Saturday, May 29, 2010

Prayer and Kindness for the Vulnerable

This past week I've been tuned into the vulnerability that comes with illness, the heightened sensitivity one has to being alone or to how present and loving our caregivers are in responding to our vulnerability. In neither the case of my friend nor me is the down time permanent or due to any severe condition, and still the emotionality is there. Even temporary helplessness or constriction in our ability to function can be hard to adjust to, along with the increased need for others to do for us or fill in for us. That's why kindness is especially meaningful, even healing,for patients in the hospital.

One such patient in a nursing home came on the local late night news. It sent shudders through me. If not for the cameras in that facility, it would likely not have come to light. A middle-aged black women who look pretty weathered in her mug shot (she has been arrested) was caught on video wheeling a patient's wheelchair around so hard that the woman was thrown out of it onto the floor. The aide ignored her and proceeded on with whatever she was doing and then left the area. The patient, an 85 year old woman, laid there helpless for minutes before another aide discovered her and got help. The patient's hip was fractured.

The things that people can do to the vulnerable are unimaginable. I thought of my own mother who time and again made clear she never wanted to go to a nursing home. I felt grateful again that she made her transition in her own bed at home, having received extraordinary and loving care in her last weeks. I thought of the 85 y.o. patient with a hip fracture that will probably never mend, her utter helplessness, and how her family must feel knowing of her treatment.

With all the news about the oil in the Gulf coast, I've been thinking about all the marine life that somehow seem more helpless than the humans facing loss of livelihood. I am thankful for all those who are lending their expertise to help.

A Native American sent around an urgent call for prayer for all of nature suffering in the Gulf Coast. I join in that prayer, and add in every single living being and expression of nature that is in a state of acute vulnerability. I am also reminded that vulnerability can come in small every day forms, children in the face of adults, women in the face of men, clients seeking mental health services, people in low status occupations, and how a little kindness can be protective and affirming of all humanity, the vulnerable and those more powerful.

And I pray for that aide in the nursing home, for the healing she needs to address the wound that could lead her into such inhumanity -- some vulnerability of her own.

Please join me in this prayer if you are so moved.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Parenting: Old School - New School

I am a mandated reporter, like many professionals, therapists, teachers, medical doctors...we are by law, required to report any incident of neglect or abuse reported to us. We do not determine whether neglect or abuse has indeed happened, that is the job of the Protective Services Unit. It is never pleasant to make such a report. Most of the reports are made by workers in community agencies, not private practice. That is because the agencies provide more accountability, they have their own licenses to maintain, their own protocol. Supervisors in these agencies are expected to monitor the risks involved in workers' cases and ensure that protocol is carried out. If and when reports are made to the Child Abuse hotline depends on the severity of the situation, as well as the particular protocol of the agency. If the abuse is mild or moderate and the parent seems amenable to participating in therapy to learn other ways of discipline, some will delay reports of abuse. I believe in that. Still, there are times when I have to report a parent of suspected abuse or neglect. Most of the time, the suspected abuse is not severe enough to warrant removal of the child. Still, understandably, parents abhor the entry of child protective services into their lives. They resent that their authority can be questioned or deemed inappropriate by outsiders.

I often think there has to be a better way to help parents face the reality that unlike in the past, there are limits to what parents can do to their children in the name of discipline.

Old school is the parenting strategy that says parents have the power to do what they feel necessary to get the behavior they wish to see from their children. Sayings like "spare the rod, spoil the child," and "children should be seen and not heard," reflect this philosophy. The child, because of his or her age, has the right to basic needs being met, but beyond that silent obedience to the rule of the parent is expected. The parent's power is absolute, and no evidence of the child's displeasure is tolerated. No rolling of the eyes, no pouting, no sucking of the teeth. Spankings, whippings, beatings are considered the parents' prerogative, in the name of getting compliance.

