Zebras in the Yard


Let me say this first: I adore my Dad.  As far as Dads and people go, my father is, and always was, pretty amazing. He is uber-smart, loving, supportive, funny, charming and is undeniably the best role model for the importance of family. Now that I’ve made that clear, here’s the but: But, he makes me crazy.

Everything for my Dad comes with a risk that he must expunge in order to feel less anxiety himself. Going out for a Fall drive? Did you know that damp Autumn leaves are as slippery and dangerous for a driver as a sheet of ice? That recent cough that is probably allergies? Have you travelled on a plane recently? Could be a pulmonary embolism. Go see a doctor.

My childhood training by my unduly risk averse father, taught me that life is scary and that all risks should be avoided or fretted through. This has lead to our family jokingly repeating the air travel mantra: “Call me when you leave the house; call me when you are en route to the airport; call me when you arrive at the airport; call me when you board the plane; call me before the plane takes off…” You’ve got the picture.

Risks are a part of life and are everywhere and in everything. I have struggled in my adulthood to discern and distinguish between that which is a genuine threat from that which presents a relatively low risk and yields a sufficiently high reward.

My father once told me that in his medical training he learned the analogy that “if you hear animal hooves approaching, think horses before zebras.” And yet, in real life, I gleaned from his words and actions to expect that at any time, black and white stripes might appear in our suburban Maryland yard.

In my late thirties, I desired to acquire the ability to snow ski .  Now, a decade later, I spend indescribably joyful days gliding down the mountains of Colorado. I know I could break a leg, or tear an ACL, or receive a concussion, or worse, (oh my!) But, I do it anyway. The benefits to my physical and emotional being far outweigh the potential risks that come with the activity.  Risks are a part of life and are everywhere and in everything.  I have struggled in my adulthood to discern and distinguish between that which is a genuine threat from that which presents a relatively low risk and yields a sufficiently high reward.  But despite it all, I choose to envision the horses, not the zebras.

When does undue concern rise to the level of risks to avoid?

It’s not always as easy a deliberation, especially when it comes to my kids. Do I curtail our annual family travel plans to our favorite spot in the Caribbean because of Chikungunya virus or now the Zika virus? Do I let my newly licensed teenager drive on a rainy night? Should my fourteen year old daughter be permitted to take Uber with her friends?

I’ve heard it said frequently that with little children, you get little problems and with big children come big problems. When my daughters were little, I had to decide whether or not to let them participate in a field trip or camp, or a sleepover. Now, I have to decide whether I should allow my eldest daughter, Alexa, to study abroad and travel in Copenhagen despite the recent terrorist attacks in Europe.

When faced with tough decisions, I turn to the people in my life whose opinions I trust the most: my husband, family, and my closest friends.

My husband has an even approach to decision-making and, frankly, is most directly impacted by the outcomes. My trusted network of friends is mostly made up of women, like me, raising children, like mine, and facing the same decision-making challenges every day. I come to almost all of my conclusions after much deliberation and hours of conversations over coffee with hubby in the morning, dog walks with friends in the afternoon, and chatting over wine in the evenings with my people.

The internet is often a friend as well, providing me with the opinions and analysis of hundreds of thousands of sources. Most recently, in researching the potential risks to assess for my college daughter and her study abroad desire, I plugged in the search terms: “Travel Abroad;” “Terrorist Risks;” and “College Student” and found some relevant articles to ingest:

http://www.gooverseas.com/blog/parents-speak-up-on-rising-concerns-of-terrorism-and-study-abroad [perspective from a site that promotes pro-study abroad]

“Of course, actual conflict abroad can spark a whole different kind of parental worry that lesser seeming threats, like pickpockets and kids being irresponsible, don’t. From all of the parents we spoke with today, however, they all brought up the same response: attacks can happen anywhere. They felt that their kids are no more safe from terrorism in the U.S. than they are in Europe.”

I also found this:


“At a time of heightened security alerts, travelers should review the State Department’s Alerts and Warnings page. Better yet, sign up for the government’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Plan (STEP), which allows the government to track your whereabouts and warn you of any potential dangers.

Don’t rely exclusively on the government for information, however, says Robert Richardson, author of the book “Ultimate Situational Survival Guide: Self-Reliance Strategies for a Dangerous World.”

“You can learn a lot about potential threats just by researching areas that you plan on traveling through,” [Robert Richardson] says. Terrorists sometimes make specific threats that they subsequently carry out, he says, “so be aware of what’s being said and take it seriously.”

When Alexa was a newborn, I remember pushing her in her stroller and approaching a busy intersection where cars often speed by. I stopped to wait for the cars to pass, allowing for the exact right moment to cross the street safely with my precious baby. My knuckles were white with the stress of holding on too tightly to her carriage. When the moment was right, we crossed the street safely to the other side. The anxiety I felt that morning has never really left me. It comes with being a mother and knowing that I can never really provide a perfectly safe world for my children to thrive.

I don’t know yet what decision my husband and I will make  about our daughter’s abroad program. I know my Dad sees it is an unnecessary risk. But, I will continue to gather information and input until I determine whether to fear that this time there may actually be zebras.

Alexa and Me