Exception (or a mommy blog on Agamben)

My daughter doesn’t like the stroller much at all, and she really doesn’t like being strapped in the stroller. We push the backrest as far forward as we can, but she prefers sitting straight up, even leaning forward on her knees, maybe holding out a doll or stuffed animal friend to take in the sights with her. We also live in a neighborhood where the curb cuts are intermittent, and with several quite busy streets. And we walk a lot. My husband tries to get her strapped in, but I often don’t think it’s worth the argument: my arms are aching from carrying her, my back hurts, she’s already screamed that she does not want to go in the stroller, and if I can get her to ride then that’s enough for me.

Of course, like a lot of parents, I have daily thoughts of disaster, and one of them is: what if she were to tumble out while I go down a curb and get hurt or worse? I can just picture someone reading the newspaper account, shaking their head, and saying, “well the mom didn’t have her strapped in!” Then it wouldn’t matter, it would be something preventable that therefore can be dismissed as an individual’s bad choice and not a public problem (people driving too fast, not enough room for pedestrians). I often don’t ride the bicycle because I know that bicyclists’ deaths are too often considered their own fault, even when bicycles pose a fraction of the threat of cars. Sometimes I think about getting my daughter strapped in the stroller, not because I really think she’s going to fall (it’s a big stroller and she’s secure even sitting forward) but so that I would be beyond reproach. This, of course, is just an apocalyptic, somewhat idle worry. We are pretty safe.

A friend of mine recently posted Wanda Coleman’s South Central Los Angeles Death Trip, 1982 on facebook in response to the death of Eric Garner, who suffocated in a choke hold while being tackled by four NYPD police officers. He may have been under arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes or somehow provoking police by stopping a fight, but really he died for being big and black and male. He slipped into the exception, into a death that is justified or acceptable, a death for which no one will likely be punished, much, much more easily than I ever will. A father of six, he slipped into violence far more easily than my daughter’s white father ever will.

NPR says 508 Palestinians have died in the most recent conflict as of today, and 25 Israelis. Somehow this is justified enough to happen without official reprimand. Israel is widely reported to have dropped leaflets warning civilians in Gaza to leave targeted areas; not leaving then makes them killable.

My favorite “mommy” blogger, Janelle Hanchett, recently posted about her trip to Costco with four children, one of whom is a newborn. She wrote of the moment when her newborn was screaming and her toddler standing up in the cart and she needed to load groceries:

My god in that moment I swear I almost looked at complete strangers and asked “Would you HELP me?”

But I didn’t, because we don’t do that sort of thing. Nope. This is America, where each human fends for herself and a dumb broad like me, well shit, I’m the one who decided to have all these kids and go to Costco and whatever, whatever. . .

Sometimes we need somebody to take a minute or two and just HELP. I never ask for help, but I would have proposed marriage to the human that lent me a hand in that moment.

But nobody did. And that’s cool. I don’t deserve shit and I’m not entitled to anything. I knew I’d survive, and I did, and I don’t feel sorry for myself.

But I made a decision right then and there that the next time I see some human struggling, I’m going to help her.

 The most painful part of this story to me is saying “I don’t deserve shit and I’m not entitled to anything.” This belief–that some people’s struggles and pain (or death in the cases above) is their own fault and does not require a social response–is so ingrained that even while arguing that it’s wrong we reaffirm it. If a mother struggling is not entitled to help, someone would themselves have to be exceptionally generous in order to help, rather than this being a norm. It is not the cultural norm–at least in my experience of white American culture–to help, to care too deeply about international politics, to care too deeply about the deaths of black men at the hands of police, or about gunshot victims in urban black neighborhoods. All of these people somehow deserve it, had it coming, could have made better choices.

Two of the most poignant moments in the movie Fruitvale Station, about the murder of Oscar Grant (another father) at the hands of BART police, had to do with women. First, when Grant’s mother suggested he and his friends take BART instead of driving from Oakland to San Francisco for a New Year’s celebration. Second, when his girlfriend not only wept outside the BART station while he was being arrested and then shot, but also was left behind by police, alone in the middle of the night and not knowing what had happened, without any clear way to get home. His girlfriend tries to demand some answers from a system that so clearly is not meant to protect her as a woman of color, and her mourning is left isolated, vulnerable, unrecognized until the public began to protest.

I think these moments stood out to me because I have spent so much of my life trying to conform, trying to be safe, to not become killable. To make the right choices and be secure. This is the goal of my education, from what I remember of my childhood: doing well and going to college would secure a certain standard of living as well as the safety that comes with being able to afford the right neighborhoods. In the movie, Oscar Grant’s mother tries to keep him safe and this is not only ironic, but nearly hopeless. He could have been pulled over and shot in a car too. Mothers are supposed to keep their children safe. For white women like myself, this means largely micro choices about convenience under constant scrutiny. For black women, this means making impossible choices.

A friend recently said to me that she’s homeschooling because she’s scared of bullies and even drugs in public schools. I’m more scared my daughter would be taught to be a bully herself–to be a seemingly secure, exceptionally safe person who has made the right choices and followed the rules and therefore can disregard the pain of others. Not help and not really care.


About Kaitlin

I am primarily a stay at home mom. I also have a Phd in Eglish. Everyday I’m learning about myself, my family, and my community. I write about parenting, childhood, education, autism, homeschooling, politics, anti-racism, and feminism. Critiquing coercive and damaging cultural norms like misogyny, racism, sexism, capitalist exploitation, ableism, and childism helps me seek out a life of peace, justice, and empathy.
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