
But I ended up stuttering a wimpy protest.
“I’m calling to express my outrage at the situation at the border, and to encourage–” I searched my brain for a stronger action verb, “and to urge the senator to reunite kids with their parents,” my voice faltered, “and start caring for these children properly.” I was almost fully crying now, and I didn’t even have postpartum hormones to blame anymore.
A pause. Then, flatly, “Zip code?”
Weaponizing my feelings is a messy process. But I still believe that our compassion, imagination, and righteous anger are the most powerful tools we have for fighting injustice.
I spend a lot of time introducing Jackson to the joys of the world. I watch him marvel that there is such a thing as trampolines, chocolate, and swimming pools. We walk around the zoo and he takes it all in: The absurd legginess of flamingos. The fearless almost-flight of monkeys. The contentedness of a bear bathing in the sun.
But it’s a half-range of what the world has to offer.
In her poem, “Good Bones,” Maggie Smith says that the world is “half terrible, though I keep this from my children.” A mother of older children, maybe she knows that the sorrows of the world will find their way into her kids’ lives eventually anyway, whether she chooses to expose them or not.
Maybe I’m not responsible for striking the perfect balance of tragedy and joy for my son, the way I dilute his juice with water. Maybe I’m just responsible for fighting for the goodness of that world and letting him in on that fight, as feeble as it feels some days.
I’ve always heard about the importance of being a global citizen. And about how there are no “other people’s children.” Maybe it’s time to be global parents, too.
“Any decent realtor,” writes Smith, “walking you through a real shithole, chirps on about good bones: This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.”
Top image: aclu.org