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All Things KidSidered

Here's where I try to find a way to be me.  I try to talk about parenting, with side nods to my academic work, and (always) side nods to the unshakable beauty I think is in the world.

The Art of Feasting: Thanksgiving as an Alternative to (Educational) Self-Improvement

Elizabeth B

Original post here (with pictures!)

The holidays are upon us and therefore, like any good American, I’m thinking about food; except I’m an academic, so I’m also thinking about the consumption of knowledge. (It’s a rotten habit, I realize.) This started many Novembers ago, after stumbling across Lewis Carroll’s “Feeding the Mind” in my university library. “Feeding the Mind” is an informal address that Carroll delivered in 1884 in which he lamented that people vigilantly nurture their bodies, but neglect to nurture their minds: “Breakfast, dinner, tea…What care we take about feeding the lucky body! Which of us does as much for the mind?” Throughout the address, Carroll suggests healthy learning practices might mirror healthy eating. In one of my favorite sections, he tackles mental gluttony, objecting to “FAT MINDS” that can’t jump over logical fences, get stuck in narrow arguments, and “waddle helplessly though the world.”

There are times I think the Thanksgiving table is as topsy-turvy and strange as the world Carroll created for Alice Liddell and her sisters in the 1860s. There’s an eerie similarity between relatives ejecting bizarre or off-color remarks and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Even curiouser is the way we can feign being satiated with our lives for a few short hours before leaping into Black Friday and the efforts to upgrade our lives. This is made all the more ironic and mixed up by our history with Native Americans; we are giving thanks for all sorts of things we didn’t exactly acquire ethically. But there are plenty of tasty dishes at the dinner table — Turkey! Rolls! Pies! — to cover up the bad taste this might leave in one’s mouth.

Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday; giving thanks is often at odds with a culture dominated by perpetual efforts to get ahead. Several decades ago Lawrence Shames argued that Americans are motivated by what he calls “the more factor” — a frontier mentality of expansion and conquest that we apply to our entire lives. But we shouldn’t imagine that the “more factor” isn’t just about material goods; many people avoid materialism while still falling prey to the trap of trying to be more. We could build cities with our self-conscious self-help manuals, our insecure dieting and exercise guides, and our glossy self-improvement magazines. We could make coliseums with our endless books on how to become successful, get rich, get laid or married, raise first-rate kids, and/or harness our inner power or networking abilities. It’s as (white) American as Benjamin Franklin or Marilyn Monroe, this compulsive drive to become superior versions of ourselves.

Thanksgiving, and being content with ourselves, seems to contradiction our continual attempts to self-perfect. Sure, we lampoon attempts at a perfect diet — trends like gluten free eating or paleo diets — or extreme exercise regimes like CrossFit. Yet there are other areas of self-perfecting that we utterly accept. Education’s promise of self-actualization is a foundational good in our society. We champion the idea that people should work to gain superior skills and experience to become superior employees. During the early 20th century, as eugenics and the idea of bodily perfecting ourselves started slipped away, education emerged as one of the chief hope of progressivism, as the natural avenue in which people could purse perfecting themselves, their children, and our nation. As Bertrand Russell noted in his chapter on eugenics in Marriage and Morals (1929), the educational ideas that shaped our modern systems, were not separate from, but in dialogue with eugenics; progressives favored education and conservatives favored eugenics, but both were working to find ways to make superior citizens.

The core of our country is probably not the pretty political concepts we tout like equality and freedom; our foundation is more likely this unending desire for, and belief in, self-improvement. Stephen Marche called it the “myth of pluck”: suggesting it will be the last American myth to die. We delight in the fact that the American way is the DIY way. But self-improvement is about more than bravery and backbone. It is a cultural mandate to invest our energy inward to “make something of ourselves.” Self-improvement all too easily takes the shape of a self-focused state of existence. In his 2008 text Violence Slovanian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek argues the primary human right of late-capitalism is avoiding other people. He writes, “What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed, which is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.” Our cult of self-improvement is often simultanesouly a cult of separation.

While there are undoubtedly numerous benefits that arise out of individuals taking responsibility for themselves, there are also risks and detriments when self-responsibility and autonomy slip into isolation. John Dewey expressed this idea in his hugely influential Democracy and Education (1915), arguing that increased personal independence can lead to indifference, making individuals “so insensitive in [their] relations to others as to develop an illusion of being really able to stand and act alone — an unnamed form of insanity which is responsible for a large part of the remediable suffering in the world.” For Dewey, dependence was “a power rather than a weakness.”

The history of our American Thanksgiving feast seems to suggest Dewey might have been on to something. Our celebration does not just commemorate the bounty of the earth. We celebrate two people groups cooperating; and they aren’t cooperating because of self-sufficiency, but because of need. Although we should not ignore the rest of our troubled history of mistreating Native American people, we should not forget that it is not self-sufficiency that this holiday marks, but the potential of cooperation around human need. It is an all but forgotten aspect of life lost in our mad dashes to prove and protect ourselves. But, as history has made clear, when we forgot the humanity of others (and thus our own humanity) things can go extremely poorly.

In education, the focus of maintaining distance from others is too often part and parcel of our self-improvement. Education promises upward mobility that can (literally) offer people more physical space and distance from other people. Far worse is the way critical thinking can tout an awareness of others without actually ever encountering them. Take for example David Foster Wallace’s oft-read commencement address delivered at Kenyon College in 2005. Despite being filled with moving statements about “love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things,” Wallace presents education’s chief value as changing the inside of a student’s own head that does not require actual contact with other human beings.

