Parents must bear some blame in baby’s death

May 17, 2011

Sixteen years ago, when I was about five months pregnant with twins, I announced to my OB-GYN that I wanted to have the babies vaginally “without any drugs; no epidural.”

“Let me guess: You had a childbirth class last night, right?” he asked with a knowing smile. He said that he would abide by my wishes but that there were factors other than my desires at play here. This was a high-risk pregnancy, complicated by a placental bleed early on, a previous miscarriage and years of infertility.

“It’s about the outcome, not the process, Tracy.”

I’ve been thinking about his words a lot lately, and particularly as I read the latest report on the case of the midwife who pleaded guilty to child endangerment in the death of the Alexandria newborn she tried to deliver. Karen Carr, the midwife, says she now feels that she “sold my soul” in pleading guilty. When you work with birth, death is “just inevitable,” she said.

She’s right. Sometimes babies die. Sometimes mothers die. Sometimes you do everything right and there’s a bad outcome. But sometimes bad outcomes can be avoided by good choices, sound decisions. Sadly, we’ll never know if the outcome in this circumstance could have been altered if different decisions had been made.

But there’s a lesson for parents and children in this sad, sad tale. A lesson for parents about what we want vs. what’s best for our children, and a lesson we can teach our children that sometimes our choices have results that can never be undone, never taken back.

First, there is too much blame involved in parenting these days. Parents who feed children only organic foods look down on parents who occasionally allow a Happy Meal to be consumed. “No screen time” is a red badge of courage worn by some parents who see themselves as superior to those of us who allow an occasional episode of “Arthur” or “Dora.” I recall being at a parenting seminar at which author Nancy Samalin asked, “Exactly who are you punishing when you take TV privileges away from a child?”

But just as it’s wrong to blame parents for every misdeed of their children, it’s wrong to hold them blameless when they are egregiously irresponsible. That’s what the parents who had Carr deliver their baby were. There, I’ve said it.

The woman in question was 43 and becoming a mother for the first time. The baby was breech. The parents had been told by an Alexandria birthing center that they could not deliver the baby at home because of the risk of complications from the baby’s position. Most breech babies are born by Caesarean section because of the possibility that the baby will, in essence, get stuck. The parents still wanted to deliver at home and sought out a midwife who would accede to their desires.

Stop for a moment here. I have no doubt that these parents did not expect their baby to die. Bad things happening to other people is a defense mechanism that allows most of us to let our children ride their bikes to school, go to the movies alone, drive a car. But there is the normal risk associated with everyday life, and then there’s the kind of risk that has trained professionals advising you against your actions. When you ignore that advice, you are, in essence, signing a waiver saying that you accept responsibility, that what you desire outweighs the potential downside. It’s choice, all right. But it’s also selfish.

Part of being a parent is about putting your children’s happiness (not to mention health) above yours. How else can you explain Chuck E. Cheese and Disney World? It’s why moms let a kid have the last cookie. To be fair, we don’t always do it happily (sometimes I really want that cookie) but we do it because it’s part of the job. For whatever reason, perhaps misplaced hubris, the parents in this case failed to put their child first.

When our kids are throwing a ball in the house after being warned repeatedly not to and a favorite lamp gets broken, they are apt to say, “But I didn’t mean for anything bad to happen.” We wipe away tears, try to explain that sometimes bad things happen even when we don’t mean them to and that there are consequences for making bad decisions. Then we withhold allowance until a new lamp can be purchased. Not because the lamp mattered all that much, but because we hope that the lesson is learned on something as trifling as a lamp that you don’t always get “do-overs.” We hope the grief over the broken lamp will forestall the far worse grief 10 years down the line in an emergency room when your child is saying, “But I didn’t mean to hit that other car while texting.”

The pain these parents feel is real; their hearbreak must be unspeakable. The punishment they are enduring over the loss of their son defines “cruel and unusual.” It is a punishment greater than anyone should ever be sentenced to. Worst of all, it is all so unnecessary.

I think every one of us wishes we could give these parents a “do-over” and hopes that they would make a decision that was more about their child and less about them.

“It’s about the outcome, not the process.”

Tracy Grant, the editor of KidsPost, writes about parenting issues every other week. Send ideas and rants to grantt@washpost.com. On Parenting blogger Janice D’Arcy also has written about the midwife story. Please join the discussion at washingtonpost.com/onparenting.

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