Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Never seek to know

Drinking coffee this morning, preparing to work from home as Robert isn't feeling well, I read a review of Bad Mother and profile of the author, Ayelet Waldman.  More or less, I identify with these emerging exegeses critical of hyper-parenting, in particular, hyper-mothering.  

Last night, at my final PTA meeting, there was some discussion of why PTA membership had dropped so much within our school.  Among the reasons broached were an impression (right or wrong) that the PTA is like a clique, that parents aren't aware of all the PTA does (or disagree with its expenditures), that parents are overwhelmed by volunteer requests, that parents want to devote their energy only to their child's classroom, and so on.  

Our PTA is a mix of decent people, and I hope that it can reach out to more families next year.  However, while I didn't bring this up at the meeting, I was thinking it last night and again this morning: has the PTA become THE emblem of hyper-parenting?  Is that what people are saying when they decline to join? Our own discussion of the budget was wide-ranging, but puffs and whiffs of that hyper-parenting came to the surface nonetheless--the sense that the enrichment activities the PTA sponsors are designed to give "our" kids an edge.  Well, provided the family can pay for them and arrange work and childcare schedules around such opportunities.  (And I'll also point out that the PTA makes available funds for those in need--but how many of us without significant need can afford to add a few hundred dollars on top of childcare and other expenses?)

I'm pretty weary of that attitude and tired of adding to my anxiety plate the possibility that my inattention might cause my kids to lose out on something life has to offer.  The problem with elementary school and its attendant social culture is that, these days, perhaps always in all times, parents make everything a competition.  It's just not a comfortable place to socialize--the general tenor of our elementary school is to strive for the best, but the resources, both time & money, that some families have, make even volunteer efforts a source of misery.  I.e., if I don't put all of my talents and powers to work, testing myself the same way my kids are tested, whatever I contribute is going to look bad compared to what other parents do.

Last night, someone brought up the research that says that parent involvement is the number one predictor of academic success for children.  Unfortunately, my memory of what I'd read in the various education listservs to which I subscribe is that that is not true for our income bracket.  We'd all be better off leaving our kids alone a bit more.  We're over-involved.  

And, meanwhile, other families are under-involved.  I tried to frame my suggestions as moving the PTA toward stronger community building efforts.  I referenced special needs families and low-income families and the struggles for belonging that we encounter.  A perfectly reasonable follow-up question was asked--what percentage of the population is low-income or special needs?  There's probably overlap, but I'm guessing the combination is about 15 percent.  

I think people were listening, but, later, I found even the asking of the question worrisome.  What came up in response was, basically, a version of the idea that 'those' people have their needs met some other ways.  That we don't need to be particularly concerned about them.

And this is the whole trouble with everything where I live: this constant, even necessary calculation of the balance between personal advantage and the public good.  The minimal contact I've had with the County and State branches of the PTA has left a bad taste in my mouth: that the PTA has to be about ALL children except when that's not necessary.  As a special needs rep, I've felt sometimes whip-sawed between the notion that my son's inclusion is a benefit for all children, and the notion that there are times when we just can't include everyone.  I often feel that "all children" is just a euphemism for the majority.

But I digress.  What also bothered me this morning was the inclusion in Ayelet Waldman's book of her own abortion story.  While it's difficult to tell from a review/profile how this story is actually told or presented, it seemed to have all the typical elements: a fetus with a birth defect (unusual trisomy), valid parental worries and anxieties, a moment of absolution.  In this case, the moment of absolution is a genetics researcher with a cognitively impaired son who tells the author that, while she loves her child, if she had it to do over again, she wouldn't do it.

Do I identify with the complexities of this tale?  Of course.  But this, as with Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus' assertion that if she found herself carrying a disabled child, she knew she would have an abortion, feels like yet another parable of the calculation of personal advantage versus the public good.  I have a choice, I exercise it.  I escape.  You, on the other hand, are not so fortunate.  So sorry.

Look, I believe that abortion is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for the equality of women.  Necessary because it allows us to make personal choices about our bodies and our lives.  Insufficient because abortion isn't really a 'choice'--it's a response to social constraints that are not resolved by abortion.  These constraints are only ameliorated for the individuals who have the opportunity to elect an abortion, howeversomuch that election is justifiable and necessary.  

The constraints on women's lives are multiple: income inequality, poverty, lack of access to education, inequitable child-rearing responsibilities, lack of sick leave, lack of social supports for disabled children.  And remember that only a small fraction of childhood disabilities are revealed by prenatal testing.  

A discouraging morning: that powerful, overwhelming, suffocating sense that mothering is largely about individuation, personal choices, survival of the fittest, and personal advantage.  And not about community, except insofar as the majority feels collected and reassured.

So I pulled out Donne's Meditation 12:

Perchance he for whom the bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me and see my state may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.  The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all.  When she baptizes a child, that action concern me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member.

And its most famous lines:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were.  Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

What a beautiful essay this is, jeneva. I was thrilled to see the quote from Donne (who I actually used just the other day on my own blog) -- I had wondered very recently how that particular piece could pertain to our lives and presto -- you've done it.