January 12, 2016
This column was first published in the December 2015 issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine.
“I don’t want to be afraid of my children growing up.”
I kept turning the phrase over in my mind as I lay in bed drifting off to sleep. My 17-month-old daughter was sound asleep beside me. I ached a little bit when I thought of how tiny she once was, back in those early days when she used to fit in the curve of my arm. Now she seems to take up half the bed. How many ways are there to say, “she’s growing up so fast?” Isn’t that all parents ever seem to say?
My first children were twins. When I found out I was pregnant with a singleton I looked forward to nursing one baby at a time, holding her in stillness, getting to spend one-on-one time rather than running back and forth between putting out fires. After she was born, I marveled at how easy it was to hold and feed her and sank into the satisfaction of being able to meet her needs as they arose rather than asking her to wait in line behind another sibling. When nap time came I would put her in the carrier and hold her close to my chest, swaying back and forth until she fell asleep slobbering on my shirt. It was all so tender, holding one baby at a time. If you’ve had children you know how it goes. I blinked and then she was crawling. Now she walks along beside me, her tiny little hand wraps easily around my ring and pinky fingers. She points out cats and birds and likes to hide things under pillows and then pull them out exclaiming, “dere is!”
It rained all day today, and the early, dark evenings make it clear winter is here. Things will slow down a little, or at least the early dusk would have us think so. Holidays will give us extra time together with family and perhaps a snow day or two will keep us all inside on the couch. But nothing ever really slows down when you have young children at home. Even in winter.
I don’t think I’ll give birth to any more children, which makes my daughter the baby of the family. Presumably she’s the one I’ll find hardest to let go. I recently discovered something called RIE parenting. The RIE stands for “Resources for Infant Educators.” Titles for concepts of parenting usually get on my nerves, and this title is no exception. I mean, parenting isn’t a theory. It’s a moment to moment ever-evolving state of being. That said, we need words and phrases to help us name ideas and concepts, and those phrases give us the tools to turn these ideas and concepts over in our minds. We can’t challenge our misconceptions if we can’t name alternatives. Such is my frustration with the gap between language and experience, I guess.
Anyway, here is the basic tenant of RIE, as quoted from author Janet Lansbury: “We not only respect babies, we demonstrate our respect every time we interact with them. Respecting a child means treating even the youngest infant as a unique human being, not as an object.” Even the youngest babies are seen as active players in their own lives. There is an inherent trust there, a willingness to see the complete and whole person way before their little legs can stand.
I’m not writing this to expose all the ways of this school of thought, but you can find plenty of resources online, especially via founder Magda Gerber and Janet Lansbury, the woman behind the Elevating Childcare site. (Be sure and follow Lansbury’s facebook page here). The more I read the more I realized this was the kind of parenting I’ve been attempting to practice. I just didn’t know it had a name. Part of why I’d latched on to this idea was that I am hyperaware that any attempts to hem my children in would likely only backfire. I’m not one of those parents who can’t wait for the kids to get grown. While I do enjoy time to myself, I don’t find my greatest enjoyment in my time away from them. I love my life with my children. It’s life-affirming, and it’s the most beautiful, difficult, challenging, eye-opening experience I have ever known. But I don’t want to be someone who needs my children to be children. I want my children to be themselves. And everyday they are becoming more and more of who they are.
I remember as a child feeling excitement as I grew older, that budding independence like sparks everywhere. If I am so lucky, my children will feel that too, and I want to find ways to be there for them. Not be there broken-hearted, begrudgingly weeping for the good old days. I want to be there at that very moment in that very moment with the people they are in that very moment. I know this will take some work.
There is a whole world of pressures out there that tell us to lean into a feeling of guilt as our children grow up. We recoil from the pain of it all. But I’m pretty sure that a lot of this is just about fear. And if I’ve learned anything about fear it’s that once you name it, it dissipates, a least a tiny bit.
So this winter I’m going to do what I always try to do: spend as much time as possible with family. But on those days when everything feels like it’s moving so fast and I feel that punch in the gut when I see how big my youngest is, I’m not going to guilt myself into fearing the passing years. I know growing up is a gift of enormous measure. And I refuse to feel guilty or fearful of the very nature of growth. Even in the most still, silent moments we’re growing. All of us. And that is one of the most beautiful things we humans can know.
