Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Your Children Are Not Your Children

Indexed graphic of abstinence-only education and shotgun weddings (Or just pray it doesn't happen to you from Jessica Hagy at Indexed.)

Your Children Are Not Your Children

I'm the comother of a girl child who, as a teen and young adult, got pregnant twice from birth control failures, once with a condom, once with the pill. It was excruciating for her and all of us. I'm frankly still not over it. She was smart, well-informed (I may be a lifelong dyke but I trained myself how to apply condoms before I bought some for her and insisted she learn as well), and in love. It happens.

I'm not willing to pass judgment on what Bristol Palin has done or not done. I don't know. What matters is not her personal struggle, or her mother's interest in using her children for public approval. All politicians do this, it's just a question of degree. I don't thinks kids should be hauled up on stage, period. I love public figures who refuse to allow their kids to be photographed at all: The kid has nothing to do with that adult's career. Zip.

Once we buy into the idea that we have permission to assess someone's character based on their style of parenting or how attractive their children are or anything at all about their children, it's all open season and we've lost the right to protest when the spotlight is turned on OUR side's kids. I know this particular scenario looks too good to pass up, but I'm giving it a pass because the real issues are solid and substantial without dragging her into it:

Does abstinence-only education work? No. (Check out Tristero's post at Hullabaloo U.S. Teen Pregnancy Rates Are Down Primarily Because Teens Are Using Contraceptives Better.)

Should be funding it then? No. (This would be just as true if Bristol Palin were not pregnant, right?)

Do women and girls have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, especially with regard to the extremely significant act of reproduction, without outside interference of any kind? Yes.

Do we, as a community, have long term interests in making sure that children are born wanted, healthy, and provided with adequate nutrition, education, and a safe environment until they are grown? Yes.

Have we, as a culture, decided we have the right to intervene if these are not being provided to an individual child? Yes. Have we, as a culture, agreed upon definitions of what this means? No, not yet. This is one of the many things we are attempting to hash out in the so-called culture wars.

Some people are never going to agree with us, with our willingness to leave certain things up to the individual, because their world view says they will be swept away if they allow that flexibility. They are sore afraid, and the way to deal with terrified people is not to ridicule them or their children. I realize these folks have been riding us all hard for the past couple of decades, and it's only human to want to dose some of it back their way. But it's also human to let it go, move on, leave them to their own choices. They are now, and will increasingly be, in desperation mode. Approaching a cornered creature who is operating on instinct, even if you mean all the best, will get you in trouble.

But I believe, absolutely, that the majority of Americans are interested in doing things differently, now that the neoconservative experiment has failed, with bodies floating in flooded streets, the middle class revealed to be a hoax that is now jerked from the reach of even the most delusional of the working class, too much of the world viewing us with grave suspicion, and an entire generation unable to comprehend basic feminist principles. I know that behaving with decency, kindness, and fair play even when they are talking shit to our face has not seemed to get us anywhere, has been a failing proposition for a long time. They (our unscrupulous opposition) have made sure to implant that idea in our brains and reinforce it at every turn, because hopelessness keeps us ineffective.

We're past that now. They jumped on our convention because it was horrific for them to witnesses masses coming together jubilantly, healing wounds, and making bright plans for the future together. We scared the living shit out of them. That should be proof enough that the time for hope really is here. We need to start acting like we can afford to be smart and kind at the same time, that respect and courage and honor are our hallmarks, and that we welcome not just the converted but also the questioning.

We will stick to the issues. We think the curtain has been pulled back, the wizard has been revealed, and it's time to return to Kansas.

We will accept we don't have all the answers yet. We know this step ahead of us, can see that far, and we will, as the old Quaker adage goes, "Proceed as the way opens."

Decades ago, I periodically attended a speaker's series in Marin County, north of San Francisco, which featured brilliant minds and artists of the day. One evening I went to hear Ntozake Shange, who had not long before produced for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. The audience was overwhelmingly white and middle class. There was a long delay before Ntozake appeared on stage. She was holding the handing of a small African-American girl whom she introduced as her daughter.

She explained that her child-care, and back-up child-care, had fallen through for the evening. She was going to cancel the event, but instead was willing to offer us a compromise: She would speak to us if she could divide her time between us and her daughter. She said she had explained it to her child and gotten her agreement to not interrupt as much as she usually did. There was a bag full of crayons, books, and other items to entertain a child solo for a while. What she wanted from us was (a) an understanding that her commitment as a mother came ahead of her commitment to us as an audience -- therefore, if her child asked a question or sought communication with her, she was going to respond with respect and affection, immediately; and (b) we were not to sentimentalize her kid, take photos, or try to engage with her daughter ourselves. If we didn't want to agree to that, she'd cancel the talk. If we gave it a try and it didn't work out, she might leave in the middle.

It caught everyone off guard. The tone of her proposition, the extreme regard and air of reciprocity she was displaying toward her child, was a novelty, I realized. We actually took a minute to think about it, and then we, the audience, agreed. I don't remember anybody leaving. The child sat near her mother's feet and spread out her array of toys and art materials. Ntozake gave a stunning reading, working seamlessly (as mothers do) around her child's interruptions, which were infrequent but intensely connecting between the two of them. She did a short Q&A, then left with a happy child who knew, beyond any doubt, that she was part of her mother's minute-to-minute existence.

Sweet Honey in the Rock said it best (well, they sang it best -- the original words are from Kahlil Gibran):

Your children are not your children
They are the sons and the daughters of life's longing for itself.
They come through you but they are not from you
And though they are with you, they belong not to you.

You can give them your love but not your thoughts
They have their own thoughts, they have their own thoughts
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams

You can strive to be like them
But you cannot make them just like you
Strive to be like them
But you cannot make them just like you