Wednesday, November 11, 2009


We have a strange way of framing responsibility in our culture. Experts, because they are invested with financial, institutional, intellectual and cultural power, are expected to know what is best for us, and to tell us what to do. And, we are expected to seek them out and comply with their opinion. Many spend years of their lives becoming experts, and they certainly know things. But most of the time they don’t know us, they don’t know our children, and they don’t have to live with the consequences of our decisions, that they tend to want to make for us.

The experts can take many forms, they are everywhere. And this isn’t about judging individuals or professions but more about the cultural power we’ve imbued them with. Most obviously in the world of parenting, doctors, nurses, teachers (and I am one), but also the mother sitting next to you at playgroup, a well-meaning relative, the books we read etc. can all end up being “experts.” Certainly they are often important and helpful, but we’ve come to a place where we’ve completely skewed our sense of responsibility. Experts should be resources we seek out for information so that we can make informed decisions. The decision making should not be wrested from our hands.

As parents we have to live with the consequences of our decisions regarding our children. We are fundamentally responsible for them, until they can take responsibility for themselves. And in fact one of our most important jobs is to raise children who can take responsibility for themselves once they are adults. Modeling that process is essential. But it is easier said than done.

Culturally, we have some significant issues with taking responsibility for ones’ sexuality, and yet that is where our kids literally begin. Once pregnant, a mother is frequently pressured and coerced in so many ways, shapes and forms. Everything from medical testing, to who is providing care, to what type of maternity clothes, to what she puts in her body. The perfect stranger in the grocery aisle acts like they know better than the mother whether or not she’s having a boy or a girl, where to have her baby, what to feed herself and her baby etc. Suddenly her body is considered the responsibility of everyone else. There is an underlying assumption that she may not actually be doing everything “right” and that if we don’t keep close tabs on her she might deliberately harm her baby! There is a strong underlying message that the mother is bad for her baby, and that the baby is bad for her. So it’s everyone business to make sure they don’t cause each other too much harm (or others too much legal liability)!

Everyone around her takes responsibility for something that is not theirs to take, but the mother is encouraged to abdicate power and give her body and baby over to the experts. This situation is only exacerbated during birth, post-partum care and continues through early childhood and schooling. (It is also still there as we age and in most aspects of paid employment, home making, politics, economics etc.) That stranger also knows when our baby needs a hat. The doctor tells us our sick child is “fine.” The teacher tells us our child needs Ritalin. Our media and our institutions are constantly pummeling us with a myriad of ways that we should abdicate our responsibility for our children and hand over power to anyone and everyone but ourselves. Ironically, at the end of the day, if a parent falls short (or even is perceived to have fallen short), the blame falls squarely on their shoulders – because we are responsible, whether we accept it or like it or not.

Unfortunately, under so much pressure, parents frequently accept this state of affairs and turn to the experts instead of looking at their child and listening to their instincts. When things don’t work out blaming the children is often not far behind, or we become litigious and sue the experts. Sometimes we get mired in guilt and self-flagellation. None of this actually makes for raising healthy, happy, responsible adults.

A central part of this process is a hefty dose of fear. The media is currently selling fear like candy around H1N1, but every aspect of parenting is loaded with potential fear (and frankly so are most other parts of our lives!). It is impossible to make good decisions in a place of fear, and yet we are regularly terrified into decisions, instead of supported and informed and allowed to hear our hearts.

“you’re too (old, young, fat, thin) to have a baby – you are high risk”

“you have a low lying placenta”

“your baby is too big (or too small)”

“you must sign up for daycare before your baby is born to get a good spot”

“you must stay at home/you must work for pay”

“you must be induced”

“you must be on bed rest”

“you must be monitored at all times”

“you must get the epidural”

“you’re too late for the epidural”

“you must have monthly appointments”

“do you want your baby to die?”

“you don’t make enough milk”

“you’re eating the wrong food”

“you must send your child to preschool – or better yet to this “elite” preschool”

“your child must not watch TV”

“your child must be stimulated with black and white”

“your child must be socialized”

“your child must stay home with you”

“your child must play soccer, or ballet, or art, or swimming, or basketball, or all of the above and finish their homework, and know how to read by 5”

“your child must never bite, whine, cry, get up at night, pee in their pants, reject the creepy/or not so creepy relative or stranger”

“your child must be potty trained at (insert age here)/you can’t potty train yet”

“your child must sleep through the night and go to bed at 7pm”

And it goes on… and on… and on. It doesn’t matter whether it’s H1N1 (virus or vaccine), or potty training or which university your child “needs” to go to. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the media, experts, institutions, relatives, or me telling you what to do. Fundamentally, parents need to take responsibility for raising their own kids. That means making tough decisions, with no obvious right answers, from our hearts and our guts, after doing our own research and then accepting and living with the consequences of our actions. In the end, we actually know what is best for our families and it’s not necessarily what is best or right for someone else. The rest of us, need to back off and give real support without all the judgment and fear. This isn’t too popular these days, but we’re the ones living with our decisions whether we like it or not… so we might as well own the decisions we’ve made. And the truly liberating part, let others own theirs too!


  1. this was well written and well times with all the craziness that is going on in the world today.

  2. Thank-You Kirsten, you've hit the nail on the head once again!

  3. Thankyou so much, I couldn't agree more....I love the part where everyone strips the resposibility from you, before having properly learned how to carry it, second guess you everytime you try to take it back, and then will inevitably hold you responsible if there is ever a moment in the future where a flaw surfaces...where are the 'experts' then? No where to be found would be my guess. Well said, well said.

  4. *Bows* Awesome hun, just awesome!!

  5. These are very valuable words. I allowed myself to be disempowered in the birth of my twins, and I am still coping with the grief and weight of the choices I made three years later. I have also been struggling mightily with these issues since my twins were diagnosed with speech and language delays at 18 mos. The experts don't make it easy to go against them, it is in fact threatening at times... I have had fears that I should I ever be investigated by social services or should I ever be involved in a custody battle, they would hold my choices against me. When you claim responsibility and go against the grain, where do you turn for support when those around you do not stand by you? Where do you find the emotional energy to stand with the choices your heart tells you to make when the world seems to be telling you to do differently? How do you cope and recuperate when you have made a mistake?

  6. Your post said it all, thank you!

  7. I am going through a period of evaluating my own life and trying to come to a decision regarding my family and myself. I cannot tell you how much guilt and fear I have been facing. Part of it comes from inside me, but a great deal comes from others telling me I'm making a mistake (one way or the other). If motherhood has taught me one thing is that I need to trust my instincts. Somehow it's easier for me to fight my battles when it comes to my baby. The stakes are too high, and I just can't back down. In any case, thank you for your article. It reaffirms my desire to make my decision on my own and take the consequences as they come.

  8. The fear factor is something that has bothered me, too. You can convince a parent to do anything, almost anything, if you make them afraid that they are doing their child wrong. It's just wrong.