When I was a medical student living in New York City, the phone in our apartment rang at 4 a.m., waking me as well as my roommates. It was my grandfather (I called him Zadie), calling from Denver to see if I was okay. Did I mention it was 4 a.m.? Seems he had been listening to his transistor radio, unable to sleep again because of his lifelong sense of foreboding. He’d heard that the Staten Island Ferry had crashed into another boat and two passengers were missing—so he was just calling to make sure I wasn’t one of them. There were 10 million people living in New York City, and my grandfather feared I was among the two missing ferry passengers. Zadie certainly had good reason to be a worrier; as a child, watched his mother and sister die at the hands of the Cossacks during a pogrom in his village. We didn’t know about PTSD back then, but in retrospect, I’m sure he suffered from it his whole life. But really, the Staten Island Ferry? Calling at 4 a.m.? That was over-the-top, wasn’t it?
Last month, my wife and I were visiting our kids in New York City during the weekend when the bomb went off in Chelsea. We were with our daughter and her boyfriend on the Upper West Side, but our other kids were elsewhere that night. We had no reason to think they were in Chelsea, but…our son and his wife used to live two blocks from where the bomb went off. Maybe they’d taken their 7-month-old son, our first grandchild, to visit friends in their old neighborhood. Our other son was seeing an off-Broadway show with his girlfriend and her parents that night. Where exactly was the theater?
Thankfully, quick text messages to our kids confirmed they were out of harm’s way. But I thought of my grandfather that night, as I have on many nights when I’ve worried about our kids’ safety, and how over-the-top his worry seemed to me all those years ago. He heard about the long-ago ferry accident on his transistor radio and called me on his analog dial phone. We heard about the bombing on our smart phones and texted our kids. Only the medium has changed, not the message.
I’m sorry, Zadie—you were right. I get it now, as I have since becoming a parent, actually. As parents (and grandparents), you don’t stop worrying just because the kids are out of the house. That’s why my next call that night was to my own mom in Denver, to let her know we were fine and not to worry when she heard the news on TV.
Of course, as with everything in parenting, we need to find balance to keep our sanity. You can’t necessarily be with your kids every minute of the day, so you’ve got to find a balance between worry and trust. When they’re with babysitters, caregivers or teachers, some degree of worry is inevitable—and when you can carefully screen those in “the village” who have a share in raising your children, it’ll be easier to let yourself trust them. As your kids reach their teens and young adulthood, when they are in control of much of their own lives, your trust shifts to them, their good judgment, and capable decision-making. You’ll have given them the tools and taught them the way, and it’ll be their turn. But, believe me, you’ll still worry.
Unfortunately, in situations like the Chelsea bombing, the outcome is often out of our hands. No amount of worry or good judgement and capable decision-making can protect our kids from everything. We can only hope that we find a way to create a safer world for our children so we can all sleep a little better.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is a Parents advisor and the author of books for parents and families, including No Regrets Parenting, 940 Saturdays, and Miracles We Have Seen - America's Leading Physicians Share Stories They Can't Forget. Visit his website and blog at harleyrotbart.com and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.