Parenting has changed me

The above image of a woman holding her son was from the article in the New York Times about the movie theater shooting in Aurora.  (The photo is credited to Barry Gutierrez of the Associated Press.)

I know that I would have felt sympathy for this woman, and for her anguished relief at finding her son alive after the senseless, horrific slaughter, at any point in my adult life.  Though it’s not stated explicitly, it seems reasonable to conclude that he had attended a screening of the new Batman movie at the cinema where the shootings took place, and her distress must have been unimaginably extreme as she faced the thought that he might number among the victims.  I know myself well enough to know that I would have been moved in some way by the image, had I seen it three or five or ten years ago.  (I remember being incredibly sad for days after Columbine.)

But today?  Today I had to compose myself after seeing this picture.  Today her fear and relief are real to me in a way I know I could not possibly have understood before I became a parent myself.  When I heard the words of the President’s speech a short time ago, I had to similarly compose myself after hearing him speak of how glad he was to know he would be able to hold his daughters tonight, and how his thoughts go out to those who are no longer so lucky.

The thought of something happening to my son is literally unthinkable to me, in that I cannot tolerate thinking about it.  The prospect is so utterly devastating to me that, frankly, I can’t even type much more than this, through superstition or psychological barrier or some other indefinable obstacle.  While I have no moral condemnation for her, I now understand in a way I could not when it was published why there was such a strong reaction to Ayelet Waldman’s piece in which she wrote that she could better survive the death of her children than her husband.  If that is true for her, then why should I judge her harshly for saying so?  But I could never write similar words, because if either thing were to happen to me it would leave me a blasted shell of myself, and comparing them would be like comparing being hit by a nuclear weapon or a Mack truck at full speed.  The distinction is pointless to consider.

None of this is to in any way suggest that the empathy of those who are not parents is in any way impaired or inhibited.  In fact, none of this is to say anything about anyone other than myself.  I have no idea how anyone else really feels about anything in the end, though we all make reasonable guesses about people we come to know in our lives.  Doubtless there are gaps and flaws in my ability to understand the suffering of others that are not experienced by countless other people, parent and non-parent alike.

But today this story hits me harder and in a different place than it would have three years ago.  It gets me no closer to making sense of a senseless horror like this, of course.  But for me the picture of what happened in the middle of the night is clearer than it would have been, and I am so sorry and so sad for the people who have pointlessly lost the ones most dear to them in the whole world.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. One thing I’ve self-observed since the pregnancy began is how much more I notice young people (and their parents interacting with them). Not that I ignored them before, but now it’s with a different view as the (God Willing) soon-to-be me. So even though I cannot yet see this through the lens that you are, I am closer to being able to imagine.

  2. This is a fact I never appreciated until baby girl was born.
    I cannot see any of these sort of tragedies and react in any way other than to obsess over my daughter. I really can’t even empathize with the victims’ families any longer, I can only think of my family and tremble in fear of the world around us. Every one of these stories becomes about the mismatch between my desire to protect her and my ability to do so.

    I think a while back I wrote something in a comment about how, since the birth of my daughter, I can no longer consume literature about selfish people . Similarly, I can’t bring myself to consume any media in which children are hurt or even threatened, much less killed.
    As a teenager, I remember seeing Schindler’s List in the theater three times and being bewildered at adults who refused to see it, citing their desire to not experience something so painful. Now I understand completely.

  3. I lost my brother two years and one month ago. Every day I admire my mother for her strength to go on. I don’t know how she does it. I can’t say what would happen if I ever lost my son.

    Before I became a parent I understood that a bad thing happening to a person’s child was a tragedy, but I never could have imagined the pain and devestation a single human being would have to withstand to make it through that particular tragedy. When I was pregnant my cousin told me that the love I would feel for my child would be like nothing I’ve ever felt before. The moment I held my son in my arms I knew exactly what she was talking about.

  4. I can’t agree more with your sentiment. Parenting has changed me in ways I could not have imagined and has made me a far more compassionate human.

  5. I used to love the Violent Femmes “Country Death Song.” I still think it’s a great song. But since the first of my three daughters was born, I just haven’t been able to listen to or sing a song about going mad and killing your daughter by throwing her down a well. The rational part of my brain tries to remind me the song isn’t about me, but the emotional side is unmoved.

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