Between a Rock and a Hard Place:  The Decisions Mothers Must Make, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 May

In many communities on this Mother’s Day weekend, people worry about whether their children will remember them with flowers or chocolate, whether they will still appreciate their sacrifices, whether the sentimentality of this occasion will translate into genuine gratitude, real recognition.

But today in other parts of the world, as this week’s Security Council meeting on violence perpetrated against medical facilities underscored, mothers also wonder if the hard and often painful decisions they have had to make for the sake of their children will pan out – if the hospitals to which they take their children seeking safety and healing will somehow become their gravesites; if the rafts on which their families have boarded and for which they have mortgaged their material futures will set their children on a new life course or literally drown every ounce of their potential.  At this meeting, Council members themselves were rightly deemed complicit by both the ICRC and MSF in at least part of this pattern of displacement and carnage; but lost in the inevitable blame game that accompanies our long and gruesome conflicts are the many decisions that mothers make in an attempt, sometimes wholly in vain, to protect children from dangerous circumstances that lie fundamentally beyond their control.

And the pain that comes from trying to be a nurturing, protecting mother when so many options are blocked, so many decisions fraught with peril, is by no means confined to the realm of geo-politics.  I was in a middle school in Edmonton, Canada this week at an “attendance board” meeting convened by an old friend of mine.   Across from the board sat a mother – with responsibility for three children while living in a modest hotel awaiting housing that might take many months to clear – and her 9th grade son, a quiet boy with a limited interest in school who had apparently just recovered from gall bladder surgery.

The board members were kind and attentive, asking the right questions and doing their best to keep the mother and son engaged.  But the looks on their faces, looks I have seen so many times in the Harlem parish in which I used to work, communicated palpable discouragement.   The mother had clearly been through this routine before, perhaps many times, based in part on life decisions that she made for herself and her children, decisions that turned out to be — at best– only partially effective. Her somewhat stunned and subdued presence at the attendance board signified many things, one of which was likely a painful doubling back on the hard choices she felt she had to make to give her struggling children a fighter’s chance.

Mothers (and their mates if they are so endowed) make many hard decisions over the course of a child’s life, some of which bear unforeseen consequences, others of which are beyond their innate capacities of control or discernment.  The women riding the seas with children on substandard “life” rafts or appearing for the 10th time in front of well-intentioned social workers don’t love their children any less than other mothers; but they certainly live with the daily, grim reality that they cannot fully protect them, nor nurture them to full health, nor always guarantee them predictable nutrition or education.

There are smaller rocks and softer “hard places” than these to get trapped between, to be sure, but all carry with them the burdens of life as it wasn’t intended to be.   Many mothers report that they can barely remember a time in their life when they weren’t mothers.   When their decisions end in painful or even ruinous circumstances for children, that nightmare is equally persistent.  It is more difficult than we might imagine to make the “right” call for children (or even for ourselves) when bombs are flying, crops are failing, schools are crumbling, abuses are pervasive, living allowances are at a premium.

We need to do much more, in policy and practice, to support all who spend too much time living in those spaces between the rocks and the hard places, mothers trying to make the most out of bad options and then living with the painful (and almost inevitable) compromises for their children.  Today, as all days, we should recall the many millions of mothers who have little say in policies – many still shockingly gender/social class exclusive — that routinely result in conditions that disrupt the pursuit of family normalcy and often dash their collective dreams.

Indeed, as we give in to the duties of today’s mostly sentimentalized ritual, it is important to recall the human costs of our inadequate social and security policies, pausing as we pick up the flowers or the restaurant check to recall the plight of mothers who must bear the brunt of finding safe passage for children in some of the roughest seas of my lifetime.

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