Sanctimonious Concern

There are times to call police, but there are also times to speak our concerns to each other, and there are times to check our 21st century, first-world paranoia and let it go.

In 1994, I lived in a rental house not much bigger than a breadbox with my then-husband and our baby. Next door was an even smaller rental house, barely the size of a garage.

The young woman (and I do mean young; I was 23 and she was even younger) who lived in that tiny house had a two-year-old son who seemed to perpetually surprise his mother with his presence. We chatted occasionally in our common backyard and I was left with the impression that she was flummoxed by the babyness of him. Now that he spoke and walked upright, he still hadn’t become a reasonable person, and that startled her.

One afternoon when my then-husband came in from work, he said, “You have to call CYFD on that girl next door. Her kid is playing in the car.”

I went out front and sure enough, there was my neighbor’s two-year-old son, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, turning the wheel back and forth and making those driving noises that come pre-installed on some children. I scooped him up and carried him into the house and found his mother in the kitchen, cooking dinner.

“He was playing in the car,” I told her. “That’s not safe. Actually, he really shouldn’t be out there without someone to watch him since there’s no fence.”

“Oh,” she said, looking concerned. “I thought it would be OK. I told him to stay in the yard.”

“He’s too little,” I said, “and a car isn’t a safe place to play. He could accidentally release the brake, or he could get locked in there.”

She was embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” she said, apologizing because she felt bad even though she hadn’t hurt me.

“Well, he’s fine, and it’s all good. Just remember to keep the car locked, and let me know if you need help watching him!”

I went back to my house, praying that I had done the right thing. Maybe she did need professional guidance. She seemed so profoundly clueless. On the other hand, her son was well-fed, happy, and had never had any injuries that I’d seen. Our houses were very close and I never heard any crying beyond what’s normal for a child that small.

After our conversation, I never saw my neighbor’s son outside without his mother’s supervision again and I became more and more comfortable with my decision.

Across my adult years, I’ve had lots of interaction with the child protection system, mostly as a mandated reporter but also as a victim of malicious reporting. I’m also a parent and an observer of trends and what I’ve noticed is this: people are much quicker than they used to be to call police about suspected child mistreatment.

Is that good? Yes and no. I’m happy to wave good-bye to the days when what happened to children was nobody’s business but those children’s parents. Kids whose parents hurt them or fail to keep them safe deserve better, and we need a system with the power to intervene on their behalf.

On the other hand, 911 is no one’s personal nuisance reporting number, and child protective services is not the place to call when there is mild concern, or when a parent does something that doesn’t seem like the best possible decision. I think social media drives some of this because I’ve seen (haven’t we all seen?) ridiculous statements like parents who feed their kids junk food are ruining those children’s health and should have them taken away, or women who have planned c-sections are abusive, on and on. Every parenting choice that seems less-than-ideal to the observer gets the “abusive” placard hung around its neck.

I remembered all my interactions with cops and child protective services yesterday, when I read this piece at Salon about a mother who left her child in the car for a few minutes on a 50 degree day while she ran into a store to buy that child a pair of headphones. The legal problems caused by the bystander who took video of her car and her child and subsequently called police have dominated her family’s life for two years.

This represents a major cultural shift that I’ve witnessed in my 20+ years as a parent. When my eldest children were very young, in the mid-90s, I didn’t think much of leaving my children in the car under the conditions that it was not hot out, I would be no more than a couple minutes, and I could see my car from inside the store. By the mid-2000s, when my youngest son was a toddler and pre-schooler, I felt much more anxious about doing that. I was not more concerned about kidnapping, or someone stealing my car with my child inside, or any of the supposed risks that always taking my children with me are meant to ameliorate. No, I became worried about a bystander who might call the police about “neglect.”

I did once call the police about a child left alone in a car. It was nearly 100 degrees and I stood ready to smash a window if the baby (who was sweaty, but was also laughing at the goofy faces I was making at her through the window) seemed in distress. Thankfully the police arrived less than a minute after I called and they popped the lock and put the baby in an air conditioned police car until an ambulance arrived.

There are times to call police, but there are also times to speak our concerns to each other, and there are times to check our 21st century, first-world paranoia and let it go. The police, courts, and child protection agencies really do have better things to do than indulge our sanctimonious concern over how other people are parenting. Resources are limited and children who are being beaten, molested, or starved, need those resources devoted to them. There are children out there who are being left alone for hours, not minutes.

