Question: Is unschooling a form of anarchy?

A few days ago via Twitter my friend Elizabeth addressed fellow radical and unschooling proponent Idzie and myself:

Hey smart ladies, random question, do u identify with anarchism at all? Is unschooling/gentle parenting lived anarchism?

I am quite unqualified to write much on anarchy, but I will note here, briefly, that Idzie self-identifies as a green post-leftist anarchist and you can read some great stuff on her blog. For my part, the concept of anarchy is one that, what little I know of it, I have a great deal of respect for (I recently read somewhere, “no nukes, no wars, no laws, no morals and no conformity”).

I notice knee-jerk biases against non-schooling and/or non-punitive parenting often sound quite similar to reflexive dismissals of anarchy – or any practice eschewing authoritarianism, a culture of expertism, and concepts of meritocratic structure. The mainstream reaction to the word “anarchy” is not a positive one: many identify anarchy as germane to and necessarily resulting in chaos and crime, disarray and disorder, a great deal more violence than already exists, of course, and some kind of feral state of humanity where all our Evil is manifested and all the breathtaking instincts of every other animal on the planet is entirely missing: “the terrorists have won”, total disrepair and a breakdown of civilization (because, of course, in the mind of many civilization is inherently a good thing). Think Mad Max, but without the saving grace of a young Mel Gibson in leather pants.*

And that’s what people, by and large, predict about unschooling, life learning, or living without compulsory schooling. It’s not going to work, and it’s going to be a Very Bad Idea. I’m not talking about open-minded questions or even some fair skepticism, conversations I’ve engaged in many times with a fair degree of lightness, usually – I’m talking about vitriol, labeling the lifestyle as resulting in an Underclass of ignoramuses, or on the other end of the spectrum being an offensive exercise in unexamined privilege; at turns either over-involved, or neglectful. In fact it’s the demonstrably ignorant, wildly vacillating, and mutually exclusive nature of the most vigorous and spiteful criticisms that made my partner and my tentative foray from public education to homeschooling to living without school all the easier. As we considered these criticisms, the whole culturally-prescribed normative edicts just collapsed like a house of cards, while our family thrived.

At root, these biases against even listening with an open mind to the principles of anarchy or living without school seem to have a root basis: a profound distrust of human beings. I note that in the case of living without school, there is also an incredibly strong adultist response (rooted in how we were trained to view children, while we ourselves were growing up). This profound distrust of human beings and the resultant affinity with a poisonous pedagogy is, when it comes down to it, a spiritual or moral choice we make with our every thought, and it is a way of  life we create with our every action. Do you personally believe God (or the cosmos, or whatever) made a mistake when He (or whatever) created humans, so “fearfully and wonderfully made”? Do you personally believe children have naughty, querulous, non-empathetic, and lazy natures that only the wise, firm hand of adults and institutions can and should properly mold?

I hope it’s obvious you don’t have to answer here, or to me. Ever. This is all your business; and as a direct result, your attitudes and beliefs will make it the business of everyone else you come into contact with.

Although many would like to believe otherwise, it has been pointed out to me rather convincingly that school was primarily created so we could continue with our Industrial Revolution and capitalist values and way of life, however well-intentioned many proponents are today. Many families currently live a reality that would make it very hard indeed to care for their own young during the day; USian culture’s child-unfriendly public spaces make this even more so the case. Consider: how much do we culturally value in a holistic way those who put the time in caring for the child class, and how much do we culturally value the nourishing of the spiritual and emotional health of all families? Children are mostly institutionalized, full stop, and many families who love their children very much are a part of these systems because they have little choice, or even if they have a degree of choice, truly don’t see the value in participating as a member of a non-schooling minority. As for the status and respect we afford those who do the important work of other-care, I’m not seeing it unless you get paid. And in the money-earning sphere, the lip service to teachers’ so-called heroism is expected to placate these working adults who are living out their professional lives in systemic circumstances far less than ideal and often downright dangerous and damaging (although I believe the children are the most primarily and profoundly affected during formative years).

Compulsory schooling is where I learned how to regurgitate information and to sit still and listen to Grownups, because Grownups knew more and better than I. Compulsory schooling helped me learn a great deal of fear or at the very least, encouraged me to become very risk-averse and unlikely to challenge Authority, even when my heart and gut told me Authority was doing wrong. Compulsory schooling taught me the myth of the United States as meritocracy: people who were poor and downtrodden, well they weren’t working hard enough. Compulsory schooling never “taught” me critical thinking (as if children need this “taught” to them!) nor much valued the creative process and drive because, as my linked-to friend Wendy Priesnitz has also written, if compulsory schooling did value these things the system would not be able to function. The attitudes of by-rote institutionalism for children can also profoundly negate a child’s most basic needs and drives; briefly I remember my brother who received a D in high school Art, primarily because he didn’t complete things on the teacher’s schedule (today this makes me laugh when I think about the world of art, which to my knowledge does not have a universally-adopted timeline on how long to work on a piece!). Needless to say his adult life has involved a tremendous and consistent amount of creativity, and within the career he chose as an adult due to his passions he has an excellent reputation as an employee. I will also add schooling was not experienced as a positive thing for my brother in many ways; he was continually criticized and thinks of himself as a “poor performer” despite a B-average (yes, I checked).

I have observed children learn things profoundly well, in their own ways, when allowed this freedom and the necessary safety and support adults can provide. I did not experience this freedom growing up, which is perhaps why I was open to valuing and creating this reality for my own children. I mentioned my brother who didn’t much enjoy school; well, I did, because I learned how to be a Good Little Girl and because my abilities were along those privileged in our educational system – linguistics, science, reading comprehension, and math. I was a High Achiever in school, a straight-A student, and received a full-ride educational merit scholarship that delivered me a degree in Engineering within four years of college. I could write tomes on the costs of assimilation, a near-entire capitulation mechanism to Authority and Expertism, and my performance-to-gain-praise-and-prizes but I won’t here. I will merely relate that, much like my children’s experiences seem to evidence, it was when I began living my life for my own reasons that I began to grow character, to grow compassion, to be less selfish, to find my passions (instead of merely chasing income, status, and prestige, not that there is anything wrong with any of those things), to reach out and assist others, and to question those culturally-sanctioned narratives that hurt us all. The list goes on. I’m gratified to watch my children, who hopefully won’t have to “un-learn” as many fear-based theories I believed and strategies I employed .

I also find it really surprising that the largest vocal majority against whole life unschooling is by far those who not only haven’t tried it, they have just now heard of it and already hate it. These days, if I were to hear of a lifestyle I knew little about, I’d likely go, you know, asking questions directly to someone who had experience. Preferably, if I thought I might benefit from an open mind, I’d seek out someone who was having a great deal of joy and personal growth in the process. To that end, my blog is a catalog of our experiences, and my email and social media streams are always open to those who want to ask me anything at all (kelly AT hogaboom DOT org, kellyhogaboom on Twitter).

“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance. This principle is, contempt prior to examination.” 

Today very few adults in blog-reading US of A grew up in a home that not only consistently met the children’s needs – physical security (home and clothing), nutrition, and consistent emotional nurturing – but that also allowed the greatest autonomy and personal freedom (of expression, of movement, of choice) possible. Given that’s the case, it’s always encouraging to see a grownup who was raised without such autonomy, asking how that sort of thing might work.

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* Or if you’re into the really weird movies we are, think perhaps Warrior of the Wasteland, with all the senseless killing and electro-harness rape but without the heroic awesomeness of Fred Williamson’s gold-plated archery and fabulous mustache.

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Edit 12/13 – You know what I forgot to mention? I forgot to tell an anecdote about our family. Like, if you come inside my house you will see a “normal” family (whatever that means), a clean and tidy house, food on the table, kids who are mostly polite and assist chores regularly and without being forced. Etc. Etc. I was going to write about our current experience a bit just to point out that, if you think life without school and with an exchewal of authoritarian and coercive parenting is all disarray and disrespect, you’d be incorrect. Anyway we’d much rather have you visit, if you want to see how it works!

Question: How do you implement non-punitive parenting [and whole-life unschooling]?

Remember so long ago when I wrote a primer on non-punitive parenting? That got a fair number of shares on Facebook as well as several emails, tweets, and comments that asked for more information or follow up.

But, I had a hard time thinking of how to write another piece for many reasons. One, I wasn’t sure if I should write to parents-to-be (who may be more open-minded to such ideas), or write to those who’d already had bad experiences or results from mainstream parenting strategies (in other words, who could use some help, but already had specific problems developed between themselves, their children, and other adults – the latter class who may or may not be supportive of non-coercive/manipulative/authoritative strategies). And really, that last little bit is crucial. Assisting families out of harmful patterns and (seemingly) complicated impasses is often best done with specifics discussed, and at length. To that end, I am always willing to respond to emails and assist anyone as best I can (kelly AT hogaboom DOT org). I do this writing and work for no other reason than I am passionate and I want to help families live in harmony, freedom, and with intelligence and respect.

Fortunately, a reader and Twitter friend gave me a few direct questions about her specific situation and I was able to write her. After the first bit of our exchange I asked her permission to publish her query and my response, as I thought it might help other readers (please remember anything written to me is considered fair game for publishing, although if you have any specific objections let me know as I am often wont to honor them). So here’s a scenario-specific followup.

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This is Sandi, @5and1 from twitter. I’ve seen you link some really interesting things about non-punitive parenting and unschooling and I’d really like to learn more. I’ve looked a bit on your website but if you have other resources I’d love to read them.

A bit about my family. I have four year old boy/girl twins. We co-slept for a year and a half, and I nursed them for almost two and a half years so I’m used to being labelled as a hippie by my friends and family. My kids are whip smart but have room to grow socially. They have been in preschool for a year and are really excited to start back again.

We don’t spank but we do do time outs. I am realizing that they are not effective so I’m trying what I call time ins. The kids have to sit with me and once they are able to we talk about what has happened. But. Even that is not always effective. I am way more shouty than I care to admit. I never thought I’d be this kind of parent. I know that it could be a lot worse but I see that there is loads of room for me to improve.

So what has worked for you and your family in terms of non-punitive parenting? How have you implemented unschooling?

Thank you for the generous offer to give me more information!

Hello Sandi!

I think it is wonderful that you’re seeing the limitations of punitive, authoritarian, manipulative, and/or coercive parenting. Many if not most adults are quite sure these strategies are necessary, and very fearful that if they were to abandon them for something else the results for parent and child would be horrific or at the very least, highly uncomfortable and inconvenient.

My kids are “well-behaved” (whatever that means! – I only report what many grownups tell me, here), literate and life-skills proficient, social, intelligent, strong, loving, empathetic, self-directed (now there’s a value you won’t see most school environs fostering or supporting in a meaningful way) and this is all despite the many many times I’ve fallen well-short of my ideals and been quite ungentle – and resorted to punitive or authoritarian strategies. I too was for a long time able to report “I never thought I’d be this kind of parent”. This was made confusing by many factors, especially considering that before I had children, I’d never been a violent person or rather, had not considered myself one. It was a very discouraging revelation to find out I was, or had that potential as a parent. But I have resolutely used my experiences to delve deeper into the roots of my story and my inner states of spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being, as well as developing and writing with a critical eye towards the narratives society purports – which are often quite harmful. The results are pretty good, in that we’re a happy family as far as I can tell, my kids are thriving without school or authoritarian/authoritative edifices, they tell me I am a wonderful parent, and I am committed to further improvement, god willing.

