You can ask a million moms for parenting advice, and you’ll get a million (mostly) good responses. But if you’re searching for tips on how to keep your children safe from threats like terrorist attacks, school shootings and Mother Nature’s frightening forces, you won’t do any better than reading Juliette Kayyem’s Security Mom, taking careful notes and then actually following through with a plan to (finally) stock up on batteries and get your hands on extra copies of your children’s birth certificates — because you never know.
Kayyem is a former Homeland Security adviser, CNN analyst, Pulitzer Prize finalist and yes, a mother of three who gave birth to her first child just months before Sept. 11. Throughout her career, she has been working nonstop to protect our country and respond swiftly and responsibly to “black swan” threats like terrorist bombings, unpredictable natural disasters (she was on hand for both Hurricane Katrina and a 7.8 earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010) and even an anthrax hoax that resulted in her making one of the biggest blunders as a parent.
Just to give you some idea of how we’re all much more alike than we are different: During the height of the post-9/11 anthrax scare, Kayyem opened an envelope at her office one day, and a powdery, white substance trickled out from the paper. Suspecting it could be the deadly anthrax, she proceeded to call the police and, ignoring everything she had been taught (which included quarantining herself in her office), rushed home to her infant daughter because the idea of the mystery person who sent her the envelope finding her little girl and harming her was too much to bear. Put simply, her emotions and instinct to protect her child won over rational thinking that day.
“A lot of times, under stress, we don’t put our thinking caps on, and I wanted to admit I do that too, and I did that in a really extreme case,” Kayyem tells SheKnows.
While many parents might chalk up that decision to a natural parental instinct, Kayyem doesn’t make excuses for her behavior. She peppers her book with examples of why it’s crucial we learn from mistakes, both the ones we make as parents and as citizens who inherited a much shakier homeland after 2001. She argues in favor of applying the lessons we learn to what will, inevitably, be more disasters that will strike sometime in the foreseeable future.
Reflecting on her own anthrax scare and mistake, she writes, “There is no question it was a stressful time, no doubt I was suffering from postpartum depression, no debate that the government’s response was abysmal and did not inspire confidence. But I was going on pure instinct. And sometimes, instinct is bad.”
Kayyem says she wants others to see how even she, a person trained in the art of calm and collective reasoning under pressure, can forget everything when stakes are high and our child’s safety is at the forefront of our minds. Without realizing it, Kayyem says, we assume our kids would know what to do in a crisis without talking to them about basic details — such as where they should go if there is an emergency or whether to run or hide if a shooter enters their school. She talks openly with her daughter and two sons about shooters and advises them to run and keep running if they can. These discussions, though painful, must be had, and we must present children their options in a rational manner so they feel prepared to respond to the tragedy we hope they never encounter.
Given Security Mom‘s focus on the safety of both families and the nation, the contentious topic of childhood vaccinations had to be addressed, and Kayyem, to her credit, doesn’t skirt the issue or try to play both sides.
“Here I am, someone who has traveled the world and knows the history of death and destruction in our country,” Kayyem says. “The change in public health policy and medicine over the last 80 to 90 years has given our children the ability to combat childhood diseases that children in other parts of the world don’t have. It’s the one attribute that keeps our society as a whole safer.”
Kayyem is an advocate for vaccinations, not simply because they keep her children safe, but because she considers it a civic duty and an obligation parents have to other families and the country as a whole. She says the only way someone can feel confident their children will not get a disease is knowing that we’ve eradicated the disease precisely because the vast majority of people have vaccinated their children.
“I want people to recognize it’s not just about my child or your child — it’s about all of our children and the society we have given them,” she says.
Whether or not you agree with her stance on vaccinations, it’s difficult not to feel a connection with Kayyem, because her problems are your problems. OK, maybe not all of her problems, unless you too had to field countless angry calls about the BP oil spill, but as far as her parenting tribulations are concerned and the challenges she faces as a working mother, it all sounds vaguely familiar.
There’s the conference call with Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, where she forgot to press the mute button and everyone heard her yell at her son for losing one of his Crocs on the way to the beach. The painstaking decision to shut down schools ahead of a blizzard that never happened, knowing darn well she’d be up all night, trying to find caretakers for her children. There was the time her otherwise wonderfully supportive mother criticized her for traveling and working too much, and she responded with, “Mom, they don’t have an alternative mother… They have the mother they know, and if you are the best mother you can be, that’s good enough for them.”
And, of course, there’s the self-doubt when she couldn’t breastfeed her son, who required a lot more food than she could produce. The lesson she acquired is one for the mommy books: “My baby was happy after we accepted his needs for what they were,” she says. “You can kill yourself trying to live by some ideology and perfect parenting model — for me it’s preparing and pivoting.”
But one of the most important and giving revelations Kayyem gifts us with in Security Mom is her truth about what it was like to raise her daughter, Cecilia, after giving birth to her less than two months before 9/11. Despite her high-profile and high-stakes career, one in which she was and continues to be one of few women in power, Kayyem had to admit to herself that she was depressed, and she sought treatment and medication to help with her postpartum depression.
“I was trying to separate 9/11 from my life,” Kayyem says. “I did go on drugs. They helped incredibly and helped me snap back into shape. Even as an expert who rationalized what was going on, I needed the drugs. Even experts can get impacted and traumatized by the things we get paid to justify.”
In other words, we’re all in this together, and we all feel the effects of tragedy. If we all can just learn to “prepare and pivot,” we’ll come out of it just fine — as will our kids.