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I’ve been working on an essay on another subject for weeks now, taking notes about poetry and desire, desire and the search for God. But whenever I sit down to write, all I can think about are concentration camps. It happens every night when I get in bed, too. I get under the covers, my body begins to relax, and then I think of them—the migrant children taken from their parents and held in atrocious conditions in detention centers in the United States. Teenage mothers holding newborns in cells too full for people to sleep lying down. Men and women separated from loved ones, malnourished, their backs and hips aching, their psyches and spirits in shock, from what compelled them to leave their home countries, from their arduous journey, and from what met them when they tried to seek asylum at the U.S. border. When my son wakes at night to come find me, spooked that the smoke alarm in his room is blinking, I think of them—the children separated from anything familiar who call and call for their mothers, but whose mothers are prevented from coming to them.

Mother friends of mine report that the state of affairs in our nation is affecting their parenting, their mental health, their relationships. These are women who donate what they can, who march in the streets, who take supplies to immigrants in their towns and drive them to court dates. It’s not enough. We are living in a nation in which abusers are in charge, and our hearts are broken.

A woman I follow on Instagram reports of her experience having a newborn during this time in our nation: “Yesterday, I woke up, held him, and sobbed…My body has been radically transformed— now, with the body of a mother, all those children are my child, all those mothers are me.”  I remember those days after my son’s birth, when care hormones flooded my body and my psyche was overwhelmed by the existential overload of being responsible for the life of a completely helpless human being. Those were the days when just the thought of a child being harmed set me weeping, when the sound of a lamb bleating on television made me start from my seat to check on the baby. It’s a small comfort that I’m past the infant years with my son. Now, I’m left to imagine my six-year-old caring for babies in detention, sobbing for me at night, sick and uncared for, hungry and barely being fed. What is this nightmare being done in our name? Who will stop it?

I first started writing about parenting in the Trump era before the election even happened. Trump was a television personality who seemed to be running as a publicity stunt and who was being given copious coverage by the media. Then he was the presidential nominee of the Republican party. Alarm bells were ringing within me, and I wrote an essay about how one mothers when the political and cultural climate feels dangerous to those we love. It was a piece about mortality, middle age tiredness, racism, and the nervousness of the gifted child who picks up on more than he can process. 

I wrote about taking my then-three-year-old to the beach and trying to manage his anxiety about the ocean and natural disasters, even as I was managing my own anxieties about aging, racial violence and parenting. Late in the essay, I write of the necessity of letting my biracial child learn “to hold more than one thing in his mind at the same time,” how “I have to let him feel that intuitive knowledge he came to on his own, that the ocean is indeed scary and that one must proceed with caution, while also encouraging him to know its beauty.”  This, I explain, is “a parenting version of negative capability, Keats’ term for the poet’s capacity to hold in mind ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.’ So, too, as both a poet and a mother, I have to exist with the ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts and reason.’”

Irritable reaching after reason, though, is hard to give up, and three years later, I am wondering about the limits of negative capability.  I haven’t slept properly since that summer. I’m the mom who shows up at school and camp drop-off looking slightly crazed, but I’ve found there’s no way to explain it without alarming people—“Haven’t slept right since the election…Have you read the news? Do you know what’s going on?”

Even moments of happiness carry with them an undercurrent of injustice.  What does it mean, for example, to “live happily during the war,” in the words of the poet Ilya Kaminsky?

Kaminsky tweeted recently that the current conditions in the U.S. remind him of the USSR of his childhood. What does it mean, then, to be a poet and a parent at this time? If the poetry of those who wrote under oppressive regimes has a clue for us, it is this: Continue witnessing humanity, and use your voice while you can.

Part of my witnessing these days is to say frankly that I don’t know how to parent while other parents are having their children ripped from them and kept in detention centers in my country. I mostly keep the news from my son, but he is learning of injustice. I’ll have to start being honest with him about how I can’t fix everything for him or for other children. Most things I cannot fix.

Now he is ready for bed, wearing pajamas with police cars on them, and I am telling him how I love the sea, breathing with him slowly in and out.  I have closed the heavy balcony curtains completely, to make it darker and also to block out the offending waves, but I scratch his back and tell him that some people find it soothing, the sound of the waves and their movement, how they move slowly in and back out, in and back out, chhhhh chhhhh.  He’s falling asleep, and I’m thinking, “What do I know?” 

The horrors are real, the traumas are real, tenderness is real, and I will speak about it.      


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Joanna Penn Cooper

Poet and essayist Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl's Guide to Self-Hypnosis (Brooklyn Arts Press) and What Is a Domicile (Noctuary Press). She holds a PhD in English from Temple University and has taught at Marquette and Fordham. Her work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day feature, as well as South Dakota Review, Zócalo Public Square, Open Letters Monthly, Poetry International, and other journals. Cooper teaches online workshops in flash memoir and lyric essay for the journal Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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