Lots of layers of luxury in that sentence. None of them are lost on me.
Our youngest is 4. She was wearing an adorable striped sundress and sandals. And a bright purple cast that went from fingers to armpit, her arm perpetually bent in salute to the privilege that is her life. Also, very dirty. There will be no baths for a month or so, which is readily apparent. We think nothing of letting her collect all manner of grime in the course of a day. For us, it is the badge of a day well-lived. The “no bathing” thing is going to present a challenge, but not one to fret over. I mean, our kid is obviously loved and cared for, right? What do I care if someone judges us?
Our purple-casted and grime-covered daughter was fascinated by the fact that men aren’t wearing shirts. She kept pointing it out, “that man isn’t wearing a shirt.” “That man isn’t wearing a shirt, but he’s wearing a lot of tattoos.” There was no more query than that, and I resisted the urge to give her a lecture on gender inequality and the sexualization of women’s bodies. Mostly because the sun was out and I didn’t give a shit. And she’s 4.
Towards the end of our sun-drunk wanderings, a little brown boy, younger than her but not by much, ran by. “Boys don’t wear shirts either.” Indeed, he was topless, with crisp plaid shorts, the same blue as his Nikes. I watched him play, in all those ways that I watch unabashed joy. With hope for the future, envy of the lack of self-awareness, marvel at the mechanics of youth that we somehow lose in sedentary adult life. This kid was an athletic perpetual motion machine. I was glad I wasn’t his mother, but wished I could play with him and nurture both his energy and his skill. Also, he was insanely cute and I kind of wanted to eat him.
Why do I always want to eat the cute babies? (That is a different post!)
As we were leaving, his mother stopped us. She want to ask about our daughter’s cast. She asked if we had to go to the hospital to get it. Yes, I said, thinking it an odd question.
“I worry about that a lot. I know he’s going to do that, and I try to prepare myself,” she said, essentially. And then went on and on about how he was so active and she knew that eventually he’d break something.
I assured her that kids break things all the time, and although it sucks to watch, they’re fine. It happens. Actually, I told her, this is the second broken arm ours has had in a year.
“And they didn’t call anyone?”
I wondered who they would call? My mother? The principal?
Trying to unravel her question, I paused the scene in my head for a minute and just looked. She was a very young African American girl. Her relationship to authority was very different from mine. If she was to bring her son in with a broken arm – much less two in less than a year – she might, indeed, have more reason to worry about a call to CPS.
“Like who? What do you mean?”
“Like CPS or something. I mean, I know it’s gonna happen, and I would want to help him, but…..” She trailed off, letting my mind fill with all the what-ifs. As if NOT taking him to the ER was the natural and obvious thing to do for her. An accepted reality that by taking a kid to the ER for a broken bone, something much worse could happen.
I told her the only truth that I know, which is mine. That we’ve been to Children’s Hospital with this one more times than I can count, literally. Broken bones, asthma attacks, x-rays…… and no one has batted an eye. (As I’m telling her this, I’ve never felt more white and privileged, with this daughter of ours who is grimey enough to play a street urchin in a production of Oliver.)
I told her that I really didn’t think they would bat an eye at her either, if she brought her son and his eventual broken bones in. That they look for signs that children are well cared-for. Watching him move and play, with joy and freedom, with a healthy body, with clean clothes, with…. This child is loved.
Listening to her talk to me, this child is loved. The depth with which she has thought through how to care for this boy, in all the real and imagined scenarios is clear. She worried about him, all the time, which is normal “mom” behavior.
I’ve been there. Worrying about disasters that haven’t happened yet.
But having to worry about whether or not you have access to emergency services. That is something that has never occurred to me, in my ivory tower of invisible privilege. And my heart sank. It’s not just financial resources, Children’s Hospital here is well-endowed, financial access shouldn’t be a barrier for anyone. I can explain that to her. But emotional access? The idea that doing what is right, and what you know to do for the good of your children, might result in punishment? Might result in losing your children?
Doing what’s right might result in losing your children?!
Fuck. Fuckity fuck.
I didn’t know what to say, but I am sure that I said all the wrong things. I told her what I believe to be true about people who work at Children’s. That they care, and are not judging. That they want to help her care for her son, and will teach her a lot. That they are not going to call CPS about a broken bone. That as a former mandatory reporter, I know we look for patterns, or injuries that are not common, or that are not commonly caused by things like falling off of swings and trying to run up slides the wrong way. That the doctors do know how to tell the difference.
That I can tell, by the way that she is talking to me, that this child is loved and cared for. And they’d be able to tell to.
In the back of my head, though, I know her fear was deep, and probably justified. That people, whether they know it or not, intend to or not, would look at her differently than they look at me. That by virtue of being brown, and young, and single, and likely of lower socioeconomic status….. she’s treated differently. It is entirely possible that she would be more likely to wind up with a CPS file than I would be.
I tried to assure her it was safe to take her son to the ER. I tried hard. Because I believe it to be true. Because I so desperately want it to be true.
But that nagging voice in me wondered…. Is still wondering.
As we were driving home, I just unleashed my outrage to my husband. How can anyone be expected to deal with all the “regular” hardships of raising a kid, much less raising a kid on a budget, and ALSO carrying the invisible weight of not being able to trust the systems that should be there to protect and help you? I am well-versed in a distrust of the police. And the government. The systemic racism in this country is real and tangible. Skepticism and fear are both justified. But this was so different to me. To distrust the Children’s Hospital Emergency room, which would only matter when disaster strikes, and you are most vulnerable and in need of help.
This wasn’t systemic denial of services and opportunity, this was just the kind of fear that permeates your soul in the same way that religion does. It just “is,” you don’t question it. How must that “knowledge” that even doing the right thing can result in bad things happening to you change the way the world looks? Change the freedom with which you can raise your family?
I’ve dealt with it, from my privileged perspective as a teacher and an advocate, and bashed my way through social barriers on behalf of others most of my life. But something as simple as thinking you couldn’t access emergency medical care if your kid was hurt because you would be accused of being a bad parent and lose him? That had never occurred to me. That wasn’t about money or politics. That was the simplest manifestation of internalized racism I can imagine. And it broke my heart.
I am so very lucky that when my children break their bones, the only thing I worry about is getting them better.
Now if we could just figure out how to fix the much larger problems. The ones that fracture our society into haves and have-nots. Cans and Can-nots.
The ones that, at the most basic level, make it impossible to believe that everything’s going to be okay.
I can’t even imagine.