Opt Out Culture – Is It a Problem?

I’ve been thinking a lot about America’s growing ‘opt out culture’ these days. We don’t like something, we opt out. The concept seems simple enough, harmless enough. Last night, I opted out of broccoli at the dinner table. I’ve never been a fan of those little healthy trees. Some days I opt out of taking a shower or washing my hair. My people still love me. Right now, I am opting out of cleaning the house after a busy weekend. But look! I’m being productive, writing this post, exercising my mind! It’s all good.

But is it? Some things folks are opting out of have higher stakes than a stalk of broccoli. Vaccines, public education, religion, voting. More and more Americans are opting out of all of those things and the cost of that is starting to assert itself.

The Pew Research Center continues to detail that as Millennials age, our nation is becoming less religious overall. While still an overwhelmingly Christian nation in identity, the fastest growing religion in America is Islam. Those religions that have seen the greatest drop in followers are Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism.

In the 2016 presidential election, only 55% of those eligible to vote actually filled out a ballot. The last time more than 60% of Americans came out to vote was in 1968 (at the height of the Vietnam War) and the last time 70% of Americans cast a ballot in a presidential election year was freaking 1900. Shout out to the GOP’s William McKinley for winning that distinction.

Yesterday the New York Times posted an article called, “How Anti-Vaccine Sentiment Took Hold in the United States.” It was chilling to read. When you connect the dots as a historical review, as the article encourages, you can see how different factors (social media, poorly conducted research studies, celebrity proselytizers) contributed to the growth of the anti-vaccine movement that is now posing a threat to others.

Public school education has seen a sharp decline in numbers in recent decades. More people are opting out for a variety of reasons, leaving less funds for those that remain. The growth of homeschooling and charter schools, pulling resources (more than just financial) in different directions, leaves fewer resources for public schools. Something that has historically been the domain of the government — using public funds to educate our children in a communal classroom setting that the whole community benefits from and contributes to — is now shrinking and struggling as we watch it flounder.

And lest you think I am scolding you, dear reader, for something I am not guilty of myself, I, too, am guilty of engaging in the easy to justify opt out.

We opted out of sending our oldest boy to our neighborhood school. Instead, he is thriving at what Chicago likes to call a “selective enrollment school” for gifted and talented kids. It’s a public school, but he had to test into it. My younger guy is spending his kindergarten year at a private Montessori school that seems to be a better fit for him than our neighborhood school that made very clear they have an academic based kindergarten environment where every child is expected to perform to a level we felt would or could be detrimental to our kiddo. We opted out.

As a woman in my 20s, I opted out of religion. I went on to marry an atheist, so, yeah, we are not raising our children in any religion. This month, I made a conscious decision to opt out of promoting or advocating for Childhood Cancer Month, something that would have been unthinkable to me just a couple of years ago. In the spring, I opt my son out of the PARCC standardized testing that I believe serves corporate interests more than it benefits school kids or teachers.

I have defined reasons that I can articulate passionately and convincingly for everything I opt out of, which, I am certain, those who do not vaccinate their kids or bring them to Church or Temple or Mosque, or choose to homeschool can also do.

My question, really, is where does this bring us? What are the costs of so much opting out? This is what I think all of us need to be paying more attention to in our increasingly polarized culture.

I can’t help but wonder if this gasp of religious fervor some of our elected officials are exercising is a response to some of these trends. Or the mother that threw her menstrual blood on California lawmakers who were voting to tighten up and eliminate vaccine exemptions. Or the law that was passed under Illinois’ last Governor that enables tax payers to donate money to subsidize scholarships for private school education.

If so many of us are opting out of so much, perhaps we should start to think about what that will create and how it will impact the world around us, in ways large and small.

What Hilton’s New Maternity Leave Policy Gets Wrong About Adoption

The Hilton Hotel chain is in the news this week after unveiling their revamped maternity leave policy for full time employees. Kudos to them for extending paid benefits to 12 weeks for mothers working full time, but shame on them for not extending that benefit to mothers who adopt.

As announced yesterday, the hospitality group will extend paid maternity leave for birth mothers from 10 weeks to 12. That is, indeed, generous in American standards and establishes Hilton as an industry and corporate leader.

