You are not allowed to die
One of my dear friends has one simple house rule: You are not allowed to die.
"Shira was probably about 10, Francie was about 8, and one of them said to me: 'Mom, what are the rules we have?' and my answer was, 'You are not allowed to die.'"
If you know my friend, Hannah Rosenthal, you know this rule is pure her. Simple, logical albeit a tad outrageous, but born from common sense, intelligence and love.
It sounds like a joke. "Well, it probably started as a joke," says Hannah. "But it became my mantra." Hannah is never one to let go.
"I think the girls appreciated that there were not a million different house rules," says Hannah. "But no matter what, they knew they were not allowed to do anything that increased the likelihood they might die."
When you think about it, it is that simple. As parents, we want our children to flourish, to learn, to prosper. None of that is possible if their life is cut short. So it is the overriding rule of child-rearing, always with us, but never spoken, except in quiet desperation.
Once, as I sat in a cold bathtub trying to cool down my fevered infant son, I said it. I was too tired, too scared to know the words were out loud. "Don't die," I whispered as I cradled him in my arms. "Please God, don't die."
I heard those same words from another mother at her son's hospital bedside, a bullet lodged in his spine. We were two very different people. Still, at that moment, I realized how alike all parents are. "Don't die," she whispered. "Please God, don't die."
From the time they are born, we spend whatever we can, do whatever we must, move, build, medicate, consult and cleanse to keep them safe, to keep them alive.
We drove our first born home from the hospital in my cool little silver sports car. It was my first new car, I bought to make my more than 15-hour-a-week commute fun. But with Bryant in the car, I felt as though we were in a tin can with a bulls-eye. I freaked out and almost suffocated Bryant, covering him with my body, thinking in sleep-deprived, new-mommy logic that I could shield him in the event of a crash.
As we pulled up to the house, I said to my husband, "Get us a safe car." My husband knew you don't argue with a woman who has just given birth and besides, he felt the same. When we drove to our two-week doctor visit, we were in a tank, a big heavy, grey, box-nothing sleek or sexy about it. But it was beautiful. It actually went "ker-chunk" when you closed the door. It felt safe, it was rated safe and it even sounded safe.
But in recent years, it has struck me how hard it is to keep them safe-especially, when it is not about things, but about behavior.
For Hannah and her husband, their guidelines evolved from the rule. "It was simple: You can't drive in a car with anyone who has been drinking and they are not allowed into a house where there is a gun," says Hannah.
And just as we stole Hannah's mantra, we have stolen those guidelines and built a few more to give the boys structure to make safe choices. So, I thought I was doing well-until last month, as I was talking to Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of "The Hungry Gene: The Science of Fat and the Future of Thin."
"We have an outbreak of obesity and we are not dealing with it," she said. "As parents, what are we doing about it? How are we helping our children?"
Children who have a bad diet have a better chance of becoming overweight, which can carry into adulthood and can lead to the big killers, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and high blood pressure. The problem is you rely too much on fast and processed food and your children do not exercise. As a mother, you are a loser. Why don't you just stuff their arteries with cotton? OK, she didn't say that, but that's what I heard.
I was a bit overwhelmed. How do I keep them safe? How do I help them make the right choices?
It took me a few days to realize Ellen is right, this is not impossible.
So, we are doing our own version of food processing-we've started to change our lifestyle as a family. We're planning menus, reading labels and looking at what serving size really means. We're trying to take it step-by-step. We even had a good-bye celebration to old ways.
Granted, none of this has been easy. It's taken weeks to start and the first changes are not that dramatic. It wouldn't work that way. The biggest change is that we are talking about it, just like the other risks we take. We are talking about what we put into our bodies and how it affects us. So, the other day when Zach, 10, asked for his favorite snack food, he added, "But I will have 21 pieces, just one serving."
You'll hear more about this. I'm keeping a diary. But I'm hoping what we are teaching is balance as well as how can you keep your insides and your outsides safe. We put food choice under the rule: You are not allowed to die-a life lesson for the children to carry with them and take seriously. I want this to become as natural as stepping off the curb.
"The girls always took it seriously," says Hannah. "Just this weekend, I was with Shira and she stepped off the curb and I put my hand on her and she said, 'I know Mom, I know, I'm not allowed to die.' She's 24."