Is it okay to take serious risks as a parent?

    Much like the couple behind the 1971 FBI break-in, my parents oftentimes jeopardized their freedom for the greater good. By not following in their footsteps, I worry that I could be sheltering my own kids too much.
    John and Bonnie Raines had three children when they stole classified documents from FBI offices in Pennsylvania in 1971. (NBC News)
    John and Bonnie Raines had three children when they stole classified documents from FBI offices in Pennsylvania in 1971. (NBC News)

    I had a baby on February 24. Actually, that is not true. I had the baby on February 24 — the one I had waited for for an extra long time.

    Even though she was more than a week late and I was hyper conscious of her every stirring and hiccup for those 11 days, I was not expecting her. I thought she would be a boy. I thought she would be bald and fair like my year-and-a-half old son Seamus Philip. I thought she would be big and chubby. She was none of those things.

    She came fast and furious. She was petite and dark. She screamed and caterwauled. She had a full head of brown hair. The pushing phase of labor was so fast — just a matter of minutes. What took me a long time — at least it felt like a long time, but was probably less than a minute — was recognizing her as my baby, the one I had carried, nourished and made room for inside my body for nine-plus months. But there was no mix up at the hospital. She came out of my body at the foot of our bed and when I first held her, she was slick with blood, vernix and all sorts of goop from my insides — still tied to me by the long, white cord of vein and artery. There was no denying her.

    It took us days to discover her name (we had boy names all picked out), but eventually, Madeline Vida Berrigan Sheehan-Gaumer made herself known to us. Her eyes, which might change color with time, are dark blue and she seems perpetually lost in thought — contemplating the big questions of the universe. Her brow crinkles, her lips purse and I imagine that if I could decode her language, I would understand everything all at once.

    When I am not staring at her in wonder and anticipation, I am changing her mustard-colored diapers, trying to sate her formidable appetite, or keeping her big, toddler brother from hurting her with his clumsy but ardent love. I’m also toggling between two books: The Burglary: The Discovery at J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger and All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior. Not exactly What to Expect, the newborn edition, but I am learning a lot about how to parent Madeline Vida, Seamus Philip and Rosena Jane (my step-daughter) in these pages.

    Jennifer Senior’s survey of middle class American parenting combines exhaustive social science and cutting edge brain research with first-hand observation of dozens of parents and their kids to make the case that the American middle class child is more protected and coddled than ever before and that the American middle class parent is more stressed and perplexed than ever before. Turns out parents are trying to make their children happy people, and that is a losing game. Happiness comes and goes. It is elusive and effusive in turns. It is a byproduct and sometimes comes after going through great pain and sorrow.

    As Senior writes, “not all children will grow up to be happy, in spite of their parents’ most valiant efforts, and all children are unhappy somewhere along the way, no matter how warmly they’re nurtured or how stoutly they’re protected.” In the past, she says, parents focused less on happiness and more on preparing their children for a role in society and raising competent and “morally responsible citizens who will fulfill a prescribed set of community obligations.” That worthy goal, she argues, has been more or less lost in the post-modern shuffle.

    She repeatedly returns to sociologist Viviana Zelizer’s vivid and provocative characterization of children as “economically worthless and emotionally priceless.” Kids are “worthless” because they no longer contribute to a household’s bottom line — they are not working beside us on the farm or coming up behind us in the factory. Kids are “priceless” because we define successful parenting as shielding them from all hardship, disappointment, anxiety and fear. That is an impossible task and in trying to realize it, parents end up feeling like Sisyphus — burdened, condemned and completely alone. We invest more time, money and emotional energy in our kids than ever before and what we get in return is elusive and intangible; hence the “all joy and no fun.”

    But there is joy and fun — and lots of law breaking — in Betty Medsger’s book. The Burglary answers the question long asked and speculated about within Catholic Left circles, as well as law and order, circles: Who did the 1971 Media, Pa., FBI break-in? My friends and I even pegged my own mom, Liz McAlister, as one of the burglars for a while.

