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Pittsburgh’s Demon Mothers

This summer, a number of news stories featuring wandering children found by neighbors or police or children abandoned or left home alone have been featured in Pittsburgh.  Today, was another example of a news story, this one  with a video of both the two year old child in the arms of paramedics and the mother being lead handcuffed and crying.

As my yoga studio is inspired by the Matrikas, fierce and intelligent women who held their own in battle and were equally talented at compassion and grace, I feel the call to comment.  The reality is that I do not know the details of theses cases and I am well aware that child abuse and neglect is a terrible social problem.  Even the term “social problem” puts a rather sterile label on what must be a terrible and soul shattering experience for our youngest community members.  Yet, I’m not sure what the benefit of these new stories could possibly be and would be interested in a news feature that reveals the struggles of young mothers living in a society that, regardless of rhetoric, does little to support parents and families with young children.

I assure you that the two year old running around the street in a diaper could have been mine and it could have been yours.  Is there a mother out there that hasn’t been so exhausted that they had to take a nap?  I’m not talking about exhausted like, “Gee, I could really use a nap.”  I mean, mother exhausted—-as in, “This body is not going to do one more thing.  Game over.”  It’s not beyond my imagination that I could have plunked my toddler in front of Sesame Street on a hot summer day in nothing but a diaper and lay down for a few minutes to, as my mother used to say, “rest my eyes.”  And, it’s not beyond my imagination that, while I rested, my toddler could have let the cat out and then, realizing that he could open the door, run outside to chase the cat.  It didn’t happen, but it could have.  Would it have made me a bad mother?  Should I be arrested?  Or, was I just an exhausted mother who, in desperation, made a poor decision?  In none of the stories that I saw featured this summer was a father chased down (Maybe no one knows where he is?  Who he is?) with reporters screaming at him as he sobbed, “Do you have anything to say for yourself?” I’d like to ask the same of the reporter.

Again, it may just be that the cases featured in the news are situations where there has been gross neglect and abuse of the child.  If these cases have now come to the attention of providers of services for children and families that can support and benefit these children, then I am relieved and hope that there is some relief for everyone involved.  But, from the way these mothers are demonized, it seems to me that the very person who has stuck around and done their best and could benefit the most from support and guidance isn’t going to get it.  Quality childcare is expensive and mothers who do not work outside the home and care day in and day out for their young children have very little opportunity for respite on demand.  Family leave is only granted to working women who have worked for their employer for a certain number of days (in many cases, a years worth of days) and who work for companies with more than 50 employees.  Even so, the leave is without pay and many new mothers are forced to negotiate childcare during an already exhausting and overwhelming time. For parents who are juggling more than one job and daycare and night care (yes, there is such a thing), it may be that there is absolutely no opportunity for sleep.

It’s not just poor, young, single and uneducated women who find themselves in difficult situations without childcare.  Even more mature mothers with years of over-education and shiny looking CV find themselves trapped between work and family.  Just this past spring my young child was too sick to go to school and I was up with him sick the entire night.  My husband was up too, but then had to leave for work at 5:30 am.  I tried to find someone to cover me at the studio and teach my class, with with less than 2-hours notice and so many of my teaching team also being the mothers of young children, no one could do it.  So, I brought my son to work with me and tried to teach the yoga class with him there.  That day, I received a gift from my community.  I taught the class and was interrupted a few times—including one interruption that included a rather loud request that I help him in the POTTY.  During the class, all of my students were kind and generous and seemed to dedicate themselves to a rather disorganized practice with incredible sweetness.  After class, I sent out an apology e-mail expressing my gratitude and indicating that the class was offered without charge due to the conditions.  In response, every single student from that class sent me a beautiful and honest e-mail about how it wasn’t necessary and that they were happy to support me as a mother.  One even claimed that she was delighted to note that she smiled more in that particular class than usual.  Can you imagine?  Sure, you can shake your head and say, “Well, of course, it was a bunch of hippies doing yoga!  Of course they were generous.”  But no, instead I would like you to see this as an example of the incredible impact of an act of generosity and kindness towards a mother of a young child—–a married, older mom with a small business and an Ivy League education. This is the beauty of an intentional community and I am forever grateful to my community and their ability to release their own expectation of what the yoga class was supposed to be for them in order to make it a gift to me and my family.

Rather than demonize mothers, I invite us to consider how we can, each of us, extend kindness to mothers, fathers, families and adults who work with young children.  What may seem like a small act of kindness can have a huge impact on the life of a young child and family.  Please, do not be shy!  Even an offer of help, an extension of human generosity and kindness can make a huge impact.  When you see a mother with a young child screaming, instead of looking away or feeling annoyed, get closer and ask if there is anything you can do to help or just acknowledge that you know it is difficult, but it will pass and that they are doing a great job.  If you are an aunt, cousin, uncle, grandfather, friend and you can, offer to watch baby for an hour so mom can rest or take a shower or eat a meal in peace.  Bring a pizza by or offer a young family a covered dish or special treat. One of my yoga students and friends recently offered to bring a meal to my house when she found out that I was sick.  I didn’t take her up on it, but it was such a relief to know that if I had needed it, that there was that support there.

As individuals, we can have a huge impact by reaching out and offering compassion and empathy with exhausted parents and families that are under the stress of unemployment, too many jobs, financial concerns, fragile and expensive childcare situations and more.  We don’t have to make huge donations or stay awake at night wondering how we can save all the neglected children of the world.  Instead, we can offer the mothers and fathers that we meet encouragement and support—-be the friend and neighbor with the meal, with an hour or two to spare or just a set of kind eyes at the grocery store.

Although I am tempted to point a finger and extend a big “shame on you news media,” to the news services that provide the fuel to flame these stories of Pittsburgh’s demon mothers, instead, I invite them to do the right thing.  Why not report of the childcare problems that families with young children face during the summer when school is out?  Why not report on childcare, family leave, and the struggles created by our failure as a society to make supporting families a priority?  Why not talk about poverty, about mothers struggling to raise children alone, about mothers and fathers who struggle to negotiate work and childcare?  Why not talk about countries all over the world that provide for extended maternity leave, subsidized childcare and respite for young families? Why not feature communities and individuals who dedicate their lives to supporting families with young children?

Posted by Sharon Fennimore Rudyk, the owner of Yoga Matrika, a yoga studio in a most supportive community for mothers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: https://www.yogamatrika.com/.

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