We Are Parenting the Post 9-11 Generation

Sometimes, it feels like I can’t remember life before 9-11.

It’s the same feeling I got after I had my son, Ben. Within a week, it was almost like I couldn’t remember what life was like before I had him. Neither of those two things is true, of course. I can vaguely remember being able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted -- take naps, go out to eat in peace, spend two hours making dinner for my husband and myself. Likewise, I can vaguely remember a time before 9-11, a time when war was something I read about in history books or heard about on news reports from other countries. Terrorist attacks were a foreign notion, and war was unfathomable. It’s hard to remember what it was like to be so peaceful and innocent. It’s hard to remember what it was like to be so naïve.

I was in my senior year of high school that day, and like the rest of the country, experienced the flood of emotions: fear, anger, grief, shock. At school, we watched as the second plane flew into the second tower. We watched as people chose to jump to their deaths in order to escape the fiery hell burning inside the buildings. We listened to the tearful phone calls from on board the hijacked planes and wept at the loss of the heroes aboard Flight 93. We mourned the loss of the men and women who gave their lives to try to save others, the ones who ran in while everyone else was running out. The weeks following 9-11 were a blur of mourning and tears, of fear and confusion. At the time, I couldn’t understand how this happened, why it happened.

I understand now, of course. What I didn’t know, what I was never told, was that they had been trying to kill us for decades, that this was in no way the first time terrorists had attacked us. That peaceful, innocent naiveté was shattered to pieces that day.

It’s a completely different world now, and my son was born into it. He’ll never know what the before was like, he won’t know what it was like to think of war as an idea and not a reality. With a father in the Marine Corps, he’ll be more affected by it than most. Benjamin will never know what that day was like. He’ll read about it, he’ll hear about it. He’ll probably see video clips about it. But he’ll never be able to fully understand the horror of 9-11. He’ll never feel the fear, the anguish, and the grief that we all felt. None of the children born after 9-11 will. It’s a bittersweet feeling for me.

On the one hand, I don’t want him to ever, ever have to experience something like 9-11. It’s a large part of why my husband still fights, and why I support him, and urge him to keep going when he feels like he has to quit. Neither of us wants him to go through that. We don’t want him to have to go to war because our generation didn’t have the stomach or the backbone to finish it. We want to make the sacrifice now so that Ben won’t have to. We want to finish this fight now so that he won’t be made to fight it as well. No mother wants their child to ever have to experience a day like 9-11. It’s only natural.

Yet at the same time I can already feel the nation forgetting. For him, September 11th will be a day he reads about in history books. It will be an event as foreign to him as Pearl Harbor was for us. He’ll know about it, he’ll read about it. But will it lose its meaning to our future generations? Thinking of that makes my heart break a little.

When my husband and I visited Pearl Harbor, and went to the USS Arizona memorial, it was evident that December 6th was no longer a day that would forever live in infamy. It was no longer a hallowed monument to the men and women who gave their lives that day. While we read in silent reverence the stories of the heroes who gave their lives fighting, or died to let others live, other people there passed by them without a second glance. We cried as we looked at the names of those who died on the USS Arizona, and the names of the survivors who chose to be forever entombed with their shipmates. Other people joked and laughed about it. Will it be the same for my son? For America’s future generations of children? Will 9-11 be a day of solemnity and respect for them, or will it just be another day, like Memorial Day? When he visits the 9-11 Memorial, will he stare in reverence at the names of the heroes who perished, or will he laugh and joke about it, too?

I don’t want him to have to go through the horror of 9-11, but I don’t want it to become a forgotten, overlooked date in our nation’s history, either. He can’t understand why his father became a Marine if he doesn’t understand 9-11. He can’t understand why Daddy has to be gone all the time if he doesn’t know what he’s off fighting for. And if, God forbid, the worst should happen, he won’t know what his dad gave his life for. I can tell him about it when he’s old enough, I can show him pictures and videos. I can instill a certain amount of respect and reverence. But will it be enough to keep it from becoming our Pearl Harbor?

I don’t want my son to live in fear. But I do want him to remember 9-11, and to honor the lives lost that day. I want him to honor and appreciate the sacrifice his father is making, and to understand why.

More than anything, I’d love to keep him safe from all of this, to keep his little mind as innocent and naïve as mine was all those years ago. But that wouldn’t be real, and it wouldn’t be right. The truth is, it may have been ten years ago. But the world was changed forever on that sunny September day. I’m a parent in a post 9-11 world, and nothing I say or do can change that.