I can't believe I'm posting about the Octomom
Society-wide we are all agreed: the most important thing is to punish Nadya Suleman. At the very least, her children must all be taken far, far away from her and she must never, ever so much as see them again. This because the foster care system is heaven on earth and children always emerge from 16 years in its loving arms beautifully raised by virtuous, selfless, infinitely loving parents.
I’m sarcastic because the commentary around this woman strikes me as unfathomably ignorant and mean-spirited.
Yes, Nadya Suleman is ridiculous, crazy and destructive and has done some very bad things that have to be seriously damaging her many children. That’s glaringly obvious. But I suspect she is also seriously damaged herself, possibly the victim of child abuse, and unquestionably miserable. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for someone who so desperately needs children and the love she once seemed to think they would represent for her.
So the commonly prescribed solution is to yank all 14 children away from her, scatter them to the whims and scarce resources of the foster care system of a notoriously cash-strapped state and to hell with the originator of the problem, let her shift for her own crazy, incompetent self, in the commercial sex trade if need be, living in utter degradation on the mean streets of L.A. if there’s any justice.
I think this is no solution at all. From everything I’ve heard and read and learned about foster care and family systems it would create far more problems for the family, the individuals in the family and for the state and society.
Years ago, when he was very, very old, I heard the eminent child psychiatrist, Bruno Bettelheim speak. I’m aware that Bettelheim is often vilified and that his practices and theories have been largely discredited but I believe he was a man of great wisdom, compassion and intelligence who contributed greatly to the field he helped originate. He was, however, subject to the knowledge and understanding of his times, of a field that is still in its infancy years after his death. While he’s controversial in many respects, there’s no question that he was knowledgeable and expert.
When I heard Bettelheim, his talk was followed by a question and answer session. A woman rose from the audience and, as a part of her question said that abused children should always be removed from the parents, and she asserted that in a way that seemed to assume there would be no question about it. Bettelheim ignored whatever the point of the question was and focused on the removal of children. He was emotional and adamant that children should not routinely be removed from abusive parents, that very action could be as damaging as the original abuse and abused children often have a stronger need for their parents than well-balanced ones. He related his own experience with such cases in which very young children reacted to separation from their parents by attempting suicide.
Bettelheim’s reaction resonated with me though it took me a very long time to understand that my reaction was not pure compassion but because I have seen that exact phenomenon repeatedly in my own family, in myself and my siblings. We all were, I believe, trained from birth to consider our mother first, to seek her approval excessively and to see no wrong in her, something not uncommon in the children of narcissistic parents. Some of us developed excessive empathy, especially regarding our mother. It was always essential to know what she was feeling, needing and wanting, if only because not knowing might well get us hurt, if not physically, certainly psychologically and emotionally. The appropriate response when she hurt you was – and often still is – to worry about her welfare and, ultimately, to apologize to her.
Is there any question about NS’s narcissism?
I’m sure the Sulemans’ home is chaotic and unhappy. The woman has more to deal with than any sane person should have and, by all accounts, far fewer coping skills than any sane person. She also has fewer resources than most people with less need.
I can only speculate on the childrens’ need for her. I’m certain, though, that some of those 14 children have developed a variety of relationships and devices among themselves to help them cope and survive. Children in large families create small groups to meet their needs. Separating them from one another could compound whatever damage breaking up the family would be intended to heal. They need each other.
I would propose a simpler, more economical approach that I think would benefit the children far more and do less damage in the process: create their own group home on site.
I do not suggest that this is the solution in all child abuse cases. The size of the Octofam increases both the cost of foster care, especially in the current budget climate and California's financial position, and the complexity of relationships within the family. There also have been no allegations of extreme violent or any sexual abuse. This case is unique.
The project would have to be state supported, of course, but they’re all going to end up dependent on society in one way or another whatever is done. In a group home, professional staff will support the family and structure a therapeutic environment for everyone.
Leave the mother in the home. The kids need her. She will remain a figure of love and stability for the children. But she must participate in the therapeutic and supportive structure every bit as much as the children. She does mother work: child care, housekeeping. She is supervised, trained. She works and prepares herself to support herself once the children are grown. She follows the rules, she doesn't make them. If she can't do that, she leaves the home. On her own or into inpatient psychiatric care.
And no press coverage. Ever.