Friday, February 27, 2009


The first time it happened -- at least, the first time I remember it happening -- I was walking from Target back to the car with Ben in my arms. He was heavy enough (this kid got big fast, so he was probably still a newborn) that I could feel the strain in my arms, and a horrible thought arrived unbidden: what would it be like to have to to carry this baby on some kind of forced march? I didn't necessarily have a specific forced march in mind; the image was just vaguely war-torn and desperate, a bit sepia-toned and European, as opposed to vivid and African, for instance.

Then it started happening more often. Practically every time I was out in public with Ben and had to lug him for some uncomfortable distance rather than bang him in the stroller, I'd have the flash of fear and desperation, feeling suddenly, unaccountably, like a refugee. I made a conscious effort not to dwell on these images. They would arrive, I'd do my best to have the feeling and allow myself a moment to reflect: on the weirdness of this recurrent fantasy, on the depth of my new appreciation for what it must be like to suffer big hardships with a baby -- and then let it go.

I also tried, though I wasn't consciously aware of it, I don't think, to steer these fantasies away from their obvious destination. The recurrent thoughts of being a refugee were bad enough; I did not want to start thinking about the Holocaust. But eventually it happened. And what's worse is that we managed to move on, in these awful thoughts, from the forced march to the horrors that succeeded it, which are frankly too upsetting even to name.

I don't know what's bringing this on. I'm not obsessed; I don't have these thoughts even every day. But I do have them, and they are brutal, and I wish I knew why. The silly side of my psyche suggests a scarring former life, but my rational mind doesn't accept that, and my heart doesn't find it a satisfying enough explanation. I have to assume it will eventually stop. In the meantime, I do my best both to keep from dwelling on these thoughts and to honor the memories they represent by not banishing them as entirely foolish, either.


Phantom Scribbler said...

I've never taken a poll, but I suspect such things are not uncommon, particularly if you feel like you have some personal connection to historical tragedies (like Jewish ancestors who just barely made it out, or didn't).

LG was two months old when 9/11 happened. For months and months afterwards, I imagined having to do some sort of ragged refugee march away from unthinkable horrors, with him on my back or in my arms.

When that plane went down in the Hudson, I asked some friends with almost-grown children if, eventually, your first response to such stories stops being to imagine how you would manage it with your hysterical terrified children in your arms. I was relieved when they answered, "Yes."

Carrie Frederick Frost said...

One of the challenging aspects of my triplet pregnancy was knowing that I could not be a successful refugee with my two older children. I could barely move, much less carry or herd them along. This really bothered me.(It continues to bother me now, but I suppose I don't have as much time to contemplate it.)

I think these feelings stem from a deep awareness of the vulnerability of mother and child, and the incredible responsibility that is the care of a tiny, dependent person. I also think that suffering, both real and imagined, becomes a whole other ballgame with motherhood. There is no suffering that my children experience, no matter how trivial or how awful, that I would not take upon myself if I could. Doesn't this lead us to contemplate refugee treks to safety and the like?

Shopkeeper said...

We've seen refugees in movies and, God help us all, on television. Vivid pictures of mothers carrying and coaxing their children across hostile terrain. How can those of us who have (or had) young children NOT internalize the image, NOT conjure up a sense of that horror, and NOT empathize with those tortured women? And maybe something of what we feel is survivor guilt.