8 hours earlier, we traipsed out of the Hyatt Hotel, giddy with drink, dance, and friendship. We were wearing saris, anarkalis, lenghas, sherwanis, gowns, tuxes, and Marine dress uniform. We were smiling – things were peaceful, the things that divided us petty and stupid – a red cup without embellishment, one idiot politician versus another, and what to say in response to some perceived slight on our form of holiday greeting. But most importantly, our children were safely asleep in their beds across town, waiting for the sun to rise on another Saturday of scrambled eggs and pancakes, football, swimming lessons, and birthday parties. Nothing was complicated, really.
We tumbled into bed, laughing, knowing that nothing the next morning would be hurried or urgent. Another Marine Ball on the record books.
And then we woke up.
“There’s been a major terror attack in Paris. Over 100 dead.”
The sun cut sharply through the slit in the bedroom curtains, but somehow illuminated nothing. My blood ran cold and I bolted to the shower to pull the pins out of my updo and scrub the inch-thick glam makeup off my face before I faced a day that was suddenly thick with complication.
DiploDad was cursing the laptop and I was cursing him for cutting off our cable a few months prior on the excuse that “we never watch it anyway”. I needed visual, I needed solidarity with the rest of the world, who I assumed was watching the clips play over and over again on repeat, and on every station, from the BBC to CNN, to Fox, to Al-Jazeera.
I pulled CNN.com up on my tablet and frowned. At my left, DB1, oblivious to the creased brows of the other three adults in the house, finally noticed something was up.
“There’s been a terrorist attack in Paris. Multiple attacks. Over 100 dead.”
DB1 then proceeded to let forth a diatribe on terrorists, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and radical Muslims peppered with profanity as only a tween sensing an unrestricted chance to use it can muster. The anger he exhibited floored me. He looked not like a carefree 12-year-old, he looked like an anguished, middle-aged man. It surprised me. Upset me. And yes, unreasonably you might decide, angered me. Not for the situation at that moment, but at his reaction.
“Stop. Now. It’s not yours to take on.”
“But those *^$#ing terrorists – “
“I said stop. NOW.”
What did I mean? Why did I say that? Well, first, and that’s probably the most obvious, I’m not the perfect mother. Second, I was irritated that he was letting the four-letter flag fly in front of my parents. Nice, dude. Third, and this is where I got back on track to what is reasonable to be irritated with, was because I was mad at myself.
I was mad at myself for telling him. For having to tell him. For living in a world where that type of thing seems even closer to him than it might than if we lived at home. As soon as he started off, I started questioning myself.
I’m really not that subtle. It’s hard for me to hide how I feel about things. Even if I do initially, it comes out in the wash eventually, and it’s not always good. (In my very weak defense, sometimes it’s fantastic.) I probably tell my kids things too early, and overload their delicate minds on certain things before it’s time. I’m that really freaky mom who talks about gun control with her 5-year-old and tells them about the time I was involved in a mass shooting, but does everything in my power to perpetuate the myths of the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Santa Claus. My 12 year-old thinks corporate interests are too involved in elections and we need reform, but he also still believes in Santa Claus. Seriously, he does. I think I’m winning.
Living abroad as a DiploKid you learn about terrorism early. You talk about your buddy system with Mommy and Daddy and they learn early on that there may be a time when Mommy tells you to take off your seatbelt and crouch down in the car behind her and you’d better damn well do it and not ask a single question. No matter what happens. They know why you store your ironing board close to the bathtub (prevents you from being crushed from a collapsing ceiling), and they worry about Daddy or Mommy when they go to work in a way so few other kids do. The older ones know who Chris Stevens is, and they have a basic knowledge of where Benghazi is and place the blame not on Hillary, but on an underfunded security budget.
Expats, and diplomats abroad are pretty visible targets for ne’er do wells, whether they are petty thieves, organized crime, armed resistance, or terrorists. That’s a story old as time. Sometimes, I think about all the other stories I have heard, some firsthand from the actual victims; the attacks you never hear about, and are not on the front page of any newspaper. The incident where the family was barricaded in their saferoom while a gang of armed thieves looted their home and tortured their staff. The member of mission whose house was attacked by God Knows Who, but it may have been some minor resistance group. The Consul you had drinks with the weekend before who was shot in the back (with buckshot, luckily) as he left a local restaurant that you regularly ate dinner at. There are others.
