On my strangest mother’s day ever, I found myself ruminating on high school massacres and fetal microchimeras.
This past mother’s day, while most other moms were out eating Eggs Benedict and French toast, I was on an airplane, flying back from a book event in San Francisco. For reasons unknown, I happened upon an article in an old Oprah magazine written by Dylan Klebold’s mother. It was an exclusive interview, marking the first time she had spoken out publicly about the horrors of living through the Columbine massacre as the mother of the gunman. In 1999, her son was one of two boys who killed 12 high school students and one teacher, injuring dozens more, in an all-out rampage.
It was a supremely bizarre story to read on mother’s day, but ultimately moving. I can’t imagine the rollercoaster of emotion Dylan’s mother must have experienced–pain, shame, humiliation, sadness, guilt, remorse. It must have been devastating. As mothers, we think we know our kids. We think, I’d know. I’d know if my child was melancholy or suicidal. I’d see it coming.
That night, after a lovely mother’s day dinner of homemade spaetzle, I put the kids to bed as usual. Before long, my six-year-old daughter came downstairs, looking teary. “My foot hurts,” she said. I got her an icepack, as I have the last few times she’s complained of a sore foot at bedtime. I noticed it was a different foot this time, so I suspected that it wasn’t the foot that was bothering her. But what was it?
Maybe she had just missed me; I’d been gone for three days. Maybe she was just tired. Maybe she was still emotional from the fresh row of stitches over her eye. Earlier in the week, she’d tripped and fallen onto a metal pole during a playdate. But then, maybe it was something else altogether. She wouldn’t say. For the first time in years, I stayed snuggled up in bed with her, twirling her hair between my fingers, until she fell asleep. With her cheeks as velvety as peaches and her lips soft in the relaxed pucker of sleep, she seemed to embody total innocence and goodness. But was something darker lurking beneath the surface?
I realized that as parents, we can never know exactly what’s going on in our children’s minds. As they grow up and become their own people, it’s impossible to know them completely. I’m grappling with this, especially as a mom. That same mother’s day, I read an article about maternal-fetal microchimerism. Researchers have discovered that mothers carry intact cells from their children inside their bodies, long after pregnancy. So, beyond having carried these little people inside our bodies for nine months, we continue to literally carry tiny bits of them with us—possibly forever. How could we not know them?
Yesterday at the school pickup, two different moms came up to me saying they had seen my 5th grader and he looked upset. When I caught up with him, he insisted he was fine. I checked in with him at home, later that night, and in the morning. He wouldn’t tell me if anything had happened. Then he said, to my dismay, “And if something happened, I probably wouldn’t tell you anyway.” Damn these fruits of my womb! I desperately want a window to peek into their souls, but increasingly, they are drawing the blinds.
All we can do, and I’ve resigned myself to this, is to try our best to keep the lines of communication open. To listen, to be there for them, and to reach out whenever we can. We’ll keep passing the conch shell at dinner, so every member of the family has a chance to tell the best and worst part of their day. As my kids move into middle school and beyond, I know that at times our interactions will be a one-way street, but at least it won’t be me putting up the road blocks. Until then and as long as they still let us, we’ll curl up next to them at bedtime, and watch them fall asleep.