Every morning I would see his picture on the milk carton as I ate Apple Jacks for breakfast. Every evening his photo was on the local TV news. He smiled a lot, just like me. This boy was Etan Patz, who was six years old when he disappeared while walking from his apartment in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan to the corner school bus stop. His disappearance in 1979 terrified, haunted, and traumatized me.
I was seven years old. I lived in Brooklyn — right over the bridge a ten-minute drive from Etan’s home. We were both born in October; our birthdays only days apart. I think I knew this from the milk cartons.
Most parents would agree that they try to shield their kids from scary news stories, but I’m not sure my parents could have shielded my 7-year-old self from the news of Etan’s disappearance. His story took over New York City back then. And even if they could have, the sad truth is that Etan’s disappearance continues to be a mystery and has resurfaced at many different points over the past three decades. As my life evolved, new leads on the cold case re-emerged and forced the story back on the news. And it happened again this past week: Another new lead, more headlines, and TV news stories. And then another dead end. And more heartache for Etan’s parents.
But things are different this news cycle. I’m a mom now, and it’s painfully dawning on me that Etan’s disappearance scarred me so deeply, it affected the way I’ve been parenting.
Though New York today is nowhere near what it was like in the 1980s — there isn’t graffiti everywhere, crime isn’t rampant, and Times Square is more like Disneyland than a seedy, red-light district — I still fear for my child. Sure, growing up in the city makes one more sensible and independent, and New York is a much safer city today, but as a parent, I feel like there’s danger behind every corner. To me, the city still feels like the same scary place for kids that it was when I was a child. I realize this is completely irrational and purely emotional, but it’s my reality.
As a mom raising an increasingly independent nine-year-old boy, this reality of mine is becoming a problem. I don’t know how much longer he’ll tolerate me waiting outside of the men’s bathroom in the movie theater, coming up with excuses to call his name to assure me he’s okay. Even though there are security cameras in our building and doormen alert at all times, if he rides the elevator alone, I only unclench when I know he’s arrived safely at our door.
My over protection is not healthy for me or for him. I know it, and it saddens me. As the next couple of years approach, I know I will have to learn to keep my fears to myself (or hold my breath for long periods of time) and help him learn to be confident in his independence.
I know it can be done. I would classify my own parents as the protective type, but despite it (or perhaps because of Etan) I grew into a teenager with a very good head on my shoulders navigating the city carefully and extra aware of my surroundings. My first step is to remind myself of this life skill I mastered and pass that along to my son, rather than retreat to a place where my irrational fears I have for him live. I know I can do it.
Yes, I was deeply affected by the story of Etan Patz. My goal is that it will not affect the next generation.
Photo Source: AP/ ABC