Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Parents, Children, and Spouses - Who Wins?

Wow, it's been nearly two weeks since my last post. I haven't felt much like blogging lately, for all sorts of reasons. The Terry Schiavo drama has become wearying and still seems to be a major topic of discussion at lots of blogs. For some reason, this case has been bothering me greatly, and I couldn't figure out why. I don't think it has much to do with the issues in the case -- it is more about the identities of the combatants. Religious Right folks on one side; the rest of us on the other. Yes, I know that is simplistic, especially since Jesse Jackson has jumped into the fray. It just seems just like all the other fights that have been going on lately -- gay marriage, abortion, access to contraception, the level of government intrusion in people's lives, on and on and on.

However, one aspect of the Schiavo case has hit home in a more personal manner for some reason. I keep dwelling on this question -- how do parents learn to let go of their children? I know that good parents are always parents of course, but at some point surely they must relinquish control over how their children live their lives. At what point does the adult child's new family -- spouse, partner, whatever -- become just as important as the relationship with his or her parents?

I admit I have my own issues in this area that probably color my opinions. In the past year I made a decision my parents aren't particularly happy about, and that has led to numerous bad feelings (on both sides, I think) and arguments. I've also spent a great deal of time agonizing over why I still care about their approval.

Anyway, on Easter, Laura and I went to my parents house for dinner. My mom was listening to some AM talk radio station, because that is what she does. Politically, she is hard to categorize. She claims to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. She has been a Republican since the Kennedy era or so, she loves George Bush (all the Bushes, really -- yes, I find it odd) and she despises Bill Clinton.

Yet at the same time, she has been an atheist since long before I was born. She has a serious dislike of organized religion. Back in high school when I had my own evangelical Christian phase (I really must write about that sometimes) our biggest arguments centered around religion. I remember being driven to fury over her contempt for religious faith. She is unashamedly pro-choice (and tells with great pride about writing a letter about it to the first George Bush).

So, based on all that, what side would you expect her to embrace in the Terry Schiavo drama? If you guessed the parents who are motivated by Catholic faith and supported by their anti-abortion "friends", you would be right. Somehow, I knew that's where she would land even before we drove over there on Sunday, even if it does seem counter-intuitive given her political positions.

She comes down on this side based on the fact that she is a mother, and, as she said, would not want her child's fate to be decided by "some guy." Never mind that the "guy" in question was chosen as a husband by Terri.

The talk radio program on Sunday for some reason set me off and we started our visit with a bit of an argument. I freely admit that I overreacted and got a little too angry, especially considering that I don't have particularly strong feelings on the case (at least, I didn't think I did). We then veered off to other issues regarding Republicans, gay marriage, and so on before things settled down and we went on to talk about less contentious things. The rest of the visit was pleasant, but here it is two days later and I am dwelling on a few offhand comments that I wish I had addressed during our conversation.

On the one hand, my mother likes to point out how lucky I am that I have a supportive family and that I don't have to worry about my relationship with Laura being mistreated in the event that something bad happened to either of us. On the other, she talks about how she would not want decisions regarding her children to be made by someone else (that "some guy" comment again). As you might imagine, this makes me worry that if I were incapacitated, she would try to take control and cut Laura off as a decision maker. Yes, I know, we can and should see a lawyer and draw up the paperwork to prevent that. I currently have just one obstacle in the way of doing so, but hopefully we can clear that up in the next few months and take care of it.

One unique aspect of marriage is the fact your husband or wife is a person you choose (setting aside arranged marriage for a minute of course). You can't choose your parents or your siblings or your cousins -- but you can choose your spouse and make that person your closest legal relative. That is one of the reasons I find gay marriage so compelling -- it grants a level of "relatedness" that can't really be duplicated with any amount of paperwork or lawyers fees.

Since a spouse is chosen -- unlike all those other relatives -- it makes perfect sense to me that the spousal relationship would take priority over others, even parents and siblings. My sister is an evangelical Christian (unlike me, she did not leave that phase). She chose for her husband a man who shares her faith. If she became incapacitated, it would be obscene to push her husband out of the way and let my parents make the decisions. Her chosen husband shares her worldview and is far more likely to make decisions with which my sister would agree -- as hard as that might be for my parents to accept.

Likewise, my parents have their own worldview that does not at all match that of my grandparents. For my entire life my grandparents have been appalled at my parents' lack of religious faith and they have tirelessly worked (unsuccessfully) to bring us back into the fold. Perhaps they too were unable to accept their child's choices. If something happened to my father, I don't think my mother would entertain the idea of her father-in-law stepping in to make decisions for more than a nanosecond. I can easily envision conflict between them. I can easily imagine my mother's ire at the idea of being usurped by a man with a wildly different worldview than hers or her husband's.

I don't have children and probably never will, so I suppose I can't really talk about how hard it must be for parents to let go of their children. I can only see it from my direction.

It is this aspect of the Schiavo case that keeps holding my attention...parents versus a child's spouse.

Incidentally, there are some good discussions of the Schiavo case going on at Alas, a Blog. Also some good posts over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. And Jason at Positive Liberty also makes the connection with gay marriage:
For the record, my wishes for the end of my own life are as follows: I trust my lifelong companion, my husband under the laws of Canada, Scott R. Starin, to make all medical decisions for me whatsoever. I do not trust anyone else with this capacity, no matter who they are.

I expect Scott's decisions to be followed down to the very last detail when I am incapacitated. I do not want my body to be kept alive artificially in a persistent vegetative state when there is no hope of recovery, and I trust Scott to make the determination of when and how my life will end if ever this state should befall me.

Now, if only a marriage allowed us to make such decisions--but apparently it doesn't anymore.

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