Often there is a parental belief that we can keep our kids safe from harm, or at least that is our biological responsibility to do so. But can we really ever keep our kids truly safe, can we really shelter them from harm and ensure they never know the pain or the terror or the horror of violence, victimisation, illness, criminality or disaster? Can we really protect them from evil?
My answer is an emphatic – NO.
We are not in control of a lot of things, like 80% of the things, that endanger our children throughout their childhood and later lives. And I came to realise this one morning, it was a Tuesday, a normal Tuesday that began like every other day but at some point during the course of that morning, my belief of safeguarding my child in this world dissolved like a bitter pill on my tongue.
My belief of safeguarding my child in this world dissolved like a bitter pill on my tongue.
At 11:15 am on that a normal Tuesday morning, I received a message on the WhatsApp group set up by my daughter’s class teacher – The Green Class. This is not unusual, Teacher Lisa, often sent updates, reminders, pictures and notes on the group chat.
The message read: “Hi Parents, just to let you know that all the children are safe. We are on lockdown with all the children inside. We will keep them inside until we get the all clear from the police. Leslie Rd by Design Quarter (the shopping centre directly opposite the pre-school my child attends) is closed. No need to fetch the children at this time. We will keep you posted.”
I read and reread the message, not really comprehending the meaning of the message. I was the first parent to respond, “What are you talking about?”
Shortly afterwards, my message was followed by a rally of beeps. “What do you mean?”, “What is happening?”, “What’s going on, why are there police at the school?”, “More information, please!”.
I did what any self-respecting mother in 2019 would do, went to a credible news source – Twitter – and searched for mentions of Fourways. Only one tweet came up, “What’s happening in Fourways? Cash in transit heist?” accompanied by pictures of a police helicopter landed in the middle of an intersection.
The very intersection a few uncomfortably short metres up the street from my daughter’s school.
The WhatsApp group then sprung back to life, with answers from other parents and the class teacher.
“Shoot-out at Design Quarter”
“Cash in transit shoot-out”
“Lots of shots fired, a police helicopter flew over the playground. Not sure the exact story yet.”
Twitter then delivered more information and more bystander footage of the scene. It seemed to have been a car chase between the police and armed burglars (who had just fled an armed robbery in a neighbouring suburb) that had come to ahead near my home and kid’s school. All the robbers were apprehended, two of them sustained gunshot wounds and one of the centre’s security guards was shot in the fracas. As far as the reports indicated no-one was fatally injured.
The children were fine. Everyone was safe and Izzy was collected by Mildred, her nanny, at the normal time, she fell asleep in the pram, woke up had lunch and played without a care in the world – none the wiser of the danger that unfolded no more than fifty metres away from her earlier in the day.
I was faced with a dreadful realisation; the belief that a parent is somehow superhumanly able to keep their children safe simply not true. I cannot keep my child safe. Short of bubble wrapping her and locking her in a nuclear fall-out shelter, you cannot protect your kids from everything this world threatens to hurt them with. You cannot be there for them every second of every day. You cannot keep them safe.
That morning’s series of events reminded me of another experience, except this time I was revisiting it anew from my mother’s perspective. Thirteen years ago, I was living in London and working in Westminster. It was a Thursday, a normal Thursday morning, as I walked up from the underground and my normal morning tube ride on the Jubilee Line.
The actual tube journey had been uneventful, just like every other day before it for the past ten months – platform queues, sardine filled carriages, armpit height standing room only, airless dark tunnel stops for leaves on the track somewhere along the 36.2 kilometres of track and my new silver iPod mini filled with illegally downloaded music.
I walked my normal route past Big Ben, past the parliamentary buildings and down the uneven side streets of one of the older parts of London. Arriving at my office building – Her Majesty’s Royal Court Services. I began my day a civil servant, an administrator, as usual by doing time in the post room, sorting post, once finished I made tea and returned to my desk to begin the tedious task of data entry.
We all had our tricks for checking our mail and wasting time browsing the internet without arousing the suspicions of our slave-driving boss – Angela. She reminded me of the Velociraptors from the first Jurassic Park. Silent. Stealthy. Sneaky. Deadly. But that morning just before nine ‘o clock Angela looked less Velociraptor and more nervous mouse. As she and some other serious looking people moved around the open plan office the noise began to surge like a Mexican wave in a sports stadium, as people began to talk. There had been an incident on the underground, and it was closed until further notice. No-one seemed particularly worried, there were often incidents on the tube – albeit none as seemingly serious as this. But our naïve minds could not comprehend anything sinister to be at the root of the problem.
We turned on the radio and heard in shock as the news anchor explained that there had been three explosions at 8:49 am on the underground – Circle line and Piccadilly line. Authorities were asking citizens to remain calm, stay indoors and off the streets. The cause of the explosions was yet to be confirmed. Initial reports suggested that there had been a massive power surge on the Underground’s power grid that had caused certain power circuits to explode.
I quickly sent a message to my housemates to see they were ok. They were. None of us seemed to grasp the significance or weight of the situation. I checked my email and my dad had emailed me, from South Africa, saying that he and my mom had heard there was a problem in London, some sort of explosion. Was I ok? What was happening?
