A beautiful world, that’s the gift I want to give you.
What I’ll offer you instead is the world we have—where guns run free the way kids should, where we become “accustomed to war,” where children lay forgotten amidst rubble, chaos and devastation.
I try to keep you safe from the hardest truths. Not because I think you can’t handle them, but I want to give you a beautiful world and it breaks me to give you this one. So I try to make it beautiful for you. I try to fill it with love and joy, with adventure and learning, with books and hope.
But do you see me force a smile on my face when you walk into the room? Do you know I hide my news-filled browser windows when you sit next to me? Do you see the worry and despair in my eyes? Do you know our world is on fire, do you know my heart is too?
Do you know, that if I’m being honest, I’m not sure what scares me more—the amount of terror people unleash onto each other or their ability to endure it.
What kind of world—I think with every headline, every notification, every breaking news alert—what kind of world is this?
What I want for you is for something to wash over us and rinse us clean of hate and trauma and fear—to push us to a state of humanity, of civility, of disagreement within reason. What I want for you is assurance that we all want the same things for all children: safety, justice, a good life.
A long life.
So I take the scare for you. I bury it deep inside. The world bares its teeth at me and I desperately try not to shrink in response. I vote and I donate and I call my representatives and I text bank and I learn and I listen and I change and I grow and I do better when I know better. I try. I talk and cry and rage endlessly about everything with your aunts and your aunties and your dad. Not with you. Never with you.
I carry the weight of our reality day after day, when I can’t put it down, when it’s too heavy to bear. I carry it anyway. Because what do I say to you when there are no words left?
It was simpler to manage when you were little, but you’re not so little anymore. The world is not only mine to give you but also yours to observe and to question. And you do.
A news brief comes on during a football game. I watch you watch it, knowing it’s too late to distract you, knowing I can’t stop what will come next. I watch your face fill with confusion, the way your brows furrow and the corners of your mouth turn downward. You turn to me and ask, “What is happening in Gaza and Israel?”
I hesitate. I don’t want to scare you. I don’t want you to worry. I want to protect you always, that’s my instinct as a mother. It should be all of our instincts to always protect children. At 10- and 7- years old, I wish you knew so much less than you do. But your dad and I, we promised to always tell you the truth.
And my loves, sometimes the truth is just no good.
So that night, after tucking in your sister, we sit down to talk about Gaza and Israel. Like we have about racism and sexism and homelessness and climate change and police brutality and Ukraine and Russia and trump and nationalism. We get out the globe and we talk about land and religion, about the plights of people, about generational terror. We talk about hate and where it comes from and why it doesn’t die. We talk about war, the human cost of war, and the children who get caught in the middle.
“Why is it called terrorism?” you, my firstborn, ask, voice hardly above a whisper. As if you’re rolling the idea around on your tongue, trying the world on for size. Seeing if it is even something worth saving.
“But Mama,” you, my littlest boy, ask, “why is everyone always fighting? Why can’t everyone just live together?”
That’s a good question, I say over and over again, to those questions and to all the rest. What I don’t say is that good questions don’t always have good answers.
I gently piece together answers, placing each word carefully and clumsily against another as if I were laying bricks. “Does that make sense?” I ask, referring to the clarity of my language. You shake your head, referring to the clarity of the concepts. No, it doesn’t make sense. Because it doesn’t.
“But Mama,” you, my littlest, start again. And then you stop. I watch your bottom lip begin to quiver and my stomach turns in a whoosh and I want to rip out all of my insides and throw them on the ground just to make it stop. Your voice drops to a hush. Your eyes fill. “There are children there?”
Watching your heart break is something I will never get used to. It kills me every time.
“Do you have any other questions?” I ask later, weary from this conversation and also from life.
“You said this is something we should know. Why?”
I wait. I think, trying to figure out what to say, the right thing to say. When you are older, I tell you, your dad and I, we’re going to give you the world. It’s going to be yours to change and to fix and to love. And when it’s yours, you’ll need to know about it so you can make it better.
When we don’t talk about this stuff, I tell them, we make it someone else’s problem. But it’s ours. Mine and yours.
I tuck them in and kiss their faces. Because I can. That fact is not lost on me. Maybe this is my way, what I can offer, I think after turning off the lights. You three. Maybe you are how I can change the world right from where I’m standing.
“Mama, can we watch Little Mermaid?” My 3-year-old asks in her singsong toddler voice a few days later. The movie is her latest obsession and we watch it nearly daily now but she’s no fan of sea storms or Ursula. “But you’ll protect me right?” she confirms before settling herself on the couch next to me, curling into my body.
Yes, baby, I will.
On screen, Ursula wreaks havoc on the ocean, creating chaos in the name of power. The metaphors roll furiously in my head, like snowballs down a hill. Z’s eyes grow wide, taking in her first glimpses of terror. “Mama, you’ll protect me right?” She asks again, her eyes never leaving the screen as Ursula cackles maniacally and unleashes another destructive wave.
I hug her close. “I always do and I always will,” I tell her, and my mind swells thinking of how many mothers are at this instant whispering the same thing to their babies as bombs rain down around them. How many held their children, their worlds, and said the same thing right before they were taken away.
I tuck the blanket tightly around her body, whisper to her that I’ll be right back. I walk over to my boys who lay haphazardly on the opposite side of the couch playing Minecraft. I clutch their faces and plant a big kiss on their foreheads. The older one reaches out an arm for a hug without looking up from his screen. The younger one swats me away. I look at them and think of the fortune we’ve been given, the flap of the butterfly’s wings that led to me this moment with them while others grip their children similarly but for entirely different reasons.
I think back to the conversation with my boys. Of how one had asked, “If the world is yours now, why don’t you fix it before it’s ours?” Of how I lay my hand on top of his, willing the tears not to spill. Oh baby, I said, hoping he wouldn’t notice the crack in my voice, the crack in everything. Oh baby, I’m trying, I said.
Ursula rages on screen and when I am sure that everyone is occupied, I turn into the kitchen and cry.
I’m not someone who prays. But that night I do. A brief prayer for a beautiful world. For the children, all of whom are ours.