Sitting in my arms with the weighty feeling of a toddler, the koala seemed to sense that this was a momentous occasion for me. I could tell by the creature’s attentiveness. I did not expect its small hands to grip my shoulders, holding tight as if to claim me. I did not expect the purring sound that emanated from this creature that I had traveled halfway around the world to meet. Little in my life had exceeded my expectations at that point as I had yet to become a mother, but finding a connection with a creature I had only seen in books changed the way I allowed myself to dream.
Sixteen years have passed since I held that koala (today you can’t legally do so in some Australian states), and I couldn’t have imagined that I would be a mother of young children trying to contextualize a northern winter marked by the news of koalas burning alive. I could not have predicted social media’s presence in our lives, and the way we would be bombarded with images of these animals dying in Australia’s bushfires. A fire season so catastrophic that even the skies had turned to the color of blood.
My children are growing up in a time where our world is on fire, both literally and figuratively, and yet from our soft perch of privilege in New England suburbia, we are totally fine. My kids seem to only know an existence that is etched in black and white. They bless all those affected by the fires in their bedtime prayers, and then fall gently into dreamland with their clean cheeks resting on cool, crisp sheets. In this world of extremes — extreme rhetoric, extreme temperatures, extreme denial — I am raising children who have never known a time where their brains did not compartmentalize the stories of tragedy and death and destruction, and the disavowal of those stories by others.
Koalas and kangaroos are not the stuff of dreams and books for my children, as they were for me. They are part of the gratuitous, heartbreaking imagery that splashes across the many screens my children encounter.
Here we sit far from the fires, fortunate in the place we call home, yet I can’t help feeling that even if the stories behind the horrific pictures move us, those images leave us all a little more fractured and broken each day. In a world where we are all more connected through technology, we allow our minds and hearts to splinter to keep us mentally and emotionally safe and to help us put one foot in front of the other regardless of the distance of tragedy.
I fear that although my children, and yours, may be living far from the danger of the tragedies in the news, and even though they appear to be just fine, they are actually growing up broken on the inside in ways we won’t understand until much later. When a scorched world and burning defenseless animals set the stage of normalcy for childhood, we are in new parental territory.
Are the koalas still burning, Mommy?
Yes, there have always been tragic headlines. Generations of children have grown up alongside war. But things are different now. Sadness and anger and lies and unfair deaths seemingly surround us when information is only a click away.
My son can barely keep track of who to bless during bedtime prayers. I can almost see the violent and heart-wrenching images flipping through his brain as if he is mentally clicking through with a mouse, his brows furrowed.
“Are the koalas still burning, Mommy?”
“Is Venice still underwater?”
“Wait, are there still wildfires spreading in California?”
Out of the mouth of babes.
Yes, we can slow down, unplug, disconnect. Yet instead of this being the norm where we once had to teach kids how to have big dreams and how to reach for that brass ring, their social-emotional survival now depends upon learning the exact opposite.
“This is how you breathe deeply.”
“This is how you take time to rest.”
“This is how you set limits with technology.”
“This is how you play outside.”
We post our thoughts and prayers on social media with a link to the latest image of koalas wearing bandages on their hands and feet and then calmly order our venti vanilla latte.
As we receive emails from school reminding us that our children need to play and to go outside despite their hectic schedules, and as we all try to relearn how to instruct our kids to absorb the most basic aspects of being human, their brains begin to rewire. They create walls to keep the extremes out. They create the protective sheaths that we all wear these days. The sheaths that keep our emotions undercover. The sheaths that cover the true essence of what makes us human. And the truth is, I don’t know if I want my children to feel the full force of tragedy. What parent wants to watch her children’s hearts shatter in response to the burning of our world and the helpless creatures within it?
The somedays of our fears has become today. The science-fiction movies we watched as kids imagined a bright, shiny technological future, but I worry that we became the robots ourselves, and are raising children who are becoming the same.
We are fine, we tell ourselves. We post our thoughts and prayers on social media with a link to the latest image of koalas wearing bandages on their hands and feet and then calmly order our venti vanilla latte from the front seat of our oversized SUVs. We fill our children’s schedules with play dates and sports practice and more than we can keep up with ourselves, so that we can keep living the good life. So that we can finish an essay like this, and hit “close.”