December 2, 2013
I love to garden. It’s a spiritual practice and therapy and a path to peace and all that kind of perspective-inducing thing. And I say that without an ounce of sarcasm. It’s also about food, of course, but mostly this stuff is all interchangeable. Watching a garden for even a season will teach you that time isn’t something you get to master. Things cycle. In a garden, the lines between death and rebirth are blurry at best. The lines between wild and cultivation are gray; there’s really no beginning or end. I could go on.
As I was taking down the garden a few weeks ago, a few days after the first frost had killed off the last of the green tomatoes, I noticed my sons and our youngest dog playing off to the side. Laughing, throwing leaves in the air, and running their cars through the soil they were clearly not feeling the weight of a coming dormancy. Instead they were mystified by the process of pulling up a garden and the beginnings of decay, and they kept running up to ask me questions about the roots and soil and the birds hopping around frantically before winter.
There I was holding the cold plants, thinking about how long it would be until the next Spring and how (literally) pregnant I would be by then, yet they were focused on the coming of dormancy like it was as magical as planting seeds.
It is, of course, just as beautiful. At least logically speaking. But very few humans like this part. It’s a lonely part, a quiet part. Most of what’s happening we can’t see, and there’s a metaphor that goes on for days. But my boys were fixated on the wonder of it all and mesmorized by the feel of the cold plants in their own small hands.
Inspired by their observations, and an attempt to deal with this concept of dormancy (something I’ve been ruminating on for years now), I decided to share some photos of my dead garden. Any gardener knows it’s never just about the spring. So why do our pictures always suggest this? isn’t this dishonest, really? To focus just on the ripening? The harvest is nothing without the dormancy, right?
So I’ve decided to refuse to talk only of harvest. Everything cycles, even if this is something I don’t always welcome.
October 9, 2013
This is a messy piece of writing. Hopefully the ideas are stronger than the structure.
Also, I love typos (not really, but you’d think so based on how many I employ).
My sons recently turned four.
They are now full-fledged little people. Not babies, not toddlers, but preschoolers-turned everyday scientists/philosophers/theologians who can communicate with actual words. They talk about ideas, needs, fears, joys. In short, the intense guesswork of early parenting has passed.
They can fix their own cups of water. They can even (sort of) clean up their own messes. They ask me questions about God, death, and love. Without encouragement from their parents they talk about how they love all people, including the “mean people.” They become fiercely angry at one another and throw punches. But within minutes they’re hugging and calling one another “my best friend.”
My hearts is so filled with love its in a perpetual state of burstiness.
The great thing about this age—and the sometimes tiring thing about this age—is they are so deeply curious about the world around them that it sometimes makes adults sleepy. On days when I’m feeling exhausted from the one billionth why/how question, I resort to my past life as a journalist and turn the tables on the situation: “I don’t know why that bee went to the red flower before it went to the yellow flower. “But, I’m curious. Why do you think it did,” I ask.
Every interviewer/oral historian knows that a good interview is one in which you say almost nothing. So I try and tap into that. Ask an open ended question, sit back and let them do most of the talking. After all, I’m pretty sure toddlers/preschoolers don’t actually expect real answers to most of those never-ending why questions. They’re just wanting to practice the art of communication. I have to admire that. It’s a noble quest, really, and one to which we all should aspire. After all, no matter how old we get, we’ll always struggle with saying what we mean—and, perhaps even more so, we’ll always struggle to hear what another person is saying. The desire to practice communication comes early, and I figure it’s the job of caregivers to honor that desire.
When they’re just sitting there talking, talking, talking I love them so much hurts and heals at the same time, and I often do that annoying parenting thing where I just stare at them in wonder. Who are these little people who cut me to the core?
Having made it all the way to four and seeing them become well-adjusted kids feels like a real accomplishment. And not just because they’re twins and twin infancy is hard.
