When were you born, who are your parents, where did you grow up? None of us earns these things. These things were given to us. So when we strip away all of our luck and our privilege, and we consider where we'd be without them, it becomes much easier to see someone who's poor and say, "That could be me." And that's empathy. -Melinda Gates
The sweet scent of clementines lingered in the air. I glanced in my rearview mirror. The sun was shining down on the four happy faces sitting in the two back rows of our SUV. Each child was holding a book and chomping on a healthy snack as their minds absorbed the story leaping from the pages before them. This simple, happy scene, snapped from a regular day of carpool, was a stark reminder of the charmed life we lead and often take for granted.
Several weeks ago my husband and I saw The Lion. This incredibly powerful and moving film is based on the true story of an Indian man who uses Google Earth to track down his birth family after he is adopted and raised in a different country. The main character’s birth mother worked grueling hours as a manual laborer collecting and moving rocks in the countryside while her children were fending for themselves gathering food and spare change by any means possible. Her circumstances have haunted my mind for weeks. She is a mother who loves her children no less than I love mine. She wants them to be healthy, safe and happy. As a single mother, she sacrifices to give them a better life.
That could have been me. I just can’t shake the idea that due to incredible luck beyond my control, I was born in the right place at the right time. It was never a question that I would graduate college. It was never a question that I would attend graduate school. I never suffered from lack of food, warmth or safety. My children, by no act or work of their own, were born into the same life of privilege. Due to their amazing luck, their complaints in life revolve around the latest technology or having to clean up the piles of toys and excess clothing littering their bedroom floors. These are their daily struggles. It is expected that they will go to college, travel, see the world, plan for the future, celebrate good health. It is their normal.
But my family’s normal is not normal.
Beyond life in India, I have students here in Charlotte who fail classes multiple times, not because of a lack of effort or intelligence, but because excessive absences push them down a hole of shame and failure. They are single mothers or fathers working two to three jobs while raising kids. When those kids are sick, my students’ priorities must shift. Their education has to take a back seat to current demands of their time. Oftentimes, these students also lose jobs for the same reasons. When their kids cannot go to school, they are stuck with no options for childcare. Similarly, they tend to lose jobs when their transportation fails them. If they cannot get to work, they cannot be paid and afford car repairs. It takes money to make money.
If my children are sick, my life continues as normal. My husband enjoys the privilege of working from home. Flexible schedules are a luxury. And also notice, I said “my husband.” I am not a single mother. When I complain about stress at work, it is originating from a position I am privileged to hold due to my level of education and experience. I did not juggle expensive childcare, trying to find affordable housing, and often time crippling economic circumstances while I studied to advance my career. And if my car breaks down, I will negotiate with my husband to carpool and create a plan for life with only one working vehicle. This is my piece of cake.
Has my life been perfect? Of course not. Have I felt the sting of family tragedy? Yes. But make no mistake, my life is a piece of cake. My motherhood stress is self-inflicted as I struggle to choose among all the many opportunities available to my two children because I cannot possibly enroll them in every team sport, after school activity and club. I have to make tough choices about family vacations and playdates. I have to battle almost daily for my kids to finish eating their organic vegetables. And I have to scold them for staying up too late reading books or tracking mud in the house after a trip to the trampoline in our back yard. These are my problems.
And because these are my problems, I want to open my eyes and heart to the reality that my problems are not the norm. Given my circumstances, it is mind boggling that I don’t walk around in a constant state of shock and awe. How did I get so lucky? Why do I deserve to wake up every morning in a warm, cozy bed next to a partner who shares and shoulders many of our responsibilities? What made me deserving of two healthy children with an entire world of opportunity at their doorstep? I am lucky--incredibly fortunate. To quote the book, "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48). These words hold true. I am indeed required and demanded to rise up, use my voice, and yes, even march, to help anyone whose life is a little less cake-like than my own.