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A pediatrician’s moral dilemma

Elizabeth Peacock-Chambers M.D.

I am a pediatrician and every day I face a moral dilemma: How do I ask so much of the parents and caregivers of young children I serve, knowing that when they walk out of our clinic doors, they face a society that does so little for them?

Every day I implore parents: read more, talk more, brush teeth more, eat healthier foods, be firm but not too firm, and of course sleep more! The parenting mantra echoes in my mind, “You are doing the best you can AND you can do better.” The challenge is that I am asking all this of parents who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders already - rising housing costs, unlivable wages, unaffordable childcare, no paid parental leave. Every day I witness their bravery as they brace themselves against this mountain of seemingly insurmountable odds, trying to provide a better life for their children. How can I ask any more of them?

On November 9, when I watched Tim Kaine introduce Hillary Clinton during her concession speech, these words cut me like a knife, “She was inspired at a young age to an epiphany that if families and children do well that's the best barometer for whether a society does well… We know she would have made history as a president in one sense, but we've never had a president who’s made their whole career about the empowerment of families and children.” In that moment, I felt again that we were telling the families of the children I serve, “You are not our priority.” You don’t matter, at least not enough. We stood at a crossroads, ready to forge a new path, and let the moment slip away. However, as our current president said, the sun did rise on November 9 and today I believe that my initial reaction was wrong. No one person determines whether we make families and children a priority for our community. That decision is ours alone.

I recognize more than ever that now is the time to act and to demand the change needed to support the lives and work of families. I am reminded that in Massachusetts, we committed to providing our citizens with universal health care and the entire country followed suit. I am reminded that we are fortunate to live in a state that works together with many shared values, above all, the right to a full and healthy life, regardless of religion, gender, race, country of origin, or sexual orientation. I am thankful for this sense of community.

But I am imploring us all to recognize that our communities also reflect the immense income inequality that I believe led to the divisions we witness today. From my home, in Berkshire County, I see the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty every day. The tourist industry and summer cottages may mask the social isolation, the food insecurity, and the dire need for affordable child care that families in this county face, but I hope that you see it. In Berkshire County, we boast world-renowned museums and dining experiences, and yet one half of our children are failing to read at grade level by third grade. In Southern Berkshire County, for the over 400 children under the age of three, we have 120 daycare placements available. And our child care providers, on average, make less than $12 per hour; not a livable wage. 

We know without a doubt that the first years of a child’s life are the most important in terms of their development. They are learning how the world works and what it means to be loved. We have some shining examples of small-scale programs that support their care and learning, but I assure you these programs are not enough. We have the ability and power within our community to do more. How might we be leaders for the rest of the state and the rest of the country promoting a livable wage, providing access to high quality child care, and protecting immigrant families? We have not yet made the hard choices and sacrifices required to truly support the children in our community.

We are doing the best we can but we must do better. Join Berkshire United Way and their many partners, who through Pittsfield Promise and Chapter One are working together, collectively, to raise these issues in the community and advocate for families.