I didn’t have a storybook pregnancy (who does?) and I often worried my kids might be adversely affected by what must have been a pretty intense womb existence. Parenting books about pregnancy tell you to try and reduce stress and all that. Once the kids are born you’re supposed to take care of yourself, blah, blah, blah. These are all great ideas, but not always realistic.
My mom died a few months before I found out I was pregnant. My dad was diagnosed with recurrent melanoma when I was about two months pregnant and we thought he was gonna die too. So I didn’t really have much chance to sit around and think about the magic of pregnancy. Instead, I spent a lot of time in cancer treatment centers watching families members get pumped full of chemicals that might cure or kill them, and I knew a lot more about cancer-fighting foods than prenatal vitamins. Every so often though I’d rub my belly and marvel at how life keeps going on, one way or another. I don’t care how cliché it sounds, I just had no idea the heart can be pulled in so many directions.
It’s not a popular thing to say about a time period that’s supposed to be all love and light, but during large chunks of my pregnancy I was sad in a way I still can not name. And I was experiencing cultural shock, rage, grief, and a loss of a faith I’m not sure I had in the first place. Having kids was never a life goal for me, and so I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what motherhood would feel like. But I was pretty certain that starting the whole thing off in a cloud of depression, grief and anger wasn’t what was supposed to happen.
I mean, really, I was still living a pretty charmed life. My dad had health insurance to pay for his treatments; I could afford a doctor for myself. There was food to eat and a place to live. Women give birth in war zones everyday. I try to keep it all perspective. But here’s my point: As I’ve grown older I’ve found it important to offer a counter narrative to the whole idea that healthy babies come from mothers who have privileged, blissed out pregnancies. We’ve got too many false pregnancy narratives in this world…the fairytale ones that are, ultimately, destructive. And what’s more, infancy isn’t always a haze of foggy joy, either. And a mother dealing with this kind of thing doesn’t need pity. She needs support. These things look and feel very different. And I figure one way we can learn to provide more support to moms is to talk about real situations. So here I am, talking about me.
Once my children got here things didn’t get much easier. My heart was full of joy and I was so in love. But blissed out? No, not at all. I had postpartum depression, or just a bigger version of pre-partum depression, who knows which. I experienced all kinds of breast feeding difficulty that broke my heart and made me want to throw things at people who talked about how “natural” the whole process was. My boys lost weight; a nurse once told me they needed to be sent to the “failure to thrive” clinic, a statement which led me to break down and start crying in the doctor’s office going on about my mother’s death and how fearful I was of…everything. She told me she’d make the boys an appointment at this so-called failure to thrive clinic and just left the room. She must have missed that class on bedside manner. Her lack of empathy is still shocking to me today. She must have seen so many hurting moms. Maybe she’d grown callous. But isn’t that a scary thought?
I came to find out later that it’s actually called the “Growth and Development” clinic, kind of a big cognitive difference, especially to a mom who might be losing her mind and is doubting her body. In the end, I never gave up on breastfeeding, and I’m still a huge advocate for it today. My advocacy is more nuanced now, filled with memories of my own struggles and a fierce belief in the power of women to make decisions about their own bodies. This is all to say, it is wholly possible to be a huge supporter of breastfeeding and have NO desire to condemn, judge, or even speculate about women who don’t nurse their babies.
I believe very strongly in the rights of women to nurse their children whenever and wherever they want. I think we need more cultural support for breastfeeding, and few things anger me as much as folks who shame mothers for nursing in public. But I equally don’t care for talk that makes it sound like every breastfeeding situation works perfectly or that a woman who is struggling must not be trying hard enough. Outspoken advocates of nursing do me a favor: Until you’ve been there, don’t ever think you understand the challenges that mother is facing. Don’t put yourself up on a pedestal because you’re nursing and the mom in the cafe sitting next to you is bottle feeding. If that is the kind of thought is running through your head—that judgy thought about another mom feeding her kid— maybe you need to do some deep thinking about what lies behind your desire to be a breast feeding advocating.
Back to the topic at hand.
