Tag Archives: parenting

Parenting, Raven Style

 

Photo by Tyler Quiring on Unsplash

We have the great privilege of living close to ravens. These intelligent and entertaining birds make the area off our deck part of their daily rounds, because that’s where we fling the mice that are caught in mousetraps in the kitchen cupboards, as well as the occasional discarded egg or food rubbish. They’re wary birds. Any flicker of movement in a window sends them aloft, no matter how tempting the morsel on the ground. They make a variety of sounds, but can also be as quiet as a shadow as they wheel over the house, circling and examining the grassy slope below the deck.

This year a pair nested nearby and raised at least one fledgling successfully. Both parents feed the nestlings. A few weeks ago, some instinctive wisdom told the raven parents it was time to stop feeding the fledglings and all hell broke loose in the neighborhood.

The first we knew of it was a plaintive croaking cry, vaguely like a canine yap. We heard it over and over again, clearly coming from something on the wing. It began down over the river and moved up the hill to the house and then I could see the birds. The fledgling was pudgy and puffy, the way all young birds are at the adolescent stage. It looked a little bigger than the adult birds, but not nearly as sleek and not as skilled a flier. The adults flew around it in what looked like a mixture of distress and encouragement, and the youngster complained. And complained. And complained. For hours. Then for days. From first light until sunset it went on.

We watched the parent birds, looking more harried by the day, try to go about their usual rounds up and down the road for roadkill, over our place, over the river and pond, followed everywhere by their noisy, clumsy, demanding offspring, who certainly had the ability and strength to feed himself, if not the desire. At rest, the youngster would gape pathetically, begging each parent in turn for a regurgitated mouthful. Repeatedly, the parents turned away, flew away, dogged and determined.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Ravens are great generalists in terms of their diet. I’m sure the fledgling watched his parents eat carrion, fish, frogs, small reptiles and mammals, insects and plant matter. What we were witnessing was not starvation due to lack of available food, or lack of parenting. What played out before us was nothing more or less than adolescent outrage and parenting far superior to anything I ever achieved.

Both my partner and I are parents and worked for years with parents and children. We watched the ravens with a mixture of amusement, empathy and irritation. “Go find your own dead thing,” my partner muttered, imagining the parent birds’ conversation with the importuning fledgling and making me laugh.

When my two sons chose to leave the little mountain town where we lived and finish out their high school years with their dad in the city, I knew it was the right thing for them to do. It was sooner than I had anticipated, true, but we all recognized they had outgrown the school, the town and me. We were no longer living in harmony.

When I found myself alone, I grieved for a long time. I also sold the house and started shaping a life for myself with the good feeling of a difficult job done to the very best of my ability. I’d given all I could and it was time for them to fly and find their own lives. In the space where they had been for fifteen years I could build new freedom and possibility.

Except that they were nearly always in my thoughts. We had long phone conversations. I fretted because I couldn’t interact with them face-to-face and I knew many things were happening in their lives that they weren’t telling me about. They did tell me of jobs, roommates, broken-down cars, financial difficulties, bars, music, both new and old friends and romantic entanglements. They called when they were broken-hearted, scared, confused or just pissed off. Frequently, by the time I got off the phone, I was in tears and spent the rest of the day upset, or lay sleepless wondering what I could do. What I should do. What I should have done as a parent that I didn’t do that might have avoided the current crisis.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

I discovered that parenting adults is extraordinarily stressful and difficult, with none of the sweet pay-offs I had when we were a family living together. I didn’t see them playing and laughing anymore. I couldn’t touch them or hold them. We couldn’t hang out quietly together. I couldn’t cook for them or watch their faces and bodies mature, marveling at these two people their father and I created.

I’ve recognized in the years between their leaving me and now that I wasn’t the excellent parent I thought I was. I was, in fact, merely adequate. I made a lot of mistakes. I was in many ways ill-equipped to parent. Single parenting is an almost impossibly hard road.

I talk to other mothers of adults. Some talk at length about their kids — how proud they are of them, how close they are to them, how successful their kids are. Those parents need no questioning or encouragement. Their conversation is full of their kids all the time, without prompting, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the offspring in question is ten or thirty.

