Since the gradual but steady and rather linear movement of my partner and I in exploring different ways of parenting and living together – frankly, radical lifestyles in the context of USian family life, and I take no particular pleasure nor displeasure in that particular label – I have often been reluctant to publicly vocalize in a pointed way how the drama, stress, illness, and disharmony in our household has gone down drastically – something like 400% (that is a real quantitative estimate, as best as I can make one).
Why shy? Well, I think for a while I was afraid things were only temporarily better. Then as it began to dawn on me this was no fluke, I still felt oddly gun-shy; perhaps publicly announcing definitive improvements would jinx them (I am occasionally superstitious like that). There was a third reason, the one I struggle with even today: considering how fraught with ugliness the public conversation on Parenting can be (usually levied most viscously against women and children: examples, the false rhetoric of the “mommy wars”, also contemporary feminist and mainstream science purporting concepts of children and teens as “little sociopaths”, inherently flawed, or less-than-human) it sometimes seems like any personal discussion of success is constrained to being misinterpreted out of the gate. A frank discussion of successful alternatives to dominator–style adult strategies runs the real risk of a reader – especially a parent/carer – interpreting my experience as a referendum on their failures, worldviews, or character – this referendum is so agonizing for some their ability to listen is thwarted. I’ve seen many grownups shut down instantly, unable to entertain theories or even digest others’ lived experiences, swallowed up by knee-jerk reactions brought upon by years of accepting the child class’ oppression (not just parents, either).
But there are two compelling reasons to be honest and to not worry about appearing a blowhard or creep or worse. Maybe three reasons. The first is, I have a right to my experience and my online journal has been where I’ve recorded many of my experiences, for years now – and no one is required to read nor endorse. The second is, JEEBUS, I am not selling something and have no sinister agenda in writing boldly in defense of Love. I don’t do much of anything but write, write, write, (often) devoting my heart and guts and brains to helping families and children and grownups. All of this is pretty goddamned brave of me and I know it. Why not be braver still, and claim a victory when I experience one?
Because – and here’s that third aspect – I know how inspirational and helpful my writings have been to so many. Over the years I’ve experienced hundreds of emails, texts, IMs, tweets, phone calls, physical letters, and personal conversations – from all quarters of the world – attesting to this. It has been an honor to be brought into discussion and occasionally claimed as a mentor to others. Thing is: if I didn’t write, I couldn’t help. And reflecting on this I often feel sad for the parent I started out as, because I was not exposed much to dominator- and fear-free models of parenting for several years (and what I was exposed to, I probably missed). I myself could have used a hefty dose of wisdom eschewing the zero-sum game of life with children – long, long before I started a family of my own.
So let me tell you a bit about how it is for us. Let me be clear.
These days our household is such a peaceful one and my children are such strong individuals that the stress involved in parenting is almost entirely reduced to matters of paying bills and affording clothes, food, and the pursuit of creative exploits for the members in our one-income family. These are not necessarily small matters, but the agony and work and tension of life-caring-for-children has plummeted by virtue of what I have left behind. Every day I peel back the culturally-reified illusion of righteous control in their little lives and as a result my ability to be Present, aware, nurturing, and loving is increased all the more. The relief of leaving behind the contemporary small-minded and culturally-prescribed pressures of parenthood is glorious. I’d like to believe every day I heal a little more.
Time slips by quickly as most parents have had reason to observe. Last night while we four sat talking and laughing in the low light of our living room my husband said to my daughter in a voice I’d never heard before, “When did you get so big? It’s breaking my heart.” And I’d just been looking at her thinking the same thing; she’s tall as my shoulder now and she’s tough and tender and whip-smart and brave and scrappy and deeply empathetic and present. She is, in a word, (relatively) Undamaged. I can’t think of a word that fits better. Raising children in a consensual manner is an experience, perhaps like a happy, healthy, and supported drug-free childbirth – that is best experienced for its potential to be fully or partially understood. Today while I gave blood the phlebotomist asked me the ages of my children. It amazed me to reflect and name them as eight and six. Their moral development, their life skills, and their vocabulary and ethics are more fully-endowed than many grownups I know. These children are not experienced as burdens to me (well, not usually) so much as people I thank daily I have the gift of experiencing in my life. They are my favorite people to be with, and besides the deep-experienced protectiveness and crazy-in-love Mama-identifiers I’ve been overcome with many times, these days it seems more and more we are fellow travellers and friends. They inspire me more than anyone else I know.
My children’s (relative) wholeness is no credit to my partner and I, really, any more than by providing fertile ground, planting a seed, and weeding and watering we could claim it was us, not the earth and lifeforce itself, that brought the green and vibrant vine springing to fruition. Indeed, I often feel aggrieved at my many, many mistakes I’ve made; I don’t get a do-over. I can have the knowledge my mistakes are in large part because I myself was damaged as a child, through many means and measures large and small, and I remain broken still – but it is frustrating to be so limited in my responsibilities as a parent. I sometimes feel so deeply sad because I don’t believe I’ll ever be whole again; I feel sad less for myself, but for what I’ve wreaked on my family. I sometimes think if I’d have known how much I would screw up, I would not have chosen to bear children.