So as for being a “shouty” parent, or behaving in ways you never thought you would – welcome to the human race. I have not met a parent/carer who would claim perfection in the ideals they wish to live out, although I have met some who seem not to examine their own behaviors very closely, nor evidence corrections. I never want to sit back and justify my bad behavior or poor strategies, and leave it at that. I want to, and do, pick myself up, apologize, strive to do better through mentors and/or spiritual practice or whatever works. Sometimes I think I will never get it “right” but – that’s okay. The days I think, in so many words, I’m doing so awesome at this gig!, and compare myself favorably to other parents (ugh, yes, I do this sometimes), I’m usually overlooking something and I am definitely suffering from major cases of Ego and Denial! Usually these spates are followed by me having a massive and inappropriate blowup at my children.

So, you asked about my family. My kids are 7 and 9. Raising them as we have, they are very adept at handling themselves in many situations I notice schooled kids, parented in mainstream and authoritarian fashion, tend to be less competent with. They also seem very happy, well-rested, well-fed, and physically and “academically” active (the latter: they read, study, teach themselves skills and world science, do math etc. on their own). The factors I’d say contribue to our successes (such as they are):

1. a knowledge and acceptance that to live the way we wanted required financial sacrifice (specifically, of a fulltime income),

2. a partner who is in as complete agreement with these principles as is possible or likely in another human being, and who is as committed as I to our role as parents, and our passion to sort out problems when they arise (I don’t think a partner is necessary to so-called whole-life unschool, but if you have one that is in disagreement with these parenting values and practices, this can add some complexity),

3. freedom and autonomy given the children as much as they request (example: today the kids know they can choose school if they ever want to try it out),

4. complete inclusion of the children as to how the family runs itself and why, and a regarded voice in all decisions.

When it comes to freedom and autonomy for children as well as their vote, my main regard is safety as is age- and child-appropriate on a case by case basis. It seems to me safety concerns take a more active role when a child is very little. But in raising kids the ways we have, it is incredible to me how adroitly they master concepts of personal safety and how quickly they are to take suggestions, directions, and/or advice from a parent who they’ve come to trust via their own experience, and trust at a deep level.

By the way, I have realized that “time ins” can be tricky too, because we may still be forcing our will on our children. If children respond well to “time ins”, use them! But I suppose if pressed to comment I would say it’s better if kids are immediately removed from hurting one another, or humanely separated if need be, in a non-punitive nor angry fashion. Then each child should be loved up or given attention to in whatever way seems best, making sure your OWN needs are as reasonably met as possible before doing so (learning to meet one’s own needs, with regularity, is a challenge but well-worth the effort). Later in the day when things are calm a brief, age- and child-appropriate approach to conversation may be introduced, but watch and see how interested, if at all, the kids are in this. The separation, whereby you keep the kids safe, and respond with calmness as to whatever need they may have (food, attention, a quiet space, a LOUD ROWDY space, whatever it is), and later discussion with your partner or mentor as to the children’s possible deeper needs, is probably the most effective treatment in the long term. Over time kids will trust you to keep them safe while not trying to direct their feelings, actions, thoughts, etc. This in turn gives them room to develop better strategies and participate in family life in a more self-authored and likely more helpful way.

Obviously what I describe above, especially for young children, is time-intensive and means being able at any moment to put your work on the back burner. I just want to acknowledge this, because few adults seem to give primary carers respect for this aspect of a difficult job! This time-intensive nature was a fact of parenting my young children, but I will add that so soon the kids grow and need so much less physical constancy – and also that I miss the intimacy of my infant and toddler years, and in no way regret the efforts I put in during those times.

And on that note – your children are young enough they likely can’t be left unsupervised for much time at all. You also mentioned on Twitter that you work out of the home. I don’t know if you have a partner and if he/she is interested in the tenets of whole life unschooling, or life learning, or whatever label we’re calling it. All of these listed factors matter. However, I am convinced no matter what our particular circumstances are we can always move away from harmful practices towards ones that better reflect our ideals. So please do write more, with specifics, if you want to, and I will respond as best I can, keeping in mind that for some situations I do not have first-hand experience (for instance: raising twins).

If I had young children and was unable to have a partner at home, I’d probably seek out care for the kids in a less academically-inclined school – like a Waldorf or an outdoor preschool (however, in my opinion it is likely better to have the kids with kind and loving adults than prescribe to a specific type of educational model, so the type of preschool etc. is less important than the leaders/directors/teachers). Alternatively, I might seek out someone such as myself, a person at-home with other kids, who could care for yours in a way you and the children would be happy with. Finally, I might also consider committing to a life where one partner can be at home, if he/she can do so with a willing spirit (and I can speak to how exciting it is!). I might also consider living on student loans or some other form of assistance for those early years. These are all deeply personal decisions, especially that of working in-home without pay nor status, and I will say there is a phenomenal lack of support for kid-care work should you or partner choose it, or should you seek to have it personalized. Just things to be aware of, because my experience is that in having my children out of mainstream school/daycare structures I am often asked, basically, to explain or justify myself! *grin*

If you have any questions or desire clarifications please let me know. Realize also I am only a person raising my children and (to a lesser extent) other children around me. I have no professional qualifications that make me an expert on much of anything. I am passionate about these ideals and happy with the way we live – but I am human and fallible and have many lessons to learn. I write and share like I do because of how many adults have requested it, and how many have told me it has helped them.

Thank you for your query!

kids at Ocean Crest, Ocean Shores

Non-Punitive Parenting: A Starting Primer

kids at Ocean Crest, Ocean Shores

This piece was written as a participatory exercise for The Great Spank Out. All comments on this post will be heavily moderated. No comments endorsing punitive parenting will be allowed through.

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I’ve heard every rationalization for punitive parenting in the book, and then some.* I’ve heard that using these strategies doesn’t really hurt nor humiliate a child. I’ve heard Yeah, it hurts/humiliates, that’s the point, and it works well! I’ve heard “I was hit, and I’m fine” (about… a thousand times).

I’ve heard punishing/hitting/grounding/time-outs are necessary and if you don’t do them, you will absolutely end up with “spoiled, entitled brats”. I recently had a friend tell me he thinks something is wrong with my partner and I that we do not spank (hit) our kids as a parenting tool – although he grants my children are the first children he’s ever liked. He envies our family life but holds no hope he could raise children without violence. He explained to me his carers “beat the shit out of him” (his words), but it was for his own good; he lived in a dangerous and crime- and drug-laden neighborhood.

I bring up this anecdote because it is an elegant example at the more extreme end of this (common) worldview: “the world is tough and my kid needs to know about it. I’m going to help him learn early to keep him safe.”

Even adults who admit that “spanking” is just hitting, and that we should not do it, usually still maintaining we should absolutely exploit our power position to “mold” them. These adults hold that spanking is inhumane and/or child abuse, and instead advocate for so-called “gentle discipline” methods cited as time-outs, restriction/grounding, removal of privileges, lectures, etc.

I’m going to get down to brass tacks to state in my opinion there is little difference between the following: hitting (also called “spanking”, “swatting”, “smacking”, or “beating”, depending on your culture/family), yelling at, scolding/lecturing, grounding, removing toys/items as a lesson, and “natural and logical” consequences (crafted and applied at the discretion of the parent/carer in order to groom for desired behavior or eliminate undesired behavior).

On the flip side of the coin, praise and rewards are perfectly complimentary to this type of punitive/manipulative parenting schema – and those “carrot” (as opposed to “stick”) systems are relatively common too. In fact most parents who use time-outs, threats, removal of privileges, scarcity/reward system, rely on a lot of behavioral praise as well.

So I’d imagine some people are reading (if they’re still reading) with their jaws on the floor – or perhaps they’re sporting a sarcastic smirk. To skeptics it would seem I don’t hold there’s any way one is allowed to raise a child. Next you’ll be guessing my house is a loud, craven mess with children shouting at me at the top of their lungs, their mouths set in garish and sticky Kool-aid grimaces, and that these children are the terrors of the town, and I’m in “denial” about it all, and I’m Ruining America.

Well, first of all, let’s banish this “allowed” business.

You’d be surprised what you’re “allowed” to do as a parent. Actually, everything I’ve listed above in what I’d call punitive parenting is fair game and usually encouraged in our country. Indeed, in the United States you are legally sanctioned to hit your child – as long as you don’t use an implement nor leave a mark (adult humans and domesticated animals are protected by at least the letter of the law). As for grounding, restrictions, time-outs and the rest – these are generally thought of as Good Parenting. So let’s stop with this “allowed” business. I have neither the ability, the right, nor the interest to drive around inspecting how each and every household runs their home. If you parent or care for a child you are pretty much free to do as you see fit and nothing I say here can force you one way or another.

Secondly, you should know I do not think parents/carers who employ the above listed strategies are bad people, monsters, stupid, “crazy”, or any other pejorative. If I thought that I’d pretty much think all parents/carers were jerks. I’d also have a hard time forgiving myself for my own monstrous behaviors and missteps, because for reasons I won’t go into detail here and now I have let myself and my children down many times, yes, even against my own better judgment or principles.

Shame and guilt as forces for improving one’s parenting don’t work very well. I am not here to wield a cudgel. Sadly, when it comes to parenting – or mothering, as most finger-wagging diatribes usually concern, implicitly or explicitly – almost any discussion of bad strategies vs. better ones will prod the guilt and shame injuries most parents and carers hold. Mothers especially, are held to account for any real or perceived errors, and missteps. This shame and guilt can sometimes prevent us from openly hearing what we need to. This is a sad thing, but perhaps unavoidable unless we decide not to speak frankly on these matters.

The good news is, I’m here to deliver some hope.

Because what many people are too afraid to hope for, or too convinced otherwise to entertain, is the possibility of raising a happy, healthy child – complete with a compassionate and moral and fierce spirit – without punishing them, or at least while actively resisting punitive methodology throughout their upbrininging. That’s right. No grounding, yelling, lecturing, time-outs, spanking. Yeah, I wouldn’t have believed it either – until I started experiencing it firsthand. It’s been one of the most humbling and exciting and amazing partnerships of my life. And as each year passes, our children prove we made the right choice.

Parenting non-punitively is possible, rewarding, and incredibly freeing in about twenty discrete ways I could probably list (and will do so at some point). Most parents/carers are too scared to try. They intuit, correctly, that if they attempt to give up punitive measures they will have to give up things they want. And they’re right about that. They also believe – incorrectly – that if they give up punitive measures their children will suffer for it, and in effect grow up “bad”.