    Like Bilbo Baggins creeping into the dragon Smaug’s mountain lair, the Media Eight broke into the FBI’s office in Media, Pa., in March 1971, while Muhammad Ali and Joe Frasier duked it out in the “Fight of the Century.” They made off with treasures of incalculable value — secret files documenting the FBI’s four-decade-long campaign of surveillance, smearing, spying and dirty tricks against American dissenters (and would-be dissenters) under Director J. Edgar Hoover.

    Over the course of a few weeks in the spring of 1971, the burglars released the FBI’s documents to the media while eluding one of the largest manhunts in FBI history. They were never arrested or charged. Now that the statute of limitations has expired, seven of the eight burglars talked to Medsger, the journalist who broke the story for the Washington Post in 1971, and told their story in this fast paced, fascinating look into history, studded with timely insights for today’s WikiLeaks, intelligence breaches and NSA scandals.

    For the record, my mom had nothing to do with the Media break-in.

    But two other parents were the lynchpins of the burglary team. John and Bonnie Raines, veteran draft board raiders and ardent antiwar activists, responded to Haverford physics professor William Davidon’s invitation to steal from the FBI. At the time that they opened their home to the conspiracy, they had three children. Their house in Germantown, Pa., was the de facto headquarters for the conspiracy. The team came together for meals, left to case the Media office and returned to share information and plan in their attic, while the kids slept downstairs.

    As the planning got more serious and the Raineses knew they were going to break dozens of laws and risk decades in jail, they asked John’s parents and brother to take responsibility for their children if they were arrested. As I read this section, I recalled that my activist parents had a similar standing arrangement with our Syracuse relatives and at one point even drew up legal documents to that effect, so that we would not be consigned to state or foster care if they were both in jail for a stretch of time.

    Bonnie Raines cased the Media FBI office on behalf of the group, posing as a college student working on a paper and spending more than an hour with FBI agents a few weeks before the nighttime raid. After the burglary, a very accurate sketch of her was widely circulated to law enforcement. Years later, she shared with Medsger how she and John “talked a lot about the tendency when you marry and have children to feel a certain level of comfort and sense that you will work your way through the rest of your life like that” in a protective family shell. Their experiences and values demanded that they step out of that protective shell and take serious risks.

    John Raines, who was repeatedly arrested and threatened in the Deep South as a Freedom Rider in the 1960s, said that “If all of us simply did what we thought was safe, that would let people who want to take our government away from us do that…. We thought of ourselves as taking an important risk that would be well received by many people and that would be used to bring about change if we were right about what we would find. And we were.”

    What knits these two books together for me? I grew up with parents who took risks like those taken by the Raines’ and yet I worry that I could be sheltering my own kids too much like the parents described in All Joy and No Fun.

    I don’t define myself or our family as middle class — we qualify for (and use) public assistance for our health care and food. Meanwhile, I grew up in radical, dumpster-diving, Catholic squalor. I earned my keep from a young age with a list of household responsibilities waiting next to my cereal bowl on Saturday mornings. I was regularly told that not only could we not afford the particular thing I coveted, but that my desire for that object was the result of Madison Avenue insinuating itself into my consciousness and that I should be ever vigilant against such corporate brainwashing. To this day I have unpierced ears because I could never adequately justify my “need” to my parents. As a kid, I was exposed to all the ugly truths and lots of 10-cent foreign policy concepts like imperialism, capitalism and state-sponsored terrorism. My parents did not lose sleep over my “happiness.”

    I am not signing Madeline Vida up for baby ballet classes or hauling Seamus Philip off to toddler tumbling or worrying that Rosena Jane won’t get into Harvard because she still mixes up her b’s and d’s halfway through first grade. But I am not packing my brood into our 1997 Volvo to case out local merchants of death in the middle of the night, either.

    I want to set a good example for my kids. I want them to be competent, morally responsible members of society — minimally. Is it okay that I am not risking my hide or jeopardizing my freedom for the greater good — at least not at this particular moment? Why am I not? Is it because I am having too much fun (and joy) as a parent? Or is it perhaps because today’s William Davidon has yet to make me an offer I can’t refuse?

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