I always thought it was an exaggeration – the way people talked about the way your life changes when you have a child. One second, you’re fine; next second, an emotional mess.
I remember the first time it happened while on parental leave. In that first month, everyone is tired, but the kid sleeps so much that you actually find yourself with a decent amount of free time – provided you occasionally get bored of staring at your child while they sleep.
I took those spare moments to pull up classic films I’d never seen – among them ‘Paris, Texas’ from Wim Wenders. I won’t bore you with a synopsis, but at one point a long-absent father tries to meet his estranged son after school.
And it crushed me. It wasn’t the most heart-rending sequence, but it reached deep in my throat, past my tonsils and deposited a solid lump that swelled into a quivering lip, that quickly rolled into a small ball of water from the corner of my eye.
This isn’t the exact sequence above – it’s after he’s on his way back to good graces with his son – but something had changed in me. Previously I would appreciate a solid, well-made scene; now it was a killer. Something that I would admire for its framing, the way Wenders shapes his characters, the cuts back and forth, now only served one purpose.
Any depiction of a child in jeopardy – or in what we perceive to be a bad position – now triggers a reaction unlike anything I could have anticipated. I sat there stunned.
And it continues. While posting yet another picture of our daughter engaged in child-like antics on the old Instagram, I happened upon this one from photographer Chris Verene.
There’s something about the way the kids are both fairly content in their situation. How Mom is doing her best with the doors open to get fresh air in. The clutter on the floor and the dangling feet. They look well fed. But it was devastating.
Every single child in jeopardy now has my child’s face. And my child is me (and my lovely wife); it’s as if my heart has descended and is stumbling around the house knocking her head. Tripping and skinning her knee.
Mind you, this is a good thing. This is what helps you develop bonds, this is what moves mountains. This is why people always say, ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children!’
It’s funny and it’s true. I am become Helen Lovejoy.
But there are occasions when it’s too much to bear. On the night of the execution of Philando Castile by police in Minneapolis, I happened upon the video as it was happening – along with many others. I saw the muzzle of the gun hovering near the window. And then the footage switched to the four-year old daughter of Castile’s girlfriend being restrained by a police officer.
I had to turn it off, my heart couldn’t bear the weight of watching this happen. The idea that a broken tail light could result in my daughter having to watch me murdered in broad daylight. The panicked shouts of the police officer. Our country’s blind dedication to the idea that more guns make us safer, which makes every routine traffic stop a potential matter of life or death for our police officers.
In recent weeks there has been just too much happening in daily life.
The killings of unarmed or legally-armed citizens. The pain of families. The images that arrive on Twitter, Facebook. Life changing in real time. These images of children in danger. Just so much bad news all around.
As a parent, we are obliged to feel things so strongly that it is difficult for others to understand or fathom. But it was at this point that I had to turn my back on the news, I had to stop looking before I became unable to act or process it.
Until I met this 5-year-old boy last week.
I felt the pull to look away. Throughout the run of this war in Syria, we’ve been treated to images of children washed up on Mediterranean shores, being pulled from rubble, huddled together with their families. But the way Omran Daqneesh peers at the camera. I’ve seen this same expression on my daughter’s face after a long day out. I’ve seen her skinned knees. The way her hands sit in her lap, her chubby feet slightly pigeon-toed. A mop of curly hair – no matter how much I look at this image, I cannot see anything but her.
And I’m ashamed and shocked and horrified that we haven’t been able to protect her from all of the idiots running around this globe at the moment.
I kept coming back to this image. Omran’s tribulations have been well-documented by far better writers who have described the dusty, bloodied, stunned [boy], sitting on a bright orange chair (Human Rights Watch). His little feet barely extend[ing] beyond his seat. He stares, bewildered, shocked and, above all, weary, as if channeling the mood of Syria (New York Times).
I tried to look away, but this is the action of a coward. It’s akin to when you encounter a panhandler and make that conscious decision to keep walking and not look at them. It’s one thing to choose to not help someone one, it’s another thing to deny them human dignity.
It’s the same in this case.
You can look away all you want. You can get angry and sit in your office and wring your hands. You can try to ignore it. You can click on another article about windbag politicians. And you can pretend this isn’t happening. Just turn inward. Build a wall, keep it out. Close your borders and pretend it doesn’t exist.
Or you could look him in the eye and at least do something like making a donation to Doctors Without Borders (whose hospitals have been repeatedly bombed in Syria).