His recommendations including choosing to think nicer things about people in consumer settings, like crowded grocery stores. Detailing the daily realities of adult life that involve “boredom, routine, and petty frustration,” Wallace suggests education can allow people to “choose how to construct meaning from experience” to break free of their “natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” It’s a moving speech and overwhelming appealing to educational junkies like me, and yet, a troubling sentiment.

Framing education as a way to be happier — to overcome frustration and crankiness at other people — reflects the depth to which our cult of self-improvement has infiltrated our culture. Forget really understanding (and perhaps addressing) what is happening around us, as long as we improve our thinking about it. Of course, this logic is not just implicit in Wallace’s speech, but runs rampant elsewhere. Worried about racism? Think nicer thoughts about people who look different than you do. Concerned about feminism? If you aren’t thinking women are inferior or different, you’ve done your part. People can make ethics a matter of addressing their own thoughts only, a part of their self-actualization.

Wallace’s speech suggests that critical thinking, and choosing to make meaning of your own experience, can make situations “not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars.” This ideas, of course, is not particularly original, though Wallace expresses it powerfully. I hear the same ideas at my yoga studio, just with less brilliance. But this is part of what should alarm us about our cult of self-focused improvement. Great thinkers like Dostoevsky expressed remarkably similar ideas of cognitively realizing connection, down to the sense of being one with the stars. However, Wallace’s version of realizing oneness is self-initiated and occurs at a safe distance from other people; Dostoevsky’s portrayal of realizing oneness follow real encounters with real people.

In The Brothers KaramazovAlyosha experiences illumination after the death of his hero and mentor, Father Zossima. Leaving the monastery in state of despair, and acting out as only a Russian monk could (by eating sausage and vodka during Lent), he ends up at the home of the prostitute Grushenka. Alyosha does not realize his oneness in this setting as Wallace suggests — by thinking nice things about Grushenka. In fact, Alyosha admits to expecting to finding a wicked soul, the way Wallace describes disliking people in the grocery store. But instead of creating fictions about Grushenka, Alyosha listens to this woman’s story, and becoming moved by it, declares her a “sister.” It is actually encountering Grushenka that alters Alyosha, prompting him to falls to the ground on his walk home to the monastery, experiencing the kind connection with the stars above him Wallace describes;

“The earth’s silence seemed to fuse with that of the heavens, the earth’s mystery came into contact with that of the stars….Alyosha stood, looked and suddenly cast himself down upon the earth like one who has had the legs cut from under him…As though threads from all these countless of God’s worlds had all coincide within his soul at once, and it trembled all over…he wanted to forgive all creatures for all things and to ask forgiveness, of not for himself, but for all persons, all creatures and all things, while ‘others asked the same for me.’”

Dostoevsky’s version, while comprised of similar elements as Wallace’s, differs fundamentally in how it understands humanity. Despite both presenting illumination as going beyond self-focus, Dostoevsky pointedly makes this the result of real vulnerable encounters. Wallace’s version does not. I suspect this has little to do with Wallace himself and a great deal do with our culture; our imperative to hide and overcome our vulnerabilities is profound.

What Dostoevsky — and Thanksgiving — offer that Wallace does not is a model of how individuals can meet in their mutual need. Education always has the potential to be this kind of meeting, a vertiable feast; not just the consumption of knowledge to perfect one individual, but an encounter of individuals that connects their mutual needs and vulnerabilities. Schools and universities are social institutions with the potential of creating reconciliation and building means of social cooperation, not just self-perfection. Oscar Wilde quipped, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” Good learning should do the same. But in America, it often does not. This is not because schools are deficient in what they are offering — the victuals are superior! — but because of our overarching emphasis on education making superior individuals for post-industrial capitalist America. We’re not feasting so much as hoarding little snippets of cheese and bread for ourselves, promising people that education can get them their piece of the pie.

Perhaps you think this is not the case, or perhaps you do, but don’t think it particularly matters. In 2011, Finnish journalist Anu Partanen asserted that American schools may be underperforming because they emphasize individual excellence. In her piece for The Atlanticshe reminds readers that Finnish schools, which have been “turning in some of the highest test scores in the world,” emphasize equality and not individual greatness. Partanen highlights the fact that Finland is not caught up in the competitive school scene, noting that the nation does not even have private schools. Moreover, she points out that Finnish teachers “assign less homework and engage children in more creative play.” For Partanen, the success of Finnish schools is related to their social values and their awareness of relationships. She suggests prioritizing equality and cooperation — unlike the American obsession with excellence — is in many ways responsible for the success of the Finnish schools. Of course, America is not Finland— and the comparison Partanen draws does not address a variety of other variables — but she is certainly not the first to suggest there is something counter-productive in America’s overly competitive education system.

In the late 1980s, renowned psychologist Bruno Bettelheim started sounding the alarm about the overly academic approach of kindergarten in America, and pointing out the importance of play. Likewise, earlier this year scholars at the University of Virginia suggested that Bettelheim’s plea was not headed. Deeming Kindergarten the “new first grade,” these researchers presented compelling findings that American kindergarten’s are “characterized by a heightened focus on academic skills and a reduction in opportunities for play.” Much of the work in this area focused on early education, but the obsessive academic approach is problematic at every level, not just where young children’s education is concerned. We do not outgrow the need to play and celebrate in our lives.

