The fear of passing on fear to my son
By Jane Flanagan
During half time at a basketball game last weekend I was startled at the site of my five-year-old son gingerly climbing the bleachers. Until then, he always let loose between halves running up and down them.
As his mother, I certainly prefer the new approach. Bleachers make me nervous. Staring down at the gap separating the footrest from the seats, I see that huge drop below. Still, he was being very cautious and I wondered why.
Then it occurred to me. Perhaps hes beginning to absorb some of his Dad and my fear of heights.
Last year at the Bronx Zoo, the three of us took a ride on a chairlift. Rusty had a great time, peering out and marveling over how high we were. Bob and I sat in silence occasionally smiling or nodding. It was all we could manage. Later, alone, we confessed to one another how we couldnt wait to get down.
But its possible hes absorbing some of our neurosis. While I hate to think so, I cant deny that hes susceptible to the fears of adults. Recently, Rusty started telling us he was afraid of planes. We discovered this after we told him about our planned trip to Florida to celebrate Grandmas birthday.
He started to cry.
I dont want to go on an airplane, he said.
Why? we asked.
I am afraid its going to crash.
We couldnt figure out where this was coming from. He flew on planes at ages 3 and 4. And even though at age 4 he said he didnt like when the plane banked, he seemed to enjoy the rest of the flight. This is also a boy whose vocabulary includes words like B-47, A7 Corsair, and Blackbird military planes.
But then I remembered something. Recently a family friend whom Rusty adores told me that she was afraid of planes crashing. She was here on 9/11 and still finds herself looking up whenever she hears an airplane.
So I explained to Rusty that, while someone he loves may be afraid of planes, he doesnt have to be. Everyone is different, I told him. Also, while our friend may be afraid of airplanes, she goes on them anyway.
But I couldnt stop thinking about his new fears.
I come from a family with a history of phobias. Driving, flying and hospitals to name a few. Ive never been able to figure out the source either. Our family goes back two generations in this country, long enough to overlap with the dawn of automobiles, flight and modern medicine. And no one in that time has been in a terrible car accident, plane crash or hospitalized with an unusually long, devastating illness.
But whatever the origin, these fears have impacted lives. One relative, after his beloved wife had a potentially scary operation, only reluctantly agreed to see her in post-op. He stayed five minutes and left. Another missed the funeral of her 49-year-old son-in-law because she wouldnt get on a plane.
From this history, I seem to have inherited a fear of fear itself. I know its impossible to grow up without becoming unreasonably afraid of some things. Life just throws us too many curves and besides, were human. But I sure dont want my son becoming limited by them.
Ill always remember a story a friend told me in the days after 9/11. In an attempt to address the general mass of anxiety overcoming us all, a lieutenant at an Uptown firehouse posted a message out front.
Acknowledging the permeating fear, he asked people to keep going forward. Thats what we do, he wrote.
Being brave does not mean being fearless. Firemen are not unafraid to walk into a burning building. But they do it anyway. Thats bravery.
The other night Rusty told me he was looking forward to the trip to Grandmas. I wont even be afraid when the plane banks, he said. Im not entirely sure I believe him. Hes been afraid of that banking thing for a long time. But its okay. Its his way of choosing to do it anyway.