As mothers, we worry every day that we have irreparably damaged our children because we lost our tempers, or we were distracted when a child expressed a need, or we let them watch TV for too many hours. I think this is a common concern for all of us who take our parenting responsibilities seriously.
But what about mothers who lack the capacity and resources to provide an enriching and functional environment for their children? I represent kids in Social Security Disability appeals. They are all poor (my organization has income limits for our clients) and have fairly chaotic lives. They move a lot, but invariably live in unsafe neighborhoods. They go to substandard schools that are stingy with special education supports. Their often limited mothers, who were raised by women with similar limitations, often rely on that inadequate grandma to help out with these kids. Growing up impoverished is not only about lack of money.
Does this mean that these kids aren’t really disabled? The judges before whom I represent these children seem to think so. If only we could pluck little Johnny out of Bridgeport or Waterbury and plop him into Glastonbury or Old Saybrook, all his problems would be solved. Oh, and we would also have to provide him with new parents – parents who read to their kids, who take them apple-picking, and who don’t ever scream at them.
I have written before of the cultural gulf between my clients and those who adjudicate their fates, whether it is in a Social Security Disability hearing or a juvenile court hearing. It is a disgrace, in my view, that judges use their own upscale value systems as a yardstick to evaluate these children, and by implication, their parents.
There is one judge before whom I appear who always asks the child, “How old are you? Seven? Oh, I have a seven-year-old at home.” I have come to realize that the minute this judge says those words, the case is lost. The judge is comparing my client to a child who might as well be from a different planet, but forcing the comparison does not make it appropriate. If my client states that she has nightmares, this judge will say, “Oh yes, so does my daughter!” Well, I can get my client to testify that HER nightmares consist of her dead grandmother rising from her casket and coming into her bedroom to speak to her in a scary voice about the devil, but I can’t get the judge’s daughter on the stand to testify about her nightmares. Maybe they are about her Barbie doll losing her purse. I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure they are different from my client’s nightmares. Nonetheless, this judge will opine that my client is not disabled because “all kids have nightmares.”
But the question I am currently pondering is whether a parent can MAKE a child mentally ill or learning disabled. I’ve been reading Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, “My Beloved World.” She grew up in the projects, with an alcoholic father who died when she was 9 years old, and a mother who was unable to show love. She also had juvenile diabetes. These are a lot of obstacles, but she did all right! Her theory is that her relationship with her grandmother is what saved her, and that if children have at least one significant adult in their lives who acts as a positive influence, they can transcend their environment and familial limitations.
I think it’s way too easy to ascribe all responsibility for children’s developmental outcomes to the parents. A parent can inspire or push her child to be his or her best self, but sometimes that backfires and the kid implodes from the pressure. Parents can set an example of hard work for a child, but still have that child grow up to be a slacker. There are so many variables that go into the concoction of a human being, including genetic aspects, the skills parents acquire as life goes on, traumas that occur in the family, and so on.
Don’t laugh, but I think of my dog Billy and his twin sister Gemma as I write this. Gemma has been raised by my son and daughter-in-law, but spends 4 days a week at my house with Billy. Genetically they are practically identical, but personality-wise, they are very different. Obviously, the DNA cocktail that made Billy was shaken or stirred differently for Gemma.
I am certain this is true for human puppies, too. I’m very tired of the enormous burden we place on ourselves to be perfect parents. It’s one thing to want to excel at one’s job and not make mistakes. It’s quite another to take complete responsibility for another person and the adult s/he becomes. Can we all try to liberate ourselves from feeling as though one wrong move will turn our sweet babies into Ted Bundy?
I wish I could get the judges to see this in the inverse – that my clients’ problems are not entirely attributable to their mothers’ parenting skills. It’s just a facile way to take complicated cases and spit out simplistic decisions, motivated by time pressure and snobbery instead of a desire to understand the issues (not to mention the law – don’t get me started!). Even though the job of a judge is TO JUDGE, I do wish they could be a bit less judgmental.