Caught Unaware

I’ve been pondering the plight of the spouses caught unaware in the Petraeus affair.  It seems all the players in the drama sought some personal gain from their relationships with the others.  They were all climbers, but we know little about the spouses.

What we know about Holly Petraeus is she has worked admirably on behalf of military families and she hails from a well-connected military family. We know little else, except that she is facing a very public betrayal.  Even if she had prior suspicions of infidelity, the publicity is humiliating.  She certainly seems to be a victim in the drama.

The Twelve Step tradition teaches addiction recovery seekers to examine their own role in their victimization.  This is a pretty tough teaching.  I know recovery seekers who were victims of child sexual abuse, and they strenuously resist the idea that an innocent child could in any way be culpable for adult actions against him.  I must affirm child victims bear no blame for crimes against them whatsoever.  The most insidious and lasting consequences of abuse are the blame and shame abuse survivors carry into adulthood.

The Twelve Step teaching is pointing to a different occasion of victimization.  Often people wounded in childhood develop behavior patterns that continually rip the scabs off old sores that can never heal.  It is not the initial wounding that is being called out for examination but the response to wounding.  The Twelve Steps teach recovery seekers to examine how impaired responses lead to behavior patterns that expose them to more wounding, and more importantly, what alternative responses are possible.

Holly Petraeus would seem to be in no way accountable for the actions of betrayal by her husband.  His actions are clearly on his side of the street, and he has taken responsibility publicly for that.  Nothing suggests Holly Petraeus experienced childhood wounding or has Twelve Step experience, but nonetheless I do ponder how her own actions may have exposed her to injury.

Let me first reject out of pocket notions that her appearance invited betrayal.  Trying to live up to another person’s or a cultural ideal of beauty is a recipe for unhappiness.  The Twelve Step tradition has a name for it—people pleasing.  People pleasing is seeking affirmation not from what is authentic within our own souls but from others’ opinions of us.  It’s proven to be a losing proposition.   I don’t know if Holly Petraeus has people pleasing tendencies, but she appears not to be a slave to fashion, and I applaud her for that.

What were Holly Petraeus’ alternatives?  She grew up in a powerful military family.  When she married, she chose to stay in the ecosystem that prized her connections.  She could have married outside the military, to someone who might have valued her only for her authentic self.  Attractions are a complex mix of personality, intelligence, soulfulness, and, undeniably, looks and power.  I couldn’t possibly deconstruct her husband’s attraction 38 years ago, much less the attraction of hypothetical non-military suitors.

The question does, however, invite us to contemplate what draws us into relationship.  Am I seeking some personal gain, a lifestyle or cachet?  Do I seek validation based on my connections, looks or power?  Or is it genuine appreciation of another human soul that leads me into relationship?

Join the conversation.  What relationships have most nurtured you and what was your initial attraction?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit

A Voice in the Storm

Marathon runners at Staten Island ferry preparing to volunteer to help Hurricane Sandy victims.(Photo: Christina Wallace (@cmwalla) / Instagram

Mayor Bloomberg’s reluctance to cancel the NY Marathon is understandable.  The show-must-go-on come-hell-or-high-water attitude is a distinctly NYC thing.  He made the right call in the end, of course, and I loved reading news stories about NY Marathon runners and race volunteers distributing marathon ponchos and offering disaster relief.  With another winter storm on the way, it sounds like the need for blankets in areas hard hit by Sandy is real and growing.  I caught myself wondering why people who had plenty of time to evacuate might be needing blankets, and that reminded me of a story.

Over a decade ago, two kids interned with my church for a year immediately after graduating from college.  The purpose was to discern their calling in ministry.  During the course of that year each gave a sermon.  Andie Wigodsky graduated from my alma mater, Duke, and her sermon described a spring break mission trip.  Torrential rain and flooding had destroyed tobacco crops in North Carolina that year, and a group of Dukies gathered blankets and warm clothing before heading south to offer disaster relief.  They expected to find housing swept away by flood water and migrant workers left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

That’s not what they found.  What they found was housing untouched by flood water and migrant workers who had nothing but the clothes on their backs in the first place.  The blankets and clothes were much appreciated, but the disaster was more complex—and actually worse—than what they had expected.  The workers were visiting the US on work visas that restricted their ability to leave the farms on which they were licensed to work.  Their pay was based on farm productivity, so the fact that the crops were destroyed meant they would be paid nothing for all labor they had already given.  Worse, they were bound to remain on the farms for the duration of the season, even though there would be no pay.  Migrant workers make considerable family sacrifices for work to send money home, and the futility of their sacrifice was heartbreaking.  That speaks nothing of the injustice of their prison-like conditions.

