After I wrote about homeschooling and parenting live and let live, my friend Tamie posted a very interesting, very good comment that inspired me to write a whole new post. A quick excerpt from her comment sums it up well:
I think it's tough because we can't *just* be open-minded. Like, live and let live by itself isn't such a great philosophy, because some people are living in really fucked-up ways. I think that we all have these lines we draw where we say, "Live and let live, except when it comes to X" and "X" is "abuse" or "neglect" or what-have-you. Right?
...It seems to me that this is the reason why so many people are so passionate about what they believe about parenting--because they truly do believe their way is best for children, and in many cases they believe other ways are actually *harmful* to children. You know? And that's a tough one, because there certainly are plenty of common practices that really ARE harmful to children.
It's so interesting in blogging because so often what we say is from a certain context: live and let live about schooling choices, keeping in mind the value of education itself, regardless of method. But Tamie is right. There is a bottom line for most of us regarding acceptable behavior. Is there a bottom line where we say "This far and no further?" Yes. I remember once when I worked for BC Ferries I witnessed a dad emotionally abusing his approximately ten year old son, mocking him and berating him in front of their travel companions, and his son was just so obviously trying overtly to please him. I felt guilty that I silently railed against this dad, and sat by while this boy was abused. It was awful. One of the main reasons I didn't speak up was because I felt it would make little to no overall difference in the dad's behavior. But later I thought, it might make a big difference to the child, to have someone stand up for him and point out the behavior isn't right. I also have wondered about the travel companions. Why didn't one of them say something, gently even, like, "Aw, ease up on him, man!" or something? It's more effective to have someone we know and trust point something out than to have a stranger do it, you know?
In that context live and let live doesn't seem so ethically sound anymore.
However, it's true, what I thought on the ferry: speaking up in an individual situation isn't that effective. It will likely accelerate the abusive or negative behavior towards the child, because it embarrasses the parent, whose coping mechanism is abusive behavior.
Becoming a parent often intensifies feelings of disbelief and horror regarding those who abuse or harm their vulnerable dependents. But parenting also scrapes the bottom of our coping barrels, making us better able to understand HOW someone could, for example, shake a baby in frustration. When you can't cope, you can't cope, dude. Now, we don't actually SHAKE the baby, but we see how someone could feel frustrated enough to feel the impulse. If those of us who grew up in loving families, who are educated and have access to resources to help us as new parents have moments of difficulty coping, how much more would it be so for someone who grew up in chaos or abuse, has minimal education, or doesn't know how to access resources to help them heal?
Also, working in my job, I have been called to several situations of babies being left unattended in hot vehicles, many instances of intoxicated or drug abusing individuals with children, moms in the midst of psychotic mental breakdowns, recipients of long term physical abuse (women, not children), and quite possibly a case of Munchausen's By Proxy involving a child. None of these things was easy to see. But for some reason, I have a lot of empathy for the parents in these situations. They are not stupid. In denial, often. But not stupid. They know that what they are doing is wrong, in most cases. But they cannot cope. They are deeply enslaved to addictions that distract them from things like: the baby shouldn't be left in the car while you go and buy drugs. They feel so much pain and bewilderment and GUILT, and they actually love just as deeply as you and I do. But love isn't enough. I don't condone what these people have done, but I feel deep grief for what they go through, and how FAR they would have to travel to return to a healthy path. How do you forgive yourself for choosing drugs over your daughter and having her apprehended, and then go on to get treatment and support and strive towards health, and then start again with your child after several years of her living in foster care or with relatives? That is not an easy path to walk. Most of them are deeply wounded by their own childhoods or life experiences. And society villifies them.
Will confronting them heal their lack of coping skills? Or addictions? Or childhood wounds? A stranger on a boat cannot fix these things.
But is it right to stand by? What can we do? And how about if we disagree? Family A practices X behavior. Family B thinks it unethical.
Say I were a member of Family A. A stranger or near stranger expressing that X is unethical would feel intrusive, painful, and inappropriate. A friend expressing the same thing might present something thought provoking, but ONLY if sent with kindness and grace and humility. A family member or best friend expressing the same thing likely would inspire deep contemplation on my part of X's ethical foundations. Whether I changed X or not would not be guaranteed, but the contemplation and reevaluation would be. So you can see how being a stranger is not a good place to confront X, whatever it is.
At the same time, I really believe in working towards love and acceptance and validation of individuals, and ALSO system changes. For example, I really believe that the high cesarean rate in our country is indicative of systemic violence towards women. It's unethical. It's unnecessary. And according to the World Health Organization, a cesarean rate higher than 15% indicates that more women and babies are being harmed by the surgery than are being helped by it. But when I meet individual women who have had cesareans, I don't make them feel like crap by criticizing their surgical birth, or making them question the validity of it, or asking them accusing questions like, "Did you move around during labour? Did you have an epidural? Did you hire a doula? Did you get induced?" because those would imply that the WOMAN did something wrong. It's not women who are wrong, for doing the best they can and the best for their own bodies and minds and selves, and for trusting their care providers. It's the SYSTEM that is BROKEN in small ways and big, that contributes to high cesarean rates. So I read lots, advocate for VBACs, write for Mothers of Change, support women as a doula (the presence of a doula reduces surgical birth rates by up to 30% simply by virtue of emotional support, not by being oppositional to medical personnel or flinging themselves in front of surgical knives or anything), and talk about my own experience with surgical birth and VBACs as often as I can to people in society. Though I'm pretty careful around other women who have had surgical births. Because live and let live. And who am I to determine what is best for her? Who am I to make her feel judged, or bad, or misunderstood? I certainly don't appreciate that when it's done to me.
I don't know where this line of thinking leads me. Do I speak up when I see people or children treated in a manner I consider ethically wrong? Or do I simply live and let live and work behind the scenes on systemic changes? My inclination is the latter. But is it the right way? I don't know. Is there a threshold to live and let live? I've certainly talked to patients before about their behavior. Things like, "You know we recommend not smoking when pregnant? I'm sure you've heard that before. But it can be really, really hard. Sometimes your doctor can help you find support groups or medications that can help? But pregnancy can be a stressful time, and a hard time to quit altogether. Most of all, reducing the number of cigarettes in a day as much as you can manage is beneficial." But only if I have a good rapport, and have an opportunity. And I really don't like it. But I'm in a position to make health recommendations because of my job title, you know? If I'm just another mom on the street, I'd be fully expecting to be told to piss off if I talked about smoking and pregnancy.
Some might argue that emotional or physical abuse is different from smoking during pregnancy. But others would consider smoking during pregnancy to BE physical abuse, so it's not a matter of what X unethical behavior may be, but rather how to consider our engagement with X, and with those who disagree about X.
What do you think?