How a terror attack released me from the trivial rules of parenting

Not like other school days.
Not like other school days.
Image: Reuters/Hannah Mckay
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Moments after I dropped off my two daughters at school on Friday, a bomb went off at the train station down the street. Police with machine guns quickly circled the area, the school was put on lockdown, and we were told to get away.

From our children.

Truckloads of police arrived; helicopters hovered overhead; sirens seemed to come from every direction. People streaming out of the Parsons Green tube stop were scared, and many were crying as they mixed among the kids on scooters and parents with prams. I called the school and was told the girls were safe but that we could not collect them. Police were sweeping the building; we later learned that one was stationed in every classroom.

My parent groups started buzzing—WhatsApp, email, text, phone. Fact and rumor collided as everyone grappled for information: there was a man with a knife inside the girls’ school; there was a man with a knife roaming Fulham; there was a second bomb; the kids were being evacuated. Communications from the school were assuring but vague: the girls were safe, police were on the case.

“We will let you know when you can collect them.”

Friday was also my younger daughter’s seventh birthday. She had asked for a Barbie house, and we were reluctant. I hate Barbie and everything she and her ridiculous proportions embody. I have read Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter. I know there is a princess-Barbie industrial complex that perpetuates deeply offensive and objectifying stereotypes.

I also know I loved Barbie as a kid and I grew up to be a writer, athlete, and feminist. I spent days on end holed up in my parent’s basement inventing many weird worlds for Barbie to live in. Sometimes friends joined me—my neighbor had the convertible, and Ken—but most of the time it was just me. I also know my daughter loves to invent things and build things, and that she loves spending time in her many imaginary worlds.

So as my husband and I contemplated whether to capitulate to the big Barbie birthday wish, I am embarrassed to admit that I had engaged in way too much mental ju-jitsu about a plastic toy, vacillating between “this really doesn’t matter” and “this matters hugely.”

Parenting in the information age can be overwhelming. There is a right way to praise your children and a proper way to support them in sports. There are questions that encourage scientific inquiry and games that foster math skills. The science of learning teaches us about the importance of working memory and the science of expertise shows us how to make our kids an expert at anything. And that’s before we get to nutrition. Or technology.

In crises, I tend to be calm. It’s the stupid to-buy-the-Barbie or not-to-buy-the-Barbie decisions that make me crazy. And yet, as I walked away from my kids’ school on Friday, I was overcome by a gut-wrenching fear that I might not see my girls again. Everyone said they are safer with the police but it felt like they would only be safe with me. Delusional, perhaps, but primal. I wanted my girls back.

For seven hours, we could not get to them. We watched the news, stood on the street, counted our blessings that the bomb malfunctioned and didn’t kill anyone. We also played out the “what if?” scenarios… what if it had been better built and blew up the train? We felt guilt over how fortunate we were to escape terror when so many others—in Manchester, in Paris, in Barcelona, in Syria—have not been so lucky.

During one of those hours, I walked over the bridge to Putney and bought a Barbie dream house. Maybe we are ruining our children; I will let you know. But our kids are who they are and they love what they love, Barbies included. As toddlers we could carefully curate their worlds; as they get older, we are still the chief architects, but they have their own ideas, too. I want to love them for who they are, and not who I think they should be.

On Friday evening, we built the Barbie house together. After dinner, the birthday girl invented a pair of “penguin shoes” and curled up in bed to read books. Barbie looked on approvingly from her new home.

Penguin shoes.
Penguin shoes.
Image: Jenny Anderson