Care and Feeding

My Kid Is Terrified of Being Caught in a Mass Shooting

We have the option to move abroad. Is it time?

A silhouette of a figure in a trenchcoat.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I was at the park the other day with my sixth grader (he’s a boy and I’m his mom for what it’s worth) when a very disheveled, most likely homeless man followed us around very briefly asking if we’d seen his “stuff,” which turned out to be under a nearby bench. We live in a large city, and I feel pretty confident in my ability to recognize true danger, and didn’t feel like we were threatened. Although my hackles did go up, there were other people around. Plus, our city is struggling with a large homeless population, and I don’t want to make someone feel like they have to move along just because I am at a park when they don’t have anywhere to go. Anyway, my son seemed rattled, so I thought it would be a good time to talk about feeling “red flags” and how if you’re not comfortable around a person you should listen to that voice and either leave or find a trusted adult. Turns out that what my son was worried about was the fact that the man was wearing a trenchcoat and that he’s always afraid that people in baggy clothes/trenchcoats are going to have a gun, and he’s going to be part of a mass shooting.

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We talked further, and he told me he’s so terrified of guns and shootings but hasn’t wanted to say anything. I’m not sure where to go from here because that’s a big fear, and I don’t want to just pay lip service and tell him he’ll be OK, that’s not going to happen. Because it does happen! And he’s old enough to know that. I don’t want to tell him, “Here’s what you do if you’re ever in that situation,” because that will stress him out more, although I do think he does need to know what to do if he’s ever in that situation. They have active shooter drills in his school, so he knows it’s a thing he needs to prepare for. He’s been suffering from stomachaches, and I think I’m putting it together that it’s due mostly to anxiety about this (and other things) and I feel totally powerless.

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I hate that this is America. We have the option to move to his dad’s native country, which doesn’t have the gun culture, but that is such a huge, life-changing decision that would involve 100 percent upheaval of our lives. While both kids have always said they never want to move, my son now says he wants to for this reason. I feel like I don’t know what to do and am struggling myself with a lot of anger that this is something that kids have to struggle with these days. I know I need to get him into therapy, but I know we will really struggle to afford it. Any suggestions?

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—Is It Time to Leave?

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Dear IITtL,

Your son’s fears, and your own, are justified and legitimate. There will probably be another mass shooting somewhere in America on the day that this column is published. But while I understand your impulse to reach for big-picture solutions that will make you and your family definitively safer, I want to encourage you to focus first on the immediate smaller steps that you can take to get your son help in dealing with his physical and emotional anxiety symptoms.

Your son isn’t better prepared for an emergency because he’s worried and queasy all the time. His fear that all people in baggy clothes or trenchcoats might be carrying a gun isn’t making him safer; it’s grounded in real concerns, but it’s not rational. Therapy can be expensive—another systemic flaw in this terribly flawed country—but your pediatrician or school can recommend counseling services that aren’t cost-prohibitive.

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With professional and community help, you and your son can start to focus on techniques and strategies for feeling better and safer in our highly imperfect world.  Ultimately, whether you move to another country or stay put, feeling less anxious and more grounded is important no matter where you live. And conversely, unless these symptoms are addressed, your son won’t feel safe anywhere.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

A very good friend of mine had her first baby about four months ago (without getting into unnecessary details, the father is largely unavailable). We live on opposite sides of the country, so unfortunately it seems like it’ll be a while before I’ll be able to meet the little guy, given the pandemic. Instead, I sent her a card along with the baby gift I sent, congratulating her and telling her I’d love to video chat to “meet” the baby just as soon as she’s ready, but no rush! I don’t have kids myself, but I’m aware that the first several months of parenthood are overwhelming, especially with pressure from family and friends all wanting to see the baby, so I’ve assured her several times that she should wait until she’s ready, whenever that may be, and I will happily wait to “see” her and the kid then.

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Since then, she’s reached out to me about five to six times to schedule a video chat (we don’t set a specific time, in case there is a sudden baby emergency, but rather set a weeknight evening or a two-to-three-hour window on weekends in which I promise to be available). Each time, she has flaked and I hear from her maybe 12 to 24 hours later asking to reschedule. Each time, I tell her I understand that it must be a lot and that maybe it would be better to wait until she and her kid are more settled before we try to video chat. Each time, she insists that no, they are in a good rhythm now and that next time she’ll make the call. The next time, it’s the same story.