Here is, as of today, my best thoughts on the sacrifices as I’ve experienced them.

Primarily, we give up the illusion of control. We don’t really have control – we have the illusion of it. We maintain the facade of control as long as our child is not developmentally aware enough to perceive how she is being controlled.

As our child grows, we may maintain this facade if our child lets us win out – because we have made things so unpleasant for her should she assert herself. Some parents are very good at this. In this stage our child begins to hide her nature, opinions, feelings, struggles and/or actions (indeed, duplicity in a child is a first-string symptom of punitive parenting).

We maintain the illusion of control until we observe our child regularly employing self- or other-harm. I am often very sad to hear adults promote narratives where their teenager “suddenly” starts acting “crazy”/sullen/angry/anxious/”like an asshole”. Predicably, many parents and adults put forth junk-science rhetoric regarding the “teenage brain”, pathologizing teens themselves and/or setting down young adult expressions of anxiety, alienation, anger, sadness or severe disassociation to hormones or some kind of temporary innate contrariety, etc. (what’s deeply sad is to witness teens internalize and then repeat this denigration and erasure; I was one of them). I personally think espousing “teen brains aren’t ‘normal'” / “teens are jerks” rhetoric is a last-ditch attempt to avoid admitting the damage many endemic mainstream parenting and teaching practices have inflicted upon our children. It’s too bad, too, because even even in cases of severe teenage behaviors, there is still hope – but not much hope, if the parents, carers, and teachers in stewardship aren’t willing to admit their own faults. I’d like to believe it’s never too late to admit our mistakes, acknowledge our fears, and in doing so improve our treatment of the children in our lives.

What else do we give up, when we decide we will no longer punitively parent?

We give up many accolades and praises from mainstream parenting “gurus”, from our family and friends, and from our micro- or larger culture. Believe me, if your child has a loud emotional display in a store (for instance) you stand to gain approving nods if you come down on the child with a stern and/or loud voice, especially if delivering a threat. If you patiently say “Thank you,” to the clerk, let your child cry, remove your child as soon as you can (with gentleness), you may very well be glared at. Giving up punitive and public parenting strategies, then, means many adults will expect authoritarian displays of you and, when you do not deliver, tsk tsk – or worse.

You may be told to beat your child. You may be encouraged (usually implicitly) to put him down or speak about him in a sarcastic and dismissive manner so he at least knows what a pain in the arse he is. Your family and peers may not support you; this is based in their fear, and has little to do with you. But it can be hard to be so unsupported when what we need, is a community to lift us up.

Fortunately, although it can sting to give up the many surface-level commendations you receive as a demonstrably-“strict” parent, if you can cast off punitive forces or provide better caregivers or environs for your child, you’ll likely soon be receiving genuine expressions of delight regarding your children’s character and behaviors. The funnest part of this is, for me, a state of far less attachment to outcome; e.g. no longer interested in claiming virtue or value as a result of my children’s behaviors. When my children are complimented (as they often are), I can know it is not me in the driver’s seat, but the kids’ own individual qualities emerging. I do not accept compliments regarding my children’s behavior, because I did not engender their good behavior but merely didn’t thwart, suppress, and twist it. My children themselves are allowed to handle those compliments as they see fit (they usually say, “Thank you.” and leave it at that).

I’m wracking my brain to think more about what we give up, but really those two things are about it (although they’re biggies, I grant it). I suppose we give up allowing ourselves episodes of retaliatory anger. Or rather, when we inevitably give in to such displays (as I do, still), we can relatively quickly abandon the premise that this is our right or responsibility, apologize sincerely if we did something asshat, and return to our better selves a lot quicker.

So that, I suppose, is the bad news. (Except you can see it really isn’t. Bad news.)

That’s what we give up.

Now: what do we stand to gain?

For one, we stand to gain the experience of a healthier, happier, braver, more empathetic, more alert, more humorous, and more fair-minded child. We also begin to see how children raised this way are less likely to experience or evidence the following: depression, low impulse control, habitual duplicity, generalized anxiety disorder, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, repetitive bullying episodes (either as the bully or the target), self-harming rituals, and susceptibility to peer pressure. Please note I said less likely. Believe me, if I knew of any formula to raise a child safe from all large-scale harms, I’d be tempted to can it and put it up in my pantry.

What do we stand to gain?

More enjoyment of our time together. More knowledge of who our children really are (and who they continue to grow to be). When we trust our children, we really trust them. It’s a wonderful experience. I’ve often been told by other parents, “Wow, I can’t believe you let your kids run a restaurant / ride the transit / pay your bills / use your phone / walk to the library. I couldn’t trust my kids to do that.” At first I thought these parents were talking into their sleeve, essentially chastising me for being me too permissive (and perhaps some of them were). But I began to understand I really do trust my children in a deeper way than many parents trust theirs. This wasn’t necessarily easily won nor is it perfectly accomplished, but is not only my experience: it is regularly remarked upon by others. I am their advocate, I am their mentor and advisor (when they need me), but mostly I am their nurturer as much as I can be.

What do we stand to gain?

Children we want to spend time with, and children who want to spend time with us.

What do we stand to gain? A home that is peaceful, fun, funny, compassionate, fierce, tender – and doesn’t feel scary … to anyone (including the parents… many whom I believe are often very scared indeed, hide it as they may try).

And a final note: although I have met other grownups who agree with principles of non-punitive parenting, I haven’t yet met one who claimed he/she had raised a child to adulthood and never hit, grabbed, yelled, or performed mean-spirited lectures, petty theft, or retaliatory creepitude (many parents/carers have done all the above). In other words, believing in a better way doesn’t automatically make one a saint. I have never represented myself this way and a parent who thinks I am doing so, is too defensive to really listen to what I’m saying.

But believing in a better way is the first step to living a better way.  I have had the honor in helping other parents and carers find this believe. And so far, it has been the most encouraging experience of my life. Not just living this way in our own household, but helping other households to find this path.

***

* Here is a working definition of “punitive parenting”, from a site called the Positive Discipline Resource Center (I have not read nor formed opinions as to the site’s content, but do find this definition to be pretty good):

“Punitive parents assume children have to feel bad in order to learn – though they may not use those words to describe it. When confronted with inappropriate behavior in their children, punitive parents search for a punishment to extinguish the behavior. Punitive tools include: time outs, spanking, lectures, grounding, loss of unrelated privileges or property, physical exercise, and physical discipline such as hot sauce on the tongue. Reward/punishment systems are part of a punitive paradigm.”

Miranda Kerr breastfeeding

Supermodel mum told to “put ’em away” – unless she’s showing them to straight grownup males, natch.

Miranda Kerr breastfeeding

On Wednesday Miranda Kerr, Australian model, fashion worker, and partner to actor Orlando Bloom, announced a painkiller-free birth to their new son Flynn and included an at-home photo of her breastfeeding the delightfully-snuggly newborn.

I don’t know this family, but this brief piece was a ray of sunshine in my day. I believe such unselfconscious and straightforward announcements by celebrities in support of birth advocacy and breastfeeding – as well as lovely candid photographs like this – do a great deal to help the many “regular mums” (and dads) at home watching. Anyone who’s made a study of breastfeeding rates knows that family and cultural support – or the lack thereof – is a critical factor in how our babies end up being fed. In the US, a country with dismal breastfeeding rates (and a concomitant endemic lack of support for the practice), pioneering celebrity families can empower otherwise uncertain newbies. This theory is supported by impassioned activists representing populations with even lower rates than the sum population, such as teen mothers and African American mothers.

I also know breastfeeding, with its oft-innate demonstrable power and its female- and child-positive associations, is extremely threatening to many men and women. Images of breastfeeding and discussion of breastfeeding rights are roundly mocked by all quarters including, sadly, many prominent feminists (such as Erica Jong’s recent piece lumping breastfeeding as being part and parcel with modern motherhood’s “prison”, hinting that required breastfeeding may be imminent and other foolishness. Memo to Jong: don’t get it twisted. It’s kyriarchal standards and cultural institutions that “imprison” women, carers, and small children).

Thus, of course, there were many critics responding to Kerr’s photo (which of course, transcending irony to the nth degree, shows so very much less flesh than the Victoria’s Secret work she’s done). Australian health advocate Dr. Samantha Thomas’ post on the responses to Kerr’s photo reveal some of the less uncivil (but still profoundly wrongheaded) commentary. Included are body shaming (yeah, I know – directed at a supermodel), accusations of vulgarity and inappropriateness, and slut-shaming (you can see more examples of misogynistic commentary here). Bizarrely, some commenters criticized Kerr for wearing makeup in the photo while the Daily Mail piece claims she’s wearing none.

I was very fortunate to raise my newborns in a breastfeeding-friendly culture (in fact, sadly, many of the women I knew at the time did not seem to realize how counterproductive and cruel anti-formula-feeding language can be). But when I see negative responses to Kerr I have that oppressive tingle: a near miss. Had my circumstances been different, stories like Kerr’s and responses to them could have had a tremendous effect. As it stood, I had fewer barriers than many when it came to breastfeeding. My body cooperated with me, the babies did well, my practitioners supported us, my family could feed ourselves on my one income which in turn meant I had a partner who was able to do what it took to make things happen (I was a chemical engineer at a paper mill – my husband Ralph brought me our newborn twice a day), and the children and I enjoyed the process. Other families aren’t so fortunate, and many women need more help and more cultural sustenance – including the emphatic support of the public that yes, they have a right to feed their child the way they choose. At least in the US, we are failing miserably in that regard.

So today I’d like to extend, for what it’s worth, my deep appreciation to Kerr and her partner for being brave enough to go public with something they have every reason to celebrate. As one mother to another, I hope she finds friends and supporters to help her and her partner in their new journey.

It looks like things are getting off to a beautiful start.

 
***

Originally published for “SQUAT! Birth Journal” in 2011.

Owning it; opening up

Since the gradual but steady and rather linear movement of my partner and I in exploring different ways of parenting and living together – frankly, radical lifestyles in the context of USian family life, and I take no particular pleasure nor displeasure in that particular label – I have often been reluctant to publicly vocalize in a pointed way how the drama, stress, illness, and disharmony in our household has gone down drastically – something like 400% (that is a real quantitative estimate, as best as I can make one).

Why shy? Well, I think for a while I was afraid things were only temporarily better. Then as it began to dawn on me this was no fluke, I still felt oddly gun-shy; perhaps publicly announcing definitive improvements would jinx them (I am occasionally superstitious like that). There was a third reason, the one I struggle with even today: considering how fraught with ugliness the public conversation on Parenting can be (usually levied most viscously against women and children: examples, the false rhetoric of the “mommy wars”, also contemporary feminist and mainstream science purporting concepts of children and teens as “little sociopaths”, inherently flawed, or less-than-human) it sometimes seems like any personal discussion of success is constrained to being misinterpreted out of the gate. A frank discussion of successful alternatives to dominatorstyle adult strategies runs the real risk of a reader – especially a parent/carer – interpreting my experience as a referendum on their failures, worldviews, or character – this referendum is so agonizing for some their ability to listen is thwarted. I’ve seen many grownups shut down instantly, unable to entertain theories or even digest others’ lived experiences, swallowed up by knee-jerk reactions brought upon by years of accepting the child class’ oppression (not just parents, either).

