Mayor Bloomberg is having some powerful blow back this week, though a guy with his track record is probably used to it. The media courting NYC mayor was outed in a Salon article about the vested interest of uber-wealthy entrepeneurs financing school reform (read here) and his own tech-stock interest in a particular California School Board race. Yesterday a New York state court judge also put a hold on his attempt to outlaw super-size coke in the city (read here). Now his latest campaign, a media blitz aimed at shaming “teen parents” is receiving loud reviews (note: The Root offers both pro and con responses).
Before I go any farther, I should point out that I am not now, nor was I ever, a teen mom. Having named that truth, my credibility in the conversation immediately plummets. Quite frankly, anyone attempting to pass themselves off as an expert in the field who has not walked in the shoes is a fraud and ought be ushered off center stage. We humans have an incredibly unhelpful instinct to feign empathy when we in fact we have none, and we fool only ourselves and those equally inexperienced. We add insult to injury aware of neither.
This flaw in our empathy instinct became real for me when after years of acting as an ally for my LGBT friends, I left my hetero-life, came out, and began to experience the world as a lesbian. The learning curve was (and is) steep, and I very quickly came to realize that I had been totally blind to an experience in which I had had both instinctive awareness, deep sympathy, and presumably much empathy. Still, you don’t know what you don’t know. And there was a ton I didn’t know and could not have understood. As good an ally as I was, the blinders I wore were astounding. Allies are welcome and important, but when allies presume to mistake support for first hand knowledge, they cease to be allies.
With new found humility in this empathy gig, I find myself wondering how different our public discourse would be if we limited our platitudes to first hand knowledge. Rather than offering advice while blindfolded, what if we shared our experiences? My first child was born on the eve of my 30th birthday, but even so she was quite a surprise. Truth be told, I was neither financially nor emotionally prepared and two decades later I still feel like I’m trying to catch up. This is the experience that I know and that I can tell with integrity. My hunch is that if we get more honest about our own stories and the emotions that dance through them, we will have much that is worthy to share. In fact if I share mine with authenticity and invite you to do the same, we will likely find ties that bind no matter the age of our parenthood.
If I dare to be real about my own story and listen while you share yours, I will also begin to see the places where privilege has opened different doors. Gender, race, ethnicity, economics, academic ability, geography – these all open and close doors that for the most part we don’t even see unless they have been shut before we got through them. The sobering fact of life in America is that some of us skated through innumerable open doors that we didn’t even notice while others got knocked on their asses in the attempt. If I’m honest about my experience and listen openly and without judgement to yours, I begin to see the doors that open and close, the privileges that are not shared equitably and have very little to do with personal choices.
Sure, parenthood might be easier if we had strong happy two-parent marriages in communities that welcomed us, college careers to back us up, and bank accounts that allowed us to provide sustenance without worry. But this standard is an elusive myth not a realistic goal. The fact is that children come into our world most often at awkward times, steal our hearts, bleed our finances, and take every last ounce of energy we have. Given the world’s overpopulation and the reality that at least most of us no longer need procreate for our species to survive, a truly rational approach would be to remain childless. Period.
Short of ditching the whole enterprise, I would suggest that we hold our stones and limit our advice giving.
Years ago I was at a liberal love-in, a gathering of eco-friendly religious folk, and one of the invited guests dropped a startling piece of self disclosure. In the context of a policy-related question, one of the good liberals assumed solidarity with the Native American speaker as he made an anti-Republican comment. The speaker said simply, “I’m a Republican.” The room hushed and she continued. “A Nixon Republican.” The silence was complete. “Liberals tend to think they know what’s best for my people. But Nixon honored my people’s independence, he respected us and our right to self determination.” History aside, our stereotypes were set on edge where they ought stay.
I’m not the Mayor, I’m not uber-wealthy, and I’m not charged with directing legislative agendas. But having been hit by them, I do recognize stones. We have been all too liberal with the stones aimed at young parents. Let’s drop them.