This Valentine's Day, Ask Moms How to Love

It may just teach you something about justice.

Photo Credit: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

At this moment in history, when we are undergoing a re-examination of what male leadership has looked like, it is fitting to examine how many of our policies have reflected not just the identity but also the values traditionally associated with male leadership. This country has pursued paternalistic and punitive policies in many realms, but particularly in our criminal justice system. If we are looking for a way to demonstrate how to lead with more, shall we say, maternal instincts, let's demand a smart, simple, practical change: decriminalize drugs and instead employ a whole different kind of intervention—the kind a mother would use if her child was in trouble. This would be nothing short of redefining how we love our people in this country. Oh, and by the way, it also would save money and lives. 

We know what this looks like in our homes. If my daughter came to me with drastically reduced grades on a report card, I would not reflexively send her to her room, keep her away from her family, friends and her learning environment, and punish her. I might instead ask her what has been going on: is she having trouble concentrating on or understanding the material; are other students being mean to her; is she sitting in the back and can't see the board? My husband and I might work with her on a plan to marshal resources needed to address any problems. Maybe extra help at school, a hearing aid, whatever we think would be best for her once we understand what is going on. We'd hug her a lot and tell her she will feel better.

This is part of how you love your child when she is having a problem. I am like every other mom: I sometimes do and sometimes don't show up for my children in the ways they need, but I always try. I am fortunate that my ideal day at least would have the best intentions and that I can offer my children resources. But on our worst day I hope none of us as a caregiver would abdicate on the care and lavish on the punishment the way our criminal justice system does. Just look at how our system has purported to love our collective children in various levels of crisis.

I have seen it second-hand, through the experiences of mothers who have lost children to the criminal justice system or even to death because their children were in some capacity involved with drugs. In my decades of work toward ending drug prohibition, I met and now know and care about many of these women. They have had their children taken away, and have been divorced from control over or even involvement in medical decisions about care, all because of societal failures to deal appropriately with substance use. Instead of making widely available drug treatment, job training, and other services to people who need a gentle nudge—the kind some moms are good at—to help keep our young people on track, our criminal justice practices tear families apart at their most vulnerable moments and wrench away whatever stability they have established. The usurpation of mothers' roles (I use mothers but intend to include fathers and all women and all allies to this style of governance) permeates our justice system and all of our governing systems. In all of these areas we have failed our children, and as moms, we have the mandate to end this as surely as we must continue to band together to change workplace behavior toward women. 

Rather than sinking into bitterness, mothers I know are building momentum for a movement to restore sanity to our overly harsh, wasteful and ineffective drug laws. It stands to reason: mothers were the driving force behind the repeal of alcohol Prohibition, and they will be the backbone of the necessary repeal of modern-day prohibitions that cause more problems than they solve. Some reforms mothers can also champion now are access to medication-assisted treatment, distribution of life-saving Naloxone, and creation of safe injection facilities—sensible harm-reduction measures to make our current prohibition regime less damaging to our communities and our children.

Because we need so desperately to change our drug policies, I have been a member of the Moms United to End the War on Drugs campaign of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) since its inception a decade ago. Moms United's mission is to end the violence, mass incarceration, and overdose deaths that are a result of current punitive and discriminatory drug policies. It is important to me as a mother that my children grow up in a country that rejects these ineffective and damaging drug war policies.

So as our public debate looks at the behavior of men in power toward women in the workplace, let's not forget how that paternalistic instinct has informed policies like the war on drugs, and led us down a path of moral bankruptcy. Instead, let's look to moms for credible policies. Moms United has crafted a good set of principles to start with. But in the name of love, let's really commit this Valentine's Day to rethinking the punitive policies we have embraced. Yes, we discipline our children; but we also encourage them, teach them and expose them to positive influences. Even when they falter or misbehave, we offer them love and positive reinforcement for better choices. We hug them even if they have disappointed us. We all need a big hug these days.


Hanna Liebman Dershowitz is a writer and an attorney who has focused her legal career on criminal justice reform, particularly drug policy.

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018