But there are two compelling reasons to be honest and to not worry about appearing a blowhard or creep or worse. Maybe three reasons. The first is, I have a right to my experience and my online journal has been where I’ve recorded many of my experiences, for years now – and no one is required to read nor endorse. The second is, JEEBUS, I am not selling something and have no sinister agenda in writing boldly in defense of Love. I don’t do much of anything but write, write, write, (often) devoting my heart and guts and brains to helping families and children and grownups. All of this is pretty goddamned brave of me and I know it. Why not be braver still, and claim a victory when I experience one?

Because – and here’s that third aspect – I know how inspirational and helpful my writings have been to so many. Over the years I’ve experienced hundreds of emails, texts, IMs, tweets, phone calls, physical letters, and personal conversations – from all quarters of the world – attesting to this. It has been an honor to be brought into discussion and occasionally claimed as a mentor to others. Thing is: if I didn’t write, I couldn’t help. And reflecting on this I often feel sad for the parent I started out as, because I was not exposed much to dominator- and fear-free models of parenting for several years (and what I was exposed to, I probably missed). I myself could have used a hefty dose of wisdom eschewing the zero-sum game of life with children – long, long before I started a family of my own.

So let me tell you a bit about how it is for us. Let me be clear.

These days our household is such a peaceful one and my children are such strong individuals that the stress involved in parenting is almost entirely reduced to matters of paying bills and affording clothes, food, and the pursuit of creative exploits for the members in our one-income family. These are not necessarily small matters, but the agony and work and tension of life-caring-for-children has plummeted by virtue of what I have left behind. Every day I peel back the culturally-reified illusion of righteous control in their little lives and as a result my ability to be Present, aware, nurturing, and loving is increased all the more. The relief of leaving behind the contemporary small-minded and culturally-prescribed pressures of parenthood is glorious. I’d like to believe every day I heal a little more.

Time slips by quickly as most parents have had reason to observe. Last night while we four sat talking and laughing in the low light of our living room my husband said to my daughter in a voice I’d never heard before, “When did you get so big? It’s breaking my heart.” And I’d just been looking at her thinking the same thing; she’s tall as my shoulder now and she’s tough and tender and whip-smart and brave and scrappy and deeply empathetic and present. She is, in a word, (relatively) Undamaged. I can’t think of a word that fits better. Raising children in a consensual manner is an experience, perhaps like a happy, healthy, and supported drug-free childbirth – that is best experienced for its potential to be fully or partially understood. Today while I gave blood the phlebotomist asked me the ages of my children. It amazed me to reflect and name them as eight and six. Their moral development, their life skills, and their vocabulary and ethics are more fully-endowed than many grownups I know. These children are not experienced as burdens to me (well, not usually) so much as people I thank daily I have the gift of experiencing in my life. They are my favorite people to be with, and besides the deep-experienced protectiveness and crazy-in-love Mama-identifiers I’ve been overcome with many times, these days it seems more and more we are fellow travellers and friends. They inspire me more than anyone else I  know.

My children’s (relative) wholeness is no credit to my partner and I, really, any more than by providing fertile ground, planting a seed, and weeding and watering we could claim it was us, not the earth and lifeforce itself, that brought the green and vibrant vine springing to fruition. Indeed, I often feel aggrieved at my many, many mistakes I’ve made; I don’t get a do-over. I can have the knowledge my mistakes are in large part because I myself was damaged as a child, through many means and measures large and small, and I remain broken still – but it is frustrating to be so limited in my responsibilities as a parent. I sometimes feel so deeply sad because I don’t believe I’ll ever be whole again; I feel sad less for myself, but for what I’ve wreaked on my family. I sometimes think if I’d have known how much I would screw up, I would not have chosen to bear children.

All the same, children are incredibly resilient and thrive despite poor or abusive or anemic circumstances. And make no mistake, despite their wholeness and strength, I do believe our children still need Ralph and I. They need us for food, clothing, support, nurture, and love. The chillingly dismissive child-hate linked to above at least alludes to vital clues about our role in caring for children; there is evidence human brains continue to crucially develop well into our twenties or beyond; if this is true this means so many of us should be helping younger ones instead of hand-wringing, pearl-clutching, and stridently complaining about “bad” kids and their inept (or worse) carers (which usually means blighting under-supported women and alloparents, and the child class).

I hope I’ve been clear that things have improved for us; not that we have attained some kind of perfection impervious to sorrow and anger and suffering. Relative privilege has allowed us the space to heal. And disaster, despair, setbacks, drama – all of it is around the corner, or may be at least. One illness or death or devastating disability; the free will of other human beings who can choose to victimize any one of us, a day or week where the limitations of my partner and I keep us from meeting our still-growing children’s needs, one ugly fight where destructive words are spat out. Parental methods and spiritual concepts aside, I cannot offer immunity for suffering and I don’t try to. I can say suffering has diminished and the daily language and experience of love has swelled in recent years. It strengthens all of us and it makes life even more worth living, more deeply enjoyed; whatever time we have left together is savored like that delicious strawberry on the vine.

The false and harmful rhetoric of family life vs. work life

Over at Noble Savage a husband and wife team discussed the implications of a report in the Guardian UK regarding housework, childcare and heterosexual partners working in-home or out-of-home.

I thought I’d conduct my own interview with Ralph. As I conducted it I realized the interview questions and the “study” itself had inherent flaws and assumptions or supported such, but I figured what the heck, this was the mainstream language and framework most people could relate to. I didn’t warn Ralph of my reservations about the interview and I told him to be honest, “warts and all”.

Here is my interview and some of my thoughts after:

Do you believe that childcare is primarily a mother’s responsibility or are both parents equally responsible?

Those are two possible functional family structures, but the question implies those are it. That’s wrong dude, get a better question.

I believe a child has needs, and the parents and adults that are in the child’s life are at fault if they do not provide and meet those needs. This is everything from listening to excited ideas to changing diapers in the middle of a sleepless night. Different people meet those roles and needs. It is up to the adults in the child’s life to communicate honestly about who can do what task. The capability for an adult to provide loving care for children changes all the time. If there’s more than one adult involved, this can be accounted for.

But – a second part – in one sense, yes it is the woman’s responsibility, but only due to external pressures i.e. “Where was the mother?” [Many] external messages tell me my wife is responsible for the family, and I have a chip on my shoulder about that.

How is the childcare divided between you and your partner? Are you happy with the current arrangement?

Our children are older (6 & 8), so the immediate need for hands to keep the children alive is passed for now. We no longer need someone with the child at all times in case they choke, for example. Child care today, for us, means being present and able to respond to what/where/when our children have needs of us.

My wife is a stay at home parent, and I go to work for 40+ hours per week. She drives the bulk of domestic tasks, planning meals, washing clothes, and managing children’s scheduled appointments (when they happen, which is rare).

I pick up tasks when I can, and am primarily responsible for vacuuming, recycling & garbage, and during hours when I’m home try to take the lead on folding clothes, dishes, and cooking. I’m a slow cook, and so am sometimes discouraged by it.

I’m unhappy in the arrangement in that I wish I was home more. I work for an educational institution, which is more rewarding personally than when I worked for companies whose goals began and ended with money. But I find home life more rewarding and interesting. I wish there was some magic way we could both be home, and maintain our income and NOT have to leave home.

The unhappiness is not a drama, however. I do find rewards in a career, and am generally happy to have both work and family as highlights in my life.

Current research suggests that men with two children whose partners works full-time and childcare is shared are happiest and least stressed. Why do you think this might be? Are you happier when your partner works?

Just thinking about my partner working gives me some stomach knots. Having one of us at home means no school – we homeschool – therefore no school schedules. The shuttling of children to/from school, events, etc, would put us all on a schedule and disrupt our flow of life right now. That would increase my stress, definitely.

So having a partner work would increase my stress, I think. Also, my partner leads in the family with parenting theories, education, and style. So it’s easier for me to subscribe to her ideas and concepts of parenting than to balance work, schedules, life, and explore better ways to raise my kids. That means less stress. Doing it different means more stress.

I wonder if the study you mention takes into account a predisposition with lifestyle inflation, or a view that lack of money == stress and that more money/higher lifestyle fixes everything.

The study focusses on the happiness of the fathers; but do you think your partner would be happier with some work outside the home?

I believe my partner would find joy and reward, internally and externally, in employment. I think this because she’s she’s said as much. I also know there’s relief in just going and doing something you’re told to do, sinking your teeth into a task and thoroughly accomplishing it. There’s coworkers saying “Well done!” and all the validation that comes with a job.

We’re both aware of our culture’s disregard for women at home. Working provides positive, external reinforcement both culturally and financially (Hey, you’re worth THIS much!).

I also believe my partner would experience some stress, guilt, and frustration. Does it balance out, would it be more good than bad? That’s not really my call. It’s her business.

You touched on this a bit, but in an ideal world, and if work/financial constraints were not an issue, how would you balance your professional, personal and family commitments? Would you like to spend more or less time at work and with family?

In an ideal world, I think we’d both volunteer for interests we liked, often with our children involved. We all like hanging out together, and we also like personal time to recharge. In an ideal world, my wife would sew when she wanted to, and be with the family & fully present when she wanted. I imagine as my kids get older, they’ll begin to engage with her in sewing, too, as participants and not just recipients. Maybe not fully participating, but at least dipping their toes into the art. For me, and my ‘work’, the stuff that’s most interesting to me turns out to involve others, and my kids are fine candidates.

We’re not big on exclusive activities, I guess.

So in this ideal world without financial constraints, I’d have a record label to help out local musicians. My son and daughter would help with the artwork, studio recording, and mailings. When they were willing, of course. Both have shown an interest in music. Or I’d be working/doing graphic art – drawing at the same table with my daughter as she draws is awesome. Or gardening. My son enjoys being outside, planting and harvesting. So I imagine there’d be an open invitation to other family members to come and participate in our activities, and vice versa.

Back to the real world! We all know that women have had (and still have) numerous struggles within the workplace and balancing their careers with their families. Do you see men having the same struggles within the home, trying to spend time with their children and be accepted as adequate parents?

Men don’t have the same struggles. They don’t have the same expectations. They don’t have the same judgements against/for them. The scale of the struggle in culture is such that it’s a different story. Men are given free passes by culture to ass out on so many things, that when they do step up and engage in domesticity it’s soiled by the heaps of praise invariably piled on. I think it’s a messy thing to dip into, because I find it impossible to shut out the world and lean entirely into family.

