Sunday, May 23, 2010

Communist child rearing

My earliest and happiest childhood memories take me to my grandparents country house in the summer. I spent the first seven years of my life with my maternal grandparents. When I started first grade, I only saw them in the summer. They were my de facto mom and dad. My parents would come visit me on Sundays. I always felt abandoned each time they left. There was a deep sorrow rooted within my soul that I could not shake until I was fifteen years old. Grandparents had to step in and help raise a child until first grade as there was no such thing as day care or baby sitter under communism. People had to fend for themselves the best way they could. Some children were locked in by their mothers who had to go grocery shopping, others were tended by older siblings. I often wondered what would have happened to me if the apartment caught fire and I could not escape since I was locked in and our apartment was on the fifth floor of our building, with no fire escape? The locks were so primitive that only a key could open the door from the inside or from the outside. It was never customary to see mothers carry their babies with them shopping or on vacation. Chidren were always left home with other relatives. Newborns were never shown to the world for months for fear that they may get sick or get the "evil eye." Superstitious moms believed that someone with blue or green eyes could stare at their babies and cast a spell of ill fortune on the child which may result in death. Many children were hurt from lack of proper supervision, burns, scaldings, falls, cuts, electrocutions, and bruises. There was some weak accountability but, generally, a person's life was worth very little. I was an only child and mom did not have many choices. People who had lots of children usually left them with the eldest child who served as a surrogate parent. There was no law frowning on such practices nor child protective services who really cared about the welfare of children in general. Only when the population was not multiplying fast enough, did the communist party step in and offered stipends to mothers - a form of welfare to stay home and have babies. The more babies, the higher the stipend. Once a mom passed six children, she was considered hero of the communist regime and given an actual medal with lots of fanfare to make sure other women emulated her fecundity role. Since there was no birth control and no possibility of any legal abortion, women would have back alley abortions and often die of severe bleeding or septic infections. Those who gave birth and could not afford to literally feed their children, the government would step in and raise the child in the many orphanages that were designed to raise and educate the dictator's civilian army. Ironically, such a baby, raised to become a civilian army machine, given up by a woman who had been raped, eventually became part of the firing squad who executed the dictator Ceausescu and his wife Elena. Nobody knows which of the soldiers had the real bullets, but it is ironic, that one of his henchmen may have been his ultimate demise, a victim of its own draconian birth policies. I lost a dear friend to a self-induced abortion. Laila was an architecture student and could not afford to feed another human being but did not want to give the baby away. She was 21 years old when she died of septic infection. Hospitals were forbidden to give medical help to anyone who had life and death injuries from botched abortions.
Women who chose to have babies and worked were rewarded by being given weeks and months of maternity leave, before and after a baby was born. For the first three years of a baby's life, each mother had generous full paid leave if a baby was ill. Some women took advantage of the system and pretended that their babies were sick in order to stay home and receive full pay. There was a cottage industry of dishonest pediatricians who wrote and sold excuses to justify the mothers' absence from work. It was a disgrace and it crated a class of cheaters who were a drain on the rest of society.
Country people had more children because they needed help in the fields. They had an easier life since they raised their own food and did not have to wait for the government handouts or meager salaries.
The government did not fuss much over the welfare of children except in the initial stages of adoption by childless couples. The process of adoption was quite arduous but the regime lost interest shortly after a baby was placed and a few visits were made to the new home. Abuse or even cases of murder by adoptive parents were seldom investigated thoroughly, the guilty seldom went to jail, or actually served harsh sentences. Life in general was expendable. People were more likely to do hard time for their political views or sexual orientation than for taking an innocent life. Investigations were quite commonly botched, files misplaced, evidence lost, or never collected in the first place. This made the job of a judge quite impossible. Not that they were that honest to begin with, they were stooges for the government and thus bought and bribed.
When a child made it to the first grade, life had not been that easy. Parents managed to scrounge enough money to buy supplies for school and the government provided the textbooks and free communist indoctrination. Everything taught was by rote memorization since labs were too expensive to provide experiments for various chemistry, biology, or physics classes and visuals or films did not exist. Concepts were illustrated on paper, if you understood it fine, if not, too bad. Students did not have calculators, they were provided with an abacus in first grade. All mathematical calculations had to be done with pen and paper.
Children were spanked by their parents and the law allowed teachers and administrators to spank as well. There was no breakfast or lunch at school. The daily schedule ran for elementary kids from 7 a.m. - 12 p.m. and for high schoolers from 1-6 p.m. There were no school buses and kids had to learn to walk to school in groups without parental supervision. Parents brought them to school every day the first week, after that, they were on their own. There were no kidnappings since nobody wanted the responsibility of feeding and housing another human being when they could barely afford to feed themselves. I remember walking past a cemetery while in high school. It was very unsettling returning home in the dark and letting the imagination run wild while passing by the cemetery. Needless to say, I never walked home, I ran. Few people owned cars and if they did, gasoline was so expensive, $9-10/gallon, that cars were kept mostly in the garage as a crown jewel. Owners would wash and polish them with so much love and care every weekend. Once a month, or every so many months, the car was driven a few short miles to grandma's house or to the nearest park for a picnick with "mititei" (a type of local sausage) and beer. Children were seldom invited on such outings. If the family could afford to dine in a restaurant once a year (a real luxury), children were again not invited. Baptisms, weddings, and burials were different, the children became the central part. Their youthful presence and joy inspired hope.
The government decreed that each child had to be vaccinated in school and the school nurse implemented this mandate with the same needles and syringes that were boiled every morning. Kids succumbed to hepatitis and childhood diseases that were preventable but untreated due to lack of medication, poor sterilization, or doctor care. Doctors and hospital visits were free but actually getting treatment was a different story. Everything was so rationed that the doctor/patient ratio was quite high. One doctor had to treat thousands and thousands of patients. There were not enough hours in the day to see everyone who needed immediate attention. I was one child of many who fell through the cracks and suffered needlessly. My mild childhood scoliosis was treated with three months of exercise instead of an expensive corset which the government refused to approve. To this day I have constant back pain.
By contrast, the children of communist party elite had the best schools, best food, free vacations paid by the regime, best medical care, drugs that were not available to the rest of us, day care, kindergartens, automatic admission to college, and assured visas to study or visit abroad. Their parents bought favors with hard currency, usually U.S. dollars, confiscated from political dissidents or by selling assets or art objects from the patrimony of the country. Every communist member who was part of the regime was above the law and lived a life of luxury, deception, and theft - the ultimate example of redistribution of wealth.

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