There Is Not Enough Pepper Spray In The World To Keep Our Daughters Safe

Can a pressurized can of peppers correct a flawed society?

I would’ve felt better if I’d had a way to protect myself, my younger daughter said, describing the evening a few nights earlier when she’d gone to see the play A Raisin in the Sun downtown with a group from her college. At the end of the evening, the group scattered, and she realized her phone had died when she’d gone to call a ride, so she took the bus home. Alone.

It shouldn’t be that big of deal to take a bus home at 11 p.m. on a weeknight in a city not especially known for its high crime rate. Except that when you’re a woman alone, taking the bus at night, walking 10 dark blocks, and entering an empty house is fraught. It is fraught because we understand — we know — that women, especially young women, are targets. We know this and we accept this as fact. Generations of parents have addressed this problem in myriad ways with endless lists of rules (don’t walk alone at night, don’t talk to strangers, be home by midnight, be home by 11 p.m., be home by 10 p.m.), but no matter what rules we apply to our daughters, the truth underneath the restrictions remains untouched: assault happens.

Assault against women is an inevitable fact, unchangeable, inert. Girls and women must be the ones to adapt, as humans have long made every effort to steer clear of bubbling rivers of lava, hurricane winds, and upheavals born from restless tectonic plates scraping against each other.

Girls and women must be the ones to adapt, as humans have long made every effort to steer clear of bubbling rivers of lava.

“What if you had pepper spray?” I asked tentatively. I thought she might scoff at the idea. A generation earlier, I’d dismissed my mother’s suggestions for how I might remain safe in the world. I thought then that she didn’t know about the world, that her fears were a personal failing and not the inevitable result of decades of life as someone identifying as female. I did enroll in a personal defense class and learned the means for wriggling out of an assailant’s grasp. Whenever I’d practice my move with a male friend, though, I’d only manage to free myself when my faux opponent would “let” me escape, as my grandmother would let me win at cards when I was very young.

And part of me did not want to ask my daughter about pepper spray because I didn’t want to admit that my daughter — that both my daughters — are unsafe in the world. They are not just unsafe in “The World.” My daughters are not even safe in the 10 blocks between our house and the D line bus stop.

If you were to keep walking for 10 more blocks past that D line stop, you’d arrive at the hospital where this very daughter was born. I remember how we slept together that night in that room on the fifth floor with an eastern view. I didn’t want her beside me in the bassinet. I wanted her in the bed with me. I was already a mother by then. I trusted myself more than I had almost four years earlier when her sister was born. I trusted myself with the job of taking care of her, of protecting her.

But now it is clear that I cannot protect her. She isn’t a baby whose day consists of me shepherding her from stroller to car seat to home. She is 18 and the world sees her for what she is — an adult woman. Sometimes when I drive by young women yawning at bus stops, staring at their phones, curls tangling in the wind, wind rushing by their skirts, and I realize that they too are daughters. They too are seen as adult women, and by some, as fair game. When one, two, or more of them is grabbed, assaulted, or worse, the news — if it even reaches our papers — will not surprise us. Some of us will even wonder what she did to deserve it, if she’d been “asking for it.”

But my daughter did not scoff. She said she wanted pepper spray.

And when she said she wanted the pepper spray, I realized that I also hadn’t wanted to ask about the pepper spray because somehow asking the question aloud felt like failure. Somehow my daughter feeling unsafe feels like a failure on my part. I know that’s irrational. I know that I am not responsible for the state of humanity. I know I can no more stop the human legacy of aggression than I can reverse the spin of the planet. Nowhere in the Book of Parenting does it say that my job as a parent is to deliver my child into a fair, just, and safe world.

And yet, I feel this sinking sense of inadequacy now that it’s out in the open between us that women must guard against date rape, stranger rape, and every imaginable type of violence, that there is a reason that an entire TV series revolves around endless storylines of the bad end that this waitress or stripper or college girl or unsuspecting mother of two met with in that alleyway, parking lot, dorm room, or her own kitchen.

Somehow, I should have done something to stop all this before she and her sister hit puberty.

Nowhere in the Book of Parenting does it say that my job as a parent is to deliver my child into a fair, just, and safe world.

I should’ve flown down underneath the South Pole, lifted the earth with one hand, and reversed its spin with a flick of my other hand, like a child spinning a classroom globe.

Because it feels like failure to face my daughter and say, “Okay, I’ll get you some” when I know that pepper spray might not keep her safe; when I know that pepper spray is just a tiny little can of chili peppers pressed down by the weight of the world; when I know that I am asking that small canister of capsicum to do a job that the judicial system, teachers, mothers , fathers, brothers, sisters, judges, police officers, social workers, laws, bylaws, therapists, priests, rabbis, ministers, laws, rules, rules, and more rules have failed to do.

When I know all this and I face her and I face her sister and I face all the beautiful young women — black, Asian, Latina, Native, Pacific Islander, and Caucasian — who wait for the D, for the 44, for the 28 and the 5, I feel failure. I feel a failure deep and wide, a sea of failure deep enough to hide ships in its trenches. I feel failure cavernous and hollow enough to house the huge blimps that would sometimes float through the blue summer skies when I was a girl.

I feel a failure deep and wide, a sea of failure deep enough to hide ships in its trenches

And I take that failure and my weariness and type the words “pepper spray” into the search bar. Canisters of pink, black, and purple rapidly populate the screen. Pepper spray can be purchased with Amazon Prime. Pepper spray can be in hand in two days with free shipping, a small pressurized can of pepper and air in a big box of air and packing materials, floating through highways and post offices and loaded into a van that drives down the very street that leads to the D line and to the hospital where my daughter was born, and then a box lands BOOM on our mat. During these same two days, another can of pepper and air hurtles its way through sky, road, space, and time from Wherever, U.S.A. to the front step of the Chicago apartment where my other daughter lives. BOOM.

A text lights up my phone: Got the pepper spray. Thanks, Mom! I feel so taken care of!

But I don’t feel like I’m taking care of them. I feel failure. Huge, cavernous, deep, infinite, unstoppable failure.

My daughters may be armed and ready, but I don’t know if it will be enough.