Last summer, I went shopping at the Clackamas Meier & Frank (detail for you Portland readers! Both of you!) with my mother. She’s getting frail, and it’s hard for her to walk long distances, so we borrowed a wheelchair from the mall and I wheeled her round. At one point, we were waiting for an elevator when a mum with a kid and a baby in a stroller came along. The little girl, who was about 6, saw a water fountain and started to take a drink. Her mother freaked out. “Stop! That water’s dirty! Don’t touch it!!” she shrieked at her startled child. “But I’m thirsty,” whined the girl. “We have bottled water in the car. We’ll go there now.” The mother shooed the girl and the stroller into the elevator and they were off.

I stared after them in horror. Dirty? A drinking fountain in an American mall? Does that mother have no idea of what safe drinking water actually means? I felt sorry for that child, growing up in a safe environment yet being raised to fear the world around her.

I do realize I’m being judgmental. Maybe the child has some drastic hidden illness; maybe the mother was traumatized at a drinking fountain by a bully and has to confront her hidden fears every time she goes to the mall. Or did that sound sarcastic? The point is, I don’t know this woman’s story. But she typifies what seems in many ways to be modern America’s take on the modern world—it’s beyond our control and that scares us; we will deal with this by pretending we can control every tiny bit of life, and woe betide anyone who messes with our illusion!

Shannon posted a link to an article that deals with this. Raising children in fear. It’s something all mothers struggle with. How do we keep our children safe without communicating to them a debilitating caution with an activity as basic as drinking water, especially when that caution is overblown?

Elliot was born in July, 1995. The day I brought him home from hospital, I opened up the paper from his birthday to see what the headlines for this auspicious date were. And I read about the fall of Srebrenica, and how Muslim “men,” 13 and up, were rounded up and shot through the back of the head, until they all fell into a mass grave. This is how this world treats men, and I had brought a man-child into this world. I was terrified. I didn’t see how I could bear the burden of motherhood, the burden of desiring nothing more than the life, health and happiness of my children, fighting against all the uncaring billions who didn’t see how precious he was.

I worried a lot when my kids were little. I would pray against car accidents, cancer, weird bug bites, terrorism, predators, disease in general, earthquakes–OH and that they would grow up to be friends with each other and still like me and do well in school and get advanced degrees and spouses that I like and and and. I had the sort of attitude that if I could just think and plan for every possible contingency, somehow that would protect me against it, in some sort of weird superstitious way. I finally realized I couldn’t possibly think of everything. I might miss the spider bite, or the e-coli in the spinach, or the freak accident where a bookshelf collapsed or the head flew off a hammer or something else that I’d never even thought of!

And so, I realized that to stay sane, I had to not worry quite so much. I had to learn to take calculated risks; which is to say, not to engage in foolhardy behaviour (like driving the roads of Mauritania without a seat belt…shut up Donn! I do too wear it sometimes!) but not to be so afraid that you can’t (literally) share a bowl of zrig with a friend. It’s not so much that we ignore the dangers, just that we accept them as part of life as it’s been known on earth since the Garden of Eden. It’s not fatalism, it’s not superstition—it’s living life.

Our times are unique. We are safer than ever—much less likely to die in childbirth, to lose children to smallpox or TB or even the flu—yet we are much more aware when something does happen. We hear of bird flu in China and we are afraid, because the distance from there to here has shrunk to a matter of hours and minutes instead of weeks and months. Events such as Sept. 11 have shown us anew what was always true—we can’t control our world. We can’t keep planes in the air, or airborne diseases at bay; ships from sinking or potato famines from happening. We don’t have magic cloaks to shield our loved ones. And part of helping our children grow up (which is actually our job) is letting them learn it—teaching them to see the world as it is, and live in it not hide from it.