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60Children Should Do Choreshttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/03/children-should-do-chores
Mon, 18 Mar 2013 11:15:13 -0400
Hating the Teens We Indulgehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/02/hating-the-teens-we-indulge
Wed, 01 Feb 2012 00:00:00 -0500 A young woman in the house helps the once idealistic parent to see the error in assuming that people are basically good and rationally calculating, in crediting articulated motives and best-case plans, in expecting order out of social engineering and good fruit from good intentions. The neoconservative, as has been said, is a liberal with a teenage daughter.
Instead of getting wiser when their daughters reach that age, the two mothers in the new Fox sitcom
I Hate My Teenage Daughter
flounder and complain and beg for their daughters approval. Themselves awkward and unpopular as youths, they give their daughters whatever they want, only to discover that their offspring have turned into entitled, smart-mouthed brats. Though complicit in the girls condition, they will not help them out of it, instead simultaneously encouraging them and resenting them. The sitcom has been panned by critics for being too predictable”we all hate our teenage daughters, so where are the fresh laughs in that?
The Mean Girl has long been a stock character, but these mothers dont respond the way previous mothers would have. Parents perennially lament the hardship of raising a child buffeted by peers, hormones, advertising, controlled substances, pop culture, the insistent trilling of Pied Piper electronics, and her own weak will. The new show (and the culture it represents) gives sanction for teenage girls to behave abominably and for parents to admit”however impotently”to hating them for it.
Released in 2007, the same year the final volume of Harry Potter appeared, Neal Shustermans best-selling novel
entered another booming segment of the young adult (or YA) literary market: stories of teens battling the ordinary challenges of identity, responsibility, and romance but in a futuristic dystopia.
is set in America after the Heartland Wars, a domestic bloodletting over abortion. Pro-life and pro-choice forces make peace by banning the procedure but allowing parents to get rid of unwanted children, Unwinds, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. These teens are surgically divided into useful tissues and components, though they technically remain alive and somewhat conscious of themselves in the bodies where they are redistributed. Unwinds rail against injustice, against their parents arbitrary power and obtuseness. Beyond that, the characters behave rather conventionally, sorting themselves in peer groups, standing down bullies, and finding love in the ruins.
The book addresses many aspects of the current bioethical debate, from the harvesting of body parts to the uncertain provenance of donor organs to the exploitation of undesired children by state and market. The books linkage of unwinding to abortion is a little forced, but the linkage does put the point forcefully. Abortion pronounces to a nascent human life that someone does not want her to be, wants her to be unwound.
If anything, the book underplays the horror of unwinding: At just the moment when children may seem unlovely and maddeningly difficult to their parents”just the targeted readership for the book”their parents have a community-approved way to eliminate them. Unwinding tells a specific child that his parents do not want
to be. Perhaps parents wanted a child but not that particular one. Or perhaps they wanted a child but did not like how theirs turned out. The problem is not resources or timing or uncertainty; the problem is
. The parents have invested too much for too little return and wish to cut their losses. They are done. What if, the young reader might muse, what if my parents could get rid of me? Mustnt they sometimes want to?
In Shustermans futuristic America, children must rise to a standard of achievement in order to warrant parents continued care. That continued care can be costly for parents to give. This premise has its parallels even today. The care teenagers need costs their parents more”not primarily in money but in time, energy, and most of all emotional investment”than most of us want to give. It is easier to give up and let the lowest common strains of youth culture take over. It is easier to let them be unwound in our cultures particular ways. Culturally approved jokes about hating our teenage children strike at the dignity of children and the self-giving requirements of parenthood, and make giving up much easier.
Our world looks far from the kind of place parents wish for the girl they launch into it. Teenage sons may be very difficult in their own right, but it is not by accident that the neocon quip tags daughters for peculiar parental concern. Despite decades of kids toys and schooling teaching boys and girls alike that they can grow up to be anything they want as long as they remain tolerant and safe, what teen girls get pitched is a steady stream of fashion trends, diet tips, boyfriend tricks, and celebrity advice.
might not be quite the right word here, as girls are directed to that market segment long before they turn thirteen.
Safeguards that other ages placed on their teenage daughters may seem extreme to us”chaperones, bans against night walking, bathing dresses, fast track to the convent”but those ages took with gravity the temptations and disasters to which girls are vulnerable. As girls adopt from magazines and television the attitudes and sexual sensibilities that allow them to survive among peers, parents aware of the dangers to their daughters may feel as though the beloved daughter has become spokesperson for the opposing team, right there in their midst.
The pretense of powerlessness allows shows like
I Hate My Teenage Daughter
to milk misbehavior for laughs. But parents are not powerless. We might look forward to the day when young women have developed the strength and resilience to meet whatever life brings. (My choice for a YA novel on the teen years would be titled
) Meanwhile, parents have all kinds of skills and tools to help children and adjust their behavior: education and example, use of money and time, love and prayer. They owe it to their children to use them well. They might embrace
The Book of Common Prayer
s petitions for parents to be given calm strength and patient wisdom and entreaty for young persons, God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world.
