Sunday, March 30, 2008

parenting as a creative art

Nothing survives
But the way we live our lives

Jackson Browne, Daddy's Tune

Success or failure in life does not depend on these (external circumstances or natural gifts), but human life, as we said, needs these as mere additions, while virtuous activities or their opposites are what constitute happiness or the reverse.

Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics

..... let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.

St Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises

Melissa has a Respectful Parenting post up and don't forget to check the comments box.

Whenever I start thinking about parenting, I always think of my Mom's story about going to a parenting workshop -- I think it was one of the Ginott-inspired ones-- back in the 70's. When she came home and tried to use non-coercive judgment-free language "Apple cores don't belong on the bed..." my little brother shouted in horror, "Don't talk like that!" He wanted his old mom back.

I think the lesson wasn't that these skills were useless, but that they can't stand alone and they may take some time and attention to incorporate into your daily life. Most of the truly valuable parenting "skills" are attitude changes. You can see that for yourself if you think about a few of your best-ever moments of parenting. You probably weren't "using a strategy" in isolation. You were probably in a confident, loving mode and everything seemed simple.

(And when my mom told me this story about her experience, she was being an awesome parent, if you can see that. She was reflecting on her own experience and teaching me something she had learned without in any way imposing her own opinion on me -- merely inviting me to participate in her own reflections and perhaps add mine. )

I woke up thinking about what makes good parenting a couple of days ago and I immediately thought of my husband. Aidan our sixth child was in the hospital for months after birth, before and after his liver transplant. A couple of things stand out in my mind:

Once was a bit after his liver transplant, when he was four months old. Aidan was out of the PICU and on the regular pediatric ward, but he was still in a room near the nurses station with a monitoring screen and all kinds of hook-ups measuring his heartrate, oxygenation, and so on. We couldn't really lift him out of bed much because his transplant incision was still painful and he had so many hook-ups. He was on a constant feeding drip and if they raised the rate of infusion above something like half an ounce per hour he would throw everything up.

My husband and I took turns staying with him while the other would take care of the rest of our five children. I usually took the night shift because I could sleep easily in a sleep chair with lights and beeps and Kevin couldn't.

When I came in one evening for my "shift" the nurse who had been on duty during the day said, "I've never seen a dad like your husband. Every time I look at the monitor screen he is standing by Aidan's crib shaking that little rattle and talking to him and smiling at him. " He did that day after day. Since Aidan couldn't come out and share in his Daddy's world, his Daddy made sure that as much as possible he entered Aidan's circumscribed and uncomfortable world and brought as much happiness and color to it as he could.

Another time that comes up is when the nurse practitioner who was the transplant coordinator was explaining the side effects of one of Aidan's post-transplant meds -- that he was growing hair over his body and his eyebrows were like thick bars over his eyes. She was reassuring us that this effect would be temporary as they weaned him off the heavy first course of anti-rejection meds.

Kevin touched Aidan's thin downy shoulder gently and said, "Ah, my little werewolf." His voice was tender and amused.

The transplant coordinator, who became a good friend during this hard time, replied, "Some parents find these things make it difficult to re-bond with their children."

Kevin only shrugged in incomprehension. Little werewolf or not, Aidan was beautiful to him.

These moments are small ones, but I see that exhausted dad stooped over a hospital isolette rattling a rattle and crooning at a tiny frail infant, and I hear that gentle "my little werewolf" every time I think about what parenting is about.

The point here is not to boast about my husband, but rather -- what parenting manual or list of strategies could possibly cover the sorts of things that come up in a parent's and child's life?

The only thing that would cover these things is love, and a commitment to see things through.

Jacques Maritain wrote:

What matters most, and is essential, is the fact that love -- I don't mean any kind of love, I mean love of Charity -- when it takes hold of man, makes the entire subjectivity purer, and consequently, the creative source also purer. As Fran├žois Mauriac put it, to purify the source is the only way.

A purified source is not,..... a source which is timid or prudent, or with an admixture of chemicals. A purified source springs from the depths of man's substance, and is as wild and irrepressible as any other; but it has no mud. This is the work of self-discipline and the cultivation of moral virtues, but first of all of transforming love.
He is talking about creative art, but then, what is parenting but a creative art?

When you have to choose in a difficult parenting situation, if you choose the most loving way, the way that connects to your child, it's hard to go completely wrong. Purify the source.The job becomes a personal one -- to eliminate all the little things that get in the way of love. You can change things bit by bit, second by second, as Sandra Dodd writes on her site. You aren't giving up your parenting duties, then, but rather cleansing them of mud.