Things look a little less rosy, though, when it comes to who is covered under the policy. That 12 week window is cut to just four weeks for mothers who adopt rather than birth a baby. Nope. That distinction is as sour as a newborn’s spit up for me.

Hilton’s policy makes clear that paid maternity leave is more about the physical recovery of the mother after child birth than the need to bond with said child. By providing adoptive mothers just one third the paid time off as biological mothers, Hilton is making a value judgment that adoptive mothers are less deserving of benefits than a biological mother and that biological children are more deserving of time with mom than an adopted child. That, to me, is shameful and discriminatory.

As told to CBS’ MoneyWatch, Hilton’s Chief Talent Officer, Laura Fuentes, stated, “We’re not differentiating — it’s the same for housekeepers as in the C-suite.” Except differentiating is exactly what Hilton’s new policy does, by differentiating between mothers who give birth and mothers who adopt.

I have parented three newborns and was employed when my first two children were born. After the birth of my first child, I returned to work after a 12 week unpaid leave. After my second child was born, I ended up not returning to employment. less because I had just given birth and more because at that point, my older child had relapsed cancer that required three months of out-of-state treatment. My third child was adopted.

Me and my youngest at 6 weeks.

Believe me when I say that each of those times parenting a newborn was challenging and taxing in very different ways, but each of those newborns was deserving of a mother being present in their first few months. Period. Some might even suggest, and they would not be wrong, that an adopted infant’s need to bond is even more crucial, as they are born into a kind of trauma, being separated from their birth mother in those early days.

Before my husband and I adopted, I wondered and worried what it might be like to raise a child that had not grown in my body. Would the love be different? Would the maternal bond exist? Would I see and treat my children differently, depending on how they were conceived, whose uterus they grew in? It was a consideration in the choice to adopt.

Six years into my youngest son’s life, the answers to those questions are nuanced. I have two living children, both sons, and the love I feel for them is very much the same. The maternal bond is equally strong and fierce for each — they are both thoroughly mine. But, yes, adoption has changed how I see and treat my youngest boy. Not because of how he was conceived or whose uterus he grew in and that it was not my uterus, but because he has a story and roots that are unique and specific to him and that, as his mother, I need to honor and respect.

Hilton’s maternity leave policy rewards and favors mothers who give birth over mothers who adopt and feeds into harmful and damaging prejudices against adopted children and families. Those prejudices are real, which is what enables the legal discrimination that is, at its core, what Hilton’s paid maternity leave policy is.

Me and my youngest at 11 months.

An Insignificant American’s Memories of September 11, 2001 (for my sons)

“Today is September 11, Mom,” said my son this morning, looking mournful. I wondered what that meant for him, 9/11, and did he wear a sad expression because that is what you are supposed to do when you’re a 5th grader and have no memory of such events other than knowing the date is significant? It was the first time that I can remember one of my kids attaching an emotion to the events of that day. A fan of history, he hoped they might talk about it in school.

Later, recovering from my morning walk and listening to the radio, I listened to a man talk about how America has changed in the years since 9/11, how many young people — those born just before or in the years since, have very little emotional attachment to the events that have shaped so many others. That younger people think of that day as the start of the Iraq War without understanding the significance of it, the before and after of it.

These memories, my memories of that day, are for my boys, so that they might have a window into what September 11th and the days immediately after were like for their mom, an average, insignificant American, living far away from the planes and the towers and the fields and the smoke and the mayhem.

