A couple of weeks ago, Nebraska revised its “safe haven” law. ( Nebraska Revises Child Safe Haven Law: NYTimes) Nebraska was the last of the 50 United States to pass such a law, which allows parents to hand their children over to the state without fear of prosecution. These laws are generally intended to prevent what the media nicknames “dumpster babies”: newborns abandoned in out-of-the-way places by desperate young mothers. When it passed its law, however, Nebraska left open the possibility of handing over children up to the age of 18. Legislators were soon dismayed to find a surprisingly high number of teenagers handed to the state for safekeeping, including children from other states.
Why? This law coincides with rising health care costs and decreasing governmental support for parents. In an article about the revision to Nebraska’s law, the New York Times focuses on the mother of three children, two of them bipolar, one of whom was uncontrollably violent, who could not afford the health care her son needed. She is shown weeping, and says she cries every night but abandoned her son to the state because it was the only way for him to get the care he needs – and for her to take care of her other two children.
About a year ago, President George Bush vetoed plans to expand S-CHIP, the government program that provides health care to children of the working poor and middle class. He argued that this expansion would have provided a safety net to people who did not really need it. The surprising turn of events in Nebraska strikes me as powerful evidence (for anyone who still had doubts) that this argument is nonsense.
Referring to events in Nebraska, a recent editorial in the New York Times pointed out missing social safety nets and called on the government to provide them. I agree with the editorial but think that more than financial resources are at stake here. The stories from Nebraska highlight some troubling issues that are also raised by the problem of child abandonment more generally. Why are young women so ashamed to bear children that they leave them in dumpsters, bathrooms, wherever they can hide them? Why is it made so difficult for women with children to finish school, find good jobs, make a good place for themselves and their children in the world? Why is having a child the end of freedom and possibility to many women? Why do we arrange the lives of children such that their parents bear so much, too much, of the weight of their happiness? Surely it could be otherwise.
Thirty years ago, in Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich addressed the despair children can bring even to mothers who love them dearly. Rich’s words are brave and worth thinking about. Children are often romanticized as a constant wellspring of delight; they are not always so. If we could acknowledge that, and find ways to provide moral and social, as well as financial, support to parents (especially mothers, but fathers too), children would be less threatening and less threatened. In Nebraska and elsewhere.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau abandoned his 5 children to foundling hospitals, where they likely died soon after. There are plenty of parents (mostly fathers) abandoning children wrongly, selfishly. Rousseau regretted his decision after the fact, and the experience inspired him to write Emile (a book which plays no small part in the romanticizing of childhood, it must be said). But Therese Levasseur, Rousseau’s lover and companion and the mother of those children, is the parent who most comes to mind. The story would be less heart-wrenching if it had been possible for her to keep those babies. Times have changed, but as long as motherhood is an experience of entrapment (not for all, but for too many), times have not changed enough.