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Commentary: It's not just the border crisis: Our culture truly does not prioritize families

Rene Denfeld
 
 

I had just sat down to write an essay about how our culture doesn't value the parent-child bond when the door bell rang.

It was the grandmother of a teenage friend of my kids. She was worried about her grandson. His grades were slipping, and he's not telling her his whereabouts. As she talked, she shared how she is raising her grandson and his siblings because their mother is unable to care for them.

After a long talk sharing strategies and support, I returned to my essay. I was thinking about how many grandparents today are raising kids because their adult children are struggling with untreated addictions, health issues and more, and how little support they get.

I had barely begun writing when the newest addition to our family needed help. I'm a single mom by choice - I adopted my kids from foster care, and I have taken in others. This lovely teenager joined our family just a month ago. She's lived a life of immense hardship. Her sister died of suicide, and her mother has been in and out of mental hospitals.

I immediately rose to comfort her, holding her as she cried. Then we tried to navigate the labyrinth of getting her affordable therapy. The county health clinic told her to call back: They have no room.

Hours later I sat back down. I was thinking of her. What would have happened if her sister had gotten treatment for her depression? If her mother had been given help for her mental condition before she deteriorated to such a point? In a different world, her family would still be together. Instead she has lost everyone she loved.

I made some notes: how we expect parents to work long hours away from their kids without high-quality child care. How in many rural areas parents don't have access to libraries or enrichment activities. How black mothers die at rates three to four times that of white women, from entirely preventable causes. How even for the wealthy, it can be hard to parent, whether because of the travel required of so many jobs or the rat race of careers that leave so little time for family.

I hadn't gotten very far when the phone rang. This time it was good news: My youngest had made top honor roll. This is a foster kid a caseworker once told me was "unadoptable." I smiled and thought about how lucky I was to work from home during his critical years, allowing us form a loving bond that cemented his belief in himself, which, I think, is the foundation of success.

I went back to the essay. I heard the stampede of teenage feet through the house - when you have teenagers they seem to multiply - and lots of laughter, and also a few choice cuss words I don't approve of. I called a merry reprimand, counting my blessings that I enjoy a stable temperament. Not everyone is so lucky.

I thought about our large house, the rising bills, and how precarious my own finances are, how easily we could lose our safety net. Like others from poor backgrounds, I have no family to rely on. A single health catastrophe could sweep it all away.

My youngest son popped into my room to ask for a few dollars for the swimming pool. I had it. He was wearing new swim trunks I'd gotten him. His teeth are cleaned and well-cared-for - he will not suffer from untreated dental infections that could affect his future.

Other families we know have not fared so well. Most of the kids in our low-income school come from families torn apart by policy, poverty and cultural indifference. At the last eighth-grade graduation, the keynote speaker was a girl whose mom had been deported. She finished her education as a homeless student.

I heard the front door slam shut, and out my home office window I watched a pack of teenagers walk to the bus stop. My kids are of color, and we face other risks to our family welfare, including being harassed by police. Right now, in the United States, 2.7 million children have been separated from their parents because of mass incarceration. I've known black mothers who were jailed because of unpaid traffic tickets, their nursing babies taken from them.

My phone flashed at me. I saw Facebook updates, hashtags that families belong together. A tired, cynical part of me thought, they always have.

I went back to my essay. I realized that I might not make deadline because of all these distractions. As a single mom, I often stay up all night trying to get work done. I know it's probably not good for my health, but I have no choice. I love my kids, even if I live in a country that does not.

And then I realized I had written the essay after all.

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Story by Rene Denfeld. Denfeld is the best-selling author of "The Child Finder."

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