That last sentence is bugging me, the part about “trying to spend time with their children and be accepted as adequate parents?” I have a little slice of hate in my heart for fathers who whine about this, or sort of wave with the idle “wish I had been around my children more when they were growing up!” thing. Just fucking do it. You had a kid – that’s your qualification for being an adequate parent. Now, to be a better-than-adequate parent, do some work. Grow up even more. Learn about different parenting techniques. Be critical of the way you’re handling things, and try to fix the things that don’t work. “My child didn’t come with an instruction manual.” Nope, but there’s over a bazillion books on parenting. Read a few of them.

If you’re a father, and you’re trying to be accepted (by whom, actually?) as an adequate parent, you’re an asshole who needs to grow up and do a better job. Trying to be adequate is just not acceptable.

So in your view, are fathers genuinely interested in having greater flexibility between work and home?

I can’t speak for all fathers, but I’m very interested in that flexibility. I’ve got some flexibility, and I’m grateful for it. My work culture doesn’t punish me for spending time with my family, it doesn’t require overtime, and encourages me to bring my family to the occasional work function. Taking sick leave to care for family is legally protected (I work for the state of Washington in higher ed), and acceptable.

I think now my views have shifted enough toward family that I won’t take a job that doesn’t have these provisions. With employers, we’re merely travelling the same direction for awhile. My family with always be in my life.

That said, I would welcome even more flexibility. Open options from my employer to have reduced hours, etc.

Do you think women are less inclined to find working at home difficult and miss office life, or just that they’ve had to get used to it?

I think they’ve had a lifetime of american culture telling them to expect it, to tolerate it, and to keep quiet about any complaints they may have. With that environment, with little support, do they have much choice other than ‘get used to it’?

Final question: do you think ‘juggling’ work and children is something women do naturally or only do because they have to? Be honest!

Again, I can’t speak for others with any authority. I only have my own experience to go on.

Regarding ‘juggling’ work/home, I try not to have work and home life be these separate silos. If I’m having difficulty at home, it carries over into my job. If I’m having a success at work, I bring a positive smile home to my family. I try to think of it as just ‘life’ and it happens all the time. To think that one doesn’t influence the other seems a little goofy.

I used to believe that there was a special, chemical/magical bond that happens between mother and child right after birth. I don’t believe that anymore. I don’t believe one gender has a knack over the other, but it’s not a level playing field either. We all bring our past experiences to the table, and a life where one gender has expectations to be a selfless, tender nurturer and the other a breadwinner workaholic prepare people in different ways. Basically, we all have baggage when we apply for the parenting job. It’s important to our future that we strive to do the best with what we have, and to grow as parents. I read once that the problem with parenting is that the child is the teacher, and once we realize that, learning gets easier. I totally get where that’s coming from.

Thanks for taking the time. I’ll be posting soon!

**

Responses to my husband’s interview aside for a minute, I was struck by the subtle and overt article and interview suppositions mirroring those I see in Western cultural attitudes – namely, that “work” means (only) paid work, that “work” and “family” are and should be discrete and separate and there are problems when they are forced to co-exist, that there is something exciting and empowering about work life that cannot be found in home life (this last conversation also erases the lives of the many who have stress-filled, unpleasant, or socioeconomically-forced work that lacks “enriching” factors), and finally, that there is something rather dull, less ambitious, and more chore-like when it comes to raising children and keeping a home (which will then necessarily set up a tension and/or struggle over who “has” to do these things).

On the other hand, my observations make it clear most parents/carers genuinely do love their children and find family life restorative, or aspects of it anyway – usually more so than most paid work. Most people want their out-of-home or paid work to have meaning as well; they want to relate and share good relationships with those they spend their day with. In fact our patriarchal and kyriarchal framing of family and earning life coupled with the valuation of the acquisition of property, financial success and “security”, and our insistence in the reality and rightness of dominator and insecurity narratives fights these well-intentioned and hardworking parent/earners tooth and nail. I suspect many men and women aren’t following their hearts and minds because they’ve internalized such toxic worldviews. This is one reason it’s important to me to identify aloud the instabilities and corrupting narratives in our culture while extending compassion and understanding to those who participate in them.

My observation is many self-labeled “progressive” USian men claim they want things to be more egalitarian with regard to house and kid “chores” but those in the socioeconomic strata empowered enough to make this a realistic venture – well, when it comes down to it, they are not willing to give up privilege and learn some new tricks and/or disentangle from a life centered around the ownership and upkeep of material possessions. They tend to be dismayed and angry about the work that child- and housecare really entails and find it “not good enough” to center more of their life around (yet requiring their partners or state or private institutions to focus on it is fine). Many women attempt to evade or at least lessen their portion of the work judged as less-than (and the lack of pay, validation, retirement and social security benefits, and village support). They try to carve out some security and respect by eschewing this workload or at least lessening it or attempting to (hence: paid childcare, schooling, “shortcuts”, Costco trips, goods and products made by sweatshop labor). Our children watch our attitudes and values and evasions and frustrations and thus internalize many of them.

Conversations referring to the “distractions” of children, the (apparent) necessity of “juggling” once you have kids, the concept that the only real “work” is paid work, and the oft-touted construct that childraising and the running of a home is innately “braindead” stuff – those are cultural fables in the Western world continually repeated and reified such that they set up a zero-sum framework entirely toxic to children – who are going through crucial stages of development – and their parent/carers. In most of the articles I come across “childcare” – even the care of one’s OWN children – always sounds like shit-work, frankly. A lot of people believe it is. And, more devastating still, children learn come to believe this themselves.

Tangentially: as a figure of speech the fact “juggling” comes on the scene much more after we have progeny (without children our lives were “busy”) is quite interesting. “Juggling” implies an instability and a danger – something, somewhere, will have to give. That we don’t “juggle” until we have children suggests, however subtly or largely, that it is the children who are the resented presence introducing danger and impoverishment of resources. In short, I find the language compartmentalizing life with children to be downright creepy lots of times.

As for my husband’s answers, there were some surprises for me. I am pleased to see though, that our first thoughts were the rejection of the family-work binary. And I’m glad my husband and I both began, long ago, to see through the devaluation of the raising of children (all children, not just our own). We don’t think of our (single income, working class, homeschooling) lives as “juggling” and we don’t feel some of our work is better or deserves more status than other work (although sometimes it’s hard to see an upside to changing the litter box).

As a life learning /radical unschooling family we’ve researched a fair bit on what happens when a person has internalized concepts that something is a “chore” or a tick-box, rather than a conscious, joyous, hard-earned effort that involves the mind, body, spirit – and has the capacity to change and heal the world as much, if not more than, anything else.

I feel deeply grateful to begin my journey anew every day.

Question: How do you deal with the subject of pedophilia?

Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of abuse and pedophilia.

I got a great question from Formspring today. I keep thinking I need to kill that account. Its encouraged anonymity is not coincidental to being the only time I’ve received hatey-mail. Still, besides that one bit of spew (which was quite clarifying for me, actually), I’ve enjoyed what’s been put forth.

Today:

Free range kids (“Men and boys in the locker room”) got me thinking: pedophilia is at once real and the source of way too much fear. I know lots of adult pedophilia sufferers, but I don’t want that to justify paranoia inflicted around my kids. How do you navigate this?

(Note: I don’t feel qualified to direct advice to sexual abuse survivors. The question here asked is how I (and my husband) navigate this terrain; here I’m going to express some of the limitations that mainstream parenting culture purports and my response to the suppositions of “safety” afforded by these commonalities. Full disclosure: neither my husband nor myself were victims of sexual abuse as children, although I have experience of sexual abuse and coercion as a young adult.)

Thank you for your question!

What is “too much fear”? If you mean many parents/guardian adults/teachers have an inflated sense of Stranger Danger I’d agree with you. If you seek to quantify the suffering that abuse has wreaked on children and grown children, I don’t know if we can ever say “too much”. That said, our mainstream media certainly deals in many scarepieces and/or graphic (and repeated ad nauseam) true accounts of Misery Porn and Sadistic Pervert Fables and I do think this has tainted parenting culture and village child-rearing (because the rest of the village is participating, whether they want to admit it or not) in unhelpful and harmful ways.

Yet for those of us who are able, it is very possible to parent our hopes and not our fears with regard to keeping our children safe.

Most abuse of children is inflicted by those the child knows and trusts. That can help give us pause when we worry about the lurking fellow at the library or the one jumping out of an alley (these incidents happen, but are much rarer). Compounding the misery around this topic, many abuse victims are routinely silenced, blamed, second-guessed, minimized, and even vilified. Embarking on a discussion of the relative safety of Strangers often re-injures those who were abused by strangers. Any discussion is best served by sensitivity and acknowledgment: because it is true, many have been victimized.

A re-focus on the family, where most abuse occurs, might help us respond with more compassion and intelligence when stranger abuse/violence is inflicted on children or the very rare case of stranger abduction (about 110 cases a year in a nation of 40 – 45 million children). Ironically (and tragically) our cultural concepts that families are “safe” and we can keep our children unscathed by strangers through the right amounts of control and vigilance, means not only are we frightened and teach our children to fear but we are currently responding very poorly indeed to those families who are the victims of tragedies, mistakes that could happen to any of us, or a combination of these events.

Provided your children are currently safe, we can do much for our them while they are in our care. We can help them – or rather, not hinder them! – as they develop their personal intuition, inner strengths, knowledge of autonomy, and internal convictions of right and wrong. Sadly many mainstream parenting strategies actually serve to subvert these developments or seriously compromise them as to be nearly unworkable.

For example many parental/adult discussions about “safety” for kids involve measures of external control, “rules”, and lectures. Those kinds of external motivators in fact detract from our children’s inner strength and personal knowledge of righteous anger and/or violation (or “uh-oh” sense, as I’ve heard it called) and also subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) reinforce the idea they are second class citizens and grownups know best. Most kids spend their lives being told to do what grownups tell them. When someone comes along who wants to abuse them, if they have any skill and finesse at all, our children are easier marks than many would like to believe. Not to mention we are teaching future perpetrators if you’re big enough and strong enough (mentally, physically, etc.) it will be your dominion to do with others as you please.

I don’t have very nuanced advice for recognizing pedophiliac tendencies within a family or trusted friend – the lack of detailed and holistic discussion of this is sad indeed as these abuses are endemic (for instance, note the dismissive reviews and overall low ratings of a nuanced and disturbingly real, complex, and absolutely true case in the documentary Awful Normal, which I recently viewed). I do think familial abuse could almost be called commonplace – and yet it remains under-discussed. I am not very sophisticated at guessing as to WHY it’s so under-discussed. I have some theories. Culturally we undervalue women and their lived realities and the majority of sexually-exploited persons are female-bodied – but by no means all of course. Culturally we oppress children (even very loving adults/parents/carers do, because they don’t know better or are too scared to do anything but what is handed to them as “good parenting”) but we aren’t ready to admit that, of course, abuse is a tragic and inevitable result of this systemic oppression.

