Your Own Judge
by Lisa Ritter Starr
Because I belong to an open adoption family, I have been asked questions by those who are unfamiliar with the concept. The majority of people I meet, in fact, are completely new to the idea. Most of them have been open to hearing about it and appreciate our story as a perfectly fine example of a family.
A few, however, have chosen to see our situation as 'wrong." They insist it is wrong for the adoptive parents, wrong for the child, and (if they have the energy to think about it) wrong for the birth family. This has inspired me to wonder why I upset others just by being in this type of family in my private life. When I think about it, I always come back to one idea, one word, that it seems to boil down to. That word is: judgment.
There are lots of ways to think about judgment, and there are even more ways to use it. How does judgment affect family life? Who is judged, and against what standard? Who does the judging, and why? Is it necessary and right?
Judgment has many synonyms. For example, judgment can be considered the same as critical reasoning. 'Use your best judgment," we say. It is also personal opinion: 'You be the judge." We associate judgment closely with balance and justice, invoking the 'scales of justice" to know what is right and legal, what is wrong and illegal, and what to do about it.
We use judgment to reason and to form opinions, to criticize and to balance. We also use judgment simply to judge. We like the role of judge because of the feeling of power it creates. In some ways, this empowerment is necessary and right. We may empower judges in order to protect and serve the welfare of the general public. This goes for many facets of society, from having a police force to making laws to abolishing those laws and creating new, better ones.
For the most part, however, the general public is not meant to judge our private lives. In our own family circles, we are the judges. Parents rule the family until children grow up and learn to rule themselves. Justice, balance, and reason are served in differing ways. Each family may do it differently, and still do it effectively, with similarly positive results.
Still, we have ideas about families what works, what doesn't, what is a good family, a dysfunctional family, a downright immoral family. Our ideas about family are very strong. We have the best of intentions in formulating these ideas, too, because we want to protect and serve those who are not yet able to protect and serve themselves.
We have good intentions when we say we believe that families should be as whole and healthy as possible. What this means, however, differs for many people. Some believe that families should be nuclear: small, consisting of a mother, father, and children. Others believe that families should be large and stick together at all costs, and include extended members like grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Let us take for example a busy couple who send their elderly parents to retirement homes. This may be judged as uncaring and unloving by those who believe families need to care for each other directly for however long as it takes. The couple, however, may think they have chosen a normal, common, responsible option. It is, to them, the best they can do.
Or let's say a mother has a pregnant teenage daughter who simply doesn't have the psychological or financial means to care for the child herself, but the mother does not choose to adopt her grandbaby. This might be judged as wrong by some. How could she let a blood relative go? According to others, she has done a good thing, the right thing. She is done with her child-raising years and should not be responsible for taking on the care of another child at this point in her life.
Ironically and confusingly, we tend to believe that families should all basically be the same, yet simultaneously we know they are not, and cannot be. We have adoptive families and blended families, step-families and foster families, but the underlying notion remains that traditional and consistent families are best. Most couples try first for the traditional series of events: they get married, plan to get pregnant, and plan to raise the children together forever. This is the American Dream.
Yet this is not always possible, since as much as one in five couples these days have some issue with infertility. Some must adopt if they want to raise children together. Luckily for them, there are children out there who need families. Luckily for the children, there are families who want to welcome them into their homes as part of them.
We have, consequently, decided to believe that it's a wonderful, loving thing to adopt, even if it is not the typical, traditional, cookie-cutter, capital 'F" Family. It is just as wonderful to create a blended family, even if the family has a history of separation, divorce, and redefining as long as the end justifies the means, and the end means there is a mother and a father in a stable marriage.
If, say, a gay couple wants to adopt, however, we don't stray so easily from our conventional notions and 'acceptable" alternatives. As wonderful and necessary as adoption is, we'd rather say 'No, you can't do that," than, 'Hey, that's wonderful."
Similarly, if a woman wants to start a family on her own, we might feel prompted to urge, 'You really need to rethink this, a baby needs a father," rather than support her or trust her decision for her life. Or consider an even more complex and controversial situation: a man leaving the woman he has gotten pregnant. This is an incredibly difficult situation, and each of these situations has its own unique complexities. As outsiders, we can look in on this family and say, 'The man must be a coward." We judge him as acting horribly, and acting on fear (as if we have never acted this way ourselves).
What if we believed it was not our place to judge this man? Maybe he left because, deep down, he knows he cannot be the father he wants to be. We might look at him as self-aware enough to know his current limits. But we'd much rather, and much more often, label all men in a similar position as 'deadbeat dads." We would rather judge this man as cowardly, demand he step up and, if he does not immediately comply, reduce his worth as a father to a dollar figure.
Maybe our typical judgmental reactions seem reasonable. Maybe, by using our own best judgment, we find that creating laws and forming generalizations about family types seems fair and just, bringing the world into balance. Maybe these conceptions are helpful and do have their rightful place among us somewhere among us, anyway.
But how can we forget the powerful need to appreciate the diverse forms that families, not unlike individuals, can take? How far can we go in other people's business? How long can we sit in judgment of what kind of family another person has?
How do we like it when the tables are turned, and others criticize us and our notions of what is good and right? Judgment is associated with fairness, critical reasoning, and balance. But think of it this way: It may not be fair to judge another person, his private life, or his type of family. It may be ultimately fair to give all families, like individuals, a chance at success as well as a chance at failure.
We could choose to believe that uniqueness and diverse family types create balance by representing many points all along a broad spectrum of possibilities. We could know that it is possible to have different kinds of families, all of which are good and right, healthy and responsible, for those involved. We could make the world a better place by giving everything we can to our children, but judging others' choices does nothing to improve things. Better yet we would remember the more basic truisms, such as, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."
Children learn by example, but so do we all. If we want to think critically and act reasonably to improve what we see is wrong around us, let us turn our focus inward on our own example. Let us speak our minds, but withhold judgment. By not only speaking your truth, but being an example of that truth, you will affect others.
You may believe that your personal way the best for all, but all you can really do is live that way yourself. Others may be missing something, but that is their choice. If your way really is the best, you will teach others. It may be a more subtle teaching method, but you will know that it is working when others follow suit and become their own examples for you.
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