When you are young, single, or just have no kids, you think of it differently. You can even be fatalistic about it. But when you are a parent, that horror becomes all too real. Benghazi got me off of my couch. I realized that maybe, just maybe, the survival of my children might depend on whether or not I can run while carrying them, pull them up out of something, or lift something heavy off of them. So even though I hate it, and I’ll never get skinny, ever, I go to the gym and run, lift, press, and squat. I do pushups on my toes now. I do swings with 15kg. I can carry my 7yo easily. For more distance than you might imagine.
But it’s more than just protecting them physically, it’s trying to balance giving them an understanding of the world they live in, and giving them a carefree childhood. And that’s hard.
It’s hard when DB1 asks you, “Are M and R okay?” even though they moved away from Paris 2 years ago. Even worse when they realize that Grandmere and Grandpere live in France now, not Northern Virginia where they saw them last and start panicking until you assure them that no, you haven’t heard from them yet, but you seriously doubt that they were at a death metal concert.
Paris is different to them than Benghazi, than the IED that killed Anne Smedinghof, and than the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. Because it’s not a military target, and it’s not a soldier, sailor, airman, marine or diplomat. It’s not an embassy or consulate. Even DB1, who knows that government personnel abroad are targets, can’t understand this. Telling him that other expats abroad, such as oil company executives and their families, or shipping company employees are also targets for kidnapping and attacks, doesn’t help.
Chances are, if you’re a TCK and there’s a terror attack anywhere in the world, you’ll know someone in that country. It’s not some far-off land you’ve just learned about or have seen on the news, or have researched on the Internet for a school geography assignment. It’s Ahmed in Oman, or RJ in Paris, or Nick in Ghana. It’s Abigail in Tbilisi, Emma in Warsaw, Karina in Indonesia, or Asya in Hong Kong. Many times, they’ve been to that place, seen the sights, or even gone to the school that was overrun and reduced to rubble. It’s personal in a way that it cannot be to other children, and I imagine that it’s scary.
Growing up in Germany in the 1970s, I overheard my parents talking about the Red Army Faction, and was warned off doing certain things, but terrorists lived in the Middle East – mostly there to attack Israel. That’s what a kid on a U.S. Army base in Germany learned back then from half-overheard conversations of your parents, mouthy teenagers who hung out smoking in the back of the PX, and kids whose parents talked politics at the dinner table and who parroted what they heard. It wasn’t something that would even happen to you or to one of your friends. Ever.
The Foreign Service Youth Foundation, the only organization dedicated to children whose parents serve abroad as diplomats, has an entire program dedicated to evacuation. They try to bring families together to socialize and have the opportunity to talk and also to meet with other resources to help them in the event they have to leave a posting abroad. But they don’t, to my knowledge, address the effects of terror directly, and how that may affect children in our community. I doubt any other country has done a study of this sort.
I wonder when things like this happen, what the effects are on the DBs. DiploSis’ kids don’t talk about terrorists and terrorism in the same way. They don’t worry that DiploBro is going to get exploded on his way to the dental office. They don’t have ID badges, or a series of them, for school and the Mission. They don’t have parents who do drills at work for bombings, snipers, and lockdowns. It’s a lurking boogeyman somewhere in the psyche of most DiploKids, I imagine.
We try to be reasonable, but when your kids go to school and there’s a new kid there who had X or Y happen at the last place she lived, or Tommy or Suzy’s parents aren’t working in country Q anymore because of Boko Haram, they ask questions. I try to be honest, and to make it age-appropriate. And I worry that I miss the mark all too often, either giving them too much or not enough.
I want my kids to feel safe. I want my kids to feel at home in their host countries and connected to others. Most of the time they do. There are, however, times that they appear to be acutely aware of exactly how different their lives are from their friends and cousins back in the U.S. who don’t know exactly how secure and safe they are in the middle of Tyler, TX, Huntsville, AL, or Scranton, PA.
It’s been over 24 hours since I woke up to Paris. DB2 is still clueless, as he should be at age 7. DB1 has digested it, filed it away, and moved on to worrying about his next Minecraft project.
Me? I’m wondering how the world will change in response to Paris. And how this will affect all of our children.