Other women, though, acknowledge kids, grandkids and great grandkids, but are not nearly so forthcoming. I’m of that tribe now. Given a sympathetic listener and a relationship of trust, these women tell stories of various addictions, mental illness, toxic relationships, unplanned grandchildren and great-grandchildren, financial struggles, pain, anger, grief and guilt. We find ourselves raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We co-sign for loans we can’t afford to pay off. We wonder what we did, or said, or didn’t do or didn’t say that resulted in our kids’ addictions, struggles and unhappiness.

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The love that was once the center of our lives and priorities, the strongest, purest feeling we’ve ever had, gradually becomes bewildered and confused. We look everywhere for the children of our memories, but they’re gone. Now, in front of us, are adults. From adults we want responsibility, appropriate boundaries and reciprocity, but our adult children want the unobstructed flow of our nurturing, support and unconditional love to continue uninterrupted, just as it did when they were children.

I didn’t think it would be like this, and neither did my friends.

My thoughts and feelings about my experience as a parent are so tangled I can’t see anything very clearly. Perhaps that’s why I was so taken with the ravens. The animal kingdom has a kind of brutal simplicity with regard to parenting, an instinctive wisdom that’s followed without concern for what anyone else thinks or cultural and societal norms. The raven parents knew what to do and they did it and endured a few days of discomfort.

Does that mother bird now worry about whether the young adult is happy or not?

Sigh. Probably not.

I notice that I never even consider blaming my parents for my happiness or unhappiness. Why, then, do I persist in blaming myself for my adult sons’ choices? Why do I think it’s any of my business at all?

Because I love them.

And so?

And so I want them to be well, and happy, and have good lives.

There are deeper truths, though. I want to be able to think of myself as a great parent. The proof? My adult kids have happy, healthy lives. See how great I was? I also want them to be happy so I don’t have the discomfort of knowing they’re unhappy. How’s that for a piece of maternal selfishness?

So, what, exactly, does a happy, healthy life look like? Is it a life we can boast about in company to illustrate the competence of our parenting? Is it the life “everyone” approves of? Is it the life I approve of? Why do I think I know what a happy, healthy life is for anyone except myself? Most important of all, why do I think I had the power to determine the kind of lives my kids would have?

As parents, we have a lot of power, at least in the beginning. But our power is all mixed up with other factors which are not in our control, like genetics, culture, geography and politics. If we judge our parenting effectiveness by the perfect happiness of our adult children, we’re all monumental failures. Life is not one unbroken experience of unadulterated happiness for anyone. Happiness is, in any case, a lazy, childish goal. What does it mean? Something different to everyone, probably.

What about competence? Yes. I want my kids to be competent. I want them to be able to learn. I want them to have the power to make their own choices and the strength to deal with the consequences. I want them to know how to self-care and love others. I want them to be compassionate, respectful and responsible.

I want those things for them, but I also want them for me so I can feel that I parented well and gave them the kind of start every child deserves.

Parenting is an odd business. We enter into years of chaos and hard work and watch our children grow up, never realizing we’re growing up, in many ways, alongside them.

As parents, is it about us, or is about our kids?

I suppose the honest answer is that it’s always about both, although it feels shameful to admit that out loud.

On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Who knows?

Ravens are solitary. We still have a couple in the neighborhood. I wonder if the youngster has left to find new territory. In time, he may find a mate and raise his own fledglings. He may be killed by a car, a gun, or a predator. He’s on his own in the big world to live his life, however that is, and die his death, however that is. Will the parent birds know? If they know, will they care? Would their knowing or caring assist the young bird in any way, or have they given everything needed already, including forcing the adolescent to begin feeding himself?

I don’t have answers. Nobody I’ve spoken to has answers, but we’re all asking these questions.

I wonder what the ravens would say.

I’m off to find my own healthy and happy afternoon and give my concerns about everyone else a rest.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

My daily crime.

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Positions of Power

I’ve written before about two positions of power: Power-over (maintaining or creating power inequality) and power-with (maintaining equal power). I’ve thought of this as a complete dichotomy, an either/or lens through which I look at all interactions and relationships, both mine and those around me. Lately, though, I’ve seen two other dimensions in the way we manage power. We are agents of power enhancement or power degradation.

