Masha Hamilton is an accomplished author, spent years as a foreign correspondent, and is a major advocate for world literacy programs. (Check out her Afghan Women's Writing Project!)
One of her books, The Camel Bookmobile, had been on my to-read list for quite some time and I was just able to read it last week. It's a beautiful work of fiction, inspired by time Hamilton and her daughter spent in Kenya observing the workings and challenges of a mobile library.
Hamilton's newest book was just released last Tuesday, 9/8/09. Entitled 31 Hours, it looks to be a tense and heart-wrenching tale.
In the middle of the night in New York City, a woman jolts awake, realizing she hasn’t heard from her 21-year-old son in weeks, and knowing beyond doubt that something is wrong.
What we know is that the young man, Jonas, is isolated in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, pondering his recent conversion to Islam and the training he received last year in Pakistan. Alone now, cut off from all dissuasion, Jonas is listening to the passing subways and preparing himself for the once unthinkable action he has been instructed to undertake in exactly 31 hours…
The following essay is the perfect introduction to the novel and one of its central themes. I hope you'll join me in reading it and discussing it here. To further entice you, I'm planning a giveaway related to this post later in the week!
Parenting the Nearly-Grown
by Masha Hamilton
“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” Roman philosopher and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 B.C.
Not long after the second of my three children was born, I sat at the kitchen table late one evening talking to my dad about parental responsibility. It’s a big topic and we were covering lots of philosophical ground, but what I remember most is my pronouncement that my primary job could be boiled down quite simply and starkly: I had to keep safe these beings released into my charge. I needed to keep them alive.
These were the musings of a new parent, of course. The circumstances, too, should be considered; the first child had been born in Jerusalem during the intefadeh, and the second was born as I was reporting from Moscow during the collapse of Communism. In both situations, I repeatedly came face-to-face with life’s fragility.
But even in calmer times, even after the birth of my third child, I never lost the feeling that my main duty was to pass them on into adulthood as unscathed as possible, as healthy in every way as they could be.
It sounds pretty simple, on the face of it. We perform many jobs as parents: nurturers, playmates, cheerleaders, short-order cooks, nurses, disciplinarians, detectives, spiritual leaders. Keeping them safe should not be the hardest, not with the help of baby monitors, plastic devices to cover electrical outlets, pads for sharp corners, child-proof medicine bottles, the list goes on.
And in fact, we passed through well, with just the usual rounds of stitches, one violent dog attack, a rabies scare and a few months when my youngest fell so often and got so many bumps on his forehead that my husband and I joked someone was surely going to call child services on us.
Now, though, my youngest is 14, and as they’ve grown, I recognize my job has been transformed. It is to give them trust and space so they can develop confidence in their ability to make their own lives. And yet the two oldest, at ages 19 and 20, are in a period of time that seems almost like a parentheses in their lives. They are certainly not children, but nor are they quite adults. Meanwhile, I say and think all the usual things parents have been saying and thinking since—well, perhaps ever since Cicero, whose words I keep taped to my office wall: it’s rougher out there than it was in my time. More chaotic. More violent. More dangerous.
And everyone is writing a book.
It was, in fact, into my latest novel, 31 Hours, that I channeled my fears. Among other things, the novel offered a chance to explore what it means to be the parent of someone on the cusp of adulthood but not yet there. The mother in 31 Hours, Carol, is strong and independent, free of empty nest syndrome, but her maternal intuition is strong and she’s concerned about her 21-year-old son’s growing emotional distance, the way he seems tense and depressed. Her fears are amorphous and hard to convey; nevertheless, as she lies awake in the dark, she decides to trust the hunch that something is wrong, and to spend the next day trying to track her son Jonas down and “mother him until he shrugs her off.”
There are many themes in the novel, but one question it asks—one pertinent to all parents and one I’m still trying to answer for myself—is this: after years of being vigilant and protecting our kids, what should we do—and what are we allowed to do—to keep them safe once they are nearly, but not quite, grown?
photo credit: Briana Orr