A Pound of Flesh?

 

I’m retired now, and my kids have long since passed the age when, even if I were so disposed, I would dare lay a hand on either them or their children. But of course I wouldn’t -parenting wasn’t like that in my family.

I suspect I rarely hung out in the Goldilocks zone in childhood. I was prey to all of the usual temptations on offer in a 1950ies Winnipeg, but it’s unclear to me just what things I would have to have done to require corporal punishments. I realize that sounds naïve, even all these years later, but my father was not quick with the hand. In fact, on the one occasion he resorted to it, he seemed more upset by it than me, his recalcitrant offspring. And anyway, I think it was my mother’s idea that he wreak some stronger retribution than she could inflict on me with her voice.

My mother was into noise, actually. I imagine I was a frustrating child for her and she would resort to yelling fits when things didn’t go well. Clearly I have a limited, and no doubt statistically insignificant data set when it comes to the effects of corporal punishment, but I would venture to say that I feared my mother’s mouth far more than my father’s hand. My mother’s facial expression bespoke rage, my father’s, though, suggested sorrow -betrayal…

But I do not mean to disparage either of them, nor to suggest that they meted out cruel and unusual punishments under duress -I’m sure they were well-intentioned. And anyway, anecdotal evidence is a poor substitute for well-designed research, so I was pleased to see a more recent attempt to summarize what has been learned about the effects of, in this case, corporally disciplining children: https://theconversation.com/why-parents-should-never-spank-children-85962 The article was co-written by Tracie O. Afifi, Associate Professor, University of Manitoba, and Elisa Romano, Full Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Ottawa.

‘The use of spanking has been hotly debated over the last several decades. Supporters state that it is safe, necessary and effective; opponents argue that spanking is harmful to children and violates their human rights to protection.’ But despite how common and widespread its use, it has been banned in 53 countries and states throughout the world. ‘The research clearly shows that spanking is related to an increased likelihood of many poor health, social and developmental outcomes. These poor outcomes include mental health problems, substance use, suicide attempts and physical health conditions along with developmental, behavioural, social and cognitive problems. Equally important, there are no research studies showing that spanking is beneficial for children.’ And, indeed,  ‘An updated meta-analysis was most recently published in 2016. This reviewed and analyzed 75 studies from the previous 13 years, concluding that there was no evidence that spanking improved child behaviour and that spanking was associated with an increased risk of 13 detrimental outcomes. These include aggression, antisocial behaviour, mental health problems and negative relationships with parents.’ I suspect there were other things going on in both intent and degree that might have confounded these studies and led to the negative outcomes, though -apples are simply not oranges, and beating or assaulting someone is not the same as striking a buttock with an open hand as a way to deter an unwanted behaviour.

Of course, the researchers hasten to add that ‘this does not make parents who have used spanking bad parents. In the past, we simply did not know the risks.’ I think that lets my father off the hook; I’m not so sure about my mother, though. It seems to me that it is all too easy to condemn corporal punishments, while ignoring –or, perhaps, paying less attention to- the other forms of discipline that, intuitively at least, might be expected to result in equally detrimental  consequences for a developing child. One of these, of course, is verbal haranguing.

I don’t believe that I was ever subject to verbal abuse, however. I was never demeaned, or insulted by my mother –just confronted with my miscreant behaviour, and anointed with the requisite guilt- but I can understand how it could get out of hand under different circumstances and with different personalities. I find that worrisome –alarming, in fact. It is a behaviour that could all too easily slip under the radar. Be explained away.

I recognize that parenting is stressful, and that we all come to it with different temperaments, different abilities to tolerate stress, and different support structures that could be called upon in times of intolerable tension, but I suppose that is just the point. I wrote about this a while ago: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2017/05/17/time-out-eh/

But I fear that it sometimes requires the patience of Job to stand-down enough to be able to socially isolate the misbehaving child with a time-out. It is clearly preferable to spanking, to be sure, but I still wonder if what precedes it may be just that verbal abuse it seeks to avoid.

So, given our human propensity to react unpredictably and often adversely to stress, what am I advocating? Well, I have to admit that I have neither the background, nor the temerity to suggest that I have any productive answers. But although the Conversation article I quoted above was focused on spanking –physical punishment- it contains some suggestions that I think would be applicable to other punitive modalities like verbal abuse and insults.

‘Research already shows some evidence that parenting programs specifically aimed at preventing physical punishment can be successful. Some evidence for reducing harsh parenting and physical punishment has been found for Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), the Incredible Years (IY) program and the Nurse Family Partnership (NFP). Other promising home visiting initiatives and interventions taking place in community and paediatric settings are also being examined for proven effectiveness.’

I know –education, education, education… But sometimes education is merely making people aware that alternatives exist. That there could be support out there of which they may not have been aware -both with friends and in the community. Remember that African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child

 

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Eternal Maternal?

Some things are just not said, just not considered. They fall so far outside of our Weltanschauung they are inadmissible. And we take such comfort in their ubiquity that we no longer feel a need to discuss them. They are so self-evidently true, so axiomatic to our understanding of existence that they seem indispensable. Crucial… Even transcending the need for sentience.

Maternal instinct, for example -the irrevocable compulsion of a mother to protect her offspring even at the expense of her own safety. Characterized as selfless and incorruptible, it often escapes the genetic prison of species boundaries. It is one of those rare attributes that has such survival benefits that it blossomed under the rigorous pressures of evolution. It really is, at least in hominid terms, sacrosanct.