Photo by Ev on Unsplash

Power enhancement and power degradation are the states between power-over and power-with. If we seek to steal the power of others, we begin by sabotaging cooperation, negotiation and equal access to resources — all those things that create communities based in power-with. If our sabotage is successful, power degradation begins. We don’t have complete power-over, not yet, but we are beginning to break down independence, self-sufficiency and the boundaries of others. We are actively working behind the scenes, slowly and subtly corrupting power wherever we can. We might, at this point, have a change of heart and begin fostering behaviors and situations that recreate and enhance power-with, or we might continue with our goal of power-over. Once our goal is attained, we can cease to lurk in the shadows and come into the spotlight, flushed and triumphant, bloated with stolen power and proud of it.

On the other hand, if we seek to empower others who have been embedded in a power-over dynamic, we begin by managing our own power in such a way that we enhance the power of the disempowered and degrade the power of those maintaining or creating a power-over status quo. Ideally, we don’t give our power away, because that’s a finite resource and leads to burnout and exhaustion. A better way is to use our power to teach, to lead, to support, to legislate and to generally become the wind beneath someone else’s wings. In other words, we appropriately invest our power into teaching others how to discover, reclaim, maintain and manage their own.

An abused child or woman is not going to know how to take care of themselves and function, even if their abuser is magically whisked away. They have to learn. Actually, first they have to unlearn what they already know — all the coping mechanisms that kept them alive in their situation but won’t work well in the wider world — and then they have to learn new skills and behaviors. That takes time, appropriate support from power enhancers and protection from power degraders, at least temporarily, while the victims of power-over learn how to find and reclaim their own power.

The people who live and embody these two intermediate positions of power, enhancers and degraders, are my people — the caretakers. We are the parents and the teachers; the mentors, spiritual leaders, coaches, medical professionals and volunteers who work at shelters, missions, soup kitchens, and out of tents in far-flung places. Interestingly, most of these folks once came from the exterminated middle class. Also interestingly, we see frequent headlines about how some people in this group misuse their position of power and authority in the guise of “helping” others. Shielded by the mask of a power enhancer, they act as power degraders, abusing and exploiting others unchecked, sometimes for decades.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Power enhancement and degradation are not black/white good/bad positions. Many grassroots organizations seek to degrade power in an effort to address our power-over culture and help others reclaim their rightful power. You might say their agenda is to equalize power. The Southern Poverty Law Center is an excellent example. As parents, we might hope to work as power enhancers for our children. As resistance volunteers, we might work against organizations supporting inequality.

It’s important to note that our culture doesn’t financially support people in these positions of power particularly well. Teachers strike for better pay. Coaches lay down their lives in bullet-riddled school hallways. Nurses and doctors are vulnerable to addiction, burnout and fractured relationships. Ditto police and firefighters. Compassion fatigue is epidemic. None of these people are millionaires, and some are becoming homeless in places like California as the cost of housing skyrockets. I also note how many of these positions are filled by volunteers. I myself did volunteer fire and rescue work for years, and then animal rescue work and hospice. Red Cross depends on its volunteers. Many healthcare facilities and schools rely heavily on volunteers, as well as sports teams, churches and countless human rights organizations.

Yet it seems to me power enhancers and power degraders are the most important people in our communities. They have the ability to lift others up into integrity and excellence or destroy them. They shape our health, the way we learn and think (or not, sadly), and our spiritual wellness. We trust them with our children, our souls, our secrets and our lives. When they stumble, burn out, fail or waver, we roar with fury, demand justice and retribution, riot and demonstrate, never considering that we are the ones who put them in such dangerous, risky, heartbreaking and impossible positions in the first place. We place them on the front lines, put them under constant public scrutiny and pressure and make them responsible for understanding and fixing our increasingly unequal and dysfunctional social power dynamics.

Consider what a professional athlete gets paid, or an entertainer, or a “successful” politician. Compare that to what your children’s teachers are paid, or your local police or fire people, or your nurse practioner or the local softball coach or scout leader. Who has more direct influence in your life and well-being? Who will come help you in the middle of the night, organize community support or assist you with wedding or funeral arrangements?

