Tag Archives: wisdom in desire

Parenting, Writing, Blogging, and other Radical Acts

I just can’t do this!! The thought blasts through my brain at least once each day in those hours before Geoff comes home. It’s my fault, for sure. There is so much I want to do, so much I have to do, and so much being asked of me moment to moment by the four of our kids I agreed to home school this year that I go through the day feeling like I have one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake. I lurch and buck and careen, and yes, sometimes crash.

This arrangement seemed like a good idea at first. I have an infant. My 12 and 8 year-old daughters, Jessica and Kyra, were begging to learn at their own home-spun pace. I would do my work in the cracks, around the edges, and after Geoff and our 14 year-old arrive home; 4 year old Kai would come along for the ride.

As for the reality: I’ll be discussing the “Declaration of Independence” with Jessica, interjecting asides to Kyra on short cuts for multiplying nines, while trying to nurse and nap infant Leif, when Kai demands, with every amp of his ample wattage: SOMEBODY PLAY WITH ME NOW! At least I am sitting down.

If all the pieces of the mighty puzzle line up and I manage to write down a thought, it is highly unlikely that I will succeed in placing a second before someone wakes up, gets hungry, has a question, or needs a wipe. By our 3:30 hand-off, my work is curdled into an icky pit in my stomach. It wants out. I want out, now!

It is confusing. All of our best decisions have landed me here. How come it is so hard?
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are in the news again, this time with his contribution to the burgeoning genre of Parenting Lit. In twin memoirs (hers appeared in the spring), this team of mom and pop writers tell tales of what they are learning from life with their four children, ages 14, 12, 8, and 6. At back to back desks, they weave the personal and the public, family and work, coupling and parenting into vibrant texts, written and lived.

Reading about their life, a pang of recognition hits: Geoff and I are making similar moves. We aim to co-parent and co-create, side by side reinventing family life, though in rural New York rather than Berkeley, California. We moved here to create a way of living, of being family, that works for us, for our kids, for him, for me, where each person receives what he or she needs to become who he or she is. So why does their situation sound so idyllic?

The stories of Michael and Ayelet remind me: though I may feel like I am alone in the trenches, I am not. A veritable rash of writers, male and female, are sharing their kid-funded knowledge in books and blogs to a chorus of critics and congratulators. So what of it?
I ponder the question as I spread peanut butter on home-made bread for a hungry Kai. Last week’s news offers a key. In addition to reviews of Chabon’s book, we have been feasting on reports about how much has changed in family life since the 1970s. Marriage is at an all time low; single moms and stay at home dads at all time highs. More parents cross the chasm between workplace and home than ever before, while childhood stretches towards twenty and beyond.

While the realities are shifting dramatically, however, it is also evident that the ideals shading family life are not so quick to turn. We are still contending with visions of the good mother and providing father, as well as those of passionate life-long love and a happy childhood, that loom over us as critic and judge.

Wiping the counter for the third time in an hour, I think back to Tuesday’s article on toxic parents as a case in point. As the author writes, “whining about parental failure, real or not, is practically an American pastime that keeps the therapeutic community dutifully employed.” In the deluge of responses the article produced, a pattern emerged of kids protesting narcissistic parents and parents complaining about ungrateful kids. Lurking in the shadows was an ideal of parenting that hardly anyone seems able to attain. Why?

In the light of these reports, the significance of Parent Lit appears. We, as a culture, are in the process of reinventing family life. That reinventing is happening household by household, and reading and writing about such experiments is helpful and necessary, though not without its dangers.

Hearing stories about how other parents tackle inherited expectations of rearing and raising reminds us that there are options. We have options, and we are not alone in wanting to find them. Ways of being family that worked for someone at sometime in some context may not work now for me or for you. I write to find my freedom.

Sharing stories is also necessary, given the nature of the change. We are exiting an era in which cultural authorities did not pay much attention to children as having anything to offer discussions of who they should be and become. Such reflections were the provenance of experts wielding scientific tools over and against nubile bodies. Stories remind us that we have something to learn from (our) children about how best to relate to them. I write to remember the creativity involved in creating relationships.

Writing about experiences is also dangerous for we run the risk of suggesting that one size fits all. There is a temptation to celebrate sentimentally our kids’ eternal cuteness, and another to wax nostalgic for childhoods lost. When changes breed fear and doubt, we tend to cling to the way things were. Sides polarize and we forget what anyone who cares enough to engage in these discussions shares: desire. We share a desire to do the best for our children, for each other, for ourselves, and, for the worlds in which we live. I write to find the wisdom in my desire.

Reading and writing, we learn to trust our dissatisfaction as teaching us how to move in ways that will not recreate the pain we feel. I write to discern what it is my body knows.
Yesterday morning I lost it. I was shredded to a pulp by competing pulls on my attention. During precious writing time, I return to the scene. What do I find? It’s the ghost of the good mother, haunting me: It is your job to meet your children’s needs. This all-too familiar noose of a notion strangles me. I erupt in anger when I can’t, furious with myself. Furious with them.

Of course, I know theoretically that I cannot meet my children’s needs. Even if I had only one child, I would not be able to meet his or her every need. But still, I want to. Why? Because I want to be a good mother! But is that what being a good mother means? It’s what I have learned to believe.

The tip of my pen draws out the hook. If I am to slip free of this need to meet my children’s needs, I have to let go of a lingering expectation that my parents should meet mine. They can’t. They don’t exist to meet my needs.

