Letter to My Sons
My Darling Sons,
Today, in the aftermath of a violent, unhinged man holding people hostage in the Lindt chocolate cafe in Sydney, killing two, causing physical injuries to more, and unseen psychological damage to so many more, I am heartsore. In the aftermath of a young, unarmed African American man being shot to death, ostensibly for changing lanes illegally while driving, by Houston police, I’m searching for the humanity in human beings. In the aftermath of the Taliban attack today on a school in Pakistan killing 141 people, I am despondent.
My darlings, as a mother, raising boys to be men is always fraught with questions; how do I imbue you with kindness, empathy, concern for fellow human beings? In the happiest, safest of times these questions play in a constant loop on my mind. It matters to me that you grow to be good people. I take my job as a parent very seriously, and part of that job is my responsibility to you to shape you into the kind of men who appreciate others for their difference, who treat women with the same regard as you would any man you encounter, who are thoughtful and loving and moral, who respect and care for yourselves too.
When devastating incidents occur, I struggle terribly to find the right words to guide you, to find the right messages to show you. When the events are overwhelmingly tragic, when feeling relief that my own friends and family are safe feels like a guilty pleasure, what words adequately convey all that I wish to say? At times like this, the world seems grim, and I want to hold you both close. My instincts scream at me to close ranks, to scoop you protectively under my wings, to keep you safe.
Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.
I know that I cannot protect you from the world. I know that protecting you from the world will not allow you to grow into the kind of men I will be proud of. So today, I am fighting my instincts, loosening my grip, and letting you venture into the world despite my fears. It feels much as it did when you were first starting to walk and you didn’t want to hold my hand anymore. You were so determined to be independent, so intent on rushing uncertainly into the world. My heart was then, and remains now, balanced on a precipice, a lump lodged in my throat, as I steel myself, let go of your hand, and watch you toddle off to your own adventures.
My loves, before you go, I have one piece of advice. Here in the US, there used to air a TV show called Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood. In it, Mr Rogers told a story of when he was young, and he would see some catastrophe on television, his mother would tell him to “look for the helpers”, and this would help him to see the good people doing good things in times of great adversity.
So when you encounter the ills, the devastations, the cruelties of the world, look for the helpers. Look for ordinary people performing extraordinary deeds in times of strife — there you will find humanity.
You have written what is in my heart. I’m a mom of two boys, too, and this morning I had to turn off the news when the story about the Pakistani schoolchildren came on. Partly so my sons wouldn’t have to watch it – they are only 3 and 5 – and partly so that I wouldn’t. But your advice is sound, and the next time I have the opportunity to talk to them about tragic things, I’ll remember it.
Christine, thank you! Parenting is so often about placing your still-beating heart in their hands and sending them out into the world, isn’t it? We wait with bated breath and hope for the best. I’m relieved that my boys are 13 and 15 now, so they’re able to draw on more life experiences when seeing these horrors. But at the same time, they’re more exposed to them… inevitably, they’ll be discussed at school or elsewhere. All we can do is prepare them the best way we know how.
Oh my heart, Asha. We have to really guard our younger son against school shootings/attacks because he gets so scared. The world is such a scary place right now, much more so for brown boys (at least here in the US). I grew up watching Mr. Rogers and I so wish it were that simple. XOXO.
There is such a kernel of truth in what Mr Rogers says though, don’t you think? It’s not the answer in its entirety, but it gives the element of hope in humanity… “look for the helpers”. In every disaster/catastrophic event, there are helpers, and to keep hope alive, to not become utterly despondent at the fate of the world we/I need to believe that human beings are just as capable of great good, as they are of great evil. Of course, by all reliable measures we live in a safer, healthier world… but we’re all better connected to current events so it often doesn’t seem that way. What can we do but imbue hope in our kids? ❤
Yes. To all of that!
you write so eloquently your hopes, wishes, dreams for your children to grow into independent, wise, mature young men, and how challenging it is to surrender and set them free in a broken, devastated world. i don’t have any children yet but working with youth on a daily basis, i totally understand. it’s unbelievable how children can be right before you and you think they’re safe and protected, but not realize all the struggles, sin, sadness, sorrow, hate, apathy they face when they’re out in the world. it is these realizations that keep me on my knees, in prayer. because sometimes that’s all that we can do….
and love how you incorporated the quotes into your post too. beautifully done.
Thank you so much! The world is so well connected now, kids are exposed to so much more, and childhood is such a fleeting time, that the urge to keep them there longer is insistent. Letting go is the hardest thing to do, I’m finding. It always has been.
Oh Asha, you are the queen of the helpers. This is a gorgeous post and us mothers know this struggle so well. Your boys are so lucky to have you to guide them. (the rest of us are too.) ❤
Jenny, you are so kind to say that. I’m very fortunate to have so many good people in my life to help me (you included!) ❤
I’m right there with you about the uncertainty, the lumps in the throat and the fear of sending children off into this world. I’ll second what Jenny said above me: your boys are lucky to have you and so are we.
Oh boy, that feeling as they wander off into the world (whether they’re taking their first steps, starting their first day at school, or going off to college/travel/career), is so like standing on the edge of a crumbling precipice. You just have to hope. ❤
I only know you from your writing, but it seems to me that you set a good example for your boys. This was eloquently written, but we all know that “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work. As Jenny said, keep being a helper and your sons will learn how to survive in this scary, mixed-up world.
Oh Cyn, that’s so kind of you to say. And you’re absolutely right, words are wonderful, but examples are better.
Beautiful, Asha. Just beautiful.
Thank you, my lovely friend!
Asha, my husband and I are white and we adopted a black child. He’s 6 now and I am trying desperately to figure out how to protect him and keep him from becoming cynical or jaded or so, so very frightened. Looking for the helpers really gives me a sense of peace, knowing that there are always helpers. We just forget to focus on them.
It’s easy to forget, isn’t it? They’re so often the ones just quietly getting on with the task. But they are always there, and I like to hang onto that thread of hope.
It’s a tricky world to navigate. You’re so right in wanting to ensure your son doesn’t become cynical or jaded. That’s such a key to his self-esteem, don’t you think?
Thanks so much for your lovely comments too!
you are one of the helpers, Asha, and I love you. I love your bravery.
Oh Lisa! I’m so fortunate to have you in my life. Thank you!
Writing letters to our children that they cannot yet read is such a carthartic way to vent. I only wish some of the aggressors had to write letters to their own children to explain their actions.
Thank you for this touching entry. Well-crafted and wonderful to read.
Thank you so much for your generous and thoughtful comments. It’s an interesting point you raise about aggressors writing letters explaining their actions. I wonder if that would make them more self-aware or thoughtful? It’d be a wonderful thing if it did.