  • It was a beautiful day in Chicago, a Tuesday, crisp with a hint of cool. They sky was clear and the light had that specific quality only found in September. NPR was on the radio during my drive into work. The announcers were talking about a plane that had flown right into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. That was a jolt, as I had celebrated my 30th birthday there the previous fall. I made a mental note to find a TV when I got to work, a large 40 acre retirement community.
  • Things had worsened in those few minutes it took to park my car and walk into campus. A second plane had hit the other tower. I was watching the news in a conference room, alone, when it was reported that the Pentagon had been hit by a third plane. That impact, more that the towers being hit, somehow solidified for me that the United States of America was under an attack. It was an awful kick to the gut, an unbridled fear that was new to me.
  • Eventually, though I wanted to sit and watch the news, I knew I had to get to work. As a social worker in a retirement community, it struck me that the people I cared for were folks who had all lived through Pearl Harbor, the only other attack on American soil I knew of. There was an odd comfort found in that. Later that afternoon, a memorial service was held in the chapel and while I wasn’t religious, I took comfort, too, in the words we use to do just that — find comfort and solace. Surrounded by older people, some of whom had fought in WWII, I took heart in the notion of American resilience. Simply being in that room of folks, all grieving and a little shell shocked by the events of the morning, was a comfort.
  • The skies were utterly empty in those days. Clear blue and empty. Not a plane to be found anywhere. Eerily blank and silent. It was discomforting.
  • I wore a navy blue military styler blazer that day with a white blouse, gray slacks, and my go to Franco Sarto loafers. Why I remember that I do not know, but the smart pewter buttons I saw on my wrist as I turned the volume up on the car radio to hear the news sit with me still. That jacket hangs in the downstairs closet and I can’t imagine getting rid of it.
  • There was so much TV in those early days. It was exhausting and relentless and impossible to turn away from. I started eating dinners in the bedroom — the only place your Dad and I had a TV back then. I could not stop watching, nor did I want to. ABC’s Peter Jennings brought a sense of familiarity, of level headedness, of compassion that we used to take for granted from our news anchors. Not so anymore. On the Saturday morning after the planes hit, he held a townhall style meeting geared towards children. That, too, was comforting and reassuring. You took your comforts where you could find them in those days.
  • Auntie Carol watched the towers burn from the relative safety of her Brooklyn apartment. Her kitchen window was more immediate than any news coverage. Uncle Quinn, who worked in lower Manhattan at the time, walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge, surrounded by so many other commuters. They were both safe. And weary. So weary.
  • My Cousin Dave, a captain in the Navy, was at the Pentagon that day. I remember my Mom hearing from her sister, Dave’s mother, that he was home safe, but that he could not be accounted for for hours that day and the family was worried sick.
  • About three weeks later, in early October, we had tickets to visit Auntie and Uncle in New York. There was a lot of conversation about would we go, should we stay home? Commercial airplanes had morphed into weapons and that was a scary time to fly. Protocols were changing, new security rules were being put into place. Uncertainty felt heavy and was everywhere. We went anyway and the mere act of flying felt brave.
  • We took the subway into Manhattan from Brooklyn and nothing was the same. There were German Shepherds on a lot of trains sniffing for bombs. Police were in tactical gear from head to toe. We walked as close as we could get to Ground Zero (a few blocks away) and the smell that Uncle Quinn had described was strong and everywhere in lower Manhattan. It was a burning, hot, potent smell. The air was sooty, heavy. The work to clear the area was an around-the-clock operation, and we went at night, about 10 PM or so, and you could see the particles hanging in the air, the light from massive generator powered spotlights, making them dance and float all around us, still, even three+ weeks later.
  • Memorials were everywhere. New York was as silent and as reverent as I can ever remember. Candles, flowers, photos, flyers. People gathered together in parks all around the city. Auntie had told me that the tragedy of 9/11 was different for New Yorkers, but I didn’t believe her. I, too, felt like I was grieving. This was an American tragedy, I thought, not just a New York tragedy. I was wrong. This was a uniquely New York tragedy, at least the part here, with the towers, once so defining, now *poof* gone, no more. I am certain it felt the same at the Pentagon and on that field in Pennsylvania. There is an immediacy to being targeted, being Ground Zero, that changes everything. It was personal in a way I had not understood before being there.

There is a feeling of numbness that crops up when I see images of the World Trade Center Towers, standing and falling, even 18 years later. What they were, what they are. The snippets of people jumping, choosing their manner of death in a moment of utter helplessness. I no longer share them, as I don’t feel they are mine to share. They belong to the people on the flights, the workers in the buildings, the first responders, their families. And despite our almost annual visits to NYC, we’ve not visited the memorial there. Maybe someday. Even 18 years feels too soon.

September 11 is a day that is still shaping the United States and the world in ways only subsequent generations will get to more fully understand, more completely understand. But here are my memories, as an American, far from harm, greatly impacted, still trying to make sense of any of it.