On Friday night a family of 7 children burned up in a fire in their house in Brooklyn.
The father of the children was out of town at the time.
The mother and one of the older children survived the fire and are in critical condition in local hospitals.
When I first heard this story on the radio (having much less detail about it than I now know after reading the story I linked to above), I knew only that 7 children had died and the mother was alive because she jumped out of an upstairs window. This was my first thought:
“What kind of a mother saves her own life and lets her children die?”
Yes, that is a sick thought.
Yes, I am ashamed that I had that thought.
It’s not like I sat down and concentrated and came up with a coherent analysis of the situation and this was my conclusion. This was the first uncensored thought that came unbidden into my head. I was angry at the mother for letting her children burn up while she made it to safety, and I was equally angry at myself later on for jumping to any decisions when I knew nothing about anything.
This was my first assessment of the scene in my mind:
The house is on fire. Children are screaming from every corner, “Mommy help us! It’s so dark! There is fire everywhere! Mommy help!” And Mommy is furiously trying to make it to her own window, which she yanks up and jumps out of, into the fresh air below…
Then I woke up a bit, and re-assessed. This was my more charitable assessment:
The house is on fire. The children are asleep. They are breathing in smoke and some of them go unconscious without even waking up. The mother wakes up choking and her first instinct is to crawl to a window to open it. She doesn’t have time to think through what is going on, as she opens the window to let air in. As the flames leap around her, her survival instincts take over and hurl her outside, before she even rationally considers that her babies are still in the house. By then it is too late to go back inside, and she is overwrought…
Why I am posting about this, and why I am talking about a topic which is so awful?
First I want to ask a different question. Why do we think it is normal to expect women to martyr themselves for their children, and more globally, for those around them? This is an extreme case where I took it very far mentally when I wondered and judged, “What kind of mother would let her kids die…”, but we see permutations of this all the time that we don’t see in corresponding sectors. I don’t hear people ask what kind of doctor would let his patient die of heart disease, or what kind of sergeant would let his soldiers die or even what kind of a man would let his kids die. But here I was thinking it made perfect sense to expect a woman to immolate herself- how noble she would have been had she burned to death saving her children!- becasue a mother has to be self-sacrificing until the end. And maybe even past that.
But it’s not only in motherhood that we expect women to sacrifice. We wonder why women who choose not to have kids are so selfish. I don’t know of men who choose to remain childless being asked versions of, “How could you do that? Don’t you feel so unfulfilled? Aren’t you afraid you will regret it later?” Translation: ‘How could you be so selfish as to keep your life only for yourself?’ These women could be surgeons, professors, inventors, or other major contributors to society, but unless they are in some way involved in sacrificing themselves for the good of others, i.e. being a nun, being Mother Theresa (in fact, a nun), doing excessive non-profit work (because if you are highly paid it is not self-sacrificing enough so it doesn’t count), or being other sorts of caregivers/caretakers, they will be somewhat scorned. And to scorn, we must first judge.
It’s noteworthy that in the Brooklyn story I gave only passing thought to where the father even was. In my own family I know for sure that *h would absolutely be actively saving kids should an emergency ever arise. But I also know that I would hold myself most responsible for whatever the outcome would be. I guess that’s the double-edged sword of womanhood…
I watched a TED-talk a while back (you would think they give me kick-backs for promoting them, but they don’t) where a woman started out by saying she was watching her one year-old niece look in a mirror. She was smiling at herself and kissing the mirror and this woman wondered as she watched- at what point do we stop thinking it’s okay to love ourselves? She spoke about body image, and how it’s such a problem for today’s women and girls, and the showed a youtube video of an adolescent girl who put up a short clip to ask people if they thought she was pretty. Apparently this is common nowadays (when I told this to my kids, all except the youngest had heard of it, and the oldest few had even seen such clips), and angsty teens can post videos asking for “impartial” people in cyberspace to validate them. Some of you can guess where this is going, I’m sure- but some people posted kind things. The rest, though, posted horrid HORRID things, like U R ugly. Kill yourself. You should die U R so hideous. And this is where today’s kids are trying to get feedback on how they look and what kind of people they are.
But the fact that we are raising a generation of people who are so shaky that they would do something like that- post videos online, when cyber-bullying is at an all-time high and kids have even committed suicide because of what has been said to them and about them online- that is profoundly sad. The solution isn’t more fluffy feel-good everybody-gets-a-medal nonsense, either. The fake self-esteem shoveled around in schools today clearly isn’t working, as evidenced by the fact that more kids are depressed and medicated (or self-medicating) than ever before in history.
I think one of the first steps is in noticing our own beliefs and holding them up to the light of day. When we are afraid to look honestly at what we think and why, then we don’t change our minds, we just keep more secrets. Sometimes that can take us to very uncomfortable places, like when I realized that I really did expect a mother to die for her children. I had to ask myself if I could justify the premise that once a woman becomes a mother, her life is worth less than that of her children. And if, even if I might make that choice for myself, if that is the correct standard to apply to other people (because sometimes our personal standards can and should be applied to others, but sometimes not at all…).
Many times I will have a visceral reaction to something I see or hear, and often that initial reaction IS the correct one. But I think I can be a better version of myself if I keep myself in check by always holding up what I think to principles of honesty and integrity.
For now I will simply wish comfort to the Sassoon family, their extended family, their neighbors, and their community. May they only know sweetness in all their days ahead.