There’s never a particularly good time to experience your first earthquake. I can, however, tell you one of the worst times: November 1983, a week after being traumatized for life by watching the ABC Made for TV Movie, “The Day After” (insert mental image of a mushroom cloud and decimated city here.)
For an 11-year-old kid who spent each waking moment after watching that movie convinced that the sound of every airplane would be shortly followed by a nuclear detonation, an earthquake could only mean one thing: the end of the world.
And for about 30 seconds that November morning, it was.
I had already spent much of the past year trying to get my anxiety level down to a normal level after the Tylenol cyanide poisonings of 1982 left me convinced that everything I consumed had the potential of killing me.
A Ding-Dong foil wrapper that didn’t quite cover the entire Ding-Dong? Tampered with. Offer to brother.
A Jell-o Pudding Pop with a little discoloration? Tampered with. Offer to brother.
Trick or treating on Halloween the same month as the poisonings? Are you kidding me?!
By the young age of eleven, my worldview was changed forever. My carefree, naive childhood was over. Whether being attacked from the outside or the inside, the world was out to get me.
Fast forward thirty-two years. I have yet to be the victim of a nuclear blast or to be poisoned. I still have anxieties, but they’re mostly about day to day things, like wondering whether I left the iron on, or if I’ll be the last mom at school pick up (again).
Since most of my childhood issues seemed to stem from unlimited access to 1980’s television, I try to protect my kids from an over-informed, sensationalized-news fate. We have always had a rule about no local news in the house and recently got rid of cable entirely. The kids only watch pre-approved NetFlix programs. We don’t leave news magazines or newspapers laying around the house for the kids to see shocking headlines. We get most of our news online and distill it down to the important facts that we feel are age appropriate for our kids.
What perfect parents we are, insulating our children from the scariness of the outside world!
But we’re not….we can’t….
They talk to friends. They see headlines of the magazines in checkout lines and of the newspapers in stacks at Starbucks. They see the TV images over our heads at restaurants and while waiting at the airport.
Or they have days like yesterday.
When I picked my 9 year old daughter up from school, I was greeted with an uncharacteristic, giant, “she must really want something” hug. It took me a few moments to realize, this was not just a hug. This was the grasp of a little girl who was terrified and clinging to her mommy.
“We had a tornado drill today, but it wasn’t a drill, it was for real. We all sat in the hall with our heads between our knees and waited for a tornado.”
Two things came to mind:
First, perhaps I need to reevaluate my ban on local news because I somehow completely missed a city-wide tornado warning.
Second, I’m afraid that my daughter just had her equivalent of my 1983 “The Day After”/ Earthquake experience.
The event that marks the line between carefree childhood and uncertain adolescence.
The event that, even if just for a moment, makes the connection between the neurons that alight some tiny, remote section of your brain to the possibility that this could be the end.
The event that 30-years later, makes you say things at book club like, “My life is divided into two chapters: Before watching “The Day After” and After watching “The Day After.”
The following morning, my daughter started her second chapter – her Day After.
She did not want to get out of bed and said she was too nervous to ride her bike to school. Naturally, she was scared there would be another tornado drill and spent most of the morning asking to see weather reports and demanding reassuring statistics before she would agree to go to school.
But the thing about the day after, or any traumatic event in life, is you still have to get out of bed. You still have to go to school. You have to face your fears head on. Especially when you’re now a parent trying to coach your children on how to deal with the turbulent times in life.
So, we replaced the visions of tornadoes with thoughts of friends coming over after school. We engaged in a discussion about the plot line of the new book that she couldn’t put down. We watched the cute little birds outside who were hiding in a flower pot, and giggled as they flew away when we tapped on the window.
And then she went to school.
As our kids get older, there are fewer and fewer things within our control to protect them. We can no longer simply cut up their food into smaller pieces, plug electrical outlets or pad the sharp corners on furniture.
We’re powerless to protect them from the scary news on the TV or the day to day dramas of growing up, let alone the natural disasters when they’re out of arm’s reach. All we can do is be there, available to listen in those rare moments when they’re willing to admit they’re afraid.
We can offer comfort and love.
And we can reassure them that things always do get better….The Day After.
Once upon a time, Susanne Kerns was a Senior Account Director at an advertising agency working for two of the top brands in the world. Nine years ago she traded in her corporate life for a life as a stay at home mom, raising two of the best kids in the world. She started her blog, The Dusty Parachute as a way to dust off her online advertising skills and begin her job search. Instead, she now uses it as a way to spend lots of time on the computer so her kids think that mommy has a job.
Susanne’s essays have been featured in Scary Mommy, BonBon Break and Redbook and she is also a contributor in the upcoming books, It’s Really 10 Months, Special Delivery and Martinis & Motherhood: Tales of Wonder, Woe & WTF?! You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.