Friday, February 15, 2008

Personal Bias and Ranting Ahead

I’m having a difficult morning.

I’m offering sort of a weak apology in advance if this post seems like a public-service message/commentary on everything wrong in the world. I’m saying a “weak apology” because this is going to be very one-sided. My-sided, obviously. If you don’t want to read a long editorial about violence, guns, parenthood and discipline, you should probably stop reading now. I’m hoisting myself up onto a giant soapbox today.

As many of you may have heard, about two weeks ago, there was a bizarre shooting at a Lane Bryant store in Tinley Park, Illinois. That’s less than hour from where I live. Five women were brutally gunned down by an apparent would-be robber who became enraged when he discovered one of the women had called 911. I didn’t personally know any of those women, but as it turns out, one of the women was a close friend of several people I work with. My heart went out to them as they tried to cope with their grief and the senselessness of it all.

Then last night, after a long and busy day at my full-time job, I was driving to the university where I teach when I heard my cell phone ringing. Now, keep in mind that I don’t answer my cell phone when I’m driving, because I’m not talented enough to fumble for a small phone and have a conversation while keeping my vehicle in its lane. But I had the strangest, eeriest feeling and felt like I needed to answer, so I did. It was my husband, telling me that there had been a shooting at Northern Illinois University. Once again, a major tragedy only about an hour from where I live. That’s not where I teach, thank goodness, but for a moment, I had an overwhelming sense of dread that dropped like a lead ball into the pit of my stomach. I have a friend who teaches at NIU and my first thought was, “I hope she’s okay.” Then I thought about the moments of terror that the people in that lecture hall had to endure. So far, there have been six deaths as a result of that shooting attack.

By the time I got home from class last night, I was a nervous wreck. Even though I’d found out that my friend was fine, my heart felt like it was going to take flight out of my chest and my mind was so loud with buzzing thoughts that I could barely hear anything else.

I spent a long time in bed last night, just staring at the ceiling, thinking about all kinds of things. I have strong feelings about guns and gun laws and the public’s right to protection—I won’t get into it here, because I know I’ll irritate somebody, so I’ll keep those opinions to myself.

But I got to thinking about something even more.

I got to thinking about my daughter. I worry about the world she’s going to grow up in. If nothing else, I can use these two random shootings as examples of what I worry about. I’ve spent most of my time as a mother (which admittedly, hasn’t been very long) protecting her as best as I can, but I know I can’t protect her forever. Someday, she’s going to go to school by herself or shop at a store alone. Just like those women in the store or those students in the lecture hall. I can’t protect my baby from everything. But I can sure as heck do my best.

My daughter is typically very well-behaved and a good listener—she rarely requires even a raised voice on the occasions when she’s misbehaving. If she’s really acting up, I tell her I’m going to nibble on her toes. She shapes up immediately when I say that. It’s funny, but it works. More often than not, I just have to give her a “mommy-look” and say, “Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum.” She immediately covers her toes with her hands or hides them under a blanket and yells, “I’ll be a good listener!”

Now, for the record, I’ve never really nibbled on her toes. It actually consists of me kissing and tickling them. The kissing she thinks is funny, but she hates having her feet tickled. It’s very effective and not painful like hitting. My husband and I agreed early on that we didn’t want to hit our children. Some parents disagree, saying that spanking or an occasional smack/slap is perfectly fine, it teaches a lesson, it teaches respect, etc., etc., etc. I may keep my opinions on guns to myself, but I’m a little more vocal about hitting children. Part of that is born of personal experience, part of it is born of working with children who have been brutally abused at the hands of the people who were supposed to care for and love them the most, and part of it is that it’s really what I believe in my heart to be true. Don’t think that I’m some hippie-dippie woman who doesn’t believe in discipline. I do believe in discipline, very much actually. But I also believe that the line between abuse and discipline is very fine and very gray. I guess I just have different beliefs about what works.

Here’s what I know—if an adult is at work and gets irritated with a co-worker and slaps him/her across the face, it’s considered assault. In domestic violence cases where a man and woman are hitting each other, they both get arrested. If an adult were to pull another adult’s pants down and start smacking his/her bare bottom, it’s considered sexual assault. If an adult hits another adult with a belt, stick or anything else, there’s a good chance of being arrested for assault with a weapon. And yet, grown adults subject their children to this all the time.

