Something has been bothering me lately, and when something just keeps nagging at me, eventually I have to sit down and write about it. Vice recently did a story about Barbara Harris, the woman who drives around in an RV and pays drugs addicts to be sterilized, insuring they can never have children. I knew about this woman already, I had heard her interviewed on Radio Lab over the winter, and while I was disgusted with her when I first heard her, I wasn't haunted by the story the way I am now. What has made this Vice piece really bother me is the comments. I know I shouldn't read the comments on any publicly posted article or video, it's asking to be disappointed by humanity, but I have seen this article shared many times, and I was naively saddened to discover that not everyone heard what I heard in this story. Many people saw a hero, they agreed with her, and it wasn't just the typical internet trolls shouting about triggered snowflakes. People are articulately commending this woman's actions. So rather than explain in depth why this is wrong, as others already have, I want to share with you the wisdom I learned from parents who might never have been parents had they met Barbara Harris.
For the four years before I had my son, I worked with people in recovery from addiction. I worked the front desk for two years at a methadone clinic, and I knew the names and stories of over 300 patients. At the same time, I volunteered at the front desk of a recovery community drop in center. After two years at the clinic, I moved on to work at a residential treatment facility for pregnant or parenting moms recovering from substance abuse and mental health issues. In both places, I worked with the same people, every single day. We celebrated birthdays, new jobs, recovery milestones, and new homes. We formed real and caring relationships, and many of them still stop me to say hi on the street, thrilled to see me enjoying parenthood myself. I know the only thing separating me from the parents I met in the recovery community is a single injury resulting in a pain killer prescription, or a moment when my parents weren't able to be around to supervise the choices I made as a teen. It is only by the grace of my privilege and lucky circumstances that people aren't all over the internet saying I am unfit to parent. I feel I have had very little anxiety about my parenting, and much of this I credit to the lessons I learned from parents in recovery. The parents I met through the recovery community had been through hell and back, and while not every single one of them was an amazing parent, many of them were, and these were the lessons I was lucky enough to learn from those strong individuals:
1) Build your child a village. I grew up relatively isolated in a very rural area. My parents had a few good friends, but they lived a couple hours away. One of the first elements I noticed about the model of parenting I learned from parents in recovery was truly prioritizing the need for a village of trusted adults to support their parenting. A few good friends to be there to grab a dropped pacifier, get an older kiddo sitting down to dinner while you give the younger one a bath, or even just listen for your sleeping child while you get some time to yourself. If there was an emergency, these friends were a familiar and friendly face, there to provide comfort and supervision to children. This wasn't by accident though, these parents had invited these people into their family's lives, and cultivated these friends-as-family, supportive relationships. In my experience, people in recovery know better than most that it is a strong, responsible person that asks for help and builds needed supports into their lives, not a weak one. I am working to build these kinds of relationships into our family's life, and I am so grateful to the friends who I know I could leave my son with in an emergency, who wipe his nose without thinking about it, or swipe a foreign object out of his chipmunk cheek without hesitation. We all talk about how "it takes a village," but without the model of the parents I got to know through the recovery community, I don't know if I would make this a priority.
2) Children are precious gifts worth fighting for. When I was working at the residential treatment facility, I was also struggling with infertility. While it was admittedly a really hard place to be at that time, surrounded by mothers and their children, I also was inspired and given strength. I watched the ferocity with which these parents fought for custody of their children, witnessed amazing relationships blossom between reunited mothers and children, and the healing that new babies brought to women who had previously felt they were not worthy of love. In the moments that I felt ridiculous for being so upset that I couldn't conceive a child, I saw the unwavering love these mothers had for their children, and I knew that was an experience I wanted to fight for. Most parents I know socially could not conceive of being forcibly separated from their children, but for many, many caregivers it is a grim and often looming reality. I feel like I saw a different side of the love a parent has for their child in the parents who had been separated from their children, and fought to get them back; a side that didn't take that experience for granted.
3) Babywearing is a seriously powerful thing. Anyone who follows me knows I love babywearing. Of course I knew lots of parents who used carriers for their children, but I didn't really see the power of babywearing until I worked with parents in recovery. While not many of the parents I knew through the recovery community wore their babies, the ones who did were so obviously transformed by it. I would see new moms who felt isolated and exhausted from constant breastfeeding suddenly spring back to life when they found a carrier that worked for them to nurse in. I would see moms go from totally stressed out navigating getting around with a baby in a stroller and not having hands free for their toddler, to strutting and smiling into the dining room or doctor's office, baby in the carrier, holding their toddler's hand, feeling like they had things under control. I saw caregivers whose babies had been in the NICU feel confident in their ability to care for their tiny infant thanks to a well fitted ring sling. I saw transportation opportunities open up for parents who couldn't drive (like myself!) who went from walking everywhere because getting a stroller on public transportation is nearly impossible, to confidently taking the bus with their baby snug in a soft structured carrier. I saw parents who had been separated from their child due to incarceration make up for lost time, bonding with their baby, feeling secure in their relationship with their little one snuggled up close enough to kiss. After a few years of watching these transformations, I knew I would be using some kind of carrier with my child.
4) Good parenting, in the end, is pretty simple, and it doesn't come from money. Parents spend so much time worrying about whether they are doing a good enough job parenting. What I learned from watching hundreds of parents over a few years, many of whom were working to fight their way out of generational poverty, is that there are a few basic things that make you a good parent: You listen to your kids when they speak to you, you set appropriate boundaries, you fight for what you know is right for them, you find opportunities to have fun together, and when you make decisions you prioritize your children's health and wellbeing. That's pretty much it. If you're doing those things, chances are you're a great parent. This is what makes me so mad about people like Barbara Harris; you can't decide who is qualified to be a good parent. I have known 16 year olds who were inspiring, devoted parents. I have known upper middle class people with advanced degrees and a nice house in the country who were completely horrible parents. I love this video from Kristina Kuzmic about what kids really need and want from their parents:
Recently I ran into one of the moms who I knew from the residential facility, and we sat at the edge of the playground talking while our kids played. I don't know if the Department of Children and Families is still involved in her life. I don't know if the threat of having her son taken away from her still hangs over her head, despite all the hard work she has done and the life she has built for them. I don't know because we only talked about our kids, and how much she is enjoying her job. I do know that in that moment we stood together as moms, watching our kids play, and that no one would ever look at her in that moment and think she was any less fit to be a mother than I was. I can only hope that is her everyday reality, because it's what she deserves. I am so grateful to all the families who let me into their lives over the years, and for all I learned from them; I know I am a much better mother for knowing them. F*#% you, Barbara Harris.