Or is it…? Sometimes there is a need for stepping back from the forever-yawning abyss of unquestioning acceptance. After all, what is instinct? Is it just an under-examined behaviour whose pervasiveness has convinced us of its Darwinian utility? Or is it something else –a hope, maybe? A tachistoscopic view of that which we would like to believe has survived the rigours of the collapse of Eden?

A rather obscure article in the Guardian newspaper –one of many, once I discovered it- attempts a more dispassionate analysis of the universality of maternal instinct: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/30/detach-myth-motherhood-from-reality-future-generations?CMP=share_btn_link

It’s addressing the expected attitude of the mother to her baby and the seemingly global societal requirement of her self-effacing altruism towards it –and usually the offspring of others, as well. It’s not attempting to comment on whether or not the woman chose to become a mother –or indeed, whether that might play a major role in her subsequent attitude towards the responsibilities involved. It’s more concerned with the fait accompli.

I have discussed the issues and deeply-rooted cultural assumptions around the decision whether or not to become pregnant in the first place in a separate essay in June 2015: To Have, or not to have ( https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/to-have-or-not-to-have/ ).

No, the Guardian article questions not so much the concept of maternal instinct, as its expanse –or perhaps more accurately, its inexhaustibility. Its sempiternity… ‘[…] maternal instinct is not a switch that exists in every woman, ready to be flipped as soon as she smells a baby. Relationships between mothers and their children are frequently far more fraught than the myth leads us to believe. It shocks us that mothers can be selfish. […]There is scientific evidence to suggest that the maternal instinct may even be contingent on a woman’s circumstances.’

In fairness, I suspect that the article may be a sort of authorial apologia: ‘I myself have had to face down questions from family, friends and even strangers who don’t understand my wish to have only one child. The thought of having more children terrifies me, and has nothing to do with the love I feel for my son. […] a similar argument can be made that maternal instinct may sometimes depend on whether a mother has the support she needs. We’re not a species designed to cope alone. Indeed, we’re at our most social when it comes to parenting, often recruiting many people around us to help. It really does take a village to raise a child. Without any help, it can be desperately tough.’

The author feels that the ‘reasons why women feel the way they do about children is under-studied’ and I certain agree. ‘[…]motherhood is not always an against-all-odds epitome of selfless caring. Sometimes it can involve emotional calculation, weighing the needs of both parent and child. We all assume that a mother always wants the best for her child, above her own needs. What we seem to deliberately ignore is that a child’s welfare can also depend heavily on the mother’s own needs being met.’

Near the end of her essay, I think she makes it clear why she felt it necessary to discuss the topic: ‘For the sake of both mothers and children, we need to begin detaching the myth of motherhood from the reality. It’s unfair of any society to expect women to be the best mothers they can be without economic or emotional support, just because they should love their children.’

I would like to think that as an obstetrician I am not a completely disinterested party in all this –although, of biological necessity, I approach the subject as a non-participant. And now, in retirement, perhaps even more so -I watch from the shadows, as it were, but I’m nonetheless attentive to the roiling milieu. It’s hard to ignore.

I was sitting in the corner of a coffee shop recently, enjoying the relative solitude, when two women sat down at the table next to mine.

“My daughter keeps foisting the kid on me whenever she wants to go out,” one of the women said to her friend.

Emily, you mean?” the friend said with a slow, disapproving shake of her head. “And Jacob…” It was obvious that she objected to a mother –not to mention a grandmother- talking about her family as if they were nameless burdens. Then her expression softened. “My Louise used to do that, I remember. She’d show up at the door unannounced and put Andrew in my arms…”

The first woman took a sip of her coffee and shrugged. “I suppose they all do it, eh Joyce?”

Joyce smiled at the thought. “I used to enjoy the challenge of working Andrew into my day.”

Joyce was a happy person I thought, as I tried to pretend I was reading my book, unaware of their presence. She was probably in her fifties, dressed casually in a grey sweatshirt and dark green track pants, and looking for all the world as if she was enjoying her life.

The woman beside me, however, was tense. I could hear the frustration in the timbre of her words.

“It’s just not fair, though,” she said to Joyce, her voice almost whining.

Joyce’s eyes twinkled even in the soft light of the corner where we sat. “Mothers have to have a break, Mary…”

“Break?” Mary interrupted angrily, “I never got a break, Joyce! I had to bring up two kids all by myself after Ralph left… By myself!”

I could almost feel the exclamation mark slamming onto the table in front of her.

It clearly upset Joyce, and I could see her taking a deep breath before responding. “Wouldn’t you have loved it if you’d had someone to leave them with every once in a while?” Her eyes were spotlights focussed on Mary’s face.

Mary shrugged again. “But I didn’t, Joyce… That’s the point.”

A tenderness suddenly appeared on Joyce’s face and she extinguished the angry glare as she  recalled her eyes. “But Emily does, Mary… And that’s the point,” she said, almost in a whisper.

I’d finished my coffee by that point, so I thought it might seem rude to continue to sit there and listen. But as I l pushed back the chair to leave, I couldn’t help but notice the smile that had finally surfaced on Mary’s face. And something deep inside me smiled, as well; the course of true love never did run smooth