Here is a graphic demonstrating the circle of power. (Please take a moment to notice the cutting-edge high tech used to generate this graphic. Impressive, yes?) Currently, a power-over dynamic is running the show, and it lies directly across the circle from power-with. We each occupy a place or places along the circle of power, and those places are dynamic and fluid, depending on the daily and even hourly choices we make. Some people spend most of their lives trying to equalize power between people while others work tirelessly to create and maintain unequal power. We all, whether consciously or not, behave in ways that degrade or enhance our own power and the power of others.

Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

Nobody teaches us about power. Not our parents or schools, and certainly not the media. Yet our inherent rightful power and our need to manage it appropriately and effectively transcends ability level, age, race, sex, gender or socioeconomics. Individual power is apolitical. We all can take the same class, if only we can find teachers.

The problem is, there is no class and our best teachers are exhausted, demoralized, underpaid, underappreciated, overworked and drowning in a crippled education system while others are busy exploiting their positions in order to degrade the power of their students and colleagues. Even if some of the former know something about power management, they’re not in a position to teach anyone else about it. Power management and emotional intelligence skills (which are inextricably intertwined) are not going to show up on a standardized test or entrance exam.

We don’t know how to manage and maintain our power. We haven’t learned it and we can’t teach it. Yet we expect those people who support, protect and serve our communities, all those people who take these intermediate roles of power enhancers and degraders, to remain uncorrupted and infallible and spotlessly kind, compassionate, moral, ethical, and just plain GOOD. We give them power and authority blindly, because we can’t recognize appropriate power management from inappropriate either, and expect them to figure it out and do the right thing. We sure as hell don’t know what to do! When that doesn’t happen, we’re angry and we look around for someone to blame, someone or something to scapegoat.

Photo by Talles Alves on Unsplash

How can we expect things to get better if we don’t make some changes?

I suggest we must begin at the beginning, at the foundations, with our children, which means a new paradigm of parenting. Every single adult that comes into meaningful contact with a child must be reeducated about the continuum concept and connection parenting. Children need appropriate connection and bonding throughout childhood. If that happens, they learn emotional intelligence and become secure, confident, curious, joyful people who practice power-with as a matter of course, because their own power has never been corrupted or coerced.

How do we freeze everyone in their tracks, wipe their data banks clean and overwrite with better information? How can meaningful change take place if we don’t?

Don’t ask me. I can think about it and write about it, but I have no idea how to tackle such an overwhelmingly impossible task, even if everyone would consent to it, and most won’t. They don’t want to give up whatever power they feel they do have, even if it’s just over their children.

In the meantime, there’s only this small attic room; a grey, chilly spring day outside; and whatever I do or don’t do with my portion of personal power this minute, this hour, this day. I will make choices to enhance or degrade the power of everyone I interact with, including myself. I’ll write, go swimming and pick up birdseed for our empty feeders. I’ll observe others, think about power and try to make mindful choices.

That’s all I’ve got today for my daily crime.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

 

Anxious Outcomes

I recently had a conversation in which I learned about the degree to which my anxiety affected at least one of my adult children.

Parenting is an ironic business. Having been a chronically anxious child myself, always feeling unsafe and afraid, I strove mightily to protect my own children from any sort of fear or insecurity. Of course, I did this by assuring them all was well, all the while fearing all was not and never would be well. Being no less intelligent than I am, they heard the words but knew the truth of my feelings, and thus their trust in me was damaged, an exact replay of what happened between me and my own mother. You know, that thing I was never going to do when I was a parent!

Well, I’m humbled. I’m also sad, because I didn’t want either of my kids to battle with the burden of anxiety. It’s a hard way to live.

However, I understand that parenting, at best, is an imperfect process, and I try to hold my mother and myself with gentle arms regarding our choices as mothers. Parenting less than perfectly does not imply a lack of love. I know we both did the best we could with what we had at any particular point in time. No parent can do more.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

Still, this kind of revelation is a far cry from my hopes, dreams and intentions when I held my newborns. On the other hand, it speaks to the strength of my relationship with my adult children that they can tell me the truth about their experience and I can hear it.

