Anne Stanton

Speaking of sheltered people, my mind keeps returning to the character of Anne Stanton in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.  (Spoilers ahead, for anyone who hasn’t read it!)  I had never really understood why Anne got involved with Willie Stark toward the end of the book.  She tells Jack that after she fell in love with Stark, she found out about the ignoble crime her father was involved in, and “[t]here wasn’t any reason why not then.” (p. 489) This used to seem ridiculous to me–just because her father wasn’t the perfect man she had imagined, she felt like she had the right to do anything?

I think I understand it better now.  Anne had set up a world of black and white for herself–her father, and Judge Irwin, stood for justice, and Willie Stark stood for corruption.  Her picture of the world was so absolute and unbending that when those distinctions got a little muddied–when she discovered Stark’s good side, and her father’s imperfect past–her entire moral world collapsed.  Or actually, it fell apart because it wasn’t about morality in the first place–it was built around something more artificial.  She hadn’t really resisted friendship with Stark because it was wrong, but because if she’d broken any of her rules she would have been completely banished from the supposed perfection of her family.  She didn’t have a category in her mind for a basically good person who fails sometimes; so with her father’s fall from grace, all her careful distinctions fell apart.  Although Willie was still a corrupt man–and a married man!–when she finds out that perfection doesn’t exist, there’s no reason left to keep her from succumbing to her attraction for him.

Something similar happens to her brother Adam–but for him the paragon of virtue is not only his father, but his sister.  He can’t handle her affair with Willie because his world is also black and white.  There is no category in his mind for a good woman who commits a sexual mistake; instead he is convinced that she has been completely corrupted into a “whore.”  And when he finds out that his father committed a single dishonesty, there’s no category in his mind for that, either; instead, his father has become an irretrievably evil man: “[d]amn his soul to Hell.” (p. 381) Now that I revisit the first scene, where he confronts Anne about her affair, I notice that he’s maybe even more disturbed with what’s happened to his reputation and righteousness: “he said if everything else was filthy a man didn’t have to be….he wouldn’t be pimp to his sister’s whore and nobody would ever say that about him.” (p.588) I still think Adam’s a sympathetic character but this casts a bit of a disturbing light on him.  He’s a good man, but he can’t untangle his morality from his pride.

Willie Stark’s view of the world makes an interesting contrast to Adam and Anne’s, because it’s not simply a flat opposite.  Willie is seeking justice too–in addition to glory and power–but he’s starting from the somewhat more realistic idea that everything is corrupted:

Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.  There is always something. (p. 286)

He’s right, in a way–nothing is untouched by original sin.  But he fails to see the goodness that survived the Fall.  Where Adam and Anne think the original goodness remained pure in their family, Willie thinks it was never there from the beginning; you have to “make it up as you go along.”

….plain, simple goodness.  Well you can’t inherit that from anybody.   You got to make it, Doc.  If you want it.  And you got to make it out of badness.  Badness.  And you know why, Doc?…Because there isn’t anything else to make it out of. (p. 386)

Once again, this is not entirely wrong.  Anyone who’s ever studied politics (or history, like Jack Burden) knows that you can’t get anything good done if you’re not willing to get your hands dirty.

The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind….You can’t make bricks without straw, and most of the time all the straw you got is secondhand straw from the cowpen. (p. 205)

No one can deny that Willie made a lot of good out of badness.  Even Anne can see that the free hospital he’s planning is going to be wonderful.  But could he have done it without falling into corruption?  I’m not sure if the book answers that question.  Warren doesn’t condone Willie Stark’s actions, but he doesn’t have much praise for the opposite extreme, either.

I can see now why the blurbs always say that this is a book about politics.  But oh, it’s so much more than that!  This post was awfully hard to write, because every time I dipped into the book for a quote, I started reading again and couldn’t stop.  Gosh what a book.  Tune in for some more thoughts on All the King’s Men soon!

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What is a “Good Birth”?

My husband and I often talk about how much we plan to shelter our children.  We both know families whose kids have been completely sucked into the worst of pop culture; but we seem to know even more families whose attempts at sheltering their kids backfired badly.  When the kids finally encountered the real world, they often rebelled or succumbed to the worst, because they had not had the benefit of knowledge or exposure to build up their defenses.  (I’m being vague here, because I don’t mean to criticize any of the parents I knew, who were certainly doing their best!  But I have experience with all the examples in this post.)  I have seen parents be so scared of inappropriate sex education that they barely gave their children any at all.  The kids had to learn it on their own, either through experience, or through less reputable sources than their parents or teachers.  There is also the danger of sex being seen as something “dirty” that you don’t talk about, which leads to a really unhealthy attitude toward sex.

What I’ve realized lately is that this is not just a problem for children, but for adults as well.  In my last post, I talked about the dangers of sheltering women from the realistic expectations of pregnancy.  I see something very similar happening with childbirth.  Women are assured that, with the proper “birth plan,” they can achieve the perfect “birth experience.”  Now, I know that I have been very lucky: my midwives and nurses were respectful and considerate, and I was never pushed into something I was not comfortable with.  However, I have also heard of so many women who were led to believe that they could have a low-intervention, peaceful, joyful natural birth, only to be crushed when necessity dictated otherwise.  Once again, we’re setting women up for shame and guilt. No matter how much we understand rationally that a C-section, or an induction, or an epidural may be necessary, that nagging little voice inside our head will say “you’re taking the easy way out” or “you’re not letting your body do what it’s made to do” or “you’re giving in;” but if we’ve let our expectations become completely unrealistic, we are feeding that irrational guilt.