Play thrives on contact and encounter. It is not just a developmental aspect of how young children learn — it is an important facet of how we create a collective life with one another. As Dutch historian and theorist Johan Huizinga notes in Homo Ludens (1938), “Culture arises in the form of play.” Huizinga argues that play creates order — in fact, is a kind of order — and he shows how systems of law, art, war, and language are all forms of play; “A play-community generally tends to become permanent even after the game is over.” A system that is overly fixated on self-improvement can far too easily ignore or miss this vital aspect of play. All too often play can become a gimmick designed to get students interested or invested, a means of ensuring better individual skill formation.

There is more to life than superiority and self-actualization — in and out of the classroom. It’s time that we shift our attentions in education, and go beyond seeing the goals of education as making the best, most brilliant, most superior individual students we can.

As Thanksgiving suggests, it may not be self-actualization or self-sufficiency, but vulnerability that connects people to each other. Human vulnerability is a vital part of our lives that is readily forgotten, hidden, or brushed aside as shameful or unhelpful. And yet a feast does not ignore weakness and mutual need — it does not try to remove vulnerabilities. A feast delights in how weakness prompts connection. We all need food. When we eat together, we don’t just celebrate food or family; we also celebrate how our needs bring us together. None of us can exist without food — without nourishment beyond ourselves — and a feast delights in how mutual needs can prompt and organize the communities that bring us life.

How I Learned to (want to) Stop Worrying (so much) and Love the Bomb (that is my single motherhood)

Elizabeth B

A fellow single mother gave me feedback about my recent(ish) post titled "On Being a 'Real' Single Mother."  She said I presented myself as someone who was morally superior because I was happy to be a low income single mom. She felt it was unfair that I didn't disclose all my resources. (More on this later.)  I want to honor my friend's complaints.  In part, because I think she matters and I think her feedback matters.  But also because now I'm a little paranoid that I've offended other people.  This makes me sad.  I don't want to offend anyone, or try to set myself up as superior in any way.  So this is an apology/explanation/exploration.

I realize, again, how hard it is to communicate.  Talking about single motherhood is more difficult than I ever imagined it could be.  I had a piece come out online last month about single motherhood. Although I feel I should have been prepared for the backlash, I (naively) was not.  It was almost as if when I wrote the words "single mother," people starting responding to issues completely outside of the frame of what I was talking about.  It felt suddenly like it was impossible to talk about single motherhood because the phrase itself meant something so distinct to people that we could not even understand each other.  Ships passing in the night.  I wasn't ready for angry and degrading notes in the comment section.  I was prepared for the (admittedly small amount of) hate email.  In some ways, it makes me never want to talk about being a single mom every again.  In other ways, it makes me feel like I need to buck up and keep trying, accepting the ways I have and will fail and accepting the criticism with a kind of thanks that it can hopefully improve me. 

This being said, it is important to me not to offend other single mothers.  Or to offend the people who have been kind to me - and the support that I have received.  My friend said that she was made to feel bad because she accepts state aid.  In light of that concern, I want to say that I am in NO way against single mothers receiving government aid (even if I don't).  Moreover, I think stigmas about receiving aid are really deeply hurtful and powerful.  Everything I know makes me believe that our society absolutely stinks at caring for its members, and single parents are among the many for whom that is true.  A 2012 report from Legal Momentum compared support for single parents in 16 high income countries, concluding that the single parents who were worst off were in America.  So, yes, I'm for state aid, but more specifically, I'm for a society where people are supported in general and communities of people care for each other.  I don't want anyone to imagine that they should feel bad because they receive support - I was trying (poorly I've gathered) to suggest there is more than monetary support that single parents need.  I was trying to say: I struggle to be my honest self when all that people know about me is that paying my bills is hard.  There's so much more going on in my life - and so much GOODNESS and sweetness that I've personally experienced in being a single mother.  This does not negate my struggles, but both exist.  You could say, I want to challenge the idea that there is "bad single motherhood" (in poverty) and "good single motherhood" (super-worker).  I've found more good in the bad side and bad in the good side than I would have believed.

My friend suggested to me that this blog didn't reflect who she knows me to be in real life and she wanted to see more of the accessible, compassionate person she knows and believes me to be.  I appreciate her support in this effort, because that is exactly what I want to do here, but am struggling to know how to do that.  In short, it is more difficult than I thought it would be to be honest (esp. without using my body to communicate).  In particular, it is hard to discuss my feelings, experiences, and ideas in a way that is 1) understandable 2) relate-able and 3) non-offensive.  I understand (I hope!) in some way why my friend who is a single mom would have a negative reaction to my post.  I want to clarify some things that I hope will make my experience more clear and less offensive, if anyone else has been offended.  I did try to be totally transparent about my resources.  I did not mention that I have a very occasional second job editing for a professor, which I do at night after the girl is asleep.  Or that I  house/dog sit for extra money a few times a year.  Or that I sometimes get money at Christmas and my birthday from my parents (and amazing grandmother), or that a few times my parents have given me a little bit of money, such as last fall when I needed a couple hundred dollars to pay rent that month. (My parents are saints.)  I also didn't say that I get a tax refund.  Or that the most wonderful people at a Mennonite Church I went to gave me money when my husband left me and my summer teach job fell through at a school that closed.  I also didn't mention that my university pays for 30% of my daughter's school tuition. Or that on occasion, I've stood in line for an hour at the Episcopal student relief to get some food. I do want to recognize - with full thanks - that there are amazing people who have made my life possible.  I wouldn't make it without these people. I live in a network of support.

