February 11, 2016

Atheist Mama: Humanism and letting yourself be human

Last night, I finished re-reading How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (as it's the 30th anniversary edition, it also had a section by Joanna Faber, Adele's daughter, who is carrying on the legacy).

I can't recommend this book to fellow parents enough. But there was a thought that comprised the final paragraph of the final page of the final chapter (before we got into the afterword, updates, Next Generation, etc, etc) that really struck me as profound:

One final thought: Let's not cast ourselves in roles either--good parent, bad parent, permissive parent, authoritarian parent. Let's start thinking of ourselves as human beings first, with great potential for growth and change. The process of living or working with children is demanding and exhausting. It requires heart, intelligence, and stamina. When we don't live up to our own expectations--and we won't always--let's be as kind to ourselves as we are to our youngsters. If our children deserve a thousand chances, and then one more, let's give ourselves a thousand chances--and then two more. [238]

I tried for a long time to be perfect. I was a nineteen year old when my older son was born, and I could feel people judging me. Looking back, most of it was probably in my own head, playing like a song on repeat, but knowing that doesn't make it any less real. I worried that if I got one thing wrong, one wrong move, I'd screw up my child's entire life.

I'm not perfect though. I'm human.


I suppose this is where humanism has, again, really impacted my parenting. Humanism believes in the power of people--our power to grow, to change. to mess up, figure it out, and do better in the future. Our ability to reason and problem-solve and make decisions.

It's a far cry from how I was raised. In my Christian upbringing, the only thing you could rely on was God. You asked God for guidance in every decision lest your fallible human nature lead you astray. You didn't really learn to rely on yourself. God helps those that help themselves may be a platitude, but it's not one that's preached in the kinds of churches I attended.

I remember a story once about a minister running an orphanage. The orphanage had no milk for the children, so they all prayed. Lo and behold, a milk truck broke down outside and the product had to be used or it would sour.

And I remember thinking--even at the time, when I was child--why not ask for donations so you can buy milk? Did people at that time not want to help children?

This was held up, though, as an example of having faith and God pulling through. In parenting, I found it difficult to have faith. The model of Christian parenting I was familiar with was tough love. It involved spanking children--not in anger, we were told. Never in anger. Out of love.

When I used corporal punishment, though, I didn't feel love. I felt pain. I felt guilt. I felt ashamed and overwhelmed and weak. I wondered how a child could ever process this as love. When I thought of being spanked myself as a child, I didn't think of love. I thought of fear, of anger, of guilt, of worthlessness, of thinking that I deserved to be hit because I had screwed up.

Please don't mistake me: I love my parents. They were wonderful, amazing parents. I think they did the absolute best they can, and long term, I have turned out alright. I want to pause for a moment to make that absolutely clear.

Got it? Okay.

One thing that I really internalized during my first reading of How to Talk, and that was reinforced during my second reading, was the idea that different children react to punishment in different ways. Some children process it as, "I deserve this." Some children react to it as a source of instability and upheaval. Some get angry and resentful, even plotting quasi-revenge.

As I read, I felt guilt. I felt like that was my legacy with my children, especially my oldest. I wondered if it was too late, because he is nearly a preteen now, to undo the damage. To make his home safe and welcoming for him. I thought of the times that I had dismissed his feelings, the times I had snapped out of sheer frustration and wondered how my tone had made him feel.

I've talked before about how the focus of my parenting shifted with my atheism. In light of that shift in focus, it was clear that all of those moments were counterproductive to my own parenting goals, and I felt like complete and utter shit.

But throughout the book, the authors stress again and again that we are human. We are not infallible. Adopting or birthing a child does not magically transform you into some superhuman. You're still you.

It's easy to forget that today. It's easy to forget it because we have a million things we are supposed to do. For those of us that carry children, it starts from the moment that we mention our pregnancy. Are we taking enough folic acid? Are we smoking? What, a sip of champagne on New Year's? HOW DARE YOU?! Caffeine? You selfish, strompy cow.

I can't attest from personal experience, but I imagine it's very similar for those that adopt. The stream of unwanted advice just continues. It's there for every stage. Are you formula-feeding? How dare you poison that child! Breastfeeding? Not in public, I hope?! Will you sleep-train? If so, you're evil, but if you don't have them on a schedule, you're letting them run your life.

If they do well in school, it's because their smart. If they don't, it's all on you. How can you not control them? If they're sick too often, you're obviously not looking after them well--try some coconut oil. If they're not sick often enough, you're obviously ignoring signs of illness. I mean, you're probably doping them up on Tylenol just to get them out the door to school so you can got to work, aren't you?

I sat down once and started listing every moment I could remember feeling judged as a parent. I'm a data person, a list maker, and I wanted to see it. I wanted to be able to read it off to myself and weigh whether it was deserved or not.

I had to stop when my hand cramped and sent pain shooting up my arm, and I don't think I'd made it past the year in which I was writing the list.

It's an overwhelming burden that will sweep you up and swallow you whole. It's Jonah's whale, and we're all sloshing around in its digestive system. No amount of prayer will set us free, however. No, I'm afraid that's all up to us.

And it starts with exactly what Faber and Mazlish say in that quote. It starts with accepting that we are human and that we will make mistakes. We will mess up, and that's okay. We'll make bad decisions, and that's okay.

It's so easy to give our children a thousand chances. We excuse their flaws. Indeed, oftentimes we say to ourselves, "My child has XYZ flaw, and obviously it's because I did this, and that, and the other thing." We don't attribute the flaw to them; we absorb it into OURSELVES. What a weight to carry into our own parenting!

It comes from a good place. It comes from a place of love and compassion, and I firmly believe that we should always try to see the best in the people we love first. In our home, we call it giving each other the benefit of a doubt. We aren't always very good at it, but it's a pretty simple concept. It means that we don't assume the worst. When we encounter a situation, we assume that the other person had the best of intentions first. We try to actively find explanations that build on trust and compassion instead of suspicion and hostility.

We're often really good at giving our children the benefit of a doubt. We're often equally bad at giving ourselves that same benefit. I know I am, anyway.

But it's important! It's important to give ourselves the benefit. I've often seen it said that the voice that we speak to our children with is the voice that they will hear inside their heads for the rest of their lives. It's the voice that they will use with themselves. It's true, I think, but you know what else is true? Our children learn how to treat themselves by seeing what we model. They learn how to treat themselves not just by how they are treated, but by how we treat ourselves.

Faber and Mazlish make this point really well too:

By being kind to ourselves, we teach our children to be kind to themselves. [195]

So do me a favor, would you? Cut yourself some slack this week.

Then cut yourself some slack the next week, and the week after, and the week after that. If you're doing the best you can, and I'm betting you are, acknowledge that. Mistakes are opportunities to grow. They're kind of like fertilizer: they stink, but they're pretty vital to having a beautiful finished product.

If you forgive yourself, you're setting an example for your children. You're saying: It's okay to love yourself. It's okay to make mistakes. It's okay to learn, to grow, to forgive yourself, and to let it go.

And what could be better than a message like that?

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