One night last week I heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from upstairs. “Mommy!” Cries at that level of urgency, panic, and volume can mean only one thing: My children had seen a cockroach that had wandered out of a newly-formed hole hidden behind the bathtub.
Every summer we have about three or four cockroach sightings, and after each of them my husband searches for the new hole, caulks it up, and then we are safe for another week or month or two. But when you least expect it, the cockroaches are back, and there is another bloodcurdling scream shattering the quiet of another summer night.
For a long time, my kids had a hard time falling asleep after seeing a cockroach. But a few months ago my husband came up with a really effective way to cope with post-cockroach trauma. The new policy is that whoever sees a cockroach gets an ice cream the next day. This means that nowadays, while there is still the initial “Mommy!” at first sighting, as soon as my husband has squashed and thrown the roach into the garbage the kids are in their beds drifting off to sleep, dreaming of ice cream cones, not insect legs creeping up their ankles.
At other times, I am called to my children’s bedsides on account of fears that are a bit more difficult to dispel. My eight year old lies in bed biting her nails because she is afraid that her math teacher will yell at her like she yelled at her friend the day before. Or my six year old is lying in bed afraid of flying in a plane next month to visit her grandparents overseas. Or my four year old cannot sleep since she is afraid that a thief will sneak into our house while we are sleeping.
My response to these worries tends to be fairly standard. I listen carefully, repeat my children’s fears back to them like an obedient parenting class graduate, and then I do everything within my power to cause their fear to disappear as quickly as a discarded cockroach. I promise to call the math teacher, pontificate on the safety of modern air travel, and remind my four-year-old that our door is equipped with the best lock on the market. If that doesn’t work, then saying a short prayer together nearly always does the trick.
This is not so easy, however, when my children fear the same lions and tigers and bears that haunt me as I lie awake in my own bed. It’s very hard to comfort our children when we are afraid. Children are absolutely telepathic when it comes to detecting our fears and worries. If you have a fear of dentists, for example, then no matter how much you try to smile and hum and calmly do needlepoint during your children’s dentist appointments, there is little hope. If you are afraid, your children will be afraid too. You don’t have to say a thing. Children just smell your fear.
Last night, as I returned to my kitchen from the cockroach hunt upstairs, my mind wandered from my own children drifting off to sleep to the mothers who are raising children in the war zone two hours to the north of our home in Jerusalem.
How, I wondered, does the mother of seven-year-old Rivky Levy of Safed comfort her daughter when Rivky lies awake in her hospital bed, thinking over and over about the rocket that pierced through her bedroom wall while she was playing with her Barbie dolls the week before, exploding next to her and leaving both of her legs full of shrapnel?
Can Rivky’s mother tell her that she is safe in the hospital, when a rocket shattered the windows of the children’s ward the day before, cutting open the back of another patient’s scalp like a rainfall of razors?
And what about the mother of five-year-old Shachar Goldberg of Kiryat Shmonah, who sits at Shachar’s bedside after spending most of the past three weeks crowded with more than fifty neighbors in a municipal bomb shelter? Shachar tells his mother that his ears hurt from the air-raid sirens and rockets that provide constant background noise for his games throughout the day.