Now I feel silly.  Talking about money is embarrassing.  And inevitably offensive.  Sigh.   And, I guess, what I like least about it is that it doesn't get to the heart of my real struggles in life.  Which, I think, is what I was trying to address in my previous post.  I felt embarrassed to talk about my "poverty," not because I think there's any shame in not having things, but because, well, I'm not sure that I live in poverty, even if I do according to our cultural standards.  In reality, I feel like I have a lot.  I have a place to live and a queen sized bed.   I know I live comfortably compared to most of the world.  And when I do have money, I don't know what to do with it.  That feels like the bigger problem to me.  I have constant guilt when I buy a lot of groceries and when I buy a coffee or a tea (which happens multiple times a week).  I can't always afford these things, but when I can I buy them.  And I felt literally sick this last weekend when I did laundry and again realized how many clothes I had.  I was really happy when I lived in China and had 4 shirts and 2 pairs of shorts.  My reality is nothing like that now.  Yes, I struggle with my situation.  But to suggest to people that my personhood is consumed by the struggle to financially survive (and to cope with the stress that that creates) makes me feel invisible because, honestly, I have a much harder time with other things.  I'm a more selfish and vain person than I ever wanted to be.  I don't know how to not be.  I struggle with having too much, with wanting too much. Yes, having a low income is hard.  But even though it may not show, I'm also concerned with the fact that I have too much instead of too little.

And yes I sometimes/occasionally/often feel that I cannot make it.  But how is that different from so many people?  I guess what I'm trying to say is: for me, I think my struggles are not TOO unusual.  And despite the impression that my life is hell because I'm a single mother, what I want people to know is that while life can be hell, it can simultaneously be other things.  Valuable things.

All I wanted to say in my last post was that I personally didn't know how to be thankful until I became a single mother.  I don't think that makes me superior in any way - I think it just suggests I was kind of a big jerk beforehand (i.e. more "Western" and "secular" that I'd like to admit, particularly to myself).  I somehow needed this event in my life.  I don't know why.  I don't know how.  I just know that even though I didn't chose it, and even though I'm supposed to hate it, I actually love this little life. I like who it makes me.

I wasn't trying to say that I love having a low income.  But I WAS trying to say that I love what being in this position has done to me, how it has changed me.  I don't love waking up and feeling unsure how I will make it through the day.  But I feel like I can imagine new possibilities because of it.  And I feel more hope about finding new ways to live in a consumer society, and feel more potential to address (with some honesty) what extreme dependence I have on material possessions.  Most of all, however, I feel infinitely thankful that I have this delightful child to care for. And that makes me love being a single mom.   I don't actually know if my life will get easier.  I may, in 4 or 5 years, finish my degree get a teaching job and make a lot more money.  I may be able to "make it."  But to be honest, university jobs are scarce. I may also spend a lot of my adult life hovering at this margin.  I've started to believe there are more important things than being comfortable.  It's been a hard earned conclusion that I did not want to make.

Before I was a single mother, I used to imagine that there were three possibilities when I faced a difficulty.  1)  I could buck up and work harder.  2)  I could ask for help. 3) I could wait for it to pass.  What I think now about struggle is slightly different.  All of these possibilities I used to imagine relied on one fundamental assumption: my goal should be getting rid of my struggle and/or discomfort and/or difficulty.  A good life was one that was free of difficulty, ugliness, or struggle.  I no longer think that.

I've started to think that a life without struggle is exactly what I don't want.  This particular struggle of single motherhood is what makes me aware of the needs of others.  It is what makes me strive to find a new way to live outside of the pursuits of success and financial security.  I have a richer, strong self because of it.  I'm more connected to everything around me.  I have real, moving emotions that used to be harder for me to access.  In light of this, I'm started to wonder what would happen if I tried to love my struggle, instead of hide it?   What if I made peace with it instead of trying to vanquish it?  What if I imagined this struggle was my friend?  What if, I hesitate to say it, what if God was (is) in it? I have began to wonder if there is something meaningful in my suffering. Something more valuable than the things I'm culturally told are valuable, like hard work and financial independence.

That sounds potentially offensive, I think, to suggest that everything we need to know about being human can't be contained within the system of education and employment that drives our world.  But...ummm...I still believe it.  I understand if you don't.   I've started to wonder if avoiding pain and discomfort is part of this culture - a part of this culture that wasn't helping me learn or live or love anyone. What if I could experience things, accept them, and welcome them?  What if I could let myself be a single mother with thanks, instead of in despair?  (While at the same time being able to acknowledge that things in my life have been painfully difficult to the point of feeling impossible?)

Suffering.  Oh suffering.  The truth is, I'm always being told to be quiet when I talk about suffering.  I'm always being told no one wants to hear it.  (Except, maybe, my dear friend Dostoevsky.)  When I was a young buck, I wrote a personal statement to get into a graduate school. My undergraduate adviser was aghast that I discussed my suffering and struggles in my paper.  He was very clear:  no one wanted to hear about my suffering, why it inspired me, or how it got me where I was going.  He told me people would doubt me, that I needed to show a more positive side of myself.  But I wanted then - and I want now - to talk more honestly about what it means to struggle. In terms of single motherhood, I want to be able to be an authentic person and talk about why single motherhood is making me more loving, kind, compassionate, and resilient.  I am NOT saying that I enjoy suffering.  Au contraire.  I WOULD like the suffering I still experience to end.  (And all my daydreams center on this, sadly.  I wish I was cool enough to daydream about ending hunger or helping with international crisis...but...nope...I like to imagine I have a big, beautiful garden sometime in the future.  Sigh.)  This all being said, I've learned I can live with suffering. And that is a first step for me having a more real life.  Which is only to say that, personally I've been trapped in the need to be great or accomplish great things for most of my life.  No one else I know seems to be as much of an idiot as I have been about these things. And this is not to say that there is anything wrong with doing things that are great.  Rather, I'm simply saying, my life has been made less valuable and rich under the self-inflicted pressure to do something "meaningful" according to culture's standards.  And so I think about that a lot when I parent.