As I watch my sons grow into little people who know how to stand up for themselves and are learning how to comfort one another, I don’t regret the less-than-blissful pregnancy or the hard days after their birth. Maybe not hiding them from sorrow, confusion, and fear has, and will, help them see hurt in others. Maybe it will help them think twice about how they interact with the people around them, reminding them to reach out to fellow humans in pain. Maybe I’m overreaching here, but I tend to think that refusing to run from/hide/ignore pain is one way we learn not to demonize people we don’t understand. Embracing our own struggles decreases our need to paint the world in binary shades. At the very least, I rest assured knowing my sons comprehend that life isn’t always easy. They can roll with the punches, so to speak. I think the less we become afraid of our pain, they more able we are to reach out to others. I hope they’ll be kids who can do that. More so than anything else, really. Brilliance is great; talent is awesome. Reaching out to others? Now that’s a life worth living, in my humble opinion.
My dad used to always tell me, “Opinions are likes asses. Everyone’s got one.” I’ve always taken that to heart and know that my opinion isn’t always too important. But, for what it’s worth, here’s an opinion: If you’re someone who finds pregnancy and infancy to be filled with trials, don’t worry. It won’t mess your kids up. That’s just the fear talking. We’re all stronger than we think they are, especially when we’re real with ourselves about it. Especially our kids—those little folks are super strong. And if you see another mom who’s struggling, don’t wonder about how it might affect her baby or how much she’s screwed up. Instead ask her, “What can I do to support you?” and then listen to what she has to say. I’m beyond grateful for the folks who saw my pain and stepped in to help. I mean it sincerely when I say if it weren’t for the support I received I would not be alive today. My pain was bad, but my fear of reaching out…that was the really detrimental part. There were people who cut through their own fear and kinda forced themselves into my life when I tried to pull away, and they were life savers.
So anyway, my sons can talk now, I got some help for depression, and this whole parenting thing is beginning to take on a new dimension. This has got me to thinking about what they’ve taught me about human touch. Before their words came, parenting was all about interpreting cries and or body language. When nothing else worked holding them close was almost always the best solution. This is true for the dying as well.
We all reach a point when words don’t matter. Touch is paramount. People talk about how you can hold babies too much and “spoil” them. I don’t buy that fearful concept for infants anymore than I do for dying adults. Never underestimate the importance of just being there, sharing human contact in the face of complete confusion. We come into this world confused we go out confused—-It happens to all of us—three to ninety-three. Just being there in the face of transition, skin to skin, is a powerful act of love. I’m not saying a person should have to strap their baby to them at all times (Although if I’d had only had one baby, I would certainly have made use of those slings 24-7). I’m just saying, when nothing else makes sense, try contact. It’s the least—maybe the most—we as humans can do.
We want to talk and reason our way through fear and pain and confusion. But in watching people die and in watching them come into the world, it’s so clear how words can sometimes stall our connection. Holding babies, holding the dying, it’s a sacred act, and I feel like that’s something deeply missing from our culture today. And the thing is, we’re all always being born; we’re all always dying. Just being there, just allowing yourself to be present in the face of confusion or pain, in a non-judgemental way, can cut through fear. I see it everyday in my sons’ eyes. We don’t lose this need for wordless presence as we grow. We learn to articulate it if we’re lucky.
So, now, an awkward transition to the third thing I’ve learned.
Sometimes I wish I would have kept a regular blog about my son’s milestones. I guess I do, actually. I just call it a journal, and I’ve left strict instructions to have all my journals burned upon my death. Just Kidding. But there are a lot of reasons I don’t write here as often as I’d like or why I don’t share photos or daily adventures. Mostly it’s because I’m trying to complete freelance deadlines and am always running behind. Partially it’s because I’m an over thinker and this leads me to silence. But partially it’s because I know it’s not really my place to write about them too often.
I’ve always been torn about sharing too much about kids not because of them losing a sense of privacy or because of crazy folks on the internet (although I respect that can be a real issue). I’m torn because I don’t want to try and write my own ideas onto these growing humans. I don’t want to interpret my own stories into their words, and I don’t want to pressure them to be anyone other than who they are. I don’t want to tell them what to grow up to be, you know? Either overtly or subtlety.