I responded with a brief email, that was skirting annoyance, to say I was fine, I didn’t know what it was all about it seemed like some sort of technical issue. And that I would call mom later when I got home.
One hour later a bus blew up in Tavistock Square.
It became crystal clear this was not a mistake, not some technical disaster, this was planned and directed, it was intended to terrorise and hurt innocent people. This was an example of a term that had only entered the collective language of the man on the street in most parts of the world four years earlier when we watched a second plane fly into the twin towers in New York City – this was a terror attack.
At this point, London went into self-defence. All public transportation modes in Zone 1 (central city) were shut down. We were told to make our way home, either by foot or taxi (good luck with that) or get to Zone 2 or 3 transport routes. I SMSed Michelle, my housemate and closest friend, she worked on the other side of Westminster in Soho, we agreed to meet at Big Ben and walk home together along the Thames.
Then I tried to call my mom, having by now well and truly lost my snarkiness and replaced it with the overwhelming desire to collapse in a ball and shout – “I want my mommy!”. But my call would not go through. I tried to send a message, no luck. I tried to call again. Not working.
Others in the office were experiencing the same thing. It was later reported that by 10 am many of the mobile networks were unable to keep up with the volume of activity on their networks. There was also speculation from the BBC that the telephone system was shut down by security services to prevent communication between the terrorists and the use of mobile devices in detonating any more bombs.
After walking 3km alone, I found Shell, on the banks of the Thames and we discovered that several boats had been put to use as an impromptu ferry system transporting people from the centre of London to outlying areas along the river – whether these boat owners volunteered or were sequester, I have no idea, nor do I care. We got on the first boat that had space and we were taken to Canada Water which was a short walk to our house. We were safe, we could breathe again, we could stop pretending to be brave. Besides, no terrorist would want to bomb Canada Water, unless it was someone with a violent hatred of the Canadian geese that clutter the waterways there.
I was only able to contact my mom in the afternoon. And while I had been kept busy navigating the streets and riverways of London to get home. While my friend and I had had the comfort of not being alone, by having a hand to hold. My mom and dad had none of that. They were 13 087.9 kilometres away with no contact, no information and no idea of whether I was safe or in danger. Dead or alive.
And the same applied to each and every one of the “children” with whom I shared my home – three Australians, one New Zealander and one Brit whose parents lived outside of London. That day the city was filled with scared children missing them moms. And the world was filled with worried parents beating themselves up for not failing in their responsibility to keep their children safe.
I can only imagine what that felt like. And on that normal Tuesday morning that I received a spine chilling WhatsApp, I got a taste of what it had felt like for my mom over a decade ago and many times before and since. Helpless. Useless. Defenceless. As the desire to keep her child safe was once again proven futile and impossible.
I would like to say that being a victim of a terrorist attack is highly unlikely, but in today’s day and age, it’s not as unlikely as one would like to believe. This year alone, according to Wikipedia, there have been 901 attacks around the world and almost 5000 fatalities.
Thankfully, Southern Africa is not a hotbed for terrorist activity, so us moms don’t have to worry about it as much as say a mom living in France or even worse Afghanistan.
But I don’t have to tell anyone living in South Africa, what our country lacks in acts of terrorism and mother nature, like hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados, it makes up for with horrific crime statistics.
I am not going to go into the stats, cause those of us who live here know them all too well. But suffice it say that every day our children leave the house – at whatever age – they stand a good chance of falling victim to crime, and that crime is often violent.
Part of the criminal danger that we feel we must protect our children from is that of predation. I have used this term as a holdall for many threats to children – from sexual abuse to trafficking.
Recently my Facebook feed has been overflowing with reports and videos of children being abducted, which obviously has caused widespread panic amongst parents. Some of these are absolutely true and my heart breaks for their families, but some are fake and spread in order to ignite fear and anxiety, for what purpose I cannot begin to fathom. But I also cannot fathom a young man stepping onto a train and blowing himself and a few hundred people around him to smithereens.
The world is often a crazy scary place, filled with people trying to make it burn and they have a far greater capacity to devise evil ways to hurt and torment than you could ever think of to guard against.
And this lack of ability to understand what makes evil tick is the crux of why the belief that we can protect or keep our children safe is misplaced – the world is often a crazy scary place, filled with people trying to make it burn and they have a far greater capacity to devise evil ways to hurt and torment than you could ever think of to guard against.
So, what is the point of my story, you ask?
I guess my point is, that as surely as we cannot keep our kids safe, we surely cannot quit trying to keep our kids safe. So, if we accept that even our best efforts might fail, we might accept a margin of risk to ensure that our kids do not just rely on others for safety but know how to look after themselves. Cause if we can’t be there in person to protect them then we need to instil the right instincts and response modes for them to rely on no matter the situation.
And the only way I can see to teach vigilance is by allowing my kid the opportunity to experience and negotiate the insecurity of the world when I have the luxury of being within reach of her. And the only way I can see to grow a kid with good sense and a level head is to let her explore the outer limits of my comfort zone so she can test her own potential and develop her own instincts. All in the hope that one day when she is on her own and she is in danger, she might instinctually know what to do, and most importantly she might have a chance of surviving.
Because if I can’t keep her safe, I’ll be damned if I don’t prepare her to protect herself.