Fretting about hating daughters, all while paying for the blandishments that please and endanger them, cheats children of the protection parents ought to, are called to, provide. Treating adolescence as an unavoidable period of misbehavior, and making acceptable the public response of disgusted acquiescence, is bad for everyone, but especially for the children themselves.
, the option to undo ones children is available only in their teenage years. Sensitive to the concerns of young people, Shusterman seems to miss how this scenario might intrigue adults. These years are much bewailed by mothers and fathers but suffered through because they love the child, already have too much at stake, and hope the rough time can be gotten through. Imagine if it did not have to be gotten through. Imagine if parents could feel social sanction for escaping teen problems by throwing over their teens. Cultural productions like
I Hate My Teenage Daughter
suggest they already have it.
Agnes R. Howard is assistant professor of history at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.
]]>In Moral Laborhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2006/03/in-moral-labor
Wed, 01 Mar 2006 00:00:00 -0500 Near the end of
Reproduction and Responsibility,
the 2004 report of the President’s Council on Bioethics, comes a call to safeguard women and pregnancy. “In an effort to express our society’s profound regard for human pregnancy and pregnant women,” the council urges Congress to prohibit procedures exploiting female reproductive capacities.
]]>What Else to Expect When You’re Expectinghttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2003/01/004-what-else-to-expect-when-youre-expecting
Wed, 01 Jan 2003 00:00:00 -0500 Last Christmas our parish hall displayed a Nativity painting by a local artist, showing a dark-haired woman in a wheelchair holding an infant, with a man in hospital scrubs standing solicitously behind them. The scene was instantly recognizable to anyone who has had a baby in this country in the last few decades. It was a typical hospital birth: the just-delivered mother bonding with her newborn, the father outfitted as birth assistant. Here was Madonna as primipara, what doctors call a woman delivering her firstborn.
It is, of course, nothing new for artists to interpret the Incarnation in contemporary settings. Still, the picture is revealing. Presumably it made sense to the artist to portray history’s most important birth this way because the image so comports with our current impressions of what childbirth looks like. Indeed, we take for granted the doctor-and-hospital trappings of childbearing, even though our way of having babies is comparatively new and unusual in world-historical terms. While medicine provides great benefits for the health of both mothers and children, elements of this system might give us pause, particularly as technological and market imperatives redefine the experience of pregnancy.
Like so many other spheres of life, having a baby is now a matter of choice. Contraception lets women choose whether to bear a child at all. Legal abortion lets them choose not to have one already conceived. Social and career considerations encourage that babies be timed appropriately. To be sure, there are plenty of unplanned pregnancies, yet even that figure of speech reinforces the norm that having a baby is something one elects to do. Because pregnancy is no longer a taken-for-granted part of female adulthood but a highly deliberate act, women tend to view it as an epochal undertaking to be done right.
Though some expectant mothers choose midwives and birth centers to assist them in this goal, the majority still sees two lines on a home pregnancy test as a prompt to call the OB. Why? To begin with, we view doctors as the experts competent to help insure that pregnancy has a good outcome: a healthy baby. But something else, less easy to articulate, also drives women faithfully to prenatal appointments. In part, it is that doctors ratify mothers’ perception that what is happening to their bodies and babies is amazing, deserving special attention and honor.
Doctors now can tell-and show-us what is happening inside the womb, and their interpretation of pregnancy is the one we recognize as authoritative. Physicians tell women what to expect, and lo, those things often come to pass. They forewarn that skin may itch and noses bleed and teeth become more subject to decay, and then patients observe those things happening. Pregnant women master medical jargon to describe themselves, attributing discomforts and development to hormones like hCG and estrogen and oxytocin, counting days in gestational weeks, and when labor comes, reporting progress in terms of effacement percentage and dilation (expressed in precise metric measure). Adopting this terminology is a way for women to mark this remarkable period in life. It seems to deserve a special language, and we really have no other such vocabulary in which to describe it. There is something to this. It is one way of demarcating these nine months as distinct from the rest of life, when the only soul a woman carries around in her body is her own.
Yet in the role of enhancing the experience and appreciation of pregnancy, medicine is limited. Maternity patients look for more from their doctors than simply information that such-and-such side effects accompany gestation, or even simply why, in physical terms, these things happen. While Doppler heartbeat monitors and ultrasound apparatus can reveal what used to be veiled in flesh, plenty is left mysterious. Madonna can be passed off as primipara in a painting because women today recognize childbirth as a medical event, but they have known all along that it is a spiritual one. Exactly because this is such a sensitive time can women imagine parallels between the Virgin Mother and their own childbearing. Pregnancy practically cries out for spiritual reflection, so obvious is it that the giving over of one’s body to new life reveals deep meaning, beyond explanations articulated by biochemistry.
If pregnancy were experienced only in the abdomen, there might be little else to explain. But being pregnant is not just about the big belly. Pregnancy manifests itself throughout the body: making one sick at the smell of hamburgers, or dizzy or disoriented at unlikely times; making ankles swell and feet expand so normal shoes don’t fit; inscribing evidence of itself all over the skin, from dark splotches on the face to little tears wherever the body stretches thin, to the dark line, the linea nigra, that descends from the navel and bisects the belly. The mind does not stand aloof either, as pregnancy raises anxieties, generates unsettling dreams, makes the memory fuzzy-or, as one guidebook puts it, prompts the mother to address unresolved problems or other baggage’ that was never properly unloaded. Finding herself at once bearing fruit and going to seed, a woman might reasonably request theological counsel.