Oh, sure I believe in guidance and goals and rules and all that. I believe in demanding respect—of myself and of themselves and the people around them, whether it’s those we know or strangers. But what I’m saying is I don’t need them to grow up to be like me or my world—or at least that’s the kind of parent I want to be. This is taking more internal work than I expected because it isn’t easy to let something so close to you be so free. We want to find a way to keep our children safe and close, maybe even make it so they never get too far, literally or metaphorically. But I’m coming to realize that here’s the real work of parenting: learning to love the complete and whole person in all their complexity, joy, pain, and confusion. This isn’t a task that requires hemming in.
As our kids grow up and become more of themselves, I find that, as a culture, we often want to hide from our kid’s emotions. When they share our weaknesses we find it frustrating. When they possess strengths that are unlike our own, we may even get jealous and try and direct them to a more familiar emotion. I don’t think it’s something we even realize we’re feeling or reacting to.
But to some degree I think it’s a universal part of parenting, and a huge part of what folks mean when they say parenting makes them rethink everything. Parenting makes you rethink you. And let me tell you folks, I don’t care how enlightened you are. It’s scary in there.
Kid’s feelings make grown folks anxious. It’s so raw, so unmediated, and so familiar. No wonder we have a hard time dealing with adult complexity. If we can’t look at our own mess we sure can’t handle the rolling snowball of confusion that is toddlerhood.
Like everything else worth doing, parenting is messy, disorderly, emotionally exhausting. It’s not a bunch of pinterstry matching outfits cute family photo shoots. It’s crap in the hallway and not a paper towel in sight, it’s waking up at four a.m. to the sound of little feet coming into your room when your empathy tank is running on empty; it’s this fierceness of love you feel that’ll scare the ever-loving cuss words out of you. These little people, they look at us and force us to see who we really are and who we want to be.
Watching my sons these last four years I’ve come to gain a sense of what Quakers mean when they say that there is something of God in each of us. And I’m not talking about some overly simplistic ideas about innocence. I’m talking about little tiny humans who come into the world knowing things that never leave any of us—pain, hunger, a desire to search/seek something beyond ourselves, and the need for other humans/love. It doesn’t matter who we become, we never lose that vulnerability, that ache that looks for peace. It the end, we’re all just people who want to love. If that sounds cheesy, then maybe you’re too busy.
I mean, seriously. Sit still and rock a baby for an hour. Sit at a dying person’s bedside. Weed a garden; stare at a mountain. That’s all it’s really about—that weird place between living in mystery and finding acceptance, love, whatever you want to call it. I’m not saying we should all sit in silence all the time or criticize people who are busy all the time to keep their families fed. But I am saying that fear and business can sometimes cheat us into scoffing at the realest of things. Like, you know, love.
I am not a person with a wellspring of peace, despite my desire for it. I grew up in a very conservative church focused more on rules than faith. As I’ve grown older I’ve made dear friends from all walks of belief (or lack thereof), and I try to approach the world with a respect for mystery. I try to take time to stare at mountains, which really does help. But the truth is, I want to understand things. Like, I really, really, really want to understand things. I want answers. I want research, I want data, I want a storyline, I want reasons. I LOVE reasons. I talk about mystery. I stare at mountains. But some days, I still want reasons.
But, that’s not really something that’s all together real, at least it doesn’t seem so real when cancer takes your mother or your child isn’t gaining weight. I mean, they just aren’t always there. Reasons seem to us as somehow more real than mystery. But what a silly concept, right?
So I try and embrace mystery, and I don’t care if that makes me sound new agey or too Christiany, or whatever box you think that phrase originated from. I mean, I know this is an impossible task, this embrace of mystery. It’s not like I’m somehow going to get to a place where I accept it, fully. I don’t think humans really get to do that. We do the best we can.
But here’s the thing about mystery and parenting. I feel like too often we talk of parenting as something we do to mold children, as if they come out either blank slates or flawed beings and we their only savior. I wonder what this says about our culture that our dominant thought as parents is that we’re here to teach them. Like we’ve got a key or something. I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around, at least a good portion of the time.
Sure they need rules and guidance. They need to learn how to be in society and learn the world doesn’t revolve around them. I’m not trying to downplay any of that. Structure is essential; manners are awesome.