As far as pedophilia goes, as long as our culture is invested in oppositional sexism, misogyny, and dominator culture, we will see a rich (if underground) environmental home for full-fledged pedophiles. Our culture supports many of the cornerstones of pedophilia – look around at images in our MSM and you will see the constant sexualization AND infantalization (meaning here enforced powerlessness) of women and girls – women turned into “girls” (or told they should try to achieve this through surgery, hair removal, “feminine” – as in docile and het-male-oriented – behavior, surgeries including labioplasty for a “young” vagina (a cosmetic procedure currently on the rise), a widespread disgust of, dismissal of, trivialization of or lack of respect afforded to women’s bodies including, notably, childbirth and breastfeeding, images of rape in television and film made “sexy” and provocative), and girls in turn given messages their sole functions are either (eventual) reproductive ones, roles of ornamentation, or to satisfy the normative heterosexual man’s tastes and preferences (this in turn gives our men poor scripts as well). The power dynamics reified in these cultural messages are staggering and speak to our complicity in the power dynamics inherent in sexual abuse. In other words Monsters don’t just hop out of closets and grab our little girls (and boys); we create them.

This all sounds very glum – but I hope any adult/parent/carer will take a few minutes to realize how vulnerable our children are and how they need our better care – and they need us to do better to change the world, not just for our children but for our children’s children and so on.

As for us and how we, Ralph and Kelly Hogaboom, have “handled it” – the answer would take many more pages for me to type. The subjects of sex, sexism, power, and bodily autonomy are ones we’ve invested in since before the children were born (because we are genuinely interested in them, not because we seek to “program” our children properly); we don’t hide these subjects from our kids but we also don’t frighten them. The in-tune parent/carer will usually see when a child is frightened or unsure or curious or playful. The in-tune parent/carer will respond when a child asks a question, then be a decent-enough conversationalist to pick up cues as to the child’s understanding level and willingness and interest to listen.

I ask my kids a lot of questions. I ask them if it’s okay to kiss someone if they don’t want you to. I listen to their responses and thoughts about marriage and procreation. I ask them if a man can be married to a man. I ask them if they know what “rape” is. I obviously don’t ask them all this at once! Rather I am condensing a series of amazing conversational moments (and much learning for all parties) over the years.

I play games with them. Some of my favorite involve asking them permission to touch them, or willingly giving them power over my body (to “control” me like a voice-activated robot, or to push me down, etc.). Sometimes I ask them permission to kiss them (and then wait). Sometimes I ask permission to PINCH them (never painfully – by the way, my son loves this game). They enjoy having power and they enjoy scaring themselves. I don’t hold them down and tickle them. I don’t make them submit to my desire for them physically (although sometimes I will beg for a hug). I come to them when they ask me to hug or cuddle them (they do this often). I let them decide how they want their bodies treated, including what medical care they’d like and what food they want to eat and what they want to wear (and no, I did not give them this much freedom from the moment they were born either… when children are babies it is very appropriate we decide what they wear and and that we lock up poisons they might try to drink and what medical care they receive – the latter is a responsibility that we often take for granted but is rather mind-blowing when I think about it).

On that note I also do not disrupt their bodily autonomy. MOST parents I know, my husband and myself included until relatively recently, are very poor at this – we disrupt children’s spiritual, emotional, physical, and bodily autonomy on a *regular basis*. Sometimes I think re-affording children that autonomy is the very, very best thing we can do to keep them safe (some amazing and wise parents/carers know to do this from the beginning). It also does wonders for the health and happiness and harmony of all family members.

How to do that, to begin to do it or learn or deprogram, is not something easily expressed and depends on individual factors. I am always happy to listen to specific family scenarios and respond. I’d like to think I’ve helped many families (and I’m told I have). You can email me at kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.

Good luck! You have an awesome, incredible, wonderful responsibility. Raising children has been the best, so far, adventure of my life.

How to mommy-blog, or whereupon I sound like an asshole four years ago and possibly but hopefully not today

Mid-August a reader writes:
I’m pretty happy with my little blogging enterprise. I earn just a tiny bit of income, I enjoy having something that makes me write (my alleged trade) regularly, and I value the relationships I’ve forged with other women all over the world through the blogging community. Good stuff, right?

BUT (and isn’t there always a but?) some of my IRL friends find my internet sharing tacky or take things I say personally (even when they were not intended as such). I’ve noticed IRL friends unfollowing my blog. Now, in nearly all cases the reality is that these were not good friends for me. They were folks that I might not have liked so much IRL, but depended on to break up the monotony of stay-at-home parenting. And yet, illogically, it still stings.

I have experience being on the other side of this. Several months ago I had a mom acquaintance that blogged and though I liked her all right in person, I couldn’t stand her blog. It was preachy and condescending. In hindsight, I see that she was insecure and stressed. She was a literal and extreme devote of attachment parenting and she put a lot of pressure on herself to be perfect and put out a perfect image. To me, it was all insufferable. I quietly unfollowed her so I’d stop getting ticked off at her writing. She noticed and confronted me via email, a nasty exchange ensued, and we no longer speak, in person or online. I realized that if I could grow to hate her through her blog, other people could feel the same way about me and my blog.

I blog under my real name because I am (again, allegedly) a writer by trade and though there are great reasons to be an anonymous blogger, there are very few professional outlets for writers unwilling to put their own name to their words. And rightly so. Part of the challenge of writing is finding a way to deal with other people in your work that treats them fairly, is honest, and that you can live with being out there. But it’s tough to walk to balance between keeping my IRL friends 100% out of my writing and not writing about anything, especially given that over the last several months so much of my time is spent in the company of mothers.

I always do my best to make it clear to the people in my life that I do not expect them to read my blog. In fact, I’d rather they not read it if they’re going to feel put out by the task or otherwise not enjoy it. But I did eventually gather from one mom acquaintance that she felt like she had to skim my blog to check for references to her. Ack! What paranoia! Especially given that I’ve never referenced her or anything related to her. But boy do I regret having ever written about any of my mom friends, in however oblique terms, even though those few posts were the most cathartic to write at the time I wrote them I thought through very carefully how I’d feel about everyone in my life reading them and decided it was okay with me. A few (good) friends reached out to get clarification. The rest, it seems, just assumed I was pissed at them and withdrew from our relationship.

I’m conflicted about how I feel about putting myself out there. On one hand, my blog is doing me a service by screening out friends who might not be a good match for me. The woman that skims my blog out of paranoia and I have been hanging out for over a year, and yet, we barely know each other. Still, I enjoyed her ability to help me pass a monotonous afternoon of baby minding and now that chance is gone. And likewise, I was poorly suited for friendship with the wooden toys/cloth diapers purist, but it sucks to be eliminating social contacts before I can alienate them with my big fat mouth in person. I mean, jeez, I tend to think of my blog as a very distilled and edited version of myself so if folks can’t jive with that, what good can I do in person?

How do you deal with IRL friends/family being insulted by your writing? I’d prefer that folks address concerns and disagreements directly with me, but lo, that is not the way of the modern woman. (Thanks for the, now long ago, recommendation for Curse of the Good Girl. I know a lot of “nice” women, which is great, except that I am not a “nice” woman.) So instead people have qualms with my writing and choose to withdraw from my company. I don’t know how to deal with that.

I feel a lot of pressure as a woman, as a mother, as a human, as an American, to always be polite and likable. Thus, I feel pressure to make my blog always positive, never critical, and never controversial. But jeezusfuckingkrist, how lame is it to always be agreeable? I have stances, damn it! Unpopular ones. And I want to write about them and not just be bland “yeah for everybody” ladyblogger all the time (not that I succeed at that even when I try). But I don’t know how to walk this line between honesty and offensiveness in either my essay writing or my blog. Your thoughts?

Oi! This was a much longer query than I intended it to be. Can you see why I didn’t just formspring it? Again, no obligation to respond. This is just something I was curious about what your response might me.

All the best and well wishes,

First of all, thank you for your email. There is a lot to address here!

The first thing that pops up on my radar are your stated experiences you find SAHMing and housework “monotony” and one coping strategy is to find friends, even potentially ill-fitting ones, out of desperation (or perhaps some word akin to “desparation” that isn’t that drastic-sounding). More about this in a minute.

The second thing that comes to mind is how bad, bad, bad of an idea it would have been for me if I’d have ever tracked too much who was following me and who wasn’t, or conversely if I followed solely out of social obligation! I’m glad I don’t know specifically who is following my blog or not. I would worry a particular thing I said hurt someone. Or that they were judging my ass. Or something. And there are too many readers and back-and-forth followers for this to be a cost I should bear. Now, maybe there are people who could track this without distress but for me this would disrupt my writing and take some of the agency away from others. If they find my blog offensive or upsetting, they certainly have the right to tell me. And those who read or decide not to read are probably really NOT doing it about me anyway, because…

The truth is, our friends and readers should be allowed to stop reading our blog for ANY reason and they don’t owe it to us to say why (just as we never know exactly why those who choose to read, do – unless they tell us). In the case of those who jump ship, maybe they need 100% uplifting stuff right now and our snark is too much. Maybe our life or parts of it represent an ideal, and they feel envious and don’t like those feelings. Maybe they find us boring. In any case when they read or don’t read it’s about them. Why should I automatically make it about me? It doesn’t help me write better or feel better or behave better.

Which brings me to my next point. You asked,

How do you deal with IRL friends/family being insulted by your writing?

In many years of regular blogging with a fair readership I have only had two incidents of someone telling me they were insulted or hurt (and one incident of anon hate mail). I can’t speak to those who may have been insulted but haven’t told me (it takes a lot of courage to do so, I understand).

My strategies are simple and threefold. I

A. Try to be honest and committed to personal healing (more complex than it sounds), B. Make sure the blog is about ME – not other people – and is vulnerable as opposed to telling “my side” and C. (from my entry over four years ago* which is still rather apt): “[Employ] a pristine, crystal-clear policy on when to use names and how to tell stories with the degree of anonymity that [works for me].”

Addressing A.: If someone is insulted or offended and they tell me, I owe it to myself and them to care. I may reject their accusations of bad faith (if they make them), but I will probably behave differently in the future because I care enough to care why they hurt. I may apologize if I did something wrong. Now I don’t know how much this matters, once the hurt has already occurred. But I do think most people experience me as an empathetic individual who is open to knowing how I am experienced.

B.: It takes ovaries to make the blog about me. I don’t use the blog as an excuse to communicate to people indirectly. I use it as a place to write about my feelings and experiences. I am as vulnerable as I can be. This last part is very hard. Sometimes people read things I write and think I’m tough as nails and have It All Figured Out when actually I’m crying out in pain and anger. In fact many of my friends and readers seem to think I have fewer vulnerabilities than most people. I’m truly not sure where they get this idea. I’ve tried lately to say, “This hurts” or “I’m in pain” etc. This means I have to brave the tumbleweeds and crickets if none of my many readers comes to my rescue (which happens sometimes). But I’ve learned also I am kind of on my own, and pretending I’m not hurt or vulnerable isn’t really a solution I want to employ.