Scores of books in print bear witness to this need, though they are not very good at filling it. For Christians there are expectant-mother devotionals, and for the public at large there is no shortage of sentimental or new-agey meditations. Both sorts of books tend to offer diffuse and insubstantial reflections about the cuddly one-to-be. And bestselling manuals like What to Expect When You’re Expecting just present medical information in layman’s language.
Clinical definitions tell a woman a lot about what is happening to her but do not give her much help in connecting these events with any larger scheme of meaning. Medicine might happily concede the point on the grounds that spiritualizing pregnancy falls outside its job description. Now that women look primarily to doctors for explication of pregnancy, though, it is not entirely clear where else they might look. And there are deeper concerns that proceed from our practice of entrusting pregnancy to medicine. We have learned to expect doctors to provide a healthy baby. That way of thinking, however, can encourage both doctors and patients to do things they should not in order to get a healthy baby.
Prenatal care includes batteries of tests-blood pressure, blood sugar, weight gain, and so forth-aimed to check whether mother and child are progressing normally. Tests for genetic abnormalities are now offered alongside these. For mothers in their thirties, alpha-fetoprotein screens and amniocentesis are on their way to becoming standard. Even when no one forces her decision, the very fact of genetic screening pressures a woman to have the tests and, if defects are detected, to consider ending the pregnancy. Childbearing is so founded on choice, and medicine so firmly established as the means to a good outcome, that a quality-assurance mentality can be hard to avoid altogether.
Related dilemmas, and even harder ones, arise in cases of infertility, when desire for children may lead couples to seek a baby through some of the mind-boggling techniques now available. Beyond in vitro fertilization of the parents’ own sperm and egg come variations with donated or contracted sperm, egg, or uterus; sperm sorting to get a child of a preferred sex; preimplantation genetic diagnosis to develop stronger embryos and sort out weaker ones; even cytoplasmic transfer of cellular material from another woman’s egg to the hopeful mother’s ovum, to make the latter more robust while maintaining that genetic material passed to the fetus is still (mostly) the mother’s own.
These methods-let alone cloning and other genetic manipulations currently under research-might seem like sci-fi fantasies to the average pregnant woman, remote from her experience. But so firmly are we in the habit of expecting medicine and technology to improve baby-making that we may be predisposed to take up whatever researchers offer us. High-tech intervention is already such a part of normal pregnancy that new, ethically questionable methods of screening and engineering could blend easily into the prenatal program that women now view as routine. In the face of reproductive breakthroughs, even couples who favor making babies at home might be won over. Why trust the health and well-being of one’s child to sex when there is so much at stake? Technologies that seem unsavory in the abstract can seem more palatable if they stand to benefit (or help create) one’s own children.
American women who become pregnant are likely to find themselves caught between two contradictory cultural impulses. On the one hand, women are edging away from standard hospital procedures in search of more natural births. Critics from feminists to anthropologists to midwifery advocates have faulted the assembly-line quality or even patriarchal domination of hospital delivery. Conscious of the market, many hospitals now advertise homey looking birthing suites, big tubs for water labor, and beds fitted with squatting bars. Yet even as trends pull delivery toward a more natural sphere, women consign enormous aspects of the childbearing process to technology, especially when there is trouble conceiving. In a culture that practically worships reproductive choice, prenatal care is one of the few contexts where pregnancy is accorded the respect it deserves. But pregnancy can be acutely vulnerable in that very same context, when destruction of human life appears as a sanitized, standard procedure.
Of course, all this is not to insist that childbirth be removed from the realm of medicine. But Christian communities, drawing on both Scripture and tradition, should foster ways of thinking about pregnancy beyond the clinical narrative. Reviving the language of procreation is a way to begin. Instead of casting pregnancy primarily as a partnership between physicians and patients, procreation calls mothers and fathers into cooperation with the Creator in the marvelous task of giving life to a new human being, in the words of Pope John Paul II. A woman undertaking such a task is doing more than following prescriptions to watch her diet and exercise; she is embarked on a discipline with its own kind of fasting, abstinence, and sometimes even suffering. Faithfulness in the process matters, not just the outcome.
The process brings instruction in motherhood even before the baby is born, making plain the frailty of the body, the profound overlap of human life, and the limits on our ability to determine our own offspring. This last lesson may be most critical, given the age we inhabit. Learning to honor a child as a created human life, entrusted in sickness and in health, can lead parents out of the creeping temptation of expecting only perfect babies.
Reflecting deeply on the meaning of normal pregnancy may help us speak more wisely about the potential perils of pregnancy directed by biotechnology. The fact that Jesus saw fit to liken the Apostles’ reaction to his death and resurrection to a mother’s grief and joy in birth suggests that men and women both would profit from thinking well about childbearing.
Agnes R. Howard teaches at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.