But the love part? They already have that down. As adults with broken hearts, we try and read into their actions all kinds of ideas that speak to our own fears, all the while missing something essential about love. Maybe they’re trying to manipulate us by crying!, we think. When they drop that spoon on the floor over and over again are they trying to pull one over on me?, we may wonder.
I don’t want to tell anyone what to believe about their children. But here’s my take on the needs of babies, even toddlers: They just have needs and they’re trying to get them met. Experimentation of gravity is a need. Comfort and security is a need. And they’re reaching out the folks who can meet those needs. The people they trust. We may not always feel the need to engage in their spoon-dropping game, for example. But it’s not some kind of malicious scheme, as I have seriously heard people suggest.
Babies don’t learn how to screw with people until they’re much older, and sometimes I wonder how much of that is so-called manipulation is exacerbated by our own waiting—-our belief that there must be something in our children that wants to take advantage of us, even though we’re talking about little people who can’t even wipe their bottoms. I’m not saying kids don’t try our patience or test boundaries. Sure they do. But intentionally try and mess with your heads? No, I’m certain that’s an adult thing. It takes years of sadness and fear to master that trait.
Okay, so here’s maybe my point here. My kids are four. They’re highly verbal; they communicate; much of the guesswork of early parenting without verbiage is over. And here’s something they taught me in all those days of fragmented communication: Parenting isn’t about me.
Okay, sure, having kids is, in many ways, the most selfish thing you can do. Doesn’t Louis C.K. have a great bit about that? You’re replicating yourself; I get it. But once the kids are here it’s not really about us parents anymore. And I’m not talking about parents giving everything of themselves to fulfill their kid’s every whim, either. Kids need to know their parents are people too, people who still have feelings, dreams, goals, fears, boundaries.
I’m talking about how parenting isn’t about raising up little versions of ourselves to somehow fulfill our own expectations of life. They’re just here to be, mostly. But beyond that, if we sit still and just know that inside of them is a good person, a loving person, a being that wants to grow up and be in community with others, we can realize that most of the time it isn’t our kids who need help learning how to be “good.” It’s us.
And the best part is they don’t really know they have this wisdom, which, in my opinion, makes it more believable. Call me jaded, but anytime anyone tells me they’ve got something figured out I know they’re lying.
But here’s what I think is quite possibly the best thing about watching kids: Their days are nothing but a long series of mistakes. And they don’t care! They fall down, they get up. They try throwing food across the kitchen, they learn that doesn’t work out so well for them, they try something new. They’re the poster creatures for trial and error. It’s brilliant, really.
Bless their little hearts, they have no choice. They can’t talk or reason their way to understanding the world. So they just try and fail, try and fail, try and try and try. They could just give up and think this whole growing up thing is too riddled with disapproval. But they just kinda roll with the critiques and smash their way to middle school.
So one last story. I named one of our son’s Percy, which is short for perseverance (I figured the kids already had three names and a hyphenated last name, so we’d make it easier on him with the whole Percy thing).
I’m a big believer in thinking deeply about names. It’s something that sticks with you forever. It ought to really mean something, right? I like names that tell stories, something a child can grow into and stories they can interpret in their own ways as they become who they are. So anyway, we gave him that name because we wanted him to have that idea to return to when times got tough—something he could sink into when life got confusing.
But I see now that the only one struggling with perseverance was me. After all, it’s the tenacity of babies and toddlers that often make their parents emotionally unstable. When I watch my son react to the world (even me) with persistence, despite how much it might wear on my patience, I know deep down this is what will make his life rich with meaning. This is what will help him in struggles, which he will most surely have. If he can bring that fighting spirit into adulthood he might able able to love in the face of pain, to choose love over fear, to seek lasting peace, to care for the earth, and stand up for himself and for others. He could fight for a more just, a more loving world. Everything starts in babyhood.
But he doesn’t have that trait because I gave him that name. He has that trait because he’s a human–filled with love, chaos, and a fighting spirit. My job as a parent isn’t to give that to him.
Maybe my job as a parent, someone so blessed to be his/their caretaker, is to see that he doesn’t lose it along the way.