I reflect back again on the blog complaints of narcissistic parents and ungrateful kids and see two sides of the same ideal that is haunting me. To the parent caught up in needing to meet needs, the frustrated child appears as a living, breathing reminder that the parent has failed. To the kid encouraged to believe in this ideal, the defensive parent appears as an obstacle to happiness. When the frustrated parent (inevitably) lashes out at the (unhappy) child, the child complains (rightfully) of abuse. A cycle of escalating disappointment (and sometimes horrific violence) sinks its teeth into the relationship and shakes. What do we want to create?

I return to the place of my pain and affirm the desire at its core. I want to meet my children’s needs. A new move appears. I want to meet their needs because I want them to have what they need to become who they are. The pain releases; another impulse appears. I write it down. I want to help my children learn to meet their own needs, and to do so, in part, it is my job to demonstrate to them how I meet my own.
Today is different. I make new moves. Leif falls asleep in my lap. I lay him on the couch and turn to the older three. Recess everyone! They run outside into the bright fall air to invent some game involving horses, harnesses, and humans.

I sit at my desk and begin to write. My heart fills with gratitude. I adore my kids. They are teaching me how.

Who’s In Charge of Me: You or Me?

“What does everyone want for lunch?” I turn to my kids one by one, making sure to ask Kai last. Kai is four. We all joke that his middle name is “I want what you’re having.”

If Jordan is having pasta, Jessica a grilled cheese, and Kyra oatmeal, Kai will want some of each. All together. Sometimes mixed. If there are five cereal boxes in the cabinet, he will want some of each, in the same bowl. If there are four cartons of ice cream in the freezer (our record is eight), he will want some of each. And if you refuse, you will regret it. It takes longer to quiet his response than to honor his obviously reasonable request.

Options on the table, I focus on Kai: “OK Kai, what will it be?”
There is much discussion these days about social influences on human behavior. Spurred by the publication of the book Connected, we are being asked to consider whether happiness is contagious and whether our friends make us fat (as in this NYTimes Magazine article). Books on the food industry by David Kessler, Michael Pollan, and others are teaching us how food is manufactured (with high levels of salt, sugar, and saturated fats), marketed (as the ultimate pleasure), and sold (in packages with promises placed at eye level) in ways that cause us to buy and eat more than we should of foods we think we want that are not good for us.

The message reverberates: you are being deceived, manipulated, or otherwise adversely influenced by others.

We greet the words with a measure of relief. It is not just me. For too long we have been led to believe that whatever is wrong is our individual fault. If I am fat, I should eat less. If my relationships don’t last, I should commit more. If I am depressed, I should pull myself up and decide to be happy. Yet, as the record reveals, in all of these cases will power doesn’t seem to work.

Now, however, given the new evidence, we can blame someone else. Perhaps more to the point, we can now turn to someone else to help us achieve the results we want. So we rely on the city council to ban soda machines from schools, or a pharmaceutical company to pop us a mood-altering pill. Someone else will take care of me.

Is it true?

No, but the answer is not to swing back to blame the individual either. For these strategies for curing a problem—whether targeting will power or external influences—are flip sides of the same coin. Both perpetuate the same way of thinking about our human selves that lies at the roots of the problems themselves.

How so? Both approaches assume that our minds—our thinking, judging, executive selves—are the strongest resource we have for getting what we want. Both assume that our minds are in charge, or at least should be. Both assume that our minds work by exercising a power over our bodies, mastering or controlling our desires for food, for sex, or for happiness. If our individual mind is not up to the task, then we can rely on a collective mind to limit our choices.

Whether we place our faith in the individual mind or the collective mind, the logic is the same: mind over body. Yet this logic itself is part of the problem. We have learned to think and feel and act as if we were minds living over and against bodies. In the process, we have learned to ignore what our bodies know. We have cut ourselves off from the sources of wisdom in our desires–wisdom capable of guiding us to make decisions that will enable our health and well being.
Kai looks at me. He pauses, feeling my question hanging in the air. He looks around at his siblings and back at me. “I want a grilled cheese with tomato.”

“Please,” I reply.

“Please,” he repeats. I smile. No one else asked for a grilled cheese with tomato. Kai is finally making his own request. He is learning to discern for himself what he wants: he remembers having it on a day when Geoff had one too. Now the desire is his.

I start making the sandwich and decide to make half. Even though he was quite clear in his request, it is likely that he will begin to eat the sandwich and then see something around him that he wants even more. I will have to remind him that this is what he wanted; and he will reply, “But Mommy, it isn’t what I want!”
Kai is teaching me about our desires—about how malleable, teachable, and ultimately creative they are. For the fact that we can be and are influenced by what surrounds us—however frustrating it might be for a meal maker—is precisely what enables us as individuals to discover and become our singular selves.

We are connected, and we are singular. We are singular because we are connected. For what defines our singularity is the unique mesh of bodily relationships we are and create with the people, places, and things that are supporting us in becoming who we are.

How then are we to find our way?

It is not by blaming ourselves, nor blaming the social influences upon us for our actions. It is not by revving up our mental will to master our bodies, nor seeking external solutions.

Rather, we need, as best we can, to open up the sensory awareness that the unique matrix of relationships that we are has enabled us to develop. We need to feel what we are feeling so that we can learn over time to make decisions that align with the trajectories of our health and well being.

We need options. We need information, and we need to be willing to participate consciously in the process of finding the wisdom in our desires. It is the process of doing so that yields the greatest possible pleasure.