I recently logged a solid hour researching mushrooms online.
Not even fun ones. Death cap mushrooms. Why? Because, whilst trolling the web that evening, an article had popped up on my screen, bearing news that a toddler had died after accidentally ingesting a death cap. He’d found it growing on a neighbour’s lawn. The article went on to warn that these mushrooms are becoming more common in North America.
Well. There went my bedtime. I now had to research exactly how to identify a death cap mushroom and what to do if I suspected that one of my children had consumed one. The internet helpfully supplied not only this information, but supplanted it with additional details for me to consider. A sure way to identify death caps, one site advised, was to look at the tree around which the mushrooms were growing. Death caps prefer to congregate around European hardwoods, such as hornbeams. Could I identify a hornbeam? A peek at my browsing history from this point forward would reveal a tentative step into the rabbit hole of European flora transports, followed by a freefall into the cavernous depths of tree taxonomy. I went to bed very late, feeling very frazzled. Not only was I unsure about my mycology skills, but I couldn’t seem to get my European hardwoods straight, either.
On a walk the next day, my toddler approached me, wearing a wide smile. He was clutching something in his hand. “And what have you got there?,” I asked, squatting to his level.
“Mushroom!” he bellowed, proffering a sweaty palmful of fungus.
To say I overreacted is an understatement. As I was cleaning up mushroom shrapnel in the aftermath (it turned out not to be a death cap), it occurred to me that perhaps reading online horror stories was not so much protecting me from life as making me fearful of it.
I thought back to the other stories I had read about tragic and unusual accidents.
There was the article on button batteries that left me checking all our battery-operated toys in a frenzy; the story of a toddler swallowing morphine that had my husband restraining me from questioning our relatives on their medication use; the essay about giant hogweed that led me to suspiciously eye the flora at our local park. There were the stories of suspected attempts at child snatchings that made me hold my kids close at Ikea, and the accounts of vaccine damage that left me wary of the approaching round of tetanus shots.
At the time, I felt that reading these stories was paying my due diligence, doing my homework to ensure that my children remained safe. It was my duty as a mother, I believed, to discover all of the ways in which my children could be harmed, in order to protect them from a similar fate.
But now, as I stumbled blearily ahead of my children, scanning the ground for mushrooms, I wasn’t so sure anymore. Was I educating myself or just filling my mental space with needless clutter?
The internet ensures that all of the one-in-a-million horror stories are conveniently condensed into a steady stream of information and swiftly conveyed to us. In doing so, these incidents appear more common and threatening than they actually are. (For instance, when I checked the stats on actual death-cap-mushroom-related deaths, the grand total in my country is 1.)
Cautionary tales used to be harvested locally. Limits on long-distance communication meant that our news networks focused their energies on the immediate area of its audience. Now, globalization ensures that all manner of terrifying news from across the world is funneled directly to our doorsteps.
In addition to having a much-wider reach, news broadcasters have also increased reporting times. Once-daily reporting via the newspaper or radio progressed to the 9-, 3- and 6-o’clock news on TV and now to the modern 24/7 news via internet and cable.
The increased rate and reach of reporting create the illusion that Very Bad Things are encircling us like a relentless pack of wolves. News, I have to remind myself, is a business. Using fear as clickbait is an effective way to boost ratings, shares and views. It triggers worry, alarm, and our need to protect ourselves from danger. It’s a form of marketing, and it works.
Business may be business, but I’m no longer so sure I want someone to profit from my fear.
Anyways, when we do eventually end up in the ER, it’s not because of mushrooms or batteries or medication. While on an evening stroll around our neighborhood, our toddler falls out of the stroller: he plummets a grand total of three inches.
Head wounds, I discover, produce a grotesque amount of blood. As we rush to the hospital, it occurs to me that danger lurks even in the safest of places. Having children opens a door to worry we never knew existed — we love them more than our own lives and we would do anything to keep them safe. Some things we can control. But most we can’t. I’ve heard this a million times, but in a world of endless information, of horror stories and liability and lawsuits, it never occurred to me that sometimes things just happen. That maybe I can’t prepare myself for every exigency. That perhaps I don’t have to.
The doctor tells us that our son has a minor concussion, but won’t need stitches. I wipe away tears, clutch his warm body close and feel boundlessly grateful that he is safe. Just as his fall was out of my control, so was the outcome. This realization fills me with both peace and gratitude. As we head home, I decide to focus on staying informed instead of reading endless horror stories. There’s already enough to worry about in a day.
I won’t put my head in the sand, but I will no longer treat this type of reading as a motherly duty. When real dangers present themselves, I’ll be vigilant. I’ll prevent and protect where I have the ability to do so, and let go of the rest. Our parental instincts already largely ensure our attentiveness, with no extra manufactured effort or research on our part.