When I am in some sort of parenting knot I usually try to follow St Ignatius's method above.... assume the best, try to communicate (with a younger or less-verbal child, a long string of words isn't always the best way to communicate, as I've found from trial and error -- sometimes a word or sign or smile or touch says a lot more). I think a lot of conflicts get ugly from getting locked in and reacting back and forth, rather than stepping outside of the situation. Stepping outside of this is creative and freeing and adventurous. Melissa wrote:

It’s almost like a game, a challenge I present myself: how can I steer us through this rocky place without losing my cool? I have found myself waking up every day eager for the challenge. I’m dead serious here. This really is big stuff.

In one of my husband's Bruce Springsteen live albums there is a wrenching story about his troubled and angry relationship with his father.... how his father would berate him for coming home late, for his long hair, and how that kept driving him further away, to the point where he was sitting in phone booths shaking with cold because he didn't want to come home in the evenings and face that tirade again. I couldn't find that on Google but I did find the lyrics for his song called My Father's House which ends:.

My father's house shines hard and bright
It stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining `cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned.
To me it seems that "if you win, I lose" escalation mentality leaves this kind of empty, wistful battlefield whereas the "win-win" approach leads to a kind of synergy, as Stephen Covey says. Of course the toddler won't be ready to negotiate mutually beneficial solutions in a magnanimous manner that respects his mother's needs, any more than Aidan could have said "oh, Daddy, I can do without your face for a few moments -- go get a cup of coffee and relax with the newspaper for a bit while I play with my oxygen cannulae". They aren't adults, they are apprentices, "learning all the time", as John Holt said, and dependent upon us in so many ways for example and nurturing.

But if the parents don't model mature, loving ways of interacting, how is the child going to learn? I think some people see the word "love" and think "permissive, weak, mushy". But honestly, it doesn't break down that way, or shouldn't. There is nothing permissive or weak or timid about allying with the child to help him to "become who he is", who he is meant to be. There is nothing permissive or lax about letting go of the non-essentials and focusing on the essence. It is strength, not weakness, to focus on the good things and magnify those. Love is as Maritain said "wild and irrepressible". It is deep and unique and springs out of who you are as a person, like any other creative art. It is generous and loves the truth, as he also says, but then you also have to remember that truth is not a sword to use to cut others down -- it is a light that illumines and makes good things clear and transparent and sparkly. For some reason, it often involves laughter, at least in our household. Laughter (not the mocking kind) frees things up and dissolves barricades.

I realize that this doesn't help much with the classic meltdown at Target (where I for one didn't exactly cover myself in glory in the pre-Easter rush) but here are some things that help me during those times when the situation is at maximum-stress pressure level and my Scottish temper is about to get lost never to be found again:

  • Just breathe. Slow down.
  • Keep it in perspective; it isn't the end of the world, and it might well make a good story later.
  • He isn't (or they aren't) any happier than I am right now.
  • Assume the best.
  • Preserve the relationship as much as possible; at any rate, try not to do something that will cause damage beyond the brief time.
  • Try to learn from what went wrong if anything did and apply it proactively for next time. As with all creative arts, "From failure you learn; from success, not so much.”
  • Breathe again and try to focus on the kid(s) and be their mother.
And for the 99% of the day when things are not at crisis point and you are not having your mothering skills observed and evaluated by many total strangers in an environment which is visually overwhelming to you and your children.....

those days can be like gold, or like clear running water. The more good days, the better. It's easier to survive the hard days if there have been golden, sparkling days that brought you closer together and built multiple layers of affection and trust.

Also, the blogger at In Need of Chocolate compiled a list of books about parenting. I haven't read all the ones she lists, but I wanted to keep track of the list.

The painting is St Joseph the Carpenter by Georges La Tour

I guess that's all I have to say about parenting!


Michele Quigley said...

Beautiful Willa!

molly said...

Simply wonderful, thank you Willa!

Genevieve said...

Thank you so much for this post. It clarifies something that has puzzled me. A few years ago when my oldest was a toddler, I read and read so many loving parenting books hoping to solve that evil temper of mine. They didn't work. However, when things did go 'right', I couldn't understand why. This post helps to illuminate that puzzle. Thank you.

Marie said...

Excellent post, Willa; thank you!

Beck said...

This is so very, very wonderful - I hope that many people will read it.

Meredith said...

So many great insights here Willa, thank you for taking the time to write this! Blessings!

Us! said...

So insightful and beautiful!