In Trump’s America, it’s a privilege to know where your children are

Image: AP Photo/Gregory Bull
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Being a parent means living in a state of total responsibility. When you gaze upon your beautiful baby, you do so with the understanding that for the next decade-and-a-half, at minimum, it will be your job to know where this small, wondrous person you’ve made is, every minute of every day, without exception. There are moments when this overwhelms me, where I long to just sit in a café and sip a cup of coffee, or go see a movie without asking anyone, without making arrangements.

But not lately. These days it feels like an enormous privilege to know exactly where my children are.

Yesterday, the president of the United States signed a piece of paper vowing to change his policy of separating families who come to our border with Mexico. That could be good news for the people camped out on the other side of that border, desperate to seek asylum in the US as they flee the same gangs Donald Trump himself has referred to as “animals,” or trying to escape other kinds of violence, or poverty. But there is still no plan to reunite the close to 2,500 children who have been taken from their parents and scattered across the country, from Texas to Michigan to New York City. It’s not clear where migrant families will be held together, nor whether the family separations will continue as facilities are prepared.

The world is full of bad things, I know. This ongoing nightmare though, the thought of what these families are going through—it has shaken all the parents I know to their core.

Where are your shoes? Did you try a bite of your beans? Did you wash your hands? How was school? Were you gentle? Did you ask nicely? Can you say thank you? These are the questions that parents ask over and over again, driving ourselves bananas. These are the questions children need to be asked. Is someone asking those questions in the detainment centers?

It’s not just Rachel Maddow who feels overwhelmed by the thought of so much reckless cruelty, it’s a friend crying on the subway while reading about “tender age centers” filled with babies and toddlers, hysterical with fear and confusion. It’s my former student, herself a mother, reporting on wave after wave of breaking news in Texas, then going to therapy to process it all.

Right now it feels wrong to call the babysitter and book three hours instead of two for Friday night so that there’s time for one more cocktail, or to chide your partner for feeding the children too much bacon and not enough green things, with the constant awareness of so many other parents in a state of abject emotional agony. The thought of what they are going through floats through my day like a specter, insinuating itself into whatever my own family is doing.

When I wake up to breastfeed my six-month-old daughter in the middle of the night, I wonder about the story of the baby taken out of her mother’s arms as she did the same. As a journalist, my first thought is about whether this story is true—it sounds made for a headline. As a mom though, I wonder what that baby is eating now. Is formula constipating her? How long did she hold out before taking a bottle? Did anyone help that mom get a breast pump to relieve her of the buildup of milk her child wasn’t there to drink? How much pain was she in before someone helped her with that? Is she still pumping, in a cell somewhere, hoping to get her baby back soon?

Other questions flood in. Are there enough workers to hold the babies, to play with them so they continue to develop socially? Are workers banned from comforting and cuddling children by rules meant to prevent inappropriate touching? Do the centers know to put young babies down to sleep on their backs?

When I tell the toddler he can have toast with peanut butter or yogurt with strawberries for breakfast, I’m thinking about what the children in detention centers are eating. Is it the same stuff as public school lunches? Is there enough? Did he manage to get his pants on? Is his t-shirt on backwards? Who is dressing these children? How do they keep track of them, when some are too young to talk? Will they be reunited with their parents? How did we allow this to happen?

At pre-school drop-off my sweetly ferocious boy repeatedly asks for one more hug. I keep giving them out, because I can. The teachers, I can tell, are slightly impatient with my indulgence. A teacher asks me to help reinforce the concept of gentle play and awareness of smaller kids at home. I agree and start worrying about how to make sure my big galoot doesn’t turn into a bully. My son is tall for his age and gets in over his head with older kids. He’s loud and precocious, but also shy and easily wounded.

What would happen to him in one of those places? Who would help him make sure he got to the bathroom in time, and clean him up if he didn’t? Who would give him one more hug? Who is supervising the older children at the tent camp that the government is being so secretive about? Are the younger kids being bullied?

Who is working there, and what was the screening process as the government scrambled to implement this policy? Doesn’t this seem like a perfect set of conditions for violence and sexual abuse? Yesterday there were reports that private shelters contracted to hold migrant children have been accused of “serious lapses in care, including neglect and sexual and physical abuse” and even of injecting children with psychotropic drugs.

Am I losing it a little? I feel physically ill just thinking about this, and then disgusted with myself for crying over something that is unlikely to ever happen to my family—because of something as random as where we were born, and our whiteness.

As I’m working, I periodically scroll through the news to see the latest horrors, while simultaneously knocking small items off my to-do list, like checking when the baby’s next pediatrician visit is. What are the vaccination rates like in Central America? Are babies who haven’t yet been vaccinated being held in centers where something like pertussis or measles could quickly spread? Is there adequate medical attention for children who may have been traumatized even before they were taken from their parents, and are now in a strange place, all alone? What’s the longest I’ve been away from my kids? Maybe four days for the toddler. Eight hours, at the most, for the baby.

Bedtime is the worst. The inexorable march toward sleep starts at dinner time and ends well before 8pm, with grubby bodies bathed, books read, and snuggles dispensed. I rush to the baby when she fusses, instead of giving her time to settle herself. My toddler talks me into an extra puzzle, a snack, or yet another reading of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. 

It’s impossible to remain a bedtime hardliner when I’m thinking about little children curled up on the floor in a former fucking Walmart, under a space blanket, in a place where they don’t know anyone. Is this scarier than crossing the desert, or riding on a train through an unknown country? Is this scarier than the pervasive gang and drug violence they may have known at home?

I also think about the parents, lying on similar floors, with no way to know where their children are. Do they imagine chubby little hands gripped tight in their palms? Can they still smell their baby’s warm head? Do they sleep? Will that frantic feeling—the one I have only the faintest hint of knowing and yet can feel with my whole body—ever leave them?