Ergo, now I'm not trying to shortcut my way out of this suffering, the way I would before. I'm not trying to get somewhere else, I hope (I think.) ( I pray).  I think this is beautiful.  This life I have.  I'm trying to stop running away from it.  Yes, over the last years I have been in a fair amount of pain much of the time.  But I feel I can't acknowledge that both are true.  That this is the greatest sorrow and the greatest joy I've ever know, different sides of the same coin.  I feel like I can't recognize to people that I feel somewhat liberated through my "failure." 

I know that other people my be offended, indifferent, judgmental, disinterested, and the likes as regards to my life, whatever they know or do not know about my circumstances.  Which is why I was trying to just gesture to it in the earlier post and not go fully into it.  But I love this little life.  And I want to be allowed to love it. Which is, I suppose, what gives me the desire to speak.  Not to be all metaphysical about it, but something in me STRONGLY believes that although I did not choose this life, it chose me.  And I'm learning every day how to be happy with that.  It makes me wish people were less hard on single mothers, or less assumptive about their experiences, whatever they may be.

When I think of what I want to do to help other single mothers, part of what I imagine is finding a world where we don't immediately assume that single motherhood is just about the economics.  I hope more broadly for a world where we can talk about meaning, happiness, success, love, and life outside of economic terms.  Yes, finances are often a struggle, but frankly, they are often a red herring for what my real struggles are as a single mother and the way that I am culturally at odds with others.  What I mean to say is that one of my challenges as a single mother is feeling reduced to either a villain or a hero.  I'm not either.  (But especially not a hero.)

I don't assume other single mothers are like me. Or that anything about what I'm saying is universal (or even special).  I don't assume I'm doing something right.  It's just that this is my experience.  And this is me working with it, responding to it, welcoming it.  This is me approaching it like a painter with a still life.  I'm sketching and re-sketching.  Seeing and re-seeing. 

I understand that my ideas are not always easy to access.  Or, more honestly, I know that people will tell me they don't understand me.  The words "bizarre," "unusual," "charlatan," "not a genius," "prophetic," "Deluezian," and many others have often been thrown my way.  I don't know what to do with that.  I don't know what to do about the fact that not everything I say or think doesn't make sense to other people.  It is a big impediment.  I recognize that. I apologize for that.  I'm working with what I've got.  Still, I don't really know how to not think the way I think. I have been trying (and I will continue to try) to find a meaningful way to communicate.  The people who have been gracious and generous to me (many of them have been Canadian) are a profound gift.  I'm still trying to speak because of them.  Many of the people who have been kind are academic people.  So, despite the fact that I am trying to pull off a non-academic blog, in many ways, I do find myself gravitating toward the kind of thing they would like.  Alas.

Let me try to, again, articulate what I'm trying to try to do here.  It is, in truth, not separable from my experience as a single mother and my need to find new ways to mother in this culture. I find a lot of resources that help me understand what my child is "wired" (biologically, cognitively, emotionally, you name it). What I find less of is people who can help me understand what my society is wired like and how I can respond accordingly.  What I imagine I am doing as a parent is not just "making" a child, but interfacing between that child and the society we live in.  I'm not teaching them to be a human being, but how to be a human being in our society.  At the same time I'm wanting to be honest about the fact that I am highly skeptical of how our society is organized. 

Ergo, here I'm not thinking about how to be a superior parent, although most of my engagement starts with a parenting difficulty I'm having.  However, rather than just trying to understand what is happening in myself and/or my child, I'm trying now to think about what's happening in my culture that sets up those struggles.  In other words, plenty of people can tell me HOW to parent "right."  But few have helped me understand WHY to parent "right."  And, for overthinkers like me, this is a problem.  For example, I see a culture that values emotional intelligence for where it can get people.  I see a culture that prizes the ability to get ahead.  I see a culture that lauds individual achievement over collaborative problem solving.  I'm not sure it's the world I want to be trying to succeed in, or the world I want my daughter to fully submit herself to, just because I tell her to.

Because I have less time and money to create an "alternative" lifestyle - my bike trailer was yet again stolen again this morning and no, I don't buy all my vegetables at the farmers market - I am trying to work with what I have to create a new way.  It's not something I can do alone.  I simply can't live out a vision of parenting that I feel comfortable with without anyone who has a shared vision.  So, maybe that makes me a disadvantaged single mother.  Or maybe that makes me someone who has something unique to offer.  Who knows.

What I'm doing here may not be useful in terms of quick tips for parenting.  This is a meditation, not a guide.  Maybe it's silly.  Maybe it will get me nowhere, or perhaps it will make people angry, suspicious, or unkind.  But I can't seem to help myself.  I don't want to raise my child this way.  I don't want this system.  I believe there are other possibilities.

And, call it optimism if you want, I have found the best resources for finding a new way are in my struggles of being a single mother.  The mother of invention, if you will.  It is out of the necessity to survive that I have found myself being able to better stop playing the "get ahead" game.  It's not the world I want to live in, the one where I'm trying to make myself better constantly, or imagining my parenting to be constantly making my child better.

Socratic Parenting (?)

