I also speak out as a woman, for women (all women, to the best of my ability). I want us to be respected as people, to be honored as capable of making our own choices, to be free to fulfill our potentials, unconstrained by social inequities.
And I don’t think these are competing goals. I don’t believe — as adherents to the medical model of birth seem to, as second wave anti-breastfeeding feminists seem to, as parenting experts everywhere seem to — that women and children are inherently in conflict, that the good of the one must come at the cost of the other. In birth and breastfeeding and parenting, what is good for women (most emphatically including women’s right to not have children unless they want to) IS good for children, and vice versa.
This is why I advocate for a path where we value and advocate for options, for the social promotion and removal of barriers toward homebirth and breastfeeding and biologically appropriate parenting, and not judge individual choices or devalue individual women and the paths of their lives. This is why I work toward a style of activism that takes responsibility for its consequences without inappropriately owning other people’s reactions. I believe the path of best good, of good for all, is there, waiting for us to open our eyes and find it.
But, especially living in kyriarchy and constrained at every side by a multitude of double binds, sometimes it is not clear what the best action is. Sometimes there is not a clear answer. Sometimes values do conflict. Sometimes all options are complicated. Sometimes all paths are bad because of apparently-competing goods.
Case in point: children’s safety. Perhaps, in Western cultures, we can almost all agree we don’t want to place children in excessive danger. We don’t wish to allow significant harm to any children. We don’t want to see our children die. Perhaps we can also almost all agree that there are risks to life, that to try to eliminate all risks is itself harmful: we want our children to be challenged, to grow, to have fun and live life.
How much we value each of these is almost entirely socially constructed. Aside from an innate biological desire to have our genes survive past us1, everything else — how much risk we accept, how much we even recognize either side of that balance as valid — arises from and varies by culture. There simply is no absolute calculation that the entire human population can agree on that will answer what is an appropriate level of risk to expose our children to.
And yet, neither can I say we should just write off any attempts to come to a communal agreement about safety, because to do that would mean abandoning any form of community contract, any hope of creating the proverbial village, which is so necessary to women’s and children’s health and sanity. If we agree to let each of us have our own lines of safety, we lose the ability to depend on our neighbours to help us keep our children safe.
So where does that leave us when we see a parent “toss their young child into the backseat of their car, [not] put her in a car seat or buckle her up with a seat belt, and start driving away“? If you are, and grew up in, a society without seatbelt laws, it likely makes you smile and not think twice about safety — after all, the odds of an accident are really quite small. If you started parenting in a culture with strong seat belt laws and even stronger car seat mores, like white middle-class suburban North America, you’d likely be horrified — what if there were a crash? That child might die.
What do you do? If you’re an advocate for children, an activist for women, if you speak out against judgment, and in favor of community, and you know car seats save lives in the event of a car crash, and you live in a place where their use is the law, what do you do?
This is not a theoretical question, but I don’t have an answer, not even in theory. I tend to come down on the side of let-it-go — partly because of my own happy memories of long car trips taking naps bedded down, unsecured, in the back of my mom’s minivan, partly as a philosophical allegiance to free-range-parenting, and largely because I’m highly confrontation-avoidant — but that’s only my preference, and probably has the same root as the reason I don’t know more than two of my neighbour’s names, for all that I’m in favor of village living… in theory. And in theory, I don’t mind someone trying to help me, even if I disagree with them. But in practice, I tend to loathe unsolicited busybodies who think they know what’s best for me — whether or not they’re “right”.
I think I can expound on the need for compassion, for openness (to their truth and their stories and their lives, which we can’t have if we’re clutching tightly to our One Truth), for humor and honesty and humility, on the occasions that we do approach another person. I can encourage us all to offer the benefit of assuming the best from others, both in offering and receiving advice. But when to approach? How to draw those lines, between safety and liberty, between community and autonomy? I don’t know. We can each make arguments in favor of “our side”, whatever that is2, forever, but I can’t help but think that’s missing the point completely.
In my ideal world, the barriers to safety equipment and the knowledge to use it properly wouldn’t exist. We’d all drive cars a lot less. We’d know the names of a lot more of the people we meet. And we’d all have a lot more practice at talking with, and a much lower propensity for talking to. There would be laws and social standards to discourage the worst, most risky and damaging behaviors, and a cultural agreement to let a lot more go. Our idea of help would be bringing dinners and doing a load of dishes and keeping a friendly eye on the kids playing down the street, not calling the cops or leaving passive aggressive notes or telling those kids it’s too dangerous to play outside. Fewer children would die in accidents, we would all accept that the number can never be zero no matter how much we would wish it so, and no one would ever blame grieving parents for being negligent.
I don’t know how to get there from here. I don’t know how to negotiate a social contract that we all can live with — that doesn’t kill our children or our respect for each other’s humanity. But optimist I believes it can be done, and terrified parenting I believes it must be done, and quickly. There must be a way to protect my child and respect my parenting decisions, to honor individuals and build community. And I want to find it.
This is not the place to argue about the fundamentals of car seat safety. Yes, car seats save lives in the event of a car crash. No, people who don’t use them are not awful neglectful parents. Comments which insult other parents or disregard the laws of physics may be deleted without notice or recourse. That’s not a conversation I’m willing to host here.
- Which is a far more complicated statement than simple biological determinism, with its cudgel of “homosexuality and childlessness and abortion are unnatural and everyone fucks as much as possible to make lots and lots of babies”, would have us believe. See Sarah Blaffer Hrdy for an excellent look at Mother Nature in all its complexity. ↩
- Safety always comes first! (Then stop driving your car.) Don’t ever interfere! (So we’ll just let abusers go on hitting, shall we?) ↩