Moral Distress as a Mom: #familiesbelongtogether

When the Political Feels Too Personal

This post is NOT meant to debate immigration politics, but it is an example of when the political becomes very personal, especially as a parent. The images and sounds of immigrant children forcibly separated from their parents are constantly in my consciousness. It feels strange and not authentic to keep my lens focused on the mundane ins and outs of parenting (Food refusal! Why boredom is good for kids!) when all I can think about are these children. I have decided I am experiencing what I used to see in medicine, but is now a more common experience paying attention to the news: moral distress.

I know I am not alone when I share that these last couple weeks of the 24-hour news cycle and social media rapid-fire feeds about separation of immigrant parents and children have taken an emotional toll.

I have felt a double whammy as a child psychologist acutely aware of the real trauma implications for these kids, and as a mom who can’t even bear the thought of forced separation from my children.

Before I went to graduate school, I spent almost two years working as an in-home counselor for families in the child protection system. For 40 hours a week plus, I sat in their homes, drove them to appointments, and supervised parent-child visits. We provided support for either keeping children in a vulnerable home to prevent removal, or reunifying families after children were removed if the parents were able to stabilize.

In this job, I witnessed not only the force of a child’s bond with parents who are not able to safely parent their children, but the emotional effects on those children of not living with their parents, no matter how much “better” the foster home. It was always devastating when parents struggling with addiction, poverty, and mental health issues just couldn’t do what they needed for their children, and the separation became permanent.

I can’t begin to understand the reality of having no idea where my children are.

I’m sure many of you have seen the circulating statements of the American Psychological Association and American Academy of Pediatrics condemning these family separations at the border, identifying the likely long-term effects on the children, and pediatricians and psychologists going as far as classifying this forced separation as a form of child abuse.

The other night as my husband and I were getting ready for bed, he read me headlines that popped up on his phone about allegations of children being drugged with psychiatric drugs to calm them down at these detention centers. I read reports of a worker who quit because he was told to not allow siblings to hug each other. The stories are relentless.

When I worked in pediatric palliative care, our service supported medical teams around experiences of moral distress. The formal definition states that moral distress occurs when one is unable to take action that one perceives to be morally right. It is a combination of experiencing a violation of one’s core values and feeling constrained to take ethically appropriate action.

Although the concept of moral distress has lived in the world of medicine, I am going to take liberties to expand it to the current experience many of us are having. I know what our country is doing is harming innocent children, and I can’t stop it from happening.

I have noticed that a deafening voice of outrage has come from parents, especially mothers. When it comes down to biology, we are hardwired to feel this deep-in-the-bones physical, emotional, and spiritual connection with our children, and to protect them at all costs.

I see many of these immigrant parents as walking hundreds of miles away from their homes because what's happening around these homes is threatening the lives of their children with rampant, un-policed, indiscriminate violence. I would do the same for my children.

I see many of these parents as taking this huge risk as an ultimate form of protecting their children. The fact that their children have now been detained away from them with no communication or information about their whereabouts is unimaginable; I can’t begin to understand the reality of having no idea where my children are.

That’s where my moral distress comes in. We as a country are inflicting harm on children. Avoidable harm. I know this could serve as a point of debate, but I believe there are more humane ways to respond to these parents; it doesn’t have to look like this.

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Last night, my 3-year-old ran screaming into our room at 3 am, as he does every few nights, and as I held him I could feel his heart racing against my chest. I thought of those children in detention centers screaming from their nightmares with no one to hold them, their mothers and fathers disappeared from them, and it hurts so deeply and feels so wrong. It goes against nature, biology, and humanity.

For those of us feeling this way, how do we manage this moral distress so we can keep going, since quitting defeats taking action to make change, no matter how small that action may be? Quick tips:

  • Stay connected to supportive people around you – friends and family who bring positivity and centering to your life
  • Take breaks from the news and social media – it will all be there when you get back! (Some more great tips on how to do this here)
  • Remember to enjoy parts of your life – it doesn’t mean you care any less
  • If you feel the stress in your body (like I do), pay attention when you start to feel “amped up” and do something calming, even if for a couple minutes

I will go back to thinking about, researching, and writing about the more mundane parenting topics. I will continue to be a busy Mom, alternating between enjoying and feeling exhausted by my children. I will continue my work as a therapist helping others work through their own suffering and making their lives better. I will also keep paying attention, speaking up, and finding even small ways to not feel completely powerless.

But I will not forget this feeling. I will not forget these children. I will not forget the anguish of these parents. I will be grateful every day I’m there to comfort my children in the middle of the night.