Elizabeth B

Before I begin this post, I need to make one admission.  I LOVE shapes.  Weird, right?  When I was given a high school assessment of my highest skills, spacial awareness was my highest ranking skill.  (Which, however, seems to conflict with my inability to estimate things and propensity to maybe run into things.) (Cough.)  This post is about using questions in parenting, but as I thought more and more about this, I kept returning to the shape that a question mark makes.  Unlike a period - which can be used aggressively, such as with "bullet" points - a question mark has something potentially soft about it.  Oddly, a question mark has a period in it.  And I do think that some questions can be thrown at you "period first," by which I mean, in a hurtful, aggressive way.  (Imagine the question like a baseball someone is chucking at you.)  However, there's also another way to slide a question at someone.  It's like a spoon, or a cradle, this funny little mark we make.  It's like one side of an avocado or a pregnant belly.  It's a ladle or a cup that you can drink from.  In conclusion, I warned you.  But for what it is worth, I invite you to consider this image with me.  The potential of the question mark as slide, the question mark that someone else could be moved gently by.

Now on the matter at hand.  Last night I was at my daughter's first first grade orientation.  (Yip!)  As we were leaving the school grounds, I heard a fellow new-to-the-school mother say to her (sad) child, "There's no reason to be sad."  I had a response to it.  Not because I think she was doing something bad.  In fact, I have said something similar a time or two before.  And when I was saying it, I was trying to lovingly accomplish something, as I imagine this mother was doing.  I was trying to help my child to learn to prioritize things.  I wanted, as I imagine this mother did, not to silence my child as much as to help her put things into perspective. 

This being said, I increasing find myself uncomfortable with my own impulse to tell my daughter that something she is upset about is not important. I've found myself imagining someone telling me that something I was upset about wasn't worth being upset about.  I imagine I would feel shame.  Or maybe frustration.  Or badness.  That's not really what I want to create.  BUT I do want to create within her an ability to mitigate her own negative feelings and prioritize which feelings to listen to and which ones to let pass.  (I can only hope that someday I myself can practice finding this ability.) 

Not me.  Me would look more like a stuffed giraffe, indignantly not participating.

Not me.  Me would look more like a stuffed giraffe, indignantly not participating.

My daughter is a sensitive little flower.  A lovely, snuggly flower.  A five-and-a-half-year old flower.  But still.  She is a SENSITIVE thing, even considering her age.  She comes to it genetically.  My mother says that when I was a toddler with pots on the floor around me, I wouldn't play with them because I wanted nothing to do with something I hadn't mastered.  Since I couldn't get the lids on right the first time, I couldn't even bring myself to play with the things.  My life-long tendency to not engage with things that upset me does my daughter no favors.  I feel I am outing myself here as an emotional basket-case.  I'm not sure that's the case, but I do think I feel things very strongly and have never really found a way to be a part of this society that allows for that fully. 

I grew up with a profound ability to stuff things.  Not because I thought what I was feeling was bad, necessarily, but because I knew that my mind could control my body.  I was making choices that I thought were very good. And I've been very happy most of my life making choices that way - that is, not allowing my emotions to sway me very often or very much.  So, it's no surprise to me that sometimes I find myself wanting my daughter to just STOP being upset.  My tendency has always been to think that the ability to cognitively override emotion is superior.  The problem is, of course, that I no longer really think that.  When I want my daughter to stop crying, am I refusing to welcome her?  Am I also demanding that she rely on cognitive faculties as her primary means of navigating the world?  Am I communicating to her that she is not alright the way she is?  (That to become adult is to become less emotional?) 

In Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Gottman's classic from the late 90s, he suggests 5 steps in coaching children's emotions:  1) Be aware of the child's emotion.  2)  Recognize the emotion as a chance for intimacy and communication. 3)  Listen emphatically and validate the emotion.  4) Help the child label emotions.  5) Set limits while helping the child to solve problems.    In addition to these suggestions, he advocates that parents set aside their own agenda, avoid negative labeling, and being aware of gender issues. (And other things!)  What I want to discuss is not in opposition to Gottman's work, but rather an extension out of it.  I am assuming a foundational basis of empathetic parenting, which is increasingly the parental standard culturally.  (At least far more than it was in the 90s.)  Moreover, in contrast to Gottman there are increasing concerns about the negative affects of giving children TOO much attention.  I want to honor both Gottman and the concerns of more contemporary thinkers who worry that children are being smothered or limited by too much attention.  And my own experience of feeling that if I do anything, it's err on the side of empathy to the point of apology.  This, I think, is something different than what Gottman talks about in terms of parents who feel emotionally out of control.  The implication that I sense is that the goal IS to be in control of emotions.  Thing is, I'm not totally convinced that that is how I want to live with emotions.

In light of this, I am putting out the suggestion of using questions - rather than statements - in response to children's emotions.  I am attempting to think through how I have used these questions and how they might achieve my goal of being caring and empathetic, while also inviting my daughter into new ground where we don't just acknowledge her emotions and try to solve the problem she is having, but take her concerns and emotions more seriously.  That is, we try to honor that her emotions might be helpful to both of us, might help us see something new. In other words, an approach that imagines parenting is not just about crafting children to be "good," but imagining that the daily work of engaging in emotions together is ontologically valuable - not just valuable in terms of superior parenting.