C.: I absolutely respect both my right to write about anything I want, but also my desire to not hurt people indiscriminately. Fortunately, this hasn’t been hard considering I’m at what, well over half a million words and I’ve not fucked up too many times. We can know deep-down which friends would rather be talked about as an initial or not mentioned at all. We can also ask them, or at least open a dialogue. Sometimes I mention people’s names, sometimes I do not. Sometimes I choose not to write anything at all for a long time – or write in such a way as to entirely obfuscate details that may have social repercussions I don’t want to set in motion. Hopefully my readers know if I am writing anything at all that has drama, it’s not because I am tattling or need reassurance (unless I specifically ask for reassurance, which is rare), it’s because I’m chronicling my life and who I am.

Tangentially, at first in Port Townsend I had a handful of what I affectionately called “star-fuckers”, ladies and gentlemen who read primarily to see if I’d written about them. Hee. They skimmed my blog for their name for the “fame” (such as it is, which is near-naught) or the worry I’d diss them. But I don’t blame them.  Human beings are smart enough to know the words we say to one another in-person aren’t the summation of human response. In particular women and girls are socially trained to gossip and back-bite and be indirect with their feelings. Why shouldn’t my friends be worried and/or tuned in, assuming (with good cause, but not so likely in my case) I’d be less-than-direct about my true feelings only to air them online later?

Over time I think most readers who know me IRL have developed a sense of trust. I feel proud to write about what happens during the day with relative freedom, knowing I’m (likely!) not stepping on toes and knowing I am open to hearing if my language has hurt (1st footnote, here). It is an art, I must admit! In the entry four years ago I wrote, “Write what you really think and be prepared for anyone to read it (your pastor, your parents, your spouse, that blog-stalker you were trying to avoid). Be prepared to re-evaluate your policy, but don’t be in a hurry to. My policy: no one has to read this. If you read my blog, you are looking through my windows – don’t be offended if you don’t like how I look in my panties. That said, it is never my intention to hurt feelings or humiliate, and I’m open to reconsideration regarding my entries.” I take every word of that very seriously.

So now on to you some more. You wrote,

I feel a lot of pressure as a woman, as a mother, as a human, as an American, to always be polite and likable. Thus, I feel pressure to make my blog always positive, never critical, and never controversial.

Yes. Of course. There’s a lot of this pressure.

But jeezusfuckingkrist, how lame is it to always be agreeable? I have stances, damn it! Unpopular ones. And I want to write about them […] I don’t know how to walk this line between honesty and offensiveness in either my essay writing or my blog.

You do realize the idea of living “politely” and somewhat inauthentically, then going to the blog and ranting about attachment parenting/working mothers/babystrollers/babyslings/breastfeeding Nazis/formula-feeding louts – is as much of a harmful behavior required in sacrifice of “Nice White Lady Syndrome” as is being overly-polite?

Given that, I think one of the best things we parents/carers/mommy-bloggers (and parents/carers/mommy-IRL-people) could do is not buy into the mommy-wars. It’s false rhetoric anyway as the C-section or vaccinating mama loves her kids as much as the homebirthing crunchy one; social pressures set them against one another and sadly, too many succumb. Let’s be above this! Let’s save our PISSED for the social pressures, sexism, misogyny, devaluation of certain groups (children, people of color, disabled, etc), and the kyriarchal mindsets of the many men (and women) who ignore our suffering or laugh it off as being “less than” – let’s not hate on one another!

So for instance your final (for now) read on your Wooden Toys Purist was a good one. At the time it hurt you to read so you stopped reading; later you had compassion for what she was probably going through (and you probably intuited correctly). Too bad it was too late in her case. (or is it? You can always apologize if you hurt her… your unfollowing was justified for your own mental health – and she may relate to this more than you know! – but perhaps you said things in the email exchange that you regret…)

It is a lie we are all “different”, and we should not read one another’s blogs if other women have different “priorities” (it is absolutely true we should keep our mental and emotional health as safe as possible, which may include not partaking of a certain blog or experience… but we can do this without vilifying others and their choices or laying all The Hurt at their feet). Those women (and men) who upset us, we have more in common with them than less. I recommend a heavy dose of NVC, yes with their New Agey sounding giraffes and jackals et al. It really helps.

Finally, what’s with you finding at-home parenting to be so boring? Or social life so unsatisfying? You know that’s not a requirement of mommyhood/SAHMhood/laydeefriends, right? These are things you can change (probably). Do you need to go back to work? Do you need status and support for staying home? Do you need to vent to supportive people (not to other new mamas who might feel raw and pecked-at as well)? Do you need more help? (this latter is what I really needed, back when I joked about at-home parenting being “monotonous”) There are solutions to these problems, and they are individualistic, and they are also important.

Because the suffering of mothers and at-home parents (especially female ones) is real. We should work to improve scenarios for these parents/carers/women, not encourage them to settle for less (less status, less social life, less respect, less freedom and autonomy). I was fortunate to have a large group of awesome ladyfriends when I started my family, and two incredible and loyal close friends who helped me raise my little kids. They have not only my love but my – well, there aren’t words for how deeply I feel for them. Not all new parents (women) have this gift. If you don’t have it, it’s not your fault. Just know the other ladies probably yearn for what you do, too.

Maybe that’s a good (re-)starting place.

In the meantime, write what you can and what you need to. Focus on being vulnerable, not antagonistic. It will help you more, and mean more to your readers than you can imagine. Need to vent? You can do that too, because sometimes you gotta – or you can email me. I’m pretty tough. I can take it.

* This old entry still basically stands as – in my view – rather good advice for the casual blogger. Yet I’d add the following changes/caveats: I still like to write (and read) what happened, as opposed to what a blogger thinks. But that’s just a personal preference when I write, and I no longer categorically find other types of writing ‘boring’. This was rude and insensitive of me to go on about. The truth is, I have discovered, many people don’t write because they think they’ll be called – you guessed it, boring! And here I was being a jerk and contributing to this.

So having a few years to reflect, I don’t agree blogs (tweeting/facbeook) are “boring” or (as I heard the other day from a friend) “narcissistic” – precisely because we, ourselves, are allowed to read or not read! Bottom line is I wish more people kept an online journal with integrity. I can’t begin to express how much it has helped me, and helped others who read me.

The Stretch & Sew Guide to Sewing on Knits

Sewing support: beginner with knits

[ed. updated 9/2015] 

In late August a reader writes, Hi Kelly, I’ve been following your blog for a couple of months now at the recommendation of a friend (June 2010, to be exact) and I thought it was time to reach out. Firstly, I love your blog. It’s one of the few that I jump to read when I see a new post in my reader. Thanks for providing such an intimate look into your family, great perspective on your kids and lovely cooking and sewing projects. I am absolutely astonished by the amount and quality of sewing you’re able to accomplish. It’s really quite stunning.

A bit about me & my family. We’re a family of 5. We have three kids, two dogs and two cats [Ed. – some information removed for reader privacy]. I love to sew, craft, cook, bake, garden, the list goes on & on. I do still work, part time at home, part time at work. It’s a good mix so I can be available for the kids before & after school. (BTW, I think your kids sound amazing – have I mentioned that yet?) I thought you might want to know who’s reading your blog, since you share so much of yourself on it! I do have a question for you though. I am planning to sew my daughter some gymnastic leotards. I’ve selected a pattern and some spandex fabric from Joann’s. I had hoped to order a Jalie pattern and some nicer fabric (which I may still do), but wanted to try it with the cheap/easily available stuff first. I read your recent-ish tip about painting the seams of knits [Ed. – this one] with water soluable interfacing, but I was wondering if you have any other suggestions/tips/resources about sewing on this. I do not have a serger, and I’m thinking that I should zig zag the edges before sewing, to prevent fraying?? What do you think? I appreciate you taking the time to read this. I imagine that you’re swamped with emails. Thanks for having such a great blog, and I can’t wait until the next post comes out!

Thank you for your email! Nice to “meet” you and your family. I am always so happy to hear of someone taking up a sewing challenge. One of my missions in my life is to help people reclaim this wonderful artisan craft!

You sound like a beginning sewist and certainly a beginner to knits as you were asking about finishing the edges of a knit to prevent fraying. Most every knit will not fray (there are exceptions) which is one wonderful thing about them.

Also: you don’t need a serger and unless you are sewing rather regularly I don’t suggest buying one BEFORE becoming familiar with knits. They are a big investment – in time, in resources (and funds) – and they take up space. If you sew your knits on a machine using good technique you will soon start to know whether you want a serger or not and whether it’s worth it to you to buy one.

I perform 80% of my sewing on a a lock-stitch machine (meaning: regular sewing machine), 15% by hand, and the remainder on my old serger. As for sewing with knits on a machine, my best advice is as follows:

1. Use the correct needle (have many ballpoint or stretch needles of a few different sizes on hand)
2. Use a strong poly thread or cotton-wrapped poly
3. Use a narrow zig zag and check carefully for skipped stitches or ones that “pop” upon pulling
4. Practice with each fabric for a bit to get the feel of sewing with it – many knits behave rather differently!

Personally I think a leotard is a bit advanced as it’s close-fitting and your sewing will have to live up to the strain. However, a leotard is something a beginning sewist can do provided he/she has a mentor and/or good resources. If as you go along in this project you need help, please don’t hesitate to write me, especially with photos (I’m available for video chat as well).

Also, I have some resources for you: One is a book, the Stretch & Sew one (R.I.P. Ann Persons!). I checked mine from the library first. It was so handy I then bought it:

http://www.amazon.com/Stretch-Guide-Sewing-Creative-Machine/dp/0801985935

The Stretch & Sew Guide to Sewing on Knits
Despite the very late-80s stylings on the front, the technique is solid gold.

One of my favorite resources for tips with sewing on knits is Timmel Fabrics.  They have a series of sewing “lessons” for knits. When their site went down, I archived these lessons with their permission.

In addition, the forums at patternreview.com are pretty active and full of VERY experienced stitchers.

Best of luck! Don’t hesitate to email or find me on Facebook at Bespoke / Hogaboom

Over-involved parents

Today in an unschooling Yahoo group someone writes in – I’ll call her Jean – about about getting her PhD while her children are young. Her question is, Does anyone have experience unschooling when both parents are out of the home working? She says,

“I do want something in my life that is my own because I don’t want to be one of those over-involved parents that lives vicariously through her children as they grow up and have their own lives (or have the empty nest syndrome).”

I replied:

***
By all means get your PhD and do what you need to. But please don’t trot out the “over-involved parents who suffer when their kids move out.” I think it’s a strawman (usually a straw-woman) – I see it invoked often but do not personally know hordes of these people. I hear this often by those justifying their work (usually work away from their kids) and I think it can sound rather insulting.

First of all, mourning our children moving or growing doesn’t seem like such a bad thing (my mom was widowed and she mourned that – I mourned the loss of my father). “Living vicariously” through children’s lives has nothing to do with work and everything to do with traditional parenting schemas of child as Performer (which I find less prevalent in the life learning families I know than traditional schooling ones). One doesn’t necessarily need to perform any ONE particular career move (or even have a career) to make sure the eventuality of child-obsession is avoided – nor will such a career pursuit guarantee a fully-lived life of self-actuated integrity.

