If you draw one of the long straws in your life, you are blessed with a good friend in those early years of parenting when you’re not sure what you’re doing and when you’re doing something, you’re not sure it’s right. My long straw was my best friend Bliss, and our first-born children were only months apart. We did everything together, really everything, but our favorite go-to, last-resort and when-in-doubt escape was the Baltimore Zoo. I think the ticket taker knew us by our first names, and I bet our strollers could find their own way to our favorite haunt: the polar bear exhibition.
It wasn’t that we loved polar bears especially or that the compound holding these out-of-place animals was extraordinary: quite the opposite. Aged and in need of repair, it was a place where you could hold your toddler up and over a very scratched plastic viewing area and let them see the bears swim in an erstwhile Nordic pool. The children loved it, but what I remember most is what was running through my mind as I held my daughter up to look over the plastic. If she were suddenly to kick up and flip over into that pool below, would I jump in, bop the bear on the nose and swim her to safety? What if the plastic rim on which we leaned collapsed? It looked like it could. Narrative after narrative reeled through my mind like a bad, scary movie. When, with a laugh, I looked over to Bliss to confess all of this self-designed drama, her face looked stricken. A fellow traveler, she was watching the same movie but with a different starring cast.
Bliss and I now call this the polar bear syndrome, our words for how we as parents sometimes imagine the unspeakable, perhaps as a sort of Bruno Bettelheim exorcism, but certainly as a testimony to our determined efforts to protect our children from the horrible in the world. Our imagined dramas act as momentary stays against all that could go wrong, all that we guard against. As adults, we know the world is a complicated mix of wondrous good and heart-wrenching brokenness. We know this, but for as long as possible, we want our children to know only the first part of that mix, even if we have to knock out a polar bear to do so.
But life, good and bad, will make its way into our children’s consciousness, and their incomplete understandings of what Coleridge calls “thoughts all too deep for words” will eventually mark the margins of your conversations with them. They’ll want to know things; they’ll want to understand better a picture they saw in the newspaper or to debrief about a conversation they overheard. They will ask you to bridge the sometimes unbridgeable; they will ask you to help them navigate the mystery. They’ll want to know about that “polar bear.”
And, of course, you want them to build the necessary resiliency to meet the hard things in life well, but at what price? There’s no magic timing, no perfect way to meet this challenge, but there are certain signposts that might help. It’s always good to check for an understanding of what their questions really are rather than assuming what you think the questions are. Sometimes there is the gift of time in the question they have. Look for that. And sometimes you just don’t have to tell them everything in one sitting. I love those lines from Emily Dickinson, which invite us to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” More often than not I have found that they need only a little bit of the truth in that moment to get them as far as they need then and there. And it is true that the labyrinthine consequences of sweeping untruths can come back to haunt you, but a little truth at the right time can go a long way.
Whatever the situation, I think having your own words and being true to yourself are the best guides you have, even when you don’t have all the answers. It’s true that there will always be “polar bears” in our lives and that we all struggle to find some exquisite space of understanding both the good and the bad in this world. At our first-of-the-year dinner to welcome new parents, I always share a favorite quotation of mine that comes from Barbara Kingsolver. She tells us that our goal as parents is to have our children “grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.” And for that end, we would all plunge into the deep end of that polar bear pool.