For a long time, I've worried that my daughter's sensitivity is my fault.  Perhaps, I think, I've been too permissive.  Perhaps I've allowed her to have what she wants too often and, consequently, she can't cope with not getting things she wants.  (Yes, I acknowledge this is maybe too self-critical or controlling.  Blast.) I have caught myself wondering if I should correct all my empathy with allowing a little more struggle without solving it with/for her.  But, to be frank, that doesn't fully appeal to me.   I neither want to ignore my daughter's emotional struggles, nor do I want to overly indulge them.   This is no to suggest that Gottman's approach is about overly indulging feelings.  I don't think it is.  It is, rather, to suggest that some people like me can't simply "do" the steps he suggests without hitting pitfalls.  Moreover, I want to parent in a way that shoots me to the depths of the realities of life.  (I am not kidding.)

I think to be an ontological parent I need to take my daughter's emotions seriously and open up the possibility of my own mistakes.  Whether I should or not, I find myself questioning my decisions constantly.  It's a weakness and a strength.  What I'm suggesting in "Socratic Parenting" to myself is a way to have an important guiding role that doesn't assume that I already have the right answer.  In short, I'm trying to recognize that I am IN the situation with my daughter. I am not outside of it, and there are stakes in the situation for me.  Gottman advocates releasing your parental agenda.  I might suggest something more along the lines of being honest with yourself about your parental agenda and even being willing to be honest with your child about your agenda.  This is probably hard to explain without a specific example.  I'll get to one soon.

Enter THE QUESTION.  Enter THE SOCRATES. I turn (a little) to Socrates because I believe questions can direct a child's vision, rather than impose a parent's vision onto their children.  Moreover, I think this can allow both child and parent to work together.  I believe that they could be a way that parents allow themselves to be authentically questioning the world around them alongside their children.  (I.e.  Opening up the question of WHY we are polite to others.  Addressing WHY we prioritize our physical well-being over our temporary enjoyment.) 

Socrates believed in the power of the question.  "Wisdom begins with wonder," the old dog said.  (Or is said to have said.)  "I know that I know nothing," Socrates declared.  He - like Augustine's si fallor sum (I'm mistaken therefore I am) - starts with fallibility.  Despite the temptation to start as a part from a place of superiority, I am suggesting the possibility that parents may find great success if they start from a position of wonder and humility. Rather than being the person who already "knows" the right answer, or is simply guiding a child through how to behave properly, I'm suggesting there may be some merit to some humility.  No, I don't always know why we do things.  No, I don't always know what is best.  But I am in this thing with you.  And not only do I validate your feelings, but I'm interested in what they might have to offer.  I'm not waiting for you to stop being unhappy.  I'm listening to what your unhappiness might be telling us.  (With the full possibility that it might simply be telling us that you, like everyone, has feelings of jealousy or selfishness.)

In the face of emotions, I think wonder is necessary.  Emotions are a force bigger than I can reckon with, more like a thundering waterfall or a raging bull than any other force I know. When I imagine what I hope for my daughter, it is that she can wonder at her emotions instead of despise them.  I hope that she can find a way to 1) listen to her emotions and, at the same time, 2) not be overpowered by them.  I've started to wonder if the best way to accomplish this acceptance and response can happen best with the use of questions.

What I want to teach my daughter - and what I want to teach myself - is the ability to sit and be still (at least metaphorically) when I feel something.  I want us both to know how to listen deeply when an interaction between my body and the world produces something.   This of course is not to say that every time something goes wrong we have two hours to sort it out.  Rather, this is to say that part of the ability to respond to emotions is the skill of knowing what can be dealt with in the immediate moment and what needs to be resolved later.  (But to not forget to resolve and acknowledge those things! To not just try to pacify my child by validating her emotions without any intention of taking them seriously.)

The fundamental belief I have that informs this practice is one simply belief:  Emotions are a gift.  They are important.  They are not a hassle.  They are a guide, if we can only follow them.  They are a wellspring, if only we can find a way to drink them in.

Let's get specific.  I'm going to describe how I'm trying to do this.  Two days ago, my daughter and I planned to go the park after we got home from school and the grocery store.  While I was putting groceries away, that adorable thing I love was on the floor playing with our magnetic poetry, dividing up all the colors into neat rows.  It was then that I realized that I hadn't reminded my daughter to clear her breakfast dishes that morning.  (Whoops.  I'm not a bad person, for the record.)  So I asked her to go and get them.  She was not impressed.  Here is how our negotiation went.

E: *whining and sniffling a little*:  I thought we were going to the park!

Me:  We are babe.  I'm just asking you to clear your breakfast dishes first.

(Here I imagine people with a little more gumption would just say: DO IT CHILD.  And it would be done.  For better or worse, I'm not that kind of person.)

E (now crying):  I will miss playing at the park.

(Here Gottman might recommend mirroring feelings and helping the child to name their feelings.  I have often done this, and do this in part, but I was trying an additional approach in using questions here.)

Me (getting down on my knees):  Honey, it sounds like you're having some bad feelings.  What are you feeling?

E: I'm feeling sad.  I want to go to the park.

Me:  What do you feelings make you want to do?

E:  Go to the park right now before it is too late.

Me:  You are afraid we're going to miss going to the park.  Do you think that your feelings are telling you something important?

E:  No.  (Sigh.) I think it's more important to take care of the house.  But, what about running and using my body? And being outside?  Isn't that important?

Me:  It is important.  So important.  I really want to do that.  Do you think it will take such a long time getting your dishes from that table that we won't be able to do that important running and using your body?

E:  No.  (Sigh.)

Me:  If you clear your dishes right now, we can do that important thing right away.  I can't wait.


