The sky is exactly as it was eleven years ago — bright blue and cloudless. I open my newspaper and read an article about how many communities are forgoing memorials this year, feeling that it is time to “move on.” On this day in 2001, this morning, the corrected manuscript for a book I was writing with Dr. Nancy Snyderman — Girl in the Mirror: Mothers and Daughters in the Years of Adolescence —was sitting on my coffee table, waiting to be picked up by Fedex to go into Manhattan for production. It didn’t go that day, of course, nor the next day and, in the interim, we convinced our editor and publisher to allow us to include a new postscript about how the world had changed that day and how it would affect our children and our parenting of them.
The chapter was written in the next week which was a strange, unsettling time. On the one hand, a sense of community grew around the tragedy, articulated in makeshift memorials at fire stations and elsewhere, the attention paid the posters for loved ones missing, flowers placed by strangers here and there. Neighbors talked and shared with strangers. On the other, there was the task of explaining the inexplicable — of violence, hatred, random acts of kindness alongside wanton disregard of life — left to parents not just in New York City and Washington, but all over the country. Re-reading the chapter all these years later I’m struck by how fear dominates our discussion. How will fear affect our parenting, we wondered?
So, on this cloudless day eleven years later, I wonder how much that September day changed how Americans parent. Not just that day, of course, but others — the day of the Columbine shooting, the day of the massacre at Virginia Tech, among them — when the notion of an unsafe world and our need to protect our children from it overwhelmed every other thought. It’s our focus on safety — our need to know where our children are at every moment — that has our cells pinging and ringing all the time. Is it fear that keeps us from letting our children find their own ways of being independent? Parents rally against teachers when teachers, rightly, say that phones distract, that kids aren’t paying attention. The answer uniformly is that safety and connection trump the need for focus.
If 9/11 had us fixated on an unsafe world in one sense, then the financial events of 2008 and 2009 and the years that followed — the stock market, the job losses, the sustained recession — opened parents to another kind of fear. The underpinning of the American dream has always been that the next generation will outstrip the previous one but now, it seems, that too was in jeopardy. The world turned unsafe in other ways. Is fear that your kid or mine won’t somehow make it that sets the tone for getting where you need to go no matter how you get there? Is fear of failure what motivates hiring tutors or someone to take the SATs for you, taking stimulants, getting someone else to write your college essay or cheating on exams? Is parenting governed equally by fear that there won’t be room at the top and ambition to blame for what we see going on among Millennials? Parenting books today often feed on that fear. Would anyone have read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother eleven years ago?
As I said, once again, it’s a perfectly blue, cloudless day. It’s a good time not just to remember those lost but perhaps to reflect on other things, lost and gained, that day, eleven years ago.