I have a chemical engineering degree and had quite a little career going. I loved it. I put that aside years ago and became involved in work in the home, where I am now eight years later with my wonderful kids. Even if you were to surgically remove my kids and their influence from Me (which is silly to think of) I still have something “of my own” -or rather many things. My intelligence, my bodywork, my writing, my sewing, my personhood, my integrity, my volunteer work, my marriage, my friendships. My life with my kids has informed me far more than my career did. Note I am not speaking prescriptively but about me and my family only.

We need more smart and awesome people who are fulfilled in the work they do. If a PhD is what you need, go for it! You have my support. As for unschooling, there are as many ways to go about this and most unschoolers are a creative lot. If you do return to school, reaching out for ideas will help you navigate and do what’s best for you.

Tangentially, I wrote about the so-called “overinvolved mom” if you’re interested: “the over-involved Momster, a convenient premise to continue the laydee-hatin”

Good luck in whatever you go forth with!

***

A few minutes after posting I decided to delete my message because I wasn’t sure how link-friendly the Yahoo group was (I hate breaking posted rules of online groups, and I am a member of many so I’ve sometimes muddled it up). While I re-downloaded the group rules list I emailed Jean and asked if she’d like to hear my thoughts off-list. As I waited other group members began to engage and I’ve watched the conversation flow. Jean responded in kind and I observed as her assumptions about life with kids began to issue forth…

For instance: one can’t travel unless one has money from a second income. Spending time with children while not pursuing a career is life “on hold”. “You need your own life”. “There is a big difference between interests and having work you are passionate about”. Self-sufficiency requires two incomes. And perhaps most illustrative:

“I don’t like the idea of having to put my own life on hold entirely, I don’t think that would be fair to me and my kids.  I don’t want to teach my kids that once they become parents they have to put their life on hold for 20 years!”

I don’t mean to pick on writer Jean because, whatever choices she makes and family structure she has, her reported worldviews are common enough in the USian adult sphere (and therefore continue to get passed down to children). I also, upon reflection and reading the conversation unfolding within the group, see she is struggling with these very problematic assumptions she puts forth as Facts Of Life (as opposed to personal and owned realities). For now I shall leave aside this person’s specific claims because at root the fallacies and fears that dwell within many American parents and carers, perhaps most especially mothers, are worth addressing here.

A brief point before I start talking about work for pay (“career”) vs. work without pay (“staying home”). Women are, unfortunately, pressured to justify their work, career, reproductive life, ambitions, and activities (or lack thereof) in a way men are not required to do. Full stop. In fact in today’s supposed egalitarian society this disparity is so striking and so deeply-ingrained it is really quite something to consider when we open the discussion.

If men ignore the conversation – fine. I can’t force them to care or put some time in (which begins by: listening to women’s related experiences, not rushing in and mansplaining or trying to “relate”). I’m not going to talk much more about gender disparity in questions of “work” (income) and family life. But I’d like to give a moment and pause and express my gratitude for the women, especially working mothers (by this I mean all mothers) who struggle with these questions, often without afforded status and proper support while being mocked for their struggles (yeah. Don’t make me link to the Hate).

For now I’d put forth the following:

The careful societal delineation of working for pay versus work required for living is a false dichotomy that has no positive results and ultimately disproportionately hurts women, children, and other marginalized parties.

This false dichotomy enforced by kyriarchal standards punishes every parent (especially mother) no matter what choices she makes (make no mistake, mothers who work out of the home are still judged and socially policed heavily). She is truly damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.

People work-for-pay for all sorts of reasons. Many work-for-pay because they simply have to in order to survive. Many work-for-pay because they can’t stand to have fewer material possessions, or delay ownership of Nice Things. Many work-for-pay because the external validation of status and pay are essential to their sense of well-being. Many work-for-pay because they like to.  Many work-for-pay because working in the home is disparaged. Many work-for-pay because they are afraid to consider anything else, ever; money and job represent a Security either abstract or more concrete – for instance medical benefits or retirement benefits – they cannot fathom finding anywhere else and have good cause to suspect won’t be supported by our culture today. Reasons vary far more than I could list and obviously there are many combinations therein.

Most of us Work whether for-pay or not. And some find work because they can and they have the extraordinary privilege of making their life about work they love through-and-through. These are the fortunate ones. I am one of them.

I’ve been working without pay for most of a decade and this “housewife with no life and no security” bit has been beaten on my head ad nauseam. The idea that living a life with our children alongside means we “have no life”, or that while we are full-time parents “nothing can get done”, or that we will be husks of people when our kids one day move out, is not only supremely insulting to those of us who thrive in such work, it is demeaning to children themselves and I’d say at odds with the natural order. For instance: human beings eat and shit and make messes; younglings need TLC and food and instruction and protection and – really – love.  Some of us deal day-to-day with those realities and quite well (and in my case, not because it came to me “naturally”). The idea that our work is not “real” or it’s kind of pathetic or short-sighted or unintelligent fodder (my mother used to call women who thrived in in-home work “cows”) is insulting and in the end analysis, sad and limited. This does not, of course, only extend to female carers. I’ve long thought it ridiculous that words on a memo could be esteemed as Important while the shiny floor my father procured day in and day out as a janitor would be disparaged and his ilk mocked.

The kids and I spent part of yesterday in our working-class fishing/touristy town on the south beach of Grays Harbor. While following the children as they ran along fishing boats, I had a whole new respect for the men and women working hard at their jobs. These workers let us run in and about and, because they were on their boats and not on the floats themselves, we were able to observe one another without hindering one another. The unselfconscious and bustling aura of Work was one I felt entirely grateful and exhilerated by virtue of being around, and I was glad my children were exposed as well.

I reflected: we have a class and job caste system in America that is complex and remains largely undiscussed. I am familiar with worldviews that place my so-called “mundane” bum-wiping stay-at-home work on the lowest tier of worthwhile daily fare, the working class fisherman getting the chuck on the shoulder of being “a good American” who tries hard at least and pumps money into our tax base, God-bless-’em, and one’s own illustrious sciencey- or brainy-whatever Work much higher on the Worth continuum.  This has always irritated me (even and perhaps most especially when I was an engineer and surrounded by other engineers, many of which clearly thought themselves the apex of human thought and performance). Worldviews may differ but the myopic analysis of worthwhile exploits flourishes within those who don’t actively reject such narratives.  I’m reminded of a Facebook friend L. who posted a rant about the “modern domestic” woman who was taking too much joy and pride in her at-home married and kidlet life. According to L. women needed to farm out their kids, get Master’s degrees, and get into the workforce to advance Feminist Agendas! Coincidentally the exact same pursuits L. had recently embarked on.

Funny how it all works like that for some people.

As for another key aspect to the worldviews demonstrated in Jean’s original message (in the Yahoo group), it seems rather obvious that “living vicariously through children” is not at all the territory of those (women) who work in the home.  Please don’t make me immediately Google the high-profile adult children who have cracked under pressure, with sometimes tragic results, in response to a lifetime of familial training and expectations of high-status careers or “work” or societal esteem. “Living vicariously through children” (which we charge with pitying snarkiness on the futures of vast numbers of women, not men), as I understand the author to mean, is important to discuss and safeguard against but will not be precluded by bringing home a paycheck.

Bringing it to the personal sphere with regards to charges brought against homeschooling and/or life learning families, I’d posit that those of us who’ve embraced the autodidactic lifestyle for our children – which usually ends up influencing family life far beyond the role of an educational model – are some of the least at risk of the “vicarious” living so often thrown about as a potential Parenting Danger.  In the unschooling Yahoo group I mention moderator Meredeth writes, “If anything, I think unschoolers do this less than any other parents because we’re actively working on Not projecting our own needs and hopes and fears onto our kids.” (I don’t know if the capital “N” in “Not” was intentional but I rather like it.) No life strategy is a guarantee for Better Thinking, but personally our exploration of unschooling has been instrumental in my partner and I developing better parenting strategies for our children. Should my children attend school again some day, we have already reaped many benefits from these studies and life pursuits.

The truth is, really – and I am not going to touch on this much further for now – in some ways I am that pathetic mother some want to flesh out as being a Social Wretch. I have give-give-given to my children over the years, beyond what I ever thought I would want to, or ever thought I could. The results as they stand today are not what others might predict.  I have found the more fully I release to this giving the more I absolutely have my own life, the more my children are walking and breathing and joyous demonstrations of healthy nurture, and the less struggle Parenting is for me (I’ve been surprised to see my children reaching remarkable self-sufficiencies when not submitted to schooling and authoritarian schema). I am beginning to undo the damage I did them and myself in earlier years when I had internalized the “scarcity” model I was raised on (especially with regards to society’s messages), when I was suffering and overwhelmed and couldn’t believe how much work young-kid-rearing was (and when, I hasten to add, I was ill-supported by society at large as a mother to young babies, and when also our financial circumstances were far less sound). Life circumstances were hard for me and I did not perform well as a parent. Life circumstances are better now – due to my work a bit, my husband’s work a bit, the support of a few friends and my own mother, and good fortune. My parenting and the Work in my life is a font of inspiration and happiness – for now. I am enjoying this while I can.

I’d add one caveat: “give and give more” (a quote from the below-posted Sandra Dodd article) is not possible for some people without further inflicting self-harm.  I have been relatively fortunate in my resources and my privilege. So I write here primarily for those who are not so different than I, those who aren’t in immediate danger (any more than any of us) of losing their homes, those who are not struggling with a legacy of abuse or mental health issues or poverty or debilitating life changes. It isn’t that my writings would have nothing to offer anyone else; it is that in offering my experiences I do not want to be experienced as delivering prescriptives to all who read. Rather I want to testify change is possible from the garden-variety damaging legacies we were delivered. For some, parenting is miserable and scary and claustrophobic – and it used to be for me. Undoing the damage has been a lot of hard work but I want to help those who are able and willing.

For now I will say I am tired, TIRED of the oft-mocked “no life” housewife caricature. You can’t invoke it and say Well, I don’t mean YOU Kelly. Yeah, but, you do, you mean me and all the carers who love their Work and take it Damn Seriously. It’s time to let this trope go and stop talking about her ghostly wretched form.

Let’s talk about you.  Let’s talk about me.

Honestly, it’s a better conversation.

***

A great tongue-in-cheek but entirely heartfelt and awesome read: Sandra Dodd’s “Precisely How to Unschool”

8/26/2010 Edited to add:
This post was in response to the oft-repeated stereotype of the lifeless, boring housewife with no personal autonomy and agency, etc. It occurs to me as I write that since many at-home carers have been victimized by these assumptions and narrow views they may have developed vitriol in reaction and might be tempted to say something negative about other types of parenting/caring strategies (specifically, moms who work outside the home). I ask anyone commenting comb through their intentions and words before posting here; nothing said should in any way further laser in on and/or negate choices of mothers, “working” (for pay) or otherwise. If you have doubts, don’t post, or send the comment to me first. Thank you!