Yesterday, I read a story in the Irish Examiner about a 3year old boy who was found shivering in a cabin at the back of a house by Gardaí while his mother and partner were busy taking heroin. According to the Garda who found him, “he was shivering” and “very cold” He had no shoes or socks on his feet, was wearing only a “light jumper” and his pants were “heavily soiled”. According to the article, tinfoil and needles were found around the cabin. Next, I read another story in the Irish Independent on the same day headlined “Intoxicated Mother left four-month-old baby alone in hotel room, court is told”. The children involved in both stories were found by Gardaí (can you imagine having to deal with that?) and were both taken into care by the State. Two tragic stories in two different newspapers on the same day detailing instances of parental neglect. Obviously, at the heart of both of these stories is addiction, deprivation and poverty but sadly it’s just far too common and it’s disturbing. What kind of childhood can either of those kids expect to have, you’d wonder and what will the long-term implications of that kind of neglect be?
As a primary school teacher, I’m probably particularly sensitive to this issue as I work with small children and studied a module in Child Psychology while undergoing teacher training but I also know from personal experience the impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences. I know it can cause untold behavioural and emotional problems into the future and can take years to heal from. I know because I’m still dealing with it myself. Intentionally or unintentionally, sometimes your parents really do screw you up. Parents who were neglected or abused or experienced a lack of nurturing and warmth themselves as children often unwittingly replicate some of those harmful learned behaviours on their own children and they cycle of emotional damage continues. While sometimes it’s a question of not having the skills to parent properly and not knowing any better, other times it’s a case of people not being emotionally or psychologically ‘fit’ for the job and/or not really wanting kids in the first place. There’s such huge social pressure on people to have kids, particularly at a certain stage in their lives and it seems to me that a lot of people simply cave in to that pressure because it’s easier to conform and belong rather than admit you’re not particularly keen on the idea! Also, accidents can and do happen, all the time!
It’s drummed into women especially that it’s our biological imperative to become mothers and that children are a ‘blessing’ and parenthood ‘so rewarding’. Well that may be the case for some women, but contrary to popular opinion, not all! Not everyone has the desire or emotional capacity to be a good mother. What you don’t often hear from the same people (mostly other women) who tell you that parenting is ‘such a blessing’ is how damn hard it also is, how exhausting and mundane and constantly challenging it can also be. Occasionally people are honest and tell you (their childfree friend) how hard they’re finding it but then, as if, they’ve betrayed themselves or feel ashamed of their admission, they swiftly follow it up with “but it’s so worth it” and you wonder if it really is…what on earth would make someone embark on this journey? How much do you have to sacrifice of yourself, your personal time, your financial independence and freedom to become a parent? Not something to be entered into lightly I would think, especially if you’re not prepared for all those sacrifices! It’s also glaringly obvious to me that the old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” is so true. At the very least, it takes two parents who are committed to parenthood and who can provide a healthy, stable and loving environment to raise a well-adjusted, emotionally healthy child. Not saying it can’t be done as a single parent, it’s just that bit more challenging. I have two close friends who are single parents and I see how tough it is, raising a child on your own, particularly when the fathers don’t contribute financially and have no involvement with the actual parenting.
Right, so all this is leading somewhere…. OK, controversial opinion alert… I think anyone who wants to become a parent should undergo a process, much like the rigorous vetting that is involved in adopting a child, to determine and ensure that
- Your reasons for wanting a child are sound ie. You want to give love to another human being and are able to provide a stable and healthy background for a child, whether that be on your own, or with a partner
- You have plenty of support around you to assist in the raising of a child
- You are an emotionally and psychologically healthy adult and capable of dealing with the many challenges that parenting involves.
- You can provide for a child financially as it costs approximately €100,000 to raise a child from birth through college and you have a suitable safe, stable and comfortable home to raise that child in
- You can commit to providing a stable environment for that child and if you can’t at any point will seek support and/or enrol on a parenting skills course if necessary
- If you realise you have made a terrible mistake and are not able to provide adequately for a child, you will ensure that you inform state agencies who can quickly remove a child from an unsafe or unstable environment and provide psychological support and counselling for that child as well as a placement with a more stable family unit.
You need a license to have a dog, to prove that you are a responsible pet owner. You also need a licence to drive to ensure that you are ‘safe’ on the roads. Prospective adoptive parents who are unable for various reasons to have a biological child of their own, must endure years of waiting and have every aspect of their lives examined by social workers before determining whether or not they’re suitable ‘parent’ material and can provide a secure and stable home for that child. Yet, assuming I am physically healthy and sexually active with a partner, there is nothing to stop me from having a child, should I become pregnant, regardless of whether or not I am in a position to do so and capable of rising to the huge (and it is a huge!) responsibility of having one. Parenting involves so much more than meeting a child’s basic needs for food, shelter and clothing. Anyone can do that (but not every parent does, perhaps because of poverty, ignorance or other factors such as war). However, it’s also about providing a child with an education, with the tools to succeed as an adult and meeting their needs on an emotional level. Rather than encouraging people to have families (as the Christian Church and most other religions does) we should first seek to ensure that we are equipping people with the tools to become competent, loving and emotionally intelligent parents perhaps through education and parenting courses that start in secondary school. A couple or individual thinking of having a child or a family should be required to undergo an assessment and a number of mandatory parenting courses to determine whether or not they would make good parents. Then, and only then, should they proceed with having a child. I admit, when I write this down, it sounds extreme, to the point of being Orwellian but I do think humans sometimes reproduce without actually thinking about it and it’s such an important decision to make. We really need to consider whether or not becoming a parent is what we want and whether or not we’re able to fully commit to the idea and be good parents, because that’s the very least a child deserves.