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The last time, when she texted me to reschedule, I told her diplomatically that work was going to be very busy for the near future, but that maybe we could try again in a few months. She saw through this and got very upset at me and accused me of not caring enough to meet her baby and not understanding how difficult it is to take care of a newborn (the second part of that is absolutely true, but the first part is unfair). I know she is tired and overwhelmed. We do still text frequently, but I can tell she is still upset with me, based on her curtness. But I really don’t know what else I can do to be understanding of the demands on her while also protecting my own time. Even though my social life has been curtailed due to the pandemic, I still have a demanding job, a boyfriend, a dog, and hobbies of my own—I’m not willing to block off entire weekends on the off chance that she might be able to call. And I’m happy to wait! She’s the one who doesn’t want to wait! What can I do or say to her?

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—Tired of Being Flaked On

Dear Tired,

Your friend is going through it. I know it’s annoying to be flaked on, and it’s also annoying to be asked to reschedule over and over again by someone who keeps flaking on you. And yes, you’re right that your friend was being unfair when she got upset with you. But if you value this friendship, and it sounds like you do, you’ll have to put aside your hurt feelings and find a way to keep being there for her that is realistic and achievable for both of you.

Maybe instead of making a video chat this big fraught thing, you could offer to simply be there with her via telephone while she does whatever she’s doing, with no pressure to converse or entertain. She might feel like she needs to make herself or the baby or her surroundings picture-perfect and presentable in order to video chat with you. Or she might just be in a really weird, bad, sleep-deprived place where minor tasks seem unachievable. Make sure she knows you aren’t going to judge her and just want to keep her company and maybe hear more about what she’s going through if she feels up to talking about it. You can tell her you’re going to be doing some chores of your own at a certain time and see if she wants to spend that time “together.” As long as you are crystal clear about making sure she knows that your expectations for her as a conversationalist are low, she’s more likely to pick up the phone when you call. And I think you should just randomly call her, rather than scheduling a date. If she’s not feeling up to it, she can just not answer. Revolutionary, yes, and definitely unconventional, but it often works.

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If this approach fails, just do what you can to keep the text lines open. Send her memes and funny TikToks. Make sure she knows you are her friend and that she matters to you. In another couple of months, with luck, she’ll be out of the eye of the newborn maelstrom. If she’s not, then something’s wrong and you and your other mutual friends might need to step in and see what you can do to help her.

• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My best friend and I have a long-standing agreement that I would be the donor when she and her partner were ready to have kids (they are two women). I explained this when I first got together with my now ex. She was extremely enthusiastic, particularly when she was pregnant with our own daughter. About six months after our daughter was born, my friend was ready to conceive. At this point my partner stated that if I went ahead with this, it would be the end of our relationship. She denied ever having agreed to this (she did agree), suggested that all I wanted was a threesome with two lesbians (we had always agreed to do the process through a clinic so no sex would be involved), and accused me of just wanting a “backup” in case anything were to happen to our daughter (this left me genuinely speechless).

In the end, I agreed to go back on the agreement with my friend, as my partner stated outright that our relationship would end if I went ahead with it and she would tell everyone that I “chose two lesbians over my own family.” A few months later she ended our relationship anyway for other reasons. Fast forward three years to the present day: My friend has asked me again if I could be the donor, and I have said yes. However, the few family and friends who knew about this plan have been extremely negative. They have suggested that it “wouldn’t be right” and would upset my daughter. I personally can’t see the issue, so long as it is explained clearly that while I will be biologically the father and their children will be aware of this, I will have no parental role (we have a signed contract laying this out).

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My friends do not even live in the same country as me, so we wouldn’t even see each other that much anyway. My daughter will remain my sole parental focus and nothing will take me away from her. The only issue I can see is my ex causing trouble and telling our daughter some of the absurd accusations she made against me several years ago. I can’t help but feel a lot of this is coming from a place of latent homophobia in some cases (not seeing gay parents as “real parents” somehow) and jealousy in the case of my ex. Will this confuse or upset my daughter? Am I going about the right way in my plans to tell her? It strikes me as considerably less confusing than if I were to start my own second family. I really do not want to damage my relationship with my daughter, but I also really want to do this for my friends.

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—Missing Something Obvious?

Dear Missing,

Perhaps I am missing something obvious, but I really don’t see the problem here! While reasonable people do sometimes have to sift through some weird feelings about the implications of a relative’s donating genetic material, those issues are theirs to deal with, not yours. If the issue was that your parents, for example, feel strange about not having a grandparent relationship with kids who are biologically related to them, I would be more understanding. But as you present the problem, I have to concede that your suspicion that your friends and family are homophobic or just very closed-minded is probably correct. And your ex is just out to lunch.

