Don’t Let Fear Limit Your Life Story
by MELISSA RAYWORTH
I WAS putting dinner on the table when the bomb went off.
It was five miles away. Far enough that we didn’t hear the explosion, but disturbingly close once my phone started buzzing with messages from friends around the world asking if we were OK.
I looked around the apartment, where my two kids were artfully ignoring my prodding to finish the last of their homework. Yes, I quickly told those who asked. We were OK. And we’re still OK in the days after a failed second bombing attempt briefly rocked Bangkok.
You might think that leaving an idyllic American suburb to spend a few years here in a city known chiefly for wild nights and the occasional military coup was a strange, and perhaps even unsafe, choice to make. But my life was shaped, a decade before I had children, by the reality that chaos can find you anywhere. Even in American suburbia.
Believing you can avoid it, honestly, is a comforting but ultimately empty fantasy.
I’VE SPENT much of the past year working on a project exploring the ways that American parents deal with chaos and our fear of it. Those of us who began raising kids in the years after Sept. 11th entered this stage amid a powerful national obsession with safety. As childrearing theories and products and services grew into a colossal business, and worrying became our national habit, we paid close attention. We had vulnerable, tiny humans to protect. And we’d grown up amid lingering Cold War tensions and the threat of nuclear war in the ‘80s. It’s fair to say a hunger for safety was imprinted on us from the very beginning.
So we, understandably, elevated vigilance and planning to an art form. We became experts at creating airtight routines and researching every step before we take it. We developed into a generation of mothers and fathers so determined to eliminate the unexpected in the name of safety that we quietly drained much of the spontaneity from our own daily lives. And from the lives of our children. It may seem a small price to pay, and in the micro it is — on any given day, sticking to a carefully made plan always seems the wisest move. We’re too busy juggling work and family to consider the long-term impact.
Managing every aspect of our families’ lives and eliminating as much chaos as possible gives many of us a welcome feeling of control, even if we know on some level that it’s only an illusion. And a locked down life does leave a person with the very small comfort that if personal or public disaster does strike, at least we tried to prevent it. But at what cost?
I believe the reflexive expectation that parents must always make the most careful choices has messed up American childhood and American midlife more profoundly than we’ve had time to realize. And I’m going to continue exploring that notion and interviewing people until I can find a healthier path that balances reasonable safety with a fresh and deeply necessary embrace of serendipity and possibility.
ON A COLD DECEMBER NIGHT in 1993, I nearly followed my usual carefully planned, always safe, dependable routine. It was a routine I’d relied on for months to get me home quickly and safely. But that night, I had left work in midtown Manhattan as I always did, and caught my usual train to Long Island, and sat in my usual seat and then stood up to exit the train as it pulled into the station in my safe, affluent suburb, I’d have likely gotten shot by the crazed gunman named Colin Ferguson who rampaged through that train car. Randomly, for the first night in months, I’d taken the next train. And so I’m here typing this essay at my desk in Bangkok.
And it’s the reason why last weekend my youngest and I spent an afternoon feeding elephants and bathing them in the River Kwai. (They rebuilt the Bridge Over It years ago, by the way. You can visit it, and you should.) And it’s why we arrived in Cambodia last spring with no fixed plan for a week’s vacation beyond a hotel reservation. I honestly don’t believe I’m tempting fate by leaving the familiar surroundings of Pennsylvania any more than I believe parents are tempting fate when they let their older kids walk home alone from a neighborhood park after teaching them to do it safely.
I don’t regret at all living a life full of serendipity and possibility because I don’t believe a life drained of those things will protect me or my children. Yes, teach your kids about safety. Yes, make rational and smart choices.
But don’t build a life so carefully mapped in advance that you never leave the sanitized confines of the interstate.
RIGHT NOW, it’s Friday in Bangkok. Although no further violence has unfolded, I’m going to continue avoiding crowded public spaces and tourist attractions until we have a better sense of who committed these bombings and why. And I do wish North Korea and South Korea would stop lobbing explosives at each other and tossing around the word “war” while my husband is dwelling for one more day in the surreal city that is Pyongyang. I’ll breathe easier when he leaves there tomorrow.
In the meantime, I’m wrapping up work and heading out to pick the kids up at school. Amid the worries of this week, I’m still a strong believer that we all need days that end — hopefully safely, maybe beautifully — in ways we didn’t see coming when we began the morning.
Still hungry? Further reading:
- Welcome to the Pool Party. Tween life on Instagram is getting weirder and weirder.
- The Sum of Our Parts (and Hers). Society is relentless in dissecting the beauty fails of celebrities. Are we even rougher on ourselves?
- Why Didn’t I Question 28 Years of Birth Control? To medicate or not to medicate? It was never even a question.
- Madonna Moments: Desperately Seeking Adventure. We don’t always choose our pop culture inspirations. Sometimes they choose us.
Melissa Rayworth is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for exploring the building blocks of modern life, including parenting and marriage, the myths and realities of modern suburbia, work/life balance and beauty/body image issues. She frequently writes feature stories for The Associated Press and TakePart.com, and has written for numerous clients including Salon and Babble (in its pre-Disney incarnation). She has also contributed to several anthologies, including the SmartPop book series. Her latest project can be found at Sharpen Your Edge, and she tweets at@mrayworth. Melissa currently splits her time between Pittsburgh, New York and Bangkok, Thailand.
©2015, Melissa Rayworth