I don’t know what it’s like to have my children ripped out of my arms, but I do know the trauma of having my mom ripped out of mine when I was 5 years old. We lived on a military base in Texas, and she was taken away by the military police without warning. I clung to the police officer’s leg screaming and crying for him not to take my mom. Then, she was gone.
For three years, I had no idea where she was. I don’t know how I survived without her. And just as vividly as I remember the moment she was handcuffed and taken away, I remember the first time I saw her again, coming down an escalator at the mall where my dad had arranged for us to see each other again.
Her leaving was a result of a nasty divorce. Though she was an American citizen by marriage to my dad, her citizenship and rights to her children were threatened by the authorities, so she went back to South Korea, where she had met my dad several years prior.
The damage and heartache and trauma of losing a parent is lifelong. Trauma manifests itself in different ways for different people, but the science shows that the impact on a child’s brain and body is significant. I listened to an episode called “Children at the Border” on the podcast Circle of Willis where five developmental scientists were interviewed about the impact. I heard them talking about the 5-year-old me: the behavioral outbursts and the inability to focus in school because I was concerned about my immediate well-being.
I’m a parent now, and I’m still healing. Yet, my experience is still no comparison to the horrifying human rights violations taking place in our country.
I’ve been struggling with what to do, and I don’t know all the answers. But I think the power is in speaking honestly with our own children.
I told my 4.5-year-old-son about the situation in story form. Every night we tell him a made-up story about a coyote and its different adventures — cleaning up Mother Nature, rescuing people with a rescue helicopter or putting out forest fires in a huge firetruck.
To explain the separation of children from their parents, I told him that Coyote lived in the vast Sonoran desert with its two pups. I described its home and how they were running out of food and water and how the other animals were taking Coyote’s food because they, too, were running out of food.
I described how Coyote decided it was time for them to travel to a different part of the desert where Coyote had heard there was plenty of food and water and safety. I described how they had to walk for many, many hours under the hot sun, and how they would sleep for just a few hours, and try to find whatever food and water they could.
Then they arrived at a fence that separated the desert and was guarded by bobcats and rattlesnakes who were responsible for deciding who could come across the fence. I told him that the bobcats and rattlesnakes were angry at Coyote and decided to take his pups away.
At this point, my son interjected with “and then coyote got in a rescue helicopter, grabbed his pups and flew away to a new place where they ate all the food they wanted and they put the bobcat and rattlesnakes in jail.”
I didn’t have to continue the story after that, as it was clear that my son realized the injustice.
I told him directly that this is happening to kids and families coming from Mexico and other countries. I said “Hey, you know how we go to Mexico with our friends, and we cross over the border? Well, just like Coyote and its pups, there are parents and their children who are trying to come over here so they can be safe and have a warm place to sleep, and have food and water to drink, just like you. And there are some people like the rattlesnakes and bobcats who are saying they can’t come over.”
He then told me he wanted to write a letter to the president to tell him that kids need their parents, especially his little brother, who is 3.
This prompted me to think of things I could do with my kids that might make a difference. I sent emails and made calls to those involved in the on-the-ground movement, and here’s what they said we can do:
Talk to your state senators and representatives. In an effort to involve our kids, my husband and I took our two boys to Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s office, talked briefly with staff members and then three other parents and their kids, and I organized a play date there. We went and read books to our children and colored a sign that said “Family Separation is Child Abuse.” We will be going to Republican Rep. Martha McSally’s office on Friday. This is our family’s form of activism.
Organize fundraising parties to support immigrant bond for detained persons, since many of them have been granted bond but are unable to pay it. With my two kids’ birthday parties coming up, we plan to throw a party for this cause and donate it to organizations like the Florence Project or Attorney on the Move to support direct legal services and bonds.
Share your experiences on social media, including photos of your action involving your children (if you are comfortable doing so) writing letters, recording videos of why kids need their parents. On Facebook, I posted photos of my kids with signs that read “Kids need their parents because . . . they take care of them when they’re hurt.” That second part was written by my son. I also recorded video responses from both of my kids to my question, “Why do kids need their parents?”
Listen to your kids’ ideas. If you have children ages 5 and older, they are capable of empathy and capable of seeing a situation from another’s perspective. Telling my children these stories involving animals takes away some of the heaviness of the situation but sets the stage for ways kids can show they are thinking of others’ feelings.
I certainly suffered by having my mother torn away from me. Watching what’s happening at the border now is like reliving that trauma all over again. I want my children to understand they are safe, they are loved, and even when they are so little, they, too, can make a difference.
Joy Baynes is a family nurse practitioner in Tucson and a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.
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