01 February 2006

and i live in a liberal city

Two letters to the editor of my local paper caught my eye this morning (2nd and 3rd down). They each make some interesting remarks about parenting that I took issue with -- and it's interesting, because they each seem innocent enough at first, but neither actually squares with reality.

I'll start with the second, because it's the less malicious of the two:

Since the 1960s, motherhood in our society has been considered a calling that is of little value. However, since we have been witnessing the destruction of the American family, more mothers of today are choosing to stay at home with their children. They are discovering that a successful career is not based on monetary earnings but on the satisfaction of being able to personally participate in the raising of a new generation of good citizens. There is no greater power.

Still true today is the well-known phrase, "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world."

At first I liked this letter. Anything that praises motherhood can't be all bad. I agree that little value is put on being a stay-at-home-mom (although I disagree that motherhood itself, as the writer says, is of little value; on the contrary, it's society's highest calling for a woman). But it was the end of the letter that gave me pause: "There is no greater power" than raising a new generation of good citizens. I do think it's important that parents raise their children well, but to say that this gives mothers power? What kind of power is she talking about? Not economic, not political, not personal. Oh, right, the power of changing the world a generation down the road through those good citizens she's raised. She'd better hope she has boys, though, because any daughters will presumably be making the best use of their time by raising still more good citizens.

And "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world"? It's a nice thought, but I'd like to be given one example where power and change have come from those who stayed home and raised babies. Which societies, which communities exactly, have been ruled by mothers? Last I knew, the world was being run by white men, precious few of whom ever literally rocked any cradles. The women who won suffrage, the men and women who triumphed in the Civil Rights movement, the women who broke barriers in the corporate world in the '70s and '80s, all did so not because they were raising their children in the hopes of their children creating a better world, but because they took initiative themselves to change the world where they saw injustice.
I do value child-rearing, more than most people, I suspect, since I know firsthand what a difficult job it is. But I'm under no illusions that this job gives me any kind of power, except over my children, and sometimes not even then. Because even children are individual, autonomous beings, and even kids raised by a stay-at-home parent can become addicted to drugs, or commit crimes, or become racist or sexist or an asshole. Parenting is about laying a foundation, preparing your child for the world, but there comes a point where you have to cross your fingers and hope there are no earthquakes or floods headed his way. It all comes down to what your child does with what you've given him, and you really have no power over what happens.

No, the power in this sitaution resides with whoever convinced this woman that being a throwback to the 1950s gives her any kind of power.

The second letter pretends to blame parents for society's ills, but underhandedly places the blame squarely on mothers' shoulders:

"We as voters and taxpayers in New York have allowed our elected officials to put into place social programs that exonerate recipients of any responsibility for their actions. It is a system that rewards bad behavior, enables and promotes single-parent families, often with multiple fathers, and removes incentive for these people to change... It does not take a village to raise a child; it takes a committed parent to raise a child."

You like that? He never mentions mothers specifically, but he doesn't have to. Because who is typically the head of a single-parent family? That's right, a mother. And who can have children by multiple fathers? Yep, women. Why isn't he asking how many different women those men have fathered children with? Why isn't he calling for absent fathers to become more involved with their children, or calling for stricter enforcement of child support laws? He might as well come right out and say that social programs should be abolished because he doesn't want his tax dollars supporting those slutty single mothers who force the community to raise their children while they engage in "bad behavior", whatever that entails.

You know, I hate the individualistic attitude some people have. No one is asking you to raise anyone else's children. But as a society we are dooming ourselves to failure if we don't support those who need help, particularly children. Because guess what? Some parents can't get the job done alone. I don't think this guy has any idea what it's like to be poor and dependent on social programs for your very survival. It's not exactly paradise to deal with overworked social workers, or to deal with the stigma attached to public assistance, or, you know, to not be self-sufficient. Are some parents lazy? Are some abusing the system? Sure, but some are also employed, some have left abusive situations, some have been laid off, some are grad students with families who get paid next to nothing. Nobody plans to be on welfare, on food stamps, on Medicaid. But things happen unexpectedly, and that's what social programs are for: to help those who need help. Not to support them or "enable" them. And as for providing no incentive for change, well, I can tell you right now that this man has never visited a social services office in the middle of a weekday to renew his Medicaid coverage, because that alone is enough to encourage a person to get out of the system.

Obviously the ideal is that parents will be the primary providers and caretakers of their children. But the reality is that that's not always possible. So should we promote an impossible ideal, or should we face up to reality and deal with the situation as it actually exists? Should we punish children for the shortcomings of their parents by cutting social programs, or should we simply help those who need help? And that's not to say we should be handing out the fish -- teaching them to fish, giving them a rod and reel to start with, should be part of the program. As the "motherhood is power" woman said, these are American's future citizens, future leaders. It's in society's best interest to help all of those citizens live up to their potential, because unfortunately, parents can't or won't always do that. I wonder if the author of this letter sincerely believes that cutting social programs will benefit those who are now depending on them? I can't figure out if people like this man actually can't understand what it's like to be poor, or if they aren't even trying to understand.

Unfortunately, these are pretty common attitudes that I've come across more than a few times. But there are so many issues parents have to deal with -- I don't think it helps anyone to universally praise or condemn any one class of parents. There are already so many ridiculous expectation put on parents that adding more to the pile of things we won't be able to live up to won't benefit anyone. Is it too much to ask that we accept that all people and situations are different, and no one solution is right for everyone?


kim said...

Regarding the first letter, I think there's a difference between power and influence. Yes, mothers have power in that they can force their kids to do things like going to their rooms or sitting in car seats, but that power erodes down to nothing, beginning from the child's ability to say "no" until the teen years, when it can be virtually non-existant.

What mothers do have is influence, which can be very significant, albeit on a limited scope. Mothers can instill values, help to shape a child's worldview and behavior, promote discipline and good habits, etc. And this influence can lead to larger societal change (although on a much slower basis than direct political and social action) - men's attitudes toward housework or women working outside the home have changed in large part due to their feminist mothers' upbringing. However, this approach is limited because mothers can generally only influence their own kids. The "power" begins and ends with the children, leaving most women with several decades of powerlessness, based on this model. Many women (and men) don't have careers that give them much power, so the more enduring legacy of having children can be more meaningful in their lives, but "power" really isn't the appropriate description.

I also could add some snarky comments about how women are staying home with their children for economic reasons and these same economic reasons (fuelled by soulless corporations and stingy government policies that force more risk on workers, encourage high health care costs, promote low-wage service jobs, squelch unions, and exacerbate the gap between rich and poor) contribute to the destruction of the American family, complicating the writer's simplistic idea of conservative family values, but this comment's already getting too long. (I agree with your points on the second letter and may get to writing on some similar themes myself sometime soon.)

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.