Your daughter, however, deserves to know upfront exactly what your relationship and what her relationship with her potential bio half siblings might be like. She might be interested in knowing them and becoming closer with them. Is that OK with you, and with their moms? Talk as much of this through in advance as you can, and continue to get your agreements with your friends in writing, for everyone’s sake. With love and communication, your decision could open up a wonderful aspect of her life, but you might also be ready for her to have some jealousy and resentment until lived experience makes it clear to her that she’s your kid and those kids are, maybe, like extra-special cousins. And though this isn’t always the case, it’s possible that once the skeptics in your life see photos of your friend and her wife with their babies, it will become much less important to anyone how those babies were conceived—only a true monster begrudges anyone their newborn. Good luck!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My partner and I have a 17-month-old. Becoming a parent was more challenging than I expected, not in the least because we have been isolated due to COVID for most of my child’s life. I feel like now should be the time to start getting ready to get pregnant again, but I’m surprised by my own resistance. Although my toddler is smart, funny, and engaging, it’s still exhausting to be at this stage with so little variety in terms of where we can take him or who we can see. But is it toddlerhood or is it COVID? He’s too little for most playground equipment, beaches, bonfires, hiking, to say nothing of skiing or biking—generally, he’s just not developmentally to a place where he can really take part in things we love to do.

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Moreover, COVID has deprived us of the toddler play place and children’s museum and splash pad and other things that are within his ability. We bought him tiny climbing equipment and lots of books and we play with him a ton, but I just can’t get excited about the idea of adding another kid to the mix, and I can’t tell if it’s because we’re just in a tough, repetitive, emotionally exhausting stage (teething, tantrums, and picky eating plague even my otherwise delightful, sunny kid) or because COVID is making things harder and less fun than they would otherwise be. Or maybe I’m just not appreciating parenting enough, and I need to level my expectations about how I spend my time with him. But this doesn’t feel super rewarding—a lot of days just feel like a slog, despite my best efforts with stroller walks and swinging in the backyard and dance parties and FaceTime. Help me get some perspective so I can get excited about adding our next one!

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—Not Two Excited

Dear Not Two,

How dare you not appreciate parenting enough! LOL, just kidding, parenting is extremely hard, and 17 months is a garbage age, so please go ahead and let yourself off the hook. Speaking as someone who waited until my first kid was 27 months old to conceive the second, I have always had a hard time fathoming how anyone gets enthusiastic about having kids closer together than that. That felt like a bare minimum for me, and I wasn’t even parenting through COVID!

The stage your kid is in right now is a pretty boring one in many ways. He can communicate his basic needs (and demands), but he’s probably not a riveting conversationalist. And while I’m sure he’s cute as hell, he still requires your constant supervision to ensure that he doesn’t accidentally hurt himself. You’re probably tired of hearing this, but I want to offer you reassurance that It Gets Better. In half a year, he’ll be even chattier and funnier as well as much more independent. He’ll describe and imagine his world in ways that will make you laugh and marvel at his tiny amazing brain. The books you’ll read to him and the movies you’ll watch together (if that’s a thing you do) will be incrementally less stupid. Late toddlerhood is a golden age for many kids—they’re still baby-cute, but they’re also able to say and do things that keep you on your toes, intellectually and spiritually and physically. It may be that you, like me, will find this to be a time when you’ll actually feel like you’re ready to do it all again.

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Or it may be that we are totally different people, and that our kids are also totally different people, but even if that’s the case, I don’t think there’s any reason (including waning fertility or sibling relationships) you shouldn’t table these concerns for a mere six months. Maybe by then, life will at least feel like less of a slog, and you’ll be able to imagine actually wanting another baby. Or maybe you’ll still feel the same way, in which case, that’s OK too. It seems like you’re putting pressure on yourself to feel a way that a past you imagined you might feel. We’re all a bit different than we thought we were going to be this time last year. Give yourself time and space to make decisions that are true to the person you are now.

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—Emily

More Advice From Slate

I’m part of a big, very nosy Hispanic family. We all live very close to each other in the same town. My cousins are like my siblings. My eldest cousin is the only one with kids so far, an 18-month-old and a 6-year-old. My aunties—the kiddos’ great-aunts—utterly disregard my cousin’s wishes with her kids. For example, when left alone with the kids (which is often, both the children’s parents work nights), the aunties will give the 6-year-old a baby bottle full of warm milk. The kid is in first grade and already reads. Both my cousin and I have tried to tell them that this is wrong. Every time this gets brought up, it causes a family war. I seriously worry for the child’s welfare and psychological well-being. I have no idea how to approach this anymore, but this is absurd and it needs to end.

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