The newborn in my arms looked like a prune but smelled like heaven. If a fairy were to throw baby powder and marshmallows into warm milk, it would probably conjure up this tiny human being.
The maternity ward was quiet, so as a doula at the San Francisco General Hospital, I was spending the afternoon in the neonatal intensive care unit. A nurse told me that this baby’s mother was screaming, demanding to see her daughter, and doctors had to physically restrain her.
I didn’t know the specifics of why these doctors were legally obligated to separate this mother from her child as soon as she was born. All I knew was that substance abuse and incarceration were involved and that I was holding an infant whose mother had arms and a heart strong enough to hold the baby herself. I read a notice that listed medications for “drug babies” as I continued rocking the infant, who was falling asleep in my arms.
In Tennessee earlier this month, police arrested Mallory Loyola and charged her with assault for using methamphetamines while pregnant under a new state law, SB 1391, which criminalizes illegal narcotic use during pregnancy. Tennessee’s law joins a larger movement of “personhood laws” being written into law in states across the country, which consider fertilized eggs, embryos or fetuses people and thus allow for the criminalization of pregnant women for drug use on the premise that it violates the unborn fetus’s rights.
In a recent piece for the Washington Post, Deborah Jiang-Stein, who was born addicted to heroin, writes that the new Tennessee law “simply feeds a pipeline of foster care, and does nothing to treat the core problem of addiction.” Many worry that laws like Tennessee’s will discourage women who are using drugs from seeking medical or prenatal care for fear of criminal charges.
“Really, the law sentences two generations at a time and continues a cycle of trauma,” writes Jiang-Stein.
Examining the idea of a cycle of trauma can shed light on the ways in which relationships and social interactions on different scales influence us. We can learn not only how to disrupt these cycles but how to replace them with healthier ones. “Drug babies,” who often fall into addiction later in life even with successful early treatment, are an illustrative example of the ways in which parents foist their struggles upon their children, whether they intend to or not. We learn to model our own behavior after our parents’ shortcomings, re-enacting old patterns of destructive behavior.
It’s easy to see how the parent-child relationship becomes one of the most formative in our lives because of its lifelong duration and our malleability as children. But to some degree, all of our relationships shape us as individuals. Social interactions and experiences mold our behavior, inform our opinions, show us what to expect from others and teach us how to move through society.
A web, in that case, is an imperfect analogy for our social network because it doesn’t capture the degree and intensity of our interconnectivity. A Cornell University study of 721 million Facebook users worldwide found there might not be six degrees of separation between people. Among Facebook users, the degrees of separation were calculated to be only 4.74, and in the United States, the number dropped to 4.37. Maybe it would be more accurate to think of our networks as finely woven steel mesh. Inside this mesh, it’s impossible to quarantine or distance ourselves from each other’s struggles — and from each other’s happiness. According to a joint study by Harvard University and UC San Diego scientists, even strangers’ happiness can have measurable effects on our own.
What this means is that, as individuals, we possess an immeasurable amount of influence over each other’s well-being. We can choose to create and propagate cycles of trauma, or we can interrupt them. We are the butterflies in the giant airstream of humanity, stirring up tornadoes halfway around the world. As the sons and daughters of imperfect parents, we need to examine what we’ve inherited and discard the legacies that are harmful to ourselves and to others. As future parents, we need to do more than pay lip service to our values — we need to live them.
I still wish that mother could have held her own child and that the U.S. institutional framework would provide the drug treatments and mental health services necessary for them to live fulfilling lives. Our current institutions deny them even the possibility of a parent-child relationship and are moving ever farther in the wrong direction. As Jiang-Stein says, we’re sentencing two generations at once. None of us deserves to be punished for the sins of our parents. We all possess the ability to break free from cycles of trauma, and in spite of the lack of institutional support, it is our responsibility to do what we can, to reach out for help whenever we need it and to support others through the difficult process of shedding maladaptive behaviors learned over a lifetime, from drug use to abuse to anxiety and everything in between.