In the months after my daughter was born, I was as boring as any new mother. Preoccupied with the arcana of baby care, I readily shared my findings with anyone who cared to listen— mainly other new mothers. To anyone else, I must have seemed like an animatronic theme park figure, intoning product names as if they were prayers. (Desitin? A miracle!)
That was in the daytime. During the long hours of the night, my anxiety over diaper rash was revealed to be merely a cover for what was really on my mind: the terrors of history. Feeling vulnerable as a newborn myself, I became obsessed with reimagining historical atrocities, one after another. It felt like important work, like something a mother should do. Between baby feedings, the killing fields of the 20th century emerged from dark corners of my mind. Dachau. Cambodia. Ypres. Stalingrad. Now I understood what the stakes were, and I was sick with grief and despair. Those things had happened to somebody's children! History was the enemy of mothers; that was certain.
And history always wins. The moment the planes pierced the towers on September 11, 2001, my daughter and her generation of high school seniors came into their collective identity. Just as they were mulling over college application essay topics, they were abruptly handed their lives' true subject, a long-range assignment with no foreseeable due date.
My mother's stories about Pearl Harbor and mine about the Kennedy assassination paled before this new life-defining horror; The "where were you when" question belonged most urgently to my daughter's peers. "Physics lab," Kate will recall for her own children. "I could see the smoke from the window."
At commencement that spring, the speaker didn't exhort the graduates to wear sunscreen or thank their mothers. Instead he spoke about the World Trade Center attack, and reflected on the heavy consequences of that dark event going forward. He dubbed high school graduates of 2001 the "Class of 9/11."
The students didn't like it of course, but now, as the sixth anniversary of the attack nears, it's clearer than ever that the commencement speaker was right. The class of 9/11 faces a grim generational inheritance. We are engaged in an unwinnable war, with more in the offing.
When my daughter and her friends graduated from college a year ago this spring, they were free to make plans that did not include reporting for combat duty. Since there is no draft and since she chose not to enlist, I am spared the sleepless nights of soldiers' mothers. But I watch the war on television, and I know something I didn't quite grasp before my daughter was born: these terrible things are happening to somebody's children.