Most articles about parenting are written - and read - by those in the thick of babies and young children - rightly overwhelmed by having their lives turned upside down. This piece is not that. Our two daughters are now in their mid-20's, beautiful women inside and out, somewhat wobbly but flourishing in their launch phase. So why would I at this stage want to write an article about parenting? Or why for that matter would you want to read it? Because sometimes we can see things in the rear view mirror that escaped us at the time. Many things are less important than I thought they were, and a few things are more important.
A bit about me - just so you can see through my assumptions! As an Enneagramtype-3, it is perhaps no surprise that committing and remaining loyal to something bigger than myself has been a huge developmental path. I do not hold myself as a particularly good parent: we made many mistakes , did not always have a happy home, tried varying approaches to juggling career and family and went to counselling when things were particularly rough. We moved around a bit, raising our children in 2 countries and 3 cities. I had a successful corporate career, then moved to boutique consulting and coaching, both to escape a dominant achievement-oriented corporate mentality and to have more time with my children. Along the way I got turned onto Integral with many Ken Wilber books and later through certification as an Integral Coach™ . When I started meditating, the kids were in primary school, we'd had a suicide in the family and it was a desperate "there's gotta be more to life" move. Now meditation is a foundation practice for who I am and how I move in the world.
Looking back, through the blur of millions of moments - what do I actually remember? And does it say anything about what is important and lasting ?
Here's what I don't remember; the dates of the first 'anything', the then popular toys and games, most of the arguments, the parenting techniques we attempted, most of the long car rides. Most of those millions of moments - which is weird, if you think about it, because at the time, they were all- absorbing!
Here's what I do remember; outdoor imaginary games and forts, bedtime stories, homework patrol, too many spaghetti suppers, a few school performances, birthday parties, some serious 'consequence' moments, after school friends, some boyfriends. I remember learning to trust pre-rational body knowing; both births, the body pleasure of hugs and cuddles, complete exhaustion, days that never ended and years that sped by. I remember being stretched beyond my emotional boundaries; the bitterest tears and the biggest laughter of my life.
I remember end-of-my-rope moments, despair at not being able to create the home environment I had wanted. Realizing with a start that these children were not who I thought they were. Searching for schools, activities, even moving to a new city, to find a place right for them. I remember many moments of 'what the hell am I doing? , feeling inadequate to the task or to my hopes for them. And despite these doubts, failings and errors ... the kids seem to be doing alright!
We live in a time and place obsessed with just right parenting. We are bombarded by advice to provide the perfect but ever changing proportion of stimulation, nurturing, communication, esteem building [... the list is endless] to ensure the best for our children. Of course we want the best for them, we feel the pressure and we succumb. And where does this expert advice come from? From the many reams of child development studies that find a relationship between the behaviour of parents and children and therefore automatically conclude that children are molded by what parents do.
My contention - and retrospective view - is that much of this pressure and exacting standards on what we do is misplaced.
First, it reflects our North American dominant cultural worldview - a belief in control, achievement and possibilities. The assumption here is that we can control outcomes if we analyze the situation properly and move the right levers. It also reflect a remarkable hubris - that our every little move as parents has enormous importance and that we control much of our world. You certainly do not find this view or this pressure in developing countries!
Second, it neglects the nature side of the nature-nurture debate, or the particular genetic bits of the human gene pool that our kids end up with. It assumes that our children are malleable to our whims and goals. Silly putty anyone? Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist, in his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, asserts that as homo sapiens we are born with a complex human nature, comprising many faculties which have proven adaptive over the spans of evolutionary time and yet can be molded by present lifetime experience. Behavioural genetics also bears this out. Using twin or adoption studies, it asks what proportion of nature, nurture and environment account for the long term variance in adult behaviours that reflect our talents and temperament? Study after study finds that these variances are;
- 40 - 50 % are heritable - i.e. genetic
- 0 - 10% come from whatever experiences siblings share as they grow up in a family
- 50% comes from the unique environment -their peer group and friends, the neighbourhood and culture they grow up in.
The things our children experience while they are growing up are just as important as the things they are born with, but much less of that comes from inside the family than we usually think!