The story stayed with me because I think it encapsulates in microcosm what we so often encounter when we try to offer help to people in need.  We tend to have an oversimplified notion of what the needs actually are.  Often the situation, and the injustice underlying the situation, is more complex than we realize.

Now that New Yorkers hardest hit by the storm are coming to grips with how long it will take to get back to normal, we’re hearing stories about needs and frustrations.  Some of the 34,000 people FEMA is putting up in hotels have short term housing needs (they will return to habitable homes with heat and power within days), and some are not so lucky.  The worst case estimate is 40,000 people in need of shelter, half of whom depend on public housing.  I wonder about their needs that pre-date Sandy.

The greatest injustice the migrant workers faced wasn’t deplorable conditions but having no voice in a regulatory system stacked against them.  Voting is how we make our voice heard.  At a time when the only obvious vote fraud is poll access restrictions under the pretense of preventing vote fraud, I sincerely hope all those displaced by Sandy, and everyone else, will have a chance to vote and make their voices heard today.

Join the conversation.  What injustice do you seek to right with your vote today?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit

Where Will the Parents Come From?

Peter Boninger/Stone Sub —Getty Images

I read a New York Times debate about the adoption tax credit yesterday.  It struck me as a topic worthy of thoughtful discussion but paling in importance compared to larger questions like why does adoption cost so much in the first place.  Bigger even still is, if the Republican platform to outlaw all abortion comes to pass, where will all the parents come from?

The miracle of birth is full of mystery.  When I was pregnant, I marveled that anyone could ever be born at all.  It seems to go against all odds.  One thing that is not a mystery, thanks to scientific inquiry, however, is the conception process.  Human life does not begin at conception any more than a test tube full of my blood has a life of its own.  Human cells? yes.  Human life? no.

What about the human soul?  Do humans get souls at the zygote or blastocyst stage?  When an embryo or fetus or baby?  That question brings religious belief into a medical discussion. I don’t know the answer.  It’s a mystery to me.  Bring me someone who believes souls are imaginary and someone else who believes every sperm has a soul and I’ll let them try to convince each other.  Neither will be able to prove his beliefs to the other.  If you have ponderings on how humans grow into their souls, I invite you to share them here.  I promise I will respect your thoughts, and I won’t demand you prove anything.

Is it wise to base public policy on religious beliefs that are held only by some and that no one can prove?  Legislating public policy based on its practical consequences seems to be firmer ground. I was wondering about the practical consequences of restricting abortion access, so I did a little googling.

There are 117,000 domestic infant adoptions a year.  A rule of thumb is three families are waiting for every family that adopts, so about 300,000 more families want infants.  Half of US pregnancies are unintended, and of those somewhat less than half, or 1.3 million, end in abortion annually.  Adoption would not be the answer for more than a million unwanted babies every year.

There’s nowhere for babies to go but to the mothers who didn’t want them.  The reason women choose abortion is less emotional ability to care for a baby than economic ability. And who knows better the demands of raising a child than mothers? 72%  of women seeking abortions are already mothers. That’s 10% more than in the years before the economic collapse.  42% of women seeking abortion live below the poverty line already and another 27% have income low enough to qualify for Medicaid.

What is the social impact of outlawing abortion?  Check my math here, but it looks to me like 42% of 1.2 million (allowing for 0.1M adoptions), or 500,000 infants, will be born into poverty every year.  Add that to the 22% of US children already living in poverty. Some of the 78% of kiddos living less than $4,000 above the poverty line will fall below it simply by virtue of the addition of a new household member.  If that’s half of those qualifying for Medicaid but not poor, 230,000 children technically above the poverty line will slip below it with the birth of a new sibling.  Obviously, the infants born into those newly poor families will also be born into poverty, so add another 160,000 babies for a total of 890,000 children entering poverty.  Every year.  The US presently has 73 million children.  If abortion were outlawed, the number of children in poverty would rise more than 5% every year.

Forget compassion for children, what’s the economic impact on US taxpayers?  64% of the 1.6 million unplanned births were paid by public programs, primarily Medicaid, at a cost of $11.1 billion.  Adding another 900,000 Medicaid births (69% of 1.3 million averted abortions) would nearly double the public cost to $21 billion.

Of course, that is merely the cost of being born.  The costs of childhood poverty are far reaching and top $500 billion per year.  Citizens crying for a bigger tax base and smaller safety net could accomplish both by decreasing poverty.  Limiting access to family planning is a step in the wrong direction.

Join the conversation.  How do you weigh the ethics for and against forcing poor women to have babies they know they can’t afford?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit