In many ways, raising kids in New Orleans isn’t that much different than raising kids anywhere. There are still potty-training and tantrums to grapple with. There’s still the refusal to eat anything other than chicken nuggets. There are still the lows of cleaning vomit out of the crevices of the car seat or pacing the floor with a feverish child at 3 a.m. There are still the highs of sweet hugs and sticky kisses or watching your child wobble away on a bike with training wheels. There are still skinned knees and Dora Band-Aids and puddle-splashing and Popsicles and annoying catchy songs that get stuck in your head and Never. Go. Away. There are still scary dreams and imaginary friends and hard-to-answer questions and Legos that you step on in the middle of the night. There are still teachable moments and missed opportunities and times you laughed when you shouldn’t have. So much of this is universal.
But raising a child in this city –– in any city –– is different in many ways. I, obviously, think the pros (museums and other cultural opportunities, greater exposure to other cultures and cuisines) outweigh the cons (crime, pollution, noise).
In the last city –– really more of a small town –– we lived in, the opera was terrible and the Korean food was atrocious, but we had deer in our backyard and a murder made the front page for at least a week instead of four murders being condensed into one small rectangle on the bottom of the Metro section the way they are here.
Just the other night, I was coming home from the grocery store at about 8 p.m. with my daughter, Ruby, in the backseat when I happened upon a murder scene just blocks from my house. This was only weeks after a shooting right in front of the corner store where she and I would often walk for a sweet treat after dinner –– and we don’t live in a dangerous neighborhood.
“Mama, what happened?” Ruby asked me when she saw the blue-and-red lights of the ambulance and the police cars blocking the street. “Someone got hurt?”
“Yes, baby,” I told her as I made a hasty U-turn in the middle of the road. “I guess someone got hurt.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know, sweetie,” I said. “I don’t know what happened.”
And I don’t. No one does. How could we?
Honestly, this could have been a car accident, and the questions would have been just as rough. Ruby’s still too young to understand that it was a shooting, too young to be scared, too young to know the difference.
But she won’t be forever. And how do you explain something so inexplicable as the endless murders in this city?
Then again, we as parents have to explain plenty of inexplicable things: Why do nice people get cancer? Why do pets have to die? Why does anyone eat canned asparagus? I guess we just have to rise to the challenge and answer the questions as honestly and as well as we can. And “I don’t know” is often going to be the best we can do.
Violence occurs frequently here, and it affects my family, bleeds into our safe middle-class world, more than I wish it did. Still in all, though, even growing up in New Orleans, I think my daughter is more likely to be hurt by the same middle-class things that hurt middle-class children all over America –– not having the right sneakers, not having the right jeans, not having the right hairstyle, not being the right weight –– than by violence. In other words, I guess I’m more worried about raising a daughter in America than I am about raising a daughter in New Orleans.
And the good things –– the good things here can be so wonderful. Watching Ruby dance as we walk down Frenchmen Street, running through the rain with her at Jazz Fest, listening to her launch into “They All Asked for You” as we walk into the Audubon Zoo, catching stuffed animal after stuffed animal at Carnival parades, stopping every morning for fresh produce from Sal the Fruit Stand Guy, knowing what she’ll be eating at school every Monday for lunch: Every single one of these things makes me smile.
Do they cancel out the violence?
“Mama, what happened?”
Do they cancel out the horror?
“Mama, is him hurt?”
Do they cancel out the fact that it’s someone else’s child, from another part of town, bleeding in the gutter behind the crime tape?
“Mama, you crying?”
Is it worth it?
I think so.
But I don’t know. No one does. How could we?