All the same, children are incredibly resilient and thrive despite poor or abusive or anemic circumstances. And make no mistake, despite their wholeness and strength, I do believe our children still need Ralph and I. They need us for food, clothing, support, nurture, and love. The chillingly dismissive child-hate linked to above at least alludes to vital clues about our role in caring for children; there is evidence human brains continue to crucially develop well into our twenties or beyond; if this is true this means so many of us should be helping younger ones instead of hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, and stridently complaining about “bad” kids and their inept (or worse) carers (which usually means blighting under-supported women and alloparents, and the child class).
I hope I’ve been clear that things have improved for us; not that we have attained some kind of perfection impervious to sorrow and anger and suffering. Relative privilege has allowed us the space to heal. And disaster, despair, setbacks, drama – all of it is around the corner, or may be at least. One illness or death or devastating disability; the free will of other human beings who can choose to victimize any one of us, a day or week where the limitations of my partner and I keep us from meeting our still-growing children’s needs, one ugly fight where destructive words are spat out. Parental methods and spiritual concepts aside, I cannot offer immunity for suffering and I don’t try to. I can say suffering has diminished and the daily language and experience of love has swelled in recent years. It strengthens all of us and it makes life even more worth living, more deeply enjoyed; whatever time we have left together is savored like that delicious strawberry on the vine.
I read this lovely blog on my newsreader thing so I don’t comment as much as I should. I just want to say how happy I am that you say how things work for you and your family. We come at things from a very attachment parentingy sort of way, but the consentual living piece that I have, in many ways, been able to see in action here has been soooo helpful (not to mention specific advice you have given to me). I was on some unschooling listserves but somehow it all seemed to be about doing unschooling The Right Way or should you let your two year old eat cake for breakfast every morning if she really wants to and I could never really get it.. Your writing has been so helpful in getting it in a way that I could translate for our family and really has changed the way we live with our little one. Anyway just a thanks and shout out.
Thank you for the comments and thank you for the compliments.
I am a member of several U/S lists and I do note the “right way” mentality. In some of these groups it is also odd to me so many members of U/S groups will take the piss out of another member who posts and is clearly vulnerable and unsure. If U/Sers admit their philosophies are often radical and totally non-mainstream, it seems they’ve have more room to be supportive, empathetic and caring for those who are struggling. I have heard some U/Sers on these lists (a minority, thank goodness) say things about other people that curled my (already curly) hair. One member called another family’s teen daughter a “foul-mouthed illiterate slut”. No one in that group said word one in objection.
It goes to show there is no philosophy or lifestyle immune to people being self-righteous pedagogues or worse. That’s no shocker, but for those trying to find their way it can be confusing or disastrous.
I’m glad you like what you read here!
I just like when you write about your family. It makes me happy. And feel cozy.
If many of us knew how often we’d screw up, we wouldn’t have had children. 😉 Thanks for this brave and eloquent (and characteristically non-judgmental) post.
I feel and know all these things, and that same disbelief that my children are rapidly approaching 12 and 14–and that they are so undamaged. It seems unimaginable to me in so many ways. They too, are my favorite people to be around, brilliant and amazing and I’m constantly awed by their insight and self-awareness. No, we didn’t (and don’t, I can only assume) do everything right. Not by a long stretch, all of which I regret, but like you, I don’t get a do-over. I do think I understand though, I can picture your family and your children and I know exactly what you mean. I’m not sure a lot of people get to that place with their kids.
Also–regarding what you and Elizabeth have said about some unschooling lists–yes. Just this week, skimming posts from one list had me feeling sad and dismayed at the lack of understanding and compassion to others seeking help. I wonder if those folks, who lash out, are feeling equally unsupported in their lives? I get that, but it’s painful to see.
I’m glad. 🙂
If many of us knew how often weâ€™d screw up, we wouldnâ€™t have had children.
It’s some kind of conundrum. I think those who feel that way love their kids deeply and are so grateful for their kids and humbled too. It kind of defies expression. For me at least.
I wonder if those folks, who lash out, are feeling equally unsupported in their lives?
That is a very likely possibility. I’ve also thought there are many who are so passionate about their principles of U/Sing they are quick to want to “correct” or browbeat others into seeing things their way… they’re so passionate they don’t see vulnerability or don’t realize you can’t shout at/shame people into changing in a meaningful and lasting way. I read a lot of activist work and some activists are totally wrapped up in the experience of Being Right and they have no room for other people to . They want to force others or shame them into the change that would bolster their own entrenched egos.
The notion of “undamaged”… it is such a perfect way to describe what I strive for in parenting and what I come here to learn about. It is at once a frustratingly oblique idea and crisply clear. It’s the best word. I love this.
Wish I would have had more of a head start than I did! Of course I like most every parent we know, I’ve always loved my kids. The feeling and experience of “love” isn’t always good enough though, which is why help is so important. Glad it helps you to read here.