Sharing the weight

January 08, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- This column was inspired by the 5 extra pounds that have made their annual post-holiday appearance and for which I claim personal responsibility. No one else is to blame, although perhaps I could sue the two young women who produced that miraculous chocolate cake for Christmas dinner.

But the issue here is not my weight; it's my aforesaid "personal responsibility." PR is the great American password, the single term which, uttered properly, ensures my status as a stand-up grown-up. Indeed, it seems that American citizenship comes with a set of bootstraps initialed PR.

Generally, I regard personal responsibility as a national strength. It reinforces the idea that we have the power to shape and reshape our own lives as well as our bodies. But lately I wonder when taking personal responsibility means letting go of collective responsibility.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column asking why there wasn't more political pressure for child care in a country full of stressed-out working families. Was it because mothers shared the PR mantra: "Nobody asked us to have these children"? Was it a belief that kids are private property to be groomed only by their owners?

Well, many, many readers wrote from the PR party. The party line was best expressed by Amanda, who wrote via e-mail that: "If you decide to have a child, it is your responsibility to shoulder all the costs and responsibilities. Period. Why should I have to pay for someone else's luxury?" She was not the only one to describe children as a luxury. One reader from Salem, Ore., compared kids to her pets: "It's my choice to get them, and I can't expect the taxpayer to pay for their needs."

Nobody said that parents should be their own kids' physics teachers, police officers or pediatricians, but they basically said you shouldn't have kids unless you already had every expense up to and through college in some mutual fund.

The parenting PR code didn't surprise me. After all, welfare reform is called the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act." We hold poor mothers personally responsible for supporting their kids by working while remaining personally responsible for caring for them.

In the same PR vein, an FDA advisory committee recently recommended that emergency contraception should be available over the counter. This was despite opponents such as Dr. W. David Hager, who said the morning-after pill catered to "individuals who did not want to take responsibility for their actions." For the PR party, it seems, you shouldn't even have sex unless you have college tuition for the not-yet-conceived.

Meanwhile, President Bush's State of the Union address this month is expected to tout the concept of an "ownership society" with a series of tax-break-driven savings accounts for, among other things, retirement. Combine that with hopes to partially privatize Social Security and you get the picture of more Americans being handed ownership of their old age.

Like anyone else who has spent time, energy and anxiety raising kids, I am infuriated by parents who think their kids can be raised in the woods by wolves. I think part of planned parenthood is financial. I also believe in saving for retirement. And I understand the anger of those who scrimped at those who spent.

But I'm uncomfortable when people who don't have enough money are categorized as personally irresponsible. I'm uncomfortable when people who are stretched on the rack between work and family are labeled as morally flawed.

Many in the sandwich generation today have to choose between the personal responsibility for their parents, their kids, themselves. They have to choose, one paycheck at a time, between paying their kids' college tuition and saving for their "ownership" retirement.

There's an old American tension between the "I" and the "we." But today we are carrying a lot of weight, and I do not mean my measly 5 pounds. And as a society we are trying to divine the individual from the community responsibility.

It gets myopic when talking about children. The reader may think of kids as pets, but today's preschoolers are (still) slated to pay her Social Security. Why should I pay for someone else's child care? Why should they eventually pay for my Medicare?

It's far too easy to unravel the social contract and hand back pieces of it to individuals. Especially if we can define them as undeserving. But there are some kinds of weight it's better to share than shed.

We are, after all, in this together. For the new year, we just have to take some personal responsibility ... for each other.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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