After our conversation, I’ve thought a lot about fear and anxiety. I can’t go back and reparent, but I wonder if I might, even at this late stage, find a way to extricate myself from the insidious tentacles of anxiety. I’ve been thinking about my life and trying to understand exactly what the roots of my anxiety are.

According to an internet search, fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” Fear is considered real, in that it’s right there in front of us, and elicits an immediate response.

Anxiety is an “emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of turmoil; a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease, typically regarding an imminent event or something with uncertain outcome; a nervous disorder.” Anxiety is differentiated from fear by being more diffuse and generalized and focusing on imaginary outcomes and possibilities. Physiologically, it elicits the same response, and therein lies part of the problem.

Both are unpleasant emotions or feelings that affect us physically, intellectually and emotionally. We evolved to respond to fear in certain specific physiological ways, returning to baseline as the fear passes. Fear is a valuable feeling, helping us discern and avoid danger. I certainly don’t want to disable mine. I know the feeling of fear, but it’s not a frequent experience.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a chronic state for me. I can’t remember ever being free of it. I’ve developed a lot of coping mechanisms over the years, some more effective and appropriate than others, but I can’t imagine what life would be like without it. As far as I can tell, the feeling of anxiety provides no benefits whatsoever to me or anyone around me. It’s highly contagious and negatively impacts others in my life, to say nothing of the damage it does to me. We are not constructed to tolerate the chronic level of physiological arousal produced by anxiety.

I never before actually looked up these words, and I’ve never had the above distinctions between fear and anxiety until this week. I conclude that I have no problem with my relationship to fear, but I’m a slave to anxiety.

I find a kind of mordant humor in having a chronic unpleasant feeling regarding uncertain outcomes. Excuse me? All outcomes are uncertain for everyone until they happen! Most of us operate most of the time as though we know exactly what will happen next, but we don’t. I’ve lived long enough to know that’s all an illusion. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next on any level. For some reason, I’ve given that fact the power to make me miserable.

I have a powerful imagination, which makes me a good writer and creator. However, it also occasionally makes me captive to my own stories. I forget that my stories are just that–stories. I make them up, tell them to myself over and over, and behave as though they’re true, never really noticing when they diverge from reality. In my head, it’s all so real. I do know the difference between a story and what’s real, but I have to remind myself to keep the two separated.

Some stories are so old and deeply ingrained it takes a cataclysm to make us realize they’re not true, and then we have to deal with being wrong and all the consequences that follow, an uncomfortable, humbling and messy process.

If my anxiety is rooted in uncertain and imaginary outcomes and possibilities, it seems obvious that I can disable it with a little discipline, a dash of surrender to uncertainty, a lot of presence and the will to change. I’m chagrined by the possibility my anxiety is a lifelong bad habit as much as anything else. Could that be true? Yikes.

I wish with all my heart I’d been a better equipped and less distressed parent, but I remind myself I can’t go back. I can’t begin parenting again from ground zero. I can’t go back to the young woman I was and explain all this and give her the support and safety to actively choose to turn away from anxiety before starting a family. There’s only today, so many years later, as I sit with my laptop in my lap and the sun coming in the windows, glancing at my notes, thinking and writing.

I know all I’ve ever wanted for my own mother is health and happiness. I want the same for my kids. I suspect Mom and my sons also want that for me. Perhaps it’s time for me to shape an anxiety-free life now, not only for my own sake, but for those closest to me as well.

We build our lives on outcomes, one after another, more than we ever notice. We remember the spectacularly good and spectacularly bad outcomes, but what about the countless others? Outcomes are complex, not black and white. Outcomes can create visible and invisible ripples that last a lifetime. I can hardly think of a more fruitless endeavor than worrying about or trying to control outcomes. I’ve survived every outcome to date. What makes me think I won’t continue to do so–until I don’t, of course? But the outcome of death is largely out of my control, too. Why worry?

There are so many things I’d rather do than struggle with anxiety!

There are so many stories to imagine, share and write, rather than keep in my head and hurt myself with!

Anxiety is too expensive. I’m not interested in maintaining it anymore.

Better late than never.

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted