Sunday, September 26, 2010

Live and Let Live

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?


Rachel Clear said...

This was a great post. Great post. I struggle with this all of the time. Years ago, I was one of those people who just always spoke up. Always. And I realized that #1 people found this annoying. #2 I wasn't always right. And #3 it wasn't always my place and might have been counterproductive. Now I rarely speak up EVER and I feel I've let the pendulum swing. There are times when we MUST speak up, I'm convinced. And like you said, knowing when is a real biatch. It really is.

I have a person in my life that ALWAYS speaks up (usually in a way that suggests that the opposite of whatever I'm doing is actually best) and my sister and I were discussing it and she said, "Maybe you could tell X that you'd only like her opinion when it is a matter of safetly..." but we quickly discovered that to X, every matter was a matter of safetly, in her opinion. It's tough.

For me to tackle this issue, I've had to take the things I'm passionate about and divide them in to categories and sort of decide ahead of time which categories I feel STRONGLY enough about to actually speak up about consistently. And the rest (that are mere opinions, like EC or something), I just let go. They don't matter. They aren't a big deal. They aren't harmful one way or the other. Who cares! But other issues (like abuse, for instance) are a big deal, and it's my obligation, no matter how awkward for me to do so.

Great post!

Rachel Clear said...

Darn you and your awesome posts. I am supposed to be working right now.

Caryn Ouwehand said...

Okay... wowzer. this post is so loaded. I love it. such a good debate.

In my job I watch people out Recreation-ing all the time with their kids, and man have I seen some Horrid stuff... all the way to sexual abuse of a child in public. H.O.R.R.I.D.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you mention that there is a definate line or a threshold to which one must cross before it is appropriate to intervine, and I personally live by the policy, "is the kid getting hurt/abused?" if the answer is no, I do nothing. But as you also pointed out with the smoking thing during pregnancy where exactly is that "abuse line."

Grey. Grey. Grey.

Oh World, why art thou so Grey.

In terms of the Nancy-know-it-alls that have something to saw about everything, they will soon have no friends. The universe is good at evening out stuff like that I find.

Sarah said...

This was just great.

De-lurking again (I've only commented once before!).

You've really made me think here about the best way to react when stuck in the grey, when something isn't clearly abuse or neglect but fits in somewhere else, and I think your philosophy is absolutely the most respectful to both parents and children. I like what you said about working towards system changes, and also reacting with grace and kindness and humility.

Without sharing my whole story on your blog, I am a married lesbian parent with two children, and a part of the population views just me being a parent as unethical and abusive towards my children. People have made inappropriate and degrading comments to my wife, our children and I, just because we are lesbians and parents, not based on our parenting or anything they've witnessed between us and our children. Just us being parents is offensive enough to them to warrant (in their opinion) comments. And all of those people should read your post. Not because I need them to agree with our lives or with our decision to be parents, but because they should react with love, kindness, humility and grace, as they try to understand us and we also try to understand them.

Thank you! Great read. You always make me think.

ms emili louann said...

loving these posts! agreeing with you tremendously - thank you, thank you :)


tamie said...

Mel...thanks for writing this wonderfully thought-provoking post. I think that the best part of what you wrote, for me, was about how as a parent you can understand the feelings of tremendous frustration that would lead a parent to shake a child. What really resonated with me there was the importance of being able to access, deep in our hearts, the feeling that if we were in that parent's exact same shoes we'd do the same things. I think that that understanding, of how difficult it is to be that other person (that other person who is doing something we believe is wrong/damaging/abusive/etc.), and to understand on a visceral level (or even just a cognitive level) the suffering that other person might be going through. Then we can respond from compassion and humility, as you said.

Your post reminded me of this moment when I was at a lake, watching a boat come in one time. The parents on the boat had been drinking and they were really snapping at their kids. They were also smoking around their children, and when the boat moored at the dock, the father grabbed one of his children by the arm really hard when the child didn't do what the father wanted. I watched all of this and felt really upset at how the kids were being treated, at the fact that the parents were smoking around their children (not b/c it's immoral but b/c of second-hand smoke), and the fact that they were drinking and operating a boat. The thing is though, what do I know about this family? Maybe the father was just starting to be involved in his child's life after a long time away, and he felt overwhelmed? Maybe the parents are parenting much, much better than their own parents, and they actually deserve kudos more than judgment. The fact is that I have no idea. I didn't talk to them or anything, but it's just a good reminder that you truly do not know what others are going through, particularly others who are strangers.

In general, it does seem like the best plan to try to stick to dialogue with people you know well, and to try to support organizations and groups, etc., who are working toward positive change.

One of the difficult questions for me is: how to talk to people you know well, about things you feel are super important but disagree about? (I gave that example of spanking in my original comment--something that is really tough for me--I can't stand to be around people who spank their children, but I don't want to lose all of those friends either...)

Thanks for a really great post, Mel.

Keli said...

Mel, I really like your thoughts.
My core belief is that people are doing the best that they can in most to all situations. Sometimes one's best isn't good enough, as you wrote, and that is why we have laws and statutory bodies to protect children and vulnerable adults.
I am not a parent and don't have a desire to be but I'd like to share a slightly different perspective on the questions of if/when/how to intervene.
I worked in violence, victims and perpetrators of war and later domestic violence. Moms who flee from abusive homes are very vulnerable dropping off and picking up their children at school. Some women I worked with were attacked repeatedly at the gate of their child's school in full view of other parents. The school run is one part of a family schedule that can't be changed or hidden very easily.
What the people I worked with inspired me to do in relation to public/stranger confrontations of abuse is simple. I try to appear unafraid and I check in with the victim to see if she/he would like me to intervene in some way.
For example, walking home from a gig with a friend one night there was a couple in an ally. The guy was yelling and physically towering over his partner using what I thought was abusive language. He was not physially touching her, nor was she screaming or asking for help. However, I stopped and asked the woman if she was ok. Her partner turned and started advancing on me but I just tried to stay calm and waited to know if she wanted some help. The woman said that she was fine and smiled at me and her partner just came up short when he saw that I was only leaving at his girlfriend's bidding not his.
All of that to say that I didn't help her or confront the abusive partner but I did sleep well that night knowing that I stopped and extended a hand.
This example doesn't work for small children but I find that addressing the victim with compassion instead of the aggressor with confrontation can bring different results.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks for sharing some very thoughtful words, Mel. Also good thoughts from everyone here. Keli, wow. Those kinds of confrontations sound scary; but I am inspired by your courage and by the manner in which you went about it.

The Artsymama said...

Melissa really great post. I found some time in my "non-spare" time.

melissa said...

Thanks for joining the discussion, everyone! This IS a tough juggernaut, isn't it? Such a good topic to wrestle with, because how we approach others has a ripple effect on their lives, good and bad. If we can be gentle with one another, that gentleness will spread.

I'm particularly grateful to Sarah for sharing a small bit of her story: thanks Sarah! You offer a brilliant example of the grey zone. Not that I think you are in a morally grey zone at all; but you are in many peoples' grey zone, or the direct opposite of what they consider healthy. I'm sorry that not everyone can see what I'm sure is a loving and healthy family when they look at yours. And I sure wish that more people could approach your family with respect and grace and humility. Love to you and your family!