It is oppressive, though parents who practice this method do not see it that way. They see it as raising well-mannered, obedient children, children who will do well in life. I was raised by an old-school parent. She never left marks when she spanked me with a glass hairbrush, but for most old school parents welts are an acceptable part of punishment.

Men being the "king of their castle" is old school too. They had the right to do what they wanted with their wives, their property, so to speak. Most mothers now see that this old school position was abusive in regard to women, but many still do not make the same leap with regard to children.

Children are little people, but they are people, and like all of us they need to have some voice, some sense of agency over their lives, it is part of their feeling valued. It is possible to set limits and discipline, something children definitely need, without squashing their sense of person-hood, without "beating" or "whipping" them. New school says children are entitled to their own boundaries, as are adults. Striking an adult can constitute an assault and charges can be brought. New school says that striking a child in a way that injures, including welts, which are bruises, or that is severe, like punching, kicking, or sexually violating, is not a parental right.

Some have suggested that in the case of African-Americans and African-Caribbeans, whippings are a re-creation of our experience under slavery. I do not know, but it is worth considering.

What I do know is that not every tradition is worth holding onto. As someone who has sought to learn about and value my African heritage, I have long realized that I cannot take a knee-jerk position on this. Sankofa, the Adinkra symbol and bird, tell us to take what is valuable from the past. That means, we leave the rest behind.

Old school does have some valuable aspects, like the importance of respecting elders, and the sense of community in which parenting is a communal responsibility and not an individual one.

When they were old enough to appreciate the humor and the seriousness of it, I used to enjoy saying to my children "parents are people too." We have feelings and vulnerabilities, and we are not infallible. The same is true of children. Respect is a two way street. Limits can be set with children in respectful ways.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gratitude: So Many Mothers to Thank

As we approach the day designated for Mother's to be recognized and receive appreciation for all that they do, my thoughts turn to just how many mothers there are to thank.

Recently, I returned to a piece I'd written several years ago for yet another revision. It was about how a woman I'd never met or heard of, stepped up, with three other mothers, on a Friday night outside an Upper East side bar, and saved my son from serious harm or worse. He'd been pushed out the bar by a white bouncer when he questioned if the latter was serious about him not being able to take a call on his cell in the foyer. In the process, he got separated from his phone and when he attempted to go back in to get it, the other bouncer, a black guy, hit him. These Black women were walking in the area at the time and witnessed this scene and the ominous conflict brewing. They intervened. One of them in particular, convinced my son that his phone was not worth his life, and took him to a bar with a diverse clientele, one she said was "safe." Unlike, her, he was unfamiliar with the area, and had only been there because of a specific event taking place earlier near this bar. I later learned her name, Ms. Simpson, and met her. She 'mothered' my son that night -- protected and guided him -- and I am forever grateful to her.

African-Americans have a long history of kinship that extends beyond biology. It is in fact one of the ways we have endured the oppression of enslavement and its aftermath. They're sometimes referred to as 'other mothers' -- women who have nurtured and schooled us, whether we've had our biological mothers to do so or not. Women who know how to give good enveloping hugs and how to call us, straight up, on our bull and denial. Women who believe in us and in whose eyes we can see our lovely and deserving selves.

Some of these women have biological children of their own, but others do not. They 'mother' the children born of other women in different ways, as godmothers, as therapists, as volunteer mentors and more.

Last year was the last Mother's Day I had with my own biological mother. It was a pointed and poignant day. We actually exchanged our cards on the day before, because we didn't know how much time she had and she was so eager to do so. "Is it today?" she asked that Friday and that Saturday, until finally I said "Yes, it's today." How silly to think it mattered the exact day.

This week I sent out several cards to women who have mothered me in some fashion. I collect beautiful cards that are blank inside, so I can write my own message most of the time. I know how much it means to me to be appreciated, and how often women's ways are devalued or go unrecognized. And so, I want to voice to them, again and again, that I value their contributions to my life. And not just on Mother's Day.

Photo by thandiwe: One mother and 'other mother' I know