I always assumed I’d be a mother some day. I assumed I’d go about motherhood in the systematic, anal-retentive way I’d gone about everything else that was important in my pre-motherhood life: First I’d memorize the relevant medical, sociological, and psychological information involved. Then I’d pick a couple of real-life role models roughly my own age to study for clues about how to rear children in a world that’s markedly different from the world I was reared in myself. Maybe, for good measure, I’d borrow some of their children occasionally and run a small lab experiment on how adult-child communication really works. After all that, I’d be ready.
Unfortunatelyor maybe fortunately, depending on how you feel about by-the-book parentingI never got around to any of these parent-preparation activities. Long before I ever heard a single tick of my biological clock, I found myself staring in disbelief at a little blue line on a home-pregnancy test. Too late to get that graduate degree in child psychology before the baby arrived.
Mother Nature knew what she was doing when she designed human gestation to last nearly 10 months, and when she removed from human beings all memory of what happens to them as infants. This combination of lengthy pregnancy and lengthy infant innocence gives most new parents plenty of time to figure out what parenthood is all about. By the time the kid is old enough to shout ”That’s not fair!“or to demand ”Why can’t I?“even once-unprepared parents have learned to wear the mantle of parental authority with a certain amount of ease.
I assume this tendency explains why the United States government, which imposes regulatory limitations on everything from driving a car to drinking a bottle of beer to passing the third grade, makes no limitations on becoming a parent. You don’t have to be a certain age or pass a certain test to bring a baby into the world. And in this country, all you have to do to keep your baby is to feed it, keep it clean and warm and reasonably safe, and treat it kindly.
Still, in the beginning of my first child’s life, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I’d somehow sneaked past the guard at the front door of parenthood, that I’d inadvertently cheated on the parenthood test. I kept half expecting some combat-booted phalanx of the Parenthood Police to pound on the door while the neighbors huddled in little groups on the fringes of our yard, looking shocked and frightened in the strobing red lights of the armored car.
”We’re here for the baby,“ the bruiser in front would bark. The giants behind him would shoulder past and fan out, smashing through our tiny apartment. In less than a minute, one of them would snatch up my baby into his big hairy hands, and the whole group would whisk him away while I stood in the doorway of my suddenly useless house, still smelling of sour milk and spit-up, and sobbing.
I imagined such scenes so vividly because I secretly felt I didn’t deserve to be a mother. I was a fraud, a loving but incompetent impostor. Of course they would take my baby from me. They would take him where others who knew better than I what was best for him could raise him in safety.
Eight years later, I still feel the same way at times, but now I feel it from both sides of the authority divide: When I’ve yelled at my stubborn 3-year-old and his beautiful eyes are tearing up in absolute shock that I’ve spoken so harshly, I think the Parenthood Police really should come and take him away from me. But when I’m walking into Wal-Mart and some 19-year-old girl, heavily pregnant, is standing outside and taking a last drag on her cigarette before punching in, I do sort of wish there were someone in charge who could say, ”Look, honey, you’re killing yourself and you’re making your baby weak and sick. If you can’t get it together better than this, we’ll find someone to raise this baby who can.“ And naturally I think that someone should be me.
So I have a certain amount of sympathy for the Cuban-Americans in Little Havana who think they know what’s best for 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, who want to save him from the fate of growing up in a country many of them risked their lives to escape. The child’s own mother, now an uncanonized martyr in the Cuban-American community, gave her life so that she could raise her child in the free air of America. It would be nothing short of dastardly to send that childa boy clearly anointed by God, plucked from a watery grave by His approval of our democratic free-market economyback to that godless infidel running what’s left of Cuba into the Communist ground.
The only problem with this position is that Elian’s inner tube washed up in the United States of America, and here in the United States of America we don’t take children away from their parents because of political affiliation. Our most fundamental child-rearing principle here in the United States of America is that, except in cases of abject parental incompetence or villainy, kids belong with their parents. As I mentioned, I’m not altogether comfortable with this principle, but I’m less comfortable with the alternative. I don’t trust a political system that’s given us a choice this year between the craven Al Gore and the stupid George W. Bush to know a good parent from a bad one.
Last weekend, three lawyers for the boy’s U.S. relatives went on the Sunday morning talk shows and implied that Elian’s surviving parent was an unfit father. Until then, every single report for the past four-and-a-half months has characterized Juan Gonzalez as a loving man wracked by fear when he learned his child and ex-wife were missing, and by desperation to get his son back when it became clear the boy had lived. Casting doubt on the father’s competence is a very American strategy for winning a custody suit, but since there’s zero evidence to support such a claim, Elian’s U.S. relatives have shifted back to arguing that Juan Gonzalez is a good man being manipulated by Fidel Castro.
It’s impossible for anyone here to know if the U.S. relatives are right when they argue that Juan Gonzalez is Castro’s pawn in this international custody battle. Perhaps he is only mouthing the Communist party line when he says, in a letter read aloud by Castro himself, that he is ”offended“ by the offer of some U.S. politicians (mainly Floridians hoping to garner the powerful Cuban-American vote, but including as well those equally smarmy and lunkheaded bedmates, Al and W.) to grant U.S. residency status to him, his second wife, their newborn son, Elian’s surviving grandfather, and both of his grandmothers. But maybe not. Maybe Juan Gonzalez is an honest-to-goodness Communist who wants nothing more than to take innocent little Elian back to his rotten Communist hole in Cuba, raise him under a despot’s rule, and inculcate him in political folly.
Surely the greatest irony in all this mess is that tens of thousands of Cuban-American demonstratorspeople who want to protect Elian from the Castro dictatorship and guarantee him a life of free choice in this countryannounce that it will take the U.S. National Guard to get past them and retrieve Elian from their own iron grasp. They’d rather have Elian reared by distant relatives in a foreign land he did not choose than return him to the loving arms of his own father. Anyway, they don’t want the father himself to have any choice in the matter.
Someone should tell them it doesn’t work that way in America.