An example of this really came home to me when I was learning about Enneagram types. Much of the literature attributes personality type to family background and parental treatment. One of my daughters is an easy going, loving Enneagram-9, whose developmental path involves learning to stand for her own agenda. I remember that as an infant of 5 days she did not cry to be fed and had to be coaxed into nursing every 3 hours - even through the night! At 5 days old, this is a pattern she brought with her - and I hereby take myself off the hook for this one!!!
This doesn't mean that what we do in our home environments is unimportant - but is perhaps so foundational and so basic we overlook it.
- your partner's temperament and talents matters; this took me 2 tries to get right!
- keeping the kids alive, safe and nurtured through to maturity; all the basics, from crossing the street to keys to the car to sexual safety
- living and modeling values, ethics and respectful human relationships; how we utilize power relationships with powerless children, what we as adults stand for in our worlds
- living in a neighbourhood where the kids' friends and local infrastructure will tend to be healthy; in our case we moved to a new city to get our kids into environments that would suit them
- helping to create these neighbourhoods, society and world that is healthy for all our children; everything from school committees to the everyday work in the world by all of us
All this is about what it takes to grow up our children - and ourselves - to least the minimum norms of our society. All this is huge! It is no small feat, it can be exhilarating and exhausting....and yet, and yet... It is all very rational, very evidence based, very intentional and efforting. It feels flat. Something is missing. Looking back, that's not where the magic was. That's not how we managed to pull through - then or now. Magic moments are when we surrender, we open, we give in, our capacity to cope is maxed out - and something good comes out of it anyway. Magic moments are like little seconds of waking up, relaxing into subtler and looser states. My first magic moment was the birth of our eldest. No one told me that all natural childbirth could take you to a whole new level of pain! After 8 hours, I finally stopped resisting. Shortly after, she was born. I didn't get the connection between pain, reducing suffering and new life emerging for years!
Many of the traditional guidelines for spiritual practice can be found in the everyday life of your ordinary parent. If you are really committed, this is a 20 year bodhisattva container with a "no exit" sign in small print. I am humbled out of my illusions of control by a two hear old. I practice being present when, in the 2 nanoseconds after coming home from work, I attempt to drop all other thoughts and preoccupations and focus on the kids. I learn to stop arguing with what is when I am bone tired - and stop fighting it. I learn to live with don't know mind when I realize I don't have a clue what is the right thing to do with teenage tempers - and act anyway. I learn to become comfortable in staying with the uncomfortable when I realize that my adolescent daughter relates better to my sister than to me, for the moment. My rational mind can accept, "I won't be home for Christmas", but my mother bones are deeper and their longing cannot be denied. My heart breaks open when they are in pain, and I realize there is so little I can do to fix it. Indeed, we are undone by our children.
And where the f#@% is unconditional love supposed to come from, when we are bound to the world of conditions and the structure of ego? Unconditional love can only come from the unconditioned - and children can pull little bits of it out of you. When we gaze into those eyes - something in our soul connects with something in their soul, and we are both enriched in ways that can't be put into words. Their well being can provide the motivation for us to get over ourselves, to 'get our ass on the mat', or whatever our preferred spiritual practice is. Somehow, somehow, as we gradually are exposed to a larger stillness, a vaster source, we become a doorway for a larger stream of life. In ways I can't prove but know in my bones, it shows in the children. They become more of who they already are. This is not about what we as parents do; it is deeply about who we are.
None of this I knew at the time, of course. Only in hindsight do these magic moments stand out. I did know in some incoherent way that I needed to meditate; only after years did it dawn on me that the effects were invisibly radiating to those I cared about most.
There is lots of focus and concern on what to do in raising our children; the blogs, the schools and the parenting experts have lots of advice. We have less awareness of how to be in raising our children, and how our own development can affect theirs. What if a small portion of the energy we devote to our current exacting standards of parenting, to our quest for creating best possible outcomes - was relaxed a bit? What if some of that newfound energy was used to pay more attention to the everyday opportunities to wake up, to practice mindfulness, presence, equanimity, to notice the everyday moments of grace that are already occurring? That by noticing these moments, they could gently expand? That part of our attention to doing was replaced by attention to being? That our parenting and love came not from us but through us? At the very least, we would stress out a bit less. At the most... the planet needs all the magic and mystery we can contribute, doesn't it?