What I wish I didn’t know

When I hear about terrible things happening to children on the media I wonder how those parents feel when they hear the news their child is missing, presumed dead.

One in particular stands out in my mind for some reason. The story was from a couple of years ago and involved a recent immigrant family whose adopted child went exploring a new neighbourhood and ended up drowning in a creek.

I could relate to these poor people, even though they were pilloried in the media. Perhaps they came from a country where letting your child explore the environment in this way was common and they never expected him to come to harm? I’m not sure, but the mother’s distraught face stayed with me for days.

I react with visceral horror when I hear these stories – I feel it in my gut, which is no doubt why the media love to linger on the details. Every time a story does the rounds I wonder how much more intense the feeling in the gut is when it is actually happening to you.

Unfortunately now I know.

My son Brendan has just turned 9. I’m aware of Julie’s arguments that not letting your children experience risk is also risky as it reduces their opportunity to learn. In line with this realization, my husband Luke and I have started to let Brendan take small steps towards independence – letting him go down the shops for instance, or play in the front yard unattended.

Of course a key plank of this independence strategy is to let him ride his bike to school on his own. Actually this has been quite convenient to us as busy, working parents. Seeing him off from the door had become almost routine when we had an ‘incident’.

For one reason or another Luke and I had not communicated about a change in venue for Brendan’s after school care due to some building works at the school. Luke turned up and couldn’t find the class, more importantly he didn’t see Brendan’s bike on the rack.

Luke jumped to the obvious conclusion – that my sister had picked Brendan up and I had forgot to tell him. He rang me up, slightly exasperated, asked where Brendan was and mentioned that he couldn’t see his bike on the rack.

Now what I should have done was take a moment to think about it. If I had done so I would have realised Luke had not known about the change. But instead all I did was feel – and what I felt was instant and almost overwhelming panic. My first (semi)rational thought was “The last time I saw him was this morning – he’s been missing for 8 hours now. The stats about that are bad”.

Luke and I had a brief exchange, where I basically said I didn’t know where he was, but was so freaked out I’m sure I didn’t make much sense. Luke hung up the phone immediately and went to look.

The physical reaction I had while I waited for the call back was intense. I could feel the blood draining from my extremities and heading towards my heart, which made my hands and feet feel abnormally cold. The room literally span around me – to the point where I had to put my head on the desk. A colleague who was sitting next to me thought I was going to faint and started asking what was wrong – her voice sounded like it was at the bottom of a well.

5 minutes later Luke rang back to say he had located both Brendan and his bike – but the sick feeling remained. It’s been about 2 months since this incident and I feel like I have lost my nerve on the independence strategy. Every time I have an opportunity to offer Brendan some time ‘off the leash’ I hesitate. It takes an effort of will to remind myself he was in fact totally ok and it was the parents who were confused and lost.

Perhaps if I had not been primed by the relentless media stories about lost and broken children I would have been more rational? I’m not sure. All I know is – I really wish I didn’t know how it feels.

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About Thesis Whisperer

Dr Inger Mewburn is the director of research training at the Australian National University. She writes for and edits the Thesis Whisperer blog and coordinates research skills programs for research students. The rest of the time she listens to research students who want to tell her their problems and writes on the subject of research education.
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2 Responses to What I wish I didn’t know

  1. Ian Woodcock says:

    Inger, I know that feeling only too well. I have felt it on many occasions, and I think it’s perfectly natural and normal to feel concerned about the well-being of one’s children. The thing that matters is to recognise the difference between the concern one has, and it’s ability to paralyse one’s ability to raise independent, resilient children if one acts on it unthinkingly. And I think one of the reasons the feelings can be so intense is that they usually occur when one is in the kind of situation you were in – too far away to do anything to investigate what might have happened, or to do anything towards finding out other than to wait at the end of a phone. How did Luke feel? He was the one in the position to find out where Brendan was, and he did so. I suspect while he may have been worried, the intensity of the worry was not paralysing.

  2. roryrory says:

    I decided to walk from school to Brownies when I was seven – to this day mum says she remembers how awful it was when I was “missing”.

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