August 31, 2018
I’ve told this story a thousand times. There was never a greater moment of clarity in my life than the moment I first heard my unborn daughter’s heartbeat. We were at Alma Midwifery and the whooshing sound came over the little speaker. It was as if the whooshing zoomed in to surround me and in that moment it was clear that it was no longer about me. My sole purpose in that life was to protect the heartbeat and the person that was growing around it. I was now primarily a vehicle for her success in the world. I don’t know if it was a moment of pure love or a genetic mandate to make sure my chromosomes made to the next generation intact, but it nearly knocked me off my feet.
We were blessed to have a happy, healthy baby who is now a very smart and loving 4-year-old. I still find myself watching her sleep at night or spending time looking in the rearview mirror at her while she processes the world that passes outside the Prius window. The urge to protect her is even greater now that she has some independence. I worry that she will walk in front of a car backing out of a driveway, or get hurt at pre-school, or be grabbed off a playground in the moment that I look away. She’s about to spend a week in Mexico with my wife so you can imagine where my mind will go. I’m ready to step into full Liam Neeson mode at the drop of hat.
I mention all this because I am trying to understand the reality that parents routinely abuse their children; physically, sexually, psychologically and emotionally. It’s just the hardest thing for me to understand, because I feel like every single strand of DNA inside me is telling me to protect my child from harm. There is no question I would trade my life for hers. Not even a nano-second of hesitation. Cozy is needed in this world a lot more than I am. (But you’re gonna get both of us for a long time.) I’m not some perfect parent, devoid of ethical flaws. What makes me different from them? According to a 2015 report, over 7 million children are identified as abuse victims by Child Protective Services each year. Over a third (37%) of American children are reported to Child Protective Services by their 18th birthday. 37%! That’s insane and heartbreaking and completely unacceptable.
I don’t get it, but as a sociologist and criminologist it’s my job to get it. My work often involves me building some empathy for some pretty horrible characters, including school shooters, Neo-Nazis, and serial killers. It’s not always easy and some bad actors challenge the assumption that all people are redeemable. (This is not a piece about university administrators.) As a parent, it’s easier to explain away a sociopathic serial killer than it is someone who would sexually abuse their own child (especially knowing that many serial killers were sexually abused by their own parents). Fortunately, social scientists are doing this research in a heroic attempt to break the cycle.
And “cycle” is the key word. Many abusers are acting out their own experience of abuse on their children. Others where brought up in cultures and subcultures of violence where the belief was that if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. (“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” – Proverbs 13:24) Some are alcoholic or drug addicted and take out their chaotic mental state on the nearest target. Some are misogynists and attack “their” women and children to prove their masculinity. Some suffer from accutmental illness while others simply can’t handle feelings of powerlessness in a complex world. Explanations can be very broad, including the lack of social support for the economically stressed trying to raise children in this downwardly mobile economy.
All those give us insight to the abuser. But it’s just not enough. I’ve been pretty economically stressed these last three years, not working full time and not sure when I would be, but I never thought to take it out on my small child. I could get the drunkest I’ve ever been and I have to think hurting her would never arise as a possibility. I could be in the throes of deep depression and her protection would still be paramount. I had a good friend who killed herself because she believed, in her depressive state, that she was protecting her daughter. There’s just something deep inside both of Cozy’s parents that would just STOP anything before she was hurt. What is that thing? It can’t be biological if over a third of kids (that we know about) are being abused. I was whipped a few times as a kid (The Belt!), but I don’t feel mindlessly compelled to repeat that behavior. They can’t all be so mentally ill that they don’t know what they are doing. It’s gotta be more complicated than a screw loose. Then there is the whole wide spectrum of psychological abuse, and abuse by step-parents and mom’s boyfriends and on and on. It seems massive. Like the untold story of America is what we do to our children.
Maybe it is because I didn’t become a parent until I turned 50. By then I had a lot of time to both want a child and think about what kind of parent I wanted to be. There are plenty of “unwanted” children in the world and many are born to parents who are so damaged that they are completely unprepared for the awesome and life changing responsibility of ferrying a baby into adulthood. But why didn’t hearing that baby’s heartbeat help push them in the right direction? Am I being overly judgmental?
I don’t live a bubble. I see it all around me. Adults with stories of childhood abuse and a few parents who definitely should not be raising kids until they have worked their own shit out. Violence in our society is what we sociologists call normative. We use it to express ourselves and “solve problems.” We used to think children were just little adults so why not knock them around for talking back, right? But nobody believes that anymore, unless you live in an FDLS cult in Utah. Kids are supposed to get a pass from our culture of violence. What is it? This question perplexes me to no end. I feel like if we could figure it out, as a species, we could truly evolve.