Okay, so I sound like a total cheeseball.  (I am kind of a total cheeseball.)  And, for the record, I'm using an example of something that worked.  That is not always the case.  I often blow it by being impatient, or by not really trusting the questions that I'm asking to help lead us to a shared conclusion.  Still, I include this example because it touched me.  I was reminded - and surprised! - by the fact that I was so quick to brush off the importance of my child's play time.  She reminded me what was important in what she wanted to do.  In the end, I enjoyed going and playing more, and I understood more of its value.  My daughter gave me an answer I didn't expect.  And I think it made us come closer to a solution that was life-giving, instead of one in which my daughter was forced to accept that I knew the right thing and was just waiting for her to accept it.

Disclaimer:  I am not sharing this experience because I think I am a model parent.  For the love, I am not.  This, however, is the way I have been trying to understand balancing 1) enacting empathy 2) my feeling of responsibility to help guide my child 3) my perpetual inability to be right about all, any, or most things and 4) my fear of being overly indulgent about my daughter's feelings.  This use of questions - at least for me, and at least right now - allows me to get at a more collaborative process, without undercutting the importance of what I myself know and what my daughter knows.  I hope.  Again, I'm a pretty flawed lady.

On Being a "Real" Single Mother

Elizabeth B

This is a post about being a single mother in public or - more accurately - about how being publicly perceived as a single mother limits the honesty and authenticity I experience.  It is also about the hopes I have to find a meaningful way to use my experience as a single mom to be helpful in our culture by asking people to think more seriously about caring outside of nuclear-family lines.  Loving your neighbor, as it were.


Last night my daughter and I attended a lovely local event called “That’s My Farmer” where farmers and community members mingled, ate, and sang some (slightly silly but great) “Buy Local” type songs.  I had been asked to briefly speak at this event about the financial support I received last year that allowed me buy a crop share from a local farm.

The event was - in all honesty - very painful for me.  It wasn't because it was uncomfortable to get up on stage and represent the face of "low income."  I wanted to express my thanks for the people who decided to slash the price of my CSA so I could afford it and feed beautiful things to my daughter.  No, I was pained because I found it impossible to be a true self in this setting.  It wasn't about admitting that I have needs - which I do - but about how to represent that I have needs at the same time I acknowledge I ALSO have everything I need.  And that that's what being a single mother has taught me.

Let me explain.

I stood up there and self-described myself as a “single mother and full time student” I felt awful.  Yes, those titles are true.  But that is in no way who I am. And I don't just mean that my life is far more complex than what people might assume.  Although that is true, what I mean is that being a single mother is a richness of its own.  It's supposed to be entirely an experience of poverty.  And, yes, it is that. I make less than $15,000 a year and do not received consistent or full child support, or any government aid. Many times I have gone weeks at a time without a dollar in my bank account and no groceries in my house, save the reliable rice and beans we live off of.

But is that really who I am?  Does that say a single real thing about me?  It’s easy to want to share these details because I want to be understood and not judged, but in reality, these details say nothing about me.  And more importantly, they say nothing about what a gift being a single mother has been to me.  They don't reflect that having less has done what nothing else could have - made me thankful for what I do have.

Being a single mother isn’t about what’s happened to me - what has been done unto me - but about how I've been undone.  How I've had the privilege of being weaned of many of the bad habits I'd acquired as a standard American.  I'm more able to be who I want to be - mainly because I've had to be.

I'm sure it's not everyone else's experience, but being a single mother has been the greatest joy of my life.  In fact, last week, I was giving my 5 year old a bath and was getting emotional, feeling afraid that something could happen that would change this beautiful little family. It has taken time - TRUST ME, it has taken time - but I am happy with what I’ve got right now.  Could there be anything better than that?  (Could there be anything less American?)  

Being a token "single mom" in public is difficult because I'm supposed to be someone who is struggling to pick myself up.  Someone who is miserable.  But I'm not that.  I don't know why.  And I don't know how - expect that our cultural ideas of success, beauty, and worth are maybe...ridiculous.  I'm not supposed to be filled with life.  But I am.

Despite not wanting to be a single mom, I’ve become far more of who I want to be. Yes, I have had some rather unfortunate things happen and I have struggled more than I could EVER have imagined.  But darkness is much weaker than the light, yes?  So often I think single motherhood is limited to being understood as what is wrong - instead of what is right. For me, what's right is that I've been able to slowly find a new way to live that isn't as married to capitalism and everything that goes with it.

If I'm honest, what I think is best about becoming a single mom is that I’ve become someone with the ability to care.  Which is not to say that I didn’t care before...but...I sometimes wonder if I cared because it was the right thing to do.  That I hadn't lived enough to care with my whole being.  Now I think it's part of my core - it is a hunger and not an obligation.  That's not to say that I don't have to fight to hold onto it, or that I'm able to do something beautiful with it yet.  But it is to say that being a single mom has made something beautiful in me that I didn't do on purpose.


Last night was difficult for me because I had to be the face of poverty.  I was not myself in those moments.   I couldn't acknowledge how profoundly lucky I feel to have everything I have. Everyone was overwhelmingly kind, but it felt like a kind of pressure rather than something that met my needs.  It's complicated, because I do need the practical help to survive.  But I need something more too.  What I long for is finding a way to be fully alive - to do good with the gift of single motherhood that I've been given.

In the end, I felt isolated and unknown.  I felt I had to play the powerless, helpless woman.  Which is sort of true.  For example, as a Ph.D. student I don't get paid in the summer, but I do have to study (hard) for my exams.  Also, yes, my daughter is not in school.  I am weak and powerless in that way.  But that's not the full story.  Let's be honest.  I’m thankful for what people have given, but I'm given so much more than economic support.  And I've got things I want to give too.