published Sunday, July 29th, 2012

My Life: Doing my best to explain life’s worst

by Mary Fortune

My little family reads the newspaper at the breakfast table every morning, passing the sections back and forth over toast and eggs and coffee and tea while we chat about the day ahead.

The boys like to read us the weather forecast and the comics. They look at the pictures — they’re especially partial to anything featuring cars or animals. They scan stories about golf and baseball.

But our 12-year-old is a precocious, alert reader, so our daily newspaper habit also means I’ve had to explain some pretty terrible things to him over our breakfast table. And his 7-year-old brother is an astute listener who effortlessly absorbs everything we say.

So if I want to read the paper with my kids, I have to bring my parenting A-game.

“Did that really happen?” my 12-year-old sometimes asks, wide-eyed, as he reads a horrifying headline.

I’ve had to decide what to tell them — how much to tell them. I teeter on the line between offering the truth, which I think is my chief responsibility as their mom, and scaring them half to death.

This week, the Penn State story caught my son’s eye, with its bold “near-death penalty” headline and its “$60 million fine” subhead. He wanted to know what it meant.

“One of the men who was in charge of the football team was hurting children,” I said. “He was hurting a lot of children for a long time, and some of the other men knew and they didn’t stop him. So they’re trying to figure out the right way to punish everyone.”

He scanned the first few paragraphs of the article. “So is that the right way?”

“I really don’t know,” I said. “Here’s the problem with any punishment they can think of: It doesn’t take away any of the terrible hurt and fear those kids experienced. It doesn’t help them; it doesn’t fix it. It doesn’t ultimately matter that much to the people who desperately needed help. And it makes a lot of other people, who really didn’t have anything to do with it, totally miserable.

“But I truly don’t know if it’s the wrong punishment or the right punishment; it’s just the one they came up with.”

For years, I covered the police beat for this newspaper, chasing scanner traffic to crime scenes and conducting interviews standing in streets draped in yellow crime-scene tape.

Once I became a mother, it all became a lot harder. I see my sons’ faces everywhere, all the time.

I see them in the 13-year-old girl who was shot in the head as she sat on the hood of a car talking with her friends. I envision them cowering, terrified on the floor of a movie theater. I imagine them trapped in a car as the temperature inside soars.

When we talk about the horrors in this world, I sometimes tell my sons that these stories show us that we should do everything in our power to avoid hurting other people or even ourselves. Because no matter how hard you try or how much you might want to, you can’t really fix it once you’ve caused hurt. Punishments don’t help. Apologies don’t fix it. Regret can’t repair. Not really.

As much as I struggle with these conversations, I don’t think shielding my sons from this stuff would accomplish anything. I hope my willingness to talk about whatever they ask shows them they can trust me, that they can ask me anything and I will always answer the best way I know how.

It makes me so sad that they have to live with these realities, but at least I can make sure they begin to consider them in the safest place I know how to offer — looking into their mother’s face at the breakfast table.

Contact Mary Fortune at

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