I learned I was pregnant in the midst of covering the intefedah in Gaza and the West Bank. The doctor asked what I did for a living and what I knew about the stages of pregnancy and then he shook his head. “Try to avoid tear gas for the next few months,” he said. I was still so young, and fearless.
The first baby arrived, everything about her perfect—tiny faultless fingernails, the exquisite shape of her head, the little noises she made: pure poetry. I, who detested exclamation points, was reduced to superlatives. Still prone an hour after the C-section in the Jerusalem hospital where she was born, I told my husband I wanted three.
“Hold on,” he said, laughing wryly, enigmatically. “Let’s get used to one first.”
Though the day of the birth was joy defined, I understood quickly that things could go wrong. Horribly wrong. Before we left the hospital with our new baby, an Orthodox couple in a corner room asked my husband, a gentile, to turn off the lights on Shabbat, and then revealed that labor was being induced because their baby was a stillbirth. I barely met them, but their story haunted me. I was fearless, it turned out, except when it came to my children. From the beginning, I grasped that loving someone this strongly made me vulnerable.
Not long after the birth, I discovered other parents as apprehensive and inexperienced as I. In fact—who knew?—entire groups existed to analyze the meaning of tantrums, the effectiveness of time-outs, the terrible twos. (“The terrible twos are nothing,” one mother confided, leaning toward me. “It’s the fucking fours you have to watch out for.”) We shared stories of cuts that required stitches, infant illnesses that sapped us, and occasionally something worse, something fatal: a rare disease, an avoidable car crash. As a journalist, I’d been covering a war zone for years without undue anxiety, but concern I’d never felt for myself, I felt a hundredfold for my baby.
By the time the third one arrived, we had safety down to a system. Table corners were padded, electrical outlets blocked, baby monitors everywhere. The dangers became more complex, though, as they went off to school, then became teenagers. I believed what my mother had told me: If you worry about a potential problem with as much specificity as possible and do whatever you can to prevent it, it won’t happen. Clearly a flawed theory, but endlessly comforting.
Recently, before I quite expected it, the Jerusalem-born baby headed off for college, followed by her younger brother, both of them officially becoming young adults. Suddenly, what was required of us as parents altered dramatically. New rules: no parent-teacher conferences, no curfews, no advice unless asked. They had to manage their freedom and find their own way and I knew there would be mistakes. But, please God, let the mistakes be manageable, I thought. Let them be benign. Don’t let anything happen to my babies.
Turns out, after all those years of trying to envision every possible thing that could go wrong, I’d become accomplished at it. But the dangers were larger. I had to stay up late and get up early in order to worry about everything.
I put that worry gene to good use in my fourth novel, 31 Hours. Among other things, the novel offered a chance to explore what it means to be the parent of a young adult. It asks this question: After years of protecting our kids, what should we do—and what are we allowed to do—to keep them safe once they are grown? It’s not a simple question, and it turns out, those parent groups that offered all that support in the early years are disbanded by now.
The mother in 31 Hours, Carol, is strong and independent, free of empty nest syndrome, but she’s still concerned about her son’s growing emotional distance, and the way he seems tense and depressed. Her fears are amorphous and hard to convey; nevertheless, as she lies awake in the dark, she decides to trust the hunch that something is wrong, and to spend the next day trying to track Jonas down and “mother him until he shrugs her off.” Though the circumstances of 31 Hours are particular, and not mine, I’m grateful to Carol and Jonas for the ways in which their story illuminated for me the often unspoken tensions and struggles in the relationship between a mother and her son on the cusp of adulthood.
31 Hours also considers maternal intuition: its possibilities as well as its limitations. There’s a time when we know our kids so well. We can distinguish between the cry that means “I’m scared” and the one that means “I’m lonely” and the one that means “I’m hurt.” And then they hit young adulthood and they say “You don’t know me,” or maybe they don’t say it, but they think it, and it’s an easy comment to dismiss because we do know them. We know their core. Yet, there’s a lot we don’t know. Their lives have taken them in new directions. It’s what we want, of course. But it’s scary. It’s a fear Carol confronts.
Carol’s ex, Jake, urges Carol to relax. He believes what one should do to keep mostly-grown children safe is give them room. They need that freedom to become who they will, he argues. It’s an idea expressed in the opening lines of one of my favorite poems, by the American poet James Wright.
I would leap too
Into the light,
If I had a chance.
It is everything, the wet green stalk of the field
On the other side of the road.
And yet, the poem’s unapologetic title is “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway.” Like Carol, I want my kids to know there are risks worth taking; at the same time, I want them to leap safely. After all, they hold in their hands my most vulnerable organ, as well as vital pieces of my past and my future. We’ve come a long way since that C-section in Jerusalem, but Carol’s words about Jonas could be mine: “He taught her humility, the way a child does, and how to love godlike, selflessly. Still, there was more to learn. She wasn’t finished yet.”
31 Hours is about many things: the layers of life in the New York City subway, the modern meaning of prayer, and the ways in which healthy skepticism can turn to misguided obsession. But on some level, it’s simply about a mother and her son. I hope it can play a small role in the dialogue about how we best look after our kids as they, mostly grown, move out into a chaotic, confusing, corrupt, beautiful, dangerous, challenging world.
(Masha Hamilton is the author of 31 Hours, published by Unbridled Books in September 2009, and The Camel Bookmobile (2007, HarperCollins). She is also the founder of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.)