The friend I quoted in my last post made the same connection between pregnancy and childbirth expectations; after commenting on the importance of your “attitude” and “focusing on the positive,” she noted that “the people who helped me have a good birth were the ones who kept telling me a good birth was actually possible.”  Now: how do you define a “good birth?”  A birth that goes as planned?  A birth that is peaceful and expected?  Or a birth that results in a healthy baby?  If you only tell a pregnant woman stories of ideal births, how will she feel when her labor fails to progress, and her baby is in distress?  Google “birth disappointment.”  I have seen so many sad stories of women who felt horribly disappointed in themselves because they “gave in” and got the epidural, or because they had to have a C-section.  Instead of fully enjoying the baby, they feel a sense of loss and grieving. They may feel, like this poor lady, that “this was my fault” because their bodies are “broken.” 

[A side note: yes, your body is broken!  But it’s because of Original Sin.  This is why it doesn’t make sense to me to expect childbirth, or sex, or breastfeeding, to go perfectly just because it’s natural and it’s “what our bodies were made to do.”  Our bodies, like everything else in the world, sometimes don’t do what they were made to do.  If we put all our faith in “nature,” we are going to be let down because our nature is broken.]

Again, I am not recommending that we flood pregnant women with horror stories!  But imagine that we tell them something like this instead: “My first was born naturally, and it was wonderful!  My second had to be induced, and I was hooked up to 3 IVs, and that was pretty awful.  But you know what?  I didn’t even care, because then I got to hold my beautiful baby.”  Or this: “I was really loopy after the pain meds, so I don’t really remember the birth well, but we had nice quiet cuddling time afterwards.”  Or this: “The epidural worked great for my first, and failed for my second.  But either way, I got through it.”  Let’s give them realistic expectations, so they’ll be prepared; but let’s always remember to finish up with the most important part: the baby.  A good pregnancy is a pregnancy that ends in a good childbirth, and a good childbirth is one where the baby gets born.  Period.  Natural birth, water birth, home birth, epidural, induction, C-section, forceps, IV, hypnosis, episiotomy, whatever–I wish you a peaceful and pleasant birth, but please remember that no matter what your “birth experience,” the main thing is getting that baby safely into your arms!

 

Should We Shelter? (updated)

After I first read Rebecca Frech’s crisis pregnancy post, I shared it on Facebook with some reflections that eventually became my own contribution to the conversation.  One of my friends agreed with the main point of the post, but said she didn’t think it was a good idea to speak to unmarried or newly pregnant women about the potential trials of pregnancy.  She said she liked to “just focus on the positive” and “shield young ([especially] non mothers or unmarried) girls from too much talk of how hard it could be.”

I understand where she’s coming from.  After all, plenty of women are already afraid of pregnancy and parenthood, without us adding to it.  But if women are surrounded by messages that pregnancy is supposed to make you feel natural and empowered and joyful and radiant, what’s going to happen when they get pregnant unexpectedly?  In addition to the surprise, (and the heartburn, and the nausea, and the sciatica, and the weight gain, and the carpal tunnel, and the varicose veins, and the insomnia…) they are going to feel horribly guilty about their mixed emotions.  They will feel alone, because everyone else seems to be handling pregnancy just fine.  And this fear and guilt and loneliness will push them a little closer towards abortion.

I am not recommending that we just focus on the negative; I’m talking about giving women the whole picture.  We need to be giving women a three-part message: (1) pregnancy can be horrible, and that’s normal; (2) you are not alone, and we will support you; and (3) pregnancy is worth it.  Shielding them is not going to help them deal with the inevitable trials of pregnancy; but because we’re also letting them know that the baby is worth the suffering, we’re giving them the tools they need to get through it.

My friend explained that the other reason she believed in “focusing on the positive” was that “attitude is huge in determining whether [pregnant women] will have a good time or a hard time of it.”  Now, as far as I understand, this has some psychological truth behind it; being positive really does help us with deal with rough times.  But when it comes to the experience of pregnancy, which is so emotional and life-changing, and varies so much from woman to woman, I think this is an extremely dangerous idea.  If someone had told me that I should try to have a more positive attitude during my last pregnancy, I would have been very angry, because it sounds unsympathetic: “if you weren’t so negative, you would feel better!”  And I would have felt guilty.  Inside me, a little voice would repeat that advice over and over again, whispering, “this is all your fault.  If you weren’t such a wimp, and if you were more open to life, you wouldn’t be complaining.”  Now let me tell you: this pregnancy was so bad that at one point this thought entered my mind: “if this was torture, I would have given in long ago and done everything they wanted me to.”  No amount of good attitude is going to help with that.  Now imagine a woman who has it much worse than me: maybe she has hyperemesis gravidarum, maybe she’s homeless, maybe she’s being abused by her boyfriend; do you think we did her a favor by telling her that pregnancy would be fine if she had a good attitude?

There’s more to say, but I think I’m in enough trouble for today.  Tomorrow or the day after I’d like to talk a little bit about the effects of sheltering people when it comes to sex education and preparing for childbirth.

EDITED TO ADD:

I don’t mean to criticize my friend who suggested focusing on the positive. I know she has our best interests in mind, and would never come out and say “if you’re having a hard time, it’s your fault.”  However, the insidious voice inside my head hears it that way.  Even when we mean well, we need to be very careful what we say to pregnant women–guilt and shame are always waiting in the wings.