When we see a child in immediate danger, of course we should call 911, and when we suspect genuinely neglectful or abusive behavior, it’s time to notify child protective services. In the meantime, I think we all need to get a grip, because most of the kids are OK, and most of the parents, fallible though we are, are doing just fine.

The Transcendent Familiar 7: Choking on the Ashes

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
If you haven’t read parts 1-6, that’s OK. This one stands pretty well all by itself.

Peek with me into a house and observe the family therein.

There’s the dad, young and handsome, laughing at two tiny children who are splashing and playing in the bath.

There’s the mom, also young, and she would be pretty if she didn’t look so tired and puffy, getting small jammies out of dresser drawers.

The dad lifts the older of the two children out of the bath and towels him off. The boy runs across the hall and into the bedroom where the mom is waiting. He flings his tiny body onto his bed, howling, “To infinity…and beyond!”

“Silly boy!” the mom says, and she reaches for him, pajamas at the ready, and he grabs her arms, pulling her to the bed with him.

“Read Sam, Mommy! Can we read Sam?”

“Again? Jacob, we have tons of books! Let’s read a different book, OK?”

“No,” and the little boy shakes his head firmly. “Read Sam.”

“OK,” the mom sighs, “but jammies first.”

The little girl comes in then, all pink pudge and halo of ginger hair. She climbs onto her brothers bed, imitating his shouts with her own, “Ifity! To ifity!”

They are beautiful children—healthy and exuberant and sweet. The mom puts a diaper on the little girl and helps both children with their pajamas. She reads Green Eggs and Ham while the boy sucks on two of his fingers and the girl sucks on her binky.

The mom tucks the little boy into his bed while the dad tucks the little girl into hers. They pass each other in the hall, switching rooms so that she can kiss the little girl and he can kiss the little boy.

The dad goes to the couch in the living room and turns on the television. The mom moves past him, to a desk in the den where she turns on a computer. She connects to the internet and spends an hour on UseNet, reading and responding to messages on boards about depression, marriage, politics, and parenting.

At 8:00, her husband appears in the doorway. “Hey, you wanna get it on?” he asks, and she turns to him, fear and disgust plain on her face.

“I…” she begins, but he interrupts her.

“God, you make me sick. How do you think we’ll save this marriage if you won’t give me the one thing I want? Why the fuck would I want to touch you, anyway? Look at yourself! Look at you!”

She does. She looks down at her stained shorts and sloppy t-shirt and her face is desperate and despondent for a moment. She slumps in her chair.

“Jesus, you don’t even try,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s a good thing the people in that goddamn computer can’t see you or they’d tell you to go fuck yourself.”

“Like you’re any better,” she says, standing and moving toward him. “What the hell is that? Wanna get it on? Is that… what? Romance? Love? You haven’t said two words to me since you came home from work!”

“Whatever. I’m sick of talking to you. Why don’t you just get the fuck out? If you won’t have sex with me there’s no point. Just go away.”

“Fine,” she says. “I’ll get the kids.”

“Like hell you will! You won’t take my kids out of this house!” he shouts, and one of the children cries out. He blocks the woman’s path so that she can’t go down the hall to the bedrooms.

“I’m taking the kids!” she screams at him. “Move!”

He laughs at her, shoves her backwards into a bookshelf. She looks stunned as books and photos thump to the floor. He is nearly nose to nose with her, shouting, “Those kids are mine. I’ll tell the judge you’ve been in the nut hatch and you’ll never see them again! You could just kill yourself right now and no one would give a shit. You’re crazy! Fat and crazy! You disgust me!”

There is another cry from one of the children. The woman makes another attempt to push her way past her husband and he shoves her again. This time she lands on the floor atop the books and photos.

She sees the phone amid the clutter and grabs it, running for the back door as she dials. “Dad?” she says into the phone, stepping onto the back patio. “I need you to come over right now.”

She waits on the back patio until she hears her dad’s truck in the driveway. Walking through the house she sees her husband, still standing sentry near the opening to the hallway. “My dad is here,” she says.

He shakes his head and smirks at her a little, then sits down on the couch and turns on the TV.

When her dad comes into the house, the mom picks up the children, one in each arm, and takes them to the car. She buckles them into their seats and drives the six blocks to her parents’ house. She sings the children back to sleep then lays, listening to her babies’ breath, until dawn. She does not cry.

At breakfast, her parents ask her, “What happened?”

“Just a fight,” she says.

“You should go home after we eat,” her mom says, “before it turns into a big deal.”

“Yeah,” says her dad, “the longer you wait the more uncomfortable it will be.”