For anyone wondering, yes, I was spanked as a child, but it never made me feel like I was learning anything. It made me angry and it hurt. I love my parents, but I still have some animosity toward them. My parents hit me (and my sisters, too) because they were angry. As far as I know, no parent has ever said or thought, “I’m going to spank you because I’m happy.” It’s “I’m going to spank you because I’m pissed off.” More often than not, it’s more along the lines of, “I’m going to hit you because you made me angry.” To me, that’s the epitome of not being accountable for one’s own actions. Hitting releases tension in the hitter, while hurting the person on the receiving end of it. In a heated moment, I don’t really believe that a parent (or anyone) can fully control the strength in their hands and honestly say, “I’m only going to hit a little bit and not too hard.” What’s supposed to be a slap in the face results in a broken jaw or nose. What’s supposed to be a slap on the hand results in a red mark that lasts hours or bruises. What’s supposed to be a smack on the butt results in the kid not being able to sit down.

I think parents hit their kids for crazy reasons. Siblings are fighting and hitting each other, so let’s diffuse the situation by hitting them some more? A child does something wrong, makes a mess, breaks something, whatever, so it gets resolved by hitting? How would that be any different from a husband slapping his wife across the face because she overcooked dinner? Or a wife kicking her husband because he knocked a glass of milk over? And I don’t know what’s worse—a parent who becomes angry in the heat of the moment and hauls off and smacks a kid, or a parent who takes time to think about it and then methodically carries out a physical punishment. That’s called premeditation. I believe that hitting has the potential to not only seriously injure a child, but also to break a child’s spirit. Think about a person who’s been hit repeatedly by a supposed loved one—maybe you don’t know anyone who has been abused, but if you do, you know that look I’m talking about. There’s a look in their eyes—sometimes it’s a slowly simmering rage lurking just below the surface, but more often than not, it’s a look of fear and helplessness. I never want my daughter to look at me like that.

When my daughter was born, I made a promise to myself to never, ever put my hands on her when I’m angry. It doesn’t matter if I’m angry at her or angry about something else. I believe that in this world, there are going to be enough people and events that are going to disappoint her and hurt her—probably physically and emotionally—and I don’t want to be part of that. I will support her when she is hurt and disappointed, but I don’t want her to be on the receiving end of pain coming from my hands.

And when I am angry—especially when I’m having feelings of anger toward her for misbehaving—I remind myself of something. I remind myself of the first few moments after I gave birth and saw her tiny face. I swore that I would protect her as best as I could. I swore that I would morph into a mother lion and take down anyone who ever laid a hand on her. I remember my heart stopping (literally) in the back of an ambulance and as I drifted in a state of unconsciousness, hearing the voices of the paramedics telling me that there was a 5-day-old baby girl in my husband’s arms outside the ambulance, and that she needed a mommy to love and care for her. I remember in the weeks after she and I were both safely at home, how tiny and innocent she was, totally dependent on me for everything. I remember the pure love and trust that shone in her eyes as she would gaze up at me while I was rocking or feeding her. I remember that I want her to always look at me that way.

Maybe having come so close to meeting my Maker puts a different spin on things. I know that my time here is limited. I remember that my child is a precious gift from God and He expects me to care for her and love her the same way He cares for and loves me. God may present me with trials and tribulations, but He has never reached down and slapped me across the face or intentionally inflicted physical harm on me. He is the Father of all fathers and I only hope that I can come close to being the kind of parent worthy of raising and caring for the tender soul that resides in my daughter. We’re all souls on loan from Heaven.

I’m getting off my soapbox now.

I know people do the best they can with the hands they’re dealt in life. I’ve had unique experiences that have shaped my thoughts and beliefs. And that’s all they are—the thoughts and beliefs of one woman. Everyone else has had unique experiences that have shaped who they are, too. The gunman in Lane Bryant. The women who were his victims. The gunman at NIU. The people he shot. The parents who hit their kids, the parents who don’t, people who abuse, people who don’t, people who’ve been victimized, people who haven’t been victimized. Everyone doing the best they can in this story called “Life.” Everyone doing the best they can…and me hoping that no matter what, they can always work to do better. I know I’m always working toward that.


Cheryl said...

This was an amazing and enlightening essay Martha. Everything you said was so true,and you said it so well.

jAMiE said...

I agree with Cheryl, that was well said and i have to say i agree with you, it's all so very true. Growing up, i was hit and it hurt me more emotionally than it ever did physically.

Jim Latchford said...

Well said Martha... My Dad use to literally beat my younger brother and me bloody whenever he got "mad," which was often. I was scared to death that I would repeat my father's violent tendencies when I became a parent...and was even more afraid that should I have a son he would suffer the same as had I. Fortunately the Lord blessed us with a daughter and I made the decision when she was two that I could no longer discipline her physically. It was one of my finer decisions, as she has grown into a beautiful 22 year old woman who has a giving and caring heart...and who loves her "Daddy" with all her heart.