Raccoon? Possum? Something was rustling around between our house and the neighbors’, and, as they teach us in dad school, I stood in the doorway issuing ineffectual invectives. This was in the early days of the pandemic, when an errant mammal could still arouse concern. My youngest child wandered over, though he seemed more interested in me than the wildlife situation.
“Don’t you care that you don’t have clothes on?” the boy finally asked.
I think back to this moment because I assume we all had some version of it. As the pandemic began to settle over our worlds, inconsequential “before times” concerns suddenly vaporized — the need for clothing, for instance. (Neighbors: Feast your eyes!) Only later would I realize a bigger change was underway.
The unfathomable sphere of Deep Parental Worry has tilted on its axis.
I’m not talking about all the immediate worries parents had to swap out for new ones. Yes, concerns about screen time and over-scheduling went out the window, replaced by transmission rates, distance-learning challenges and finding the stupid Zoom password. But those aren’t the concerns I mean.
What I’m talking about bubbles up late at night, after the kids are down and the bleary Netflix binge is complete. Beneath the mantle of acute apprehension burns a molten core of profound, long-term worry. To look in on that core now is to behold an all-new set of questions: What kind of society emerges from this mess, a decade or three from now? What’s all of this doing to my kid? Am I handling things even close to right? When the questions at this level change, it’s because the operating system itself is changing.
I started asking other parents about changes to their operating systems. My friend Cary Weigle told me he used to fear he wasn’t enough of a tiger dad with his young children. Then the world turned inside out, and suddenly what mattered was basic well-being. “I just feel like growing up in all of this is going to be incredibly unmooring for them.”
Tina Barseghian, mother of a high schooler, told me: “I used to worry about my kid growing up in this culture of constant distraction. Now that feels quaint. I worry now about there being no culture at all, no shared reality anymore.”
Several parents asked that I not use their names, lest their children discover the anxieties they endeavor to keep under wraps; among 2020’s countless indignities has been the demand for a brave face. One mother said her worries weren’t about her children so much as herself, and her hopes for once again believing that good things were around the corner. She needs that belief to be a good parent, she told me. She needs it to sell the future to her children.
I sort of stumbled into the universe of How Kids Are Doing and How We Feel About It back in March. In those first weeks of shelter-in-place in San Francisco, I began publishing a free, pandemic-related newspaper by and for children and teenagers. I was a journalist with a bunch of assignments on ice, and giving young people an outlet at a bewildering, frightening time seemed worthwhile. “Our editorial policy is YES,” I announced — good lord, why not? — and quickly “Six Feet of Separation” became a rollicking portal into convulsed young psyches around the country and beyond.
It also gave me an occasional window into what their parents were going through. As a rule I tolerate minimal adult involvement in the paper, but in corresponding with moms and dads, I catch glimpses. They are proud of their 14-year-old reporter, their 5-year-old essayist — and quietly freaked about where those kids, and the world itself, are heading. That palpably traumatized grandparent who came of age during the war, during the Depression, during polio: What version of that are we incubating now? For every delightfully resilient book review or interview or banana bread recipe I publish, I’ve come to picture the adverse: a mother or father hovering just out of frame, waiting edgily to see how everything turns out.
To parents with a penchant for it, worry is a love language, so primal as to feel eternal. It’s not. By and large, fretting over our offspring’s happiness is a modern hobby, the invention of a society that now regards children as more than just small factory workers. As their prospects gradually improved, our concern evolved. Over the last century, parents came to agonize over their children’s character, morality, spirit, work ethic, sexuality, insolence, social marginalization, violent impulses and more. Parental anxiety isn’t just a sporadic twitch — it became a full-on strain of American culture, from Tipper Gore’s record-warning labels to worrying about insufficient masculinity or femininity in our boys and girls. Our hand-wringing reflects modern life, and it shapes it.
Now that modern life is a nonsensical, crumbling hellscape, it’s hard not to look back with a major eye roll. Remember when Teen Talk Barbie said “Math is hard!” and everyone lost their minds over what it would do to the children? OK, the Barbie thing is actually bugging me all over again. But my larger point stands: We are fretting on a whole new frequency now. A national habituation to mass death? Arguments about whether science is real? Sprawling fires burning one side of the country? What is all of that doing to the children?
Meanwhile, our worries won’t hold still. As other calamities reared up alongside the pandemic — police violence, wildfires, fraying democracy — fears befitting those took shape, too. One mother told me that the past two months in California have her worrying about her kids’ climatological well-being on an entirely new level. It was a little abstract before, she said. It’s not abstract anymore.
Then there’s the demented new pace with which huge crises now vanish from the headlines, nudged aside by the next crazy story. What will it do to kids’ sense of proportion, to their internal metabolisms when hugely significant events no longer make a dent in reality?
A father told me he doesn’t have new worries so much as a new catastrophic backdrop for his old ones. Suddenly his daughter’s interest in dumb romance novels feels not just like a subpar literary habit, but at odds with the global state of affairs.
Worry is devotion curdled into fear. It is also misplaced half the time. Who knows, maybe we’ll look back and observe gratefully that we jettisoned some of our dumber baggage during this phase — say, preoccupations over our kids’ professional achievements or social skills. Maybe that’s how progress happens sometimes: You trade old worries for new ones, and one day you can’t even remember why Sally’s skirt had to go past her knees.
I recently came across a poll from 2018 — sponsored by, of all places, the Lice Clinics of America — reporting that the average parent spent up to five hours a day worrying about their kids. What were we so worked up about? Participation trophies? What college they would go to? Sagging pants? These concerns feel faded to the point of being dreamlike.
I suppose this is why we worry in the first place — we know so little. The world unspools a little each day, and we strain to see over the horizon, but it never works. We’re just left to wonder.
Chris Colin is the editor of “Six Feet of Separation,” and co-author of “What to Talk About.” His picture book, “Off: The Day the Internet Died,” comes out in March.