And so she does.


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What else could I write?
I don’t have the right.
What else should I be?
All apologies.

The Transcendent Familiar 4: Give Yourself Away

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)

We all grow up with rules.

I’m not talking about the regular rules that our parents speak aloud – no running in the house; don’t sing at the dinner table; if you wear your tap shoes in the house you’ll scratch the floors and you don’t want to know what will happen next, young lady!

I’m talking about the underneath rules, the ones that make it impossible to get along with your in-laws because you don’t know their rules and they don’t understand why you don’t know them because they make so much goddamn sense and everybody knows this is how people with an ounce of common sense/human decency/intelligence behave and what the hell is the matter with you?. They are so deeply ingrained that we can’t see them without a shock of some kind – a family crisis like an addiction, divorce, or someone deciding to go to therapy.

The most important rules in the family in which I grew up are tightly related:

  • Thou shalt not be needy.
  • Thou shalt not seek attention.
  • Thou shalt not feel sorry for thyself.
  • Thou shalt blame thyself for all things.
  • Thou shalt solve all problems with guilt and shame.
  • Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret.
  • Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of others’ misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret. (See previous rule, “blame thyself for all things.”)
  • Thou shalt cultivate shame vigorously, hanging thyself on all available hooks.

Of course, these are not the rules my parents intended to teach me, but they’re the rules I learned.

Hence, I don’t know how to talk about my marriage to Robert because I don’t have much practice. If your familial tradition causes you to scream internally, it’s all your fault how could you do this you are such a goddamn loser what a waste why couldn’t you make it work what is wrong with you, it’s damn hard to take a step back and start sorting out the parts that are not your fault.

I’ve been sitting on this story for weeks, unable to find my way in. The internal screeching is loud, insisting that I rise above; take the high road; be the bigger person.

Also, every time I think of something that happened in our marriage that hurt me, I think of something that I did that, somehow, caused me to deserve it. This should probably come as no surprise since that’s how Robert and I fought when we were married, except that back then I was saved the effort of thinking of the thing I did that was worse than the thing he did because he did that part for me.

Clear as mud? Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me, either. How could it? I make sense of my life with words and stories and I have denied myself this story until now.

Since Robert moved out on July 4, 1997, I have carefully engineered a neutral narrative of the relationship that was central to my early adulthood. I have said, “We were far too young to get married,” “We brought out the worst in each other,” and “We didn’t have the tools we needed to make our marriage work.” I’ve spoken about my first marriage as if it happened to someone else; stripped it of its emotion and meaning.

To be clear, I am in favor of dignity and integrity. I’m proud that, post-breakup, I didn’t go out and talk trash about Robert to everyone who would listen. The cost, though, was the truth. In telling the story of our marriage in neutral terms over and over again, I denied myself the healing that comes from telling my story. My truth.

And you know what I say about he truth: it ain’t about the facts.

My story doesn’t match Robert’s, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It only makes it mine, if I will claim it.

My story begins with the rules that shaped my psyche. To say that I arrived at my first wedding (all of 22 years old) with low self-esteem would be an egregious understatement. More like the weight of my shame was roughly equal to that of a Volkswagen I wore strapped to my back.

I viewed my life not as something to be lived, experienced, and enjoyed, but as an exercise in contrition. Every moment was an apology for my very existence; every aspect of myself (body, mind, spirit) in dire need of reformation.

Robert concurred, which probably explains why our marriage sort of worked in the beginning. We agreed that I was broken and he was the savior who could have married a better woman but chose me instead. Repairing my faults – depression; tendency to gain weight (though at the time we married I had never been truly fat); messy habits; inability to cook; love of books and reading; devotion to made-for-TV movies; interest in politics; affection for very long showers; desire for education; and refusal to even try to understand why Robert and so many others thought Seinfeld was funny – would be my project. By conquering them I could become, if not worthy, at least acceptable.

So we moved into our lives, the contract signed and sealed but unacknowledged. My flaws were my demons to conquer if I was to earn my place in the home of the man who deigned to marry me.

He had done me a great favor by marrying me, so I set out to make the best of it.

And then there was this:

I had finally done something right, after all.

Robert and I both fell extravagantly, unreservedly in love with our Tooter (no one called him Jacob until he was three). He was pure light, all soft-sleepy sweetness and milk-drunk joy.

Our love for him was so large, it erased everything else. For a time, I was (almost) everything that Robert and I thought I should be.

For a little while.

Part 5