The topic for Christmas Day was to blog about the best gift I've given myself in 2009, one that's kept on giving all year....
I'm a few days late getting to this post because of my gift.
I've allowed myself to see that my family is my best gift. And caring for them is a gift I give not only to them, but to myself. So I spent the last few days in rather intensive togetherness, being with, caring for, and thoroughly enjoying these wonderful gifts in my life.
In America today, about half of all those married will divorce. My marriage, twelve years and a few months old, now, is not only still surviving, but we are happier, more in tune, and better partners to each other than ever before. We've gone deep, during this year, into our own childhoods, discerning how the events that happened then have shaped the adults we've become. I've learned that when Jim sighs, crosses his arms across his chest, stands between me and the door, or gets a shrill, out-of-control tone in his voice, that I respond by being involuntarily returned to my childhood, where such signs often meant my father was out of control and headed my way...
Knowing this has helped me to separate the issue at hand from my feelings and emotions about the issue, which may have nothing at all to do with the matter itself. They cloud resolving whatever the conflict is, get in the way, shut down my ability to see things as they are, but lock me into a childish place where I am too afraid to behave like a rational adult.
Jim, in his turn, has learned that he has residual feelings of being dominated by a mother with feminist leanings, two older sisters, and, a bit later, a stepsister and a male role model in his home who was not his father. And stronger ones about the divorce of his parents, when he was about four years old. He is also easily overwhelmed and overstimulated by my thinking out loud, which tends to result in a torrent of words that drown out his own thoughts.
Learning these things about ourselves is very helpful in managing our discussions and our reactions to each other when there is a conflict. Sharing these reactions with each other has allowed us both new tools in our interactions, and a deeper understanding when things occasionally seem to get inexplicably ugly between us. It's allowed us to be gentler and more understanding with ourselves, and with each other, and that has breathed a certain healing magic into our life together. We've finally started to listen to the wounded children living within us, and that makes them feel safer and more loving - able to listen to each other and compromise, not from a place of fear and lack, but from one of acceptance and abundance.
Our arguments have become much less intense, live shorter lives, and are generally resolved rather than buried beneath layers of anger, hostility, or apathy. And when we aren't arguing, that understanding can be used for planning, and being with each other and our children, and caring for our home and ourselves...
The gift of self-examination has also benefited the children in very tangible ways. I used to try to make their behavior meet my expectations. Like so many other parents, I took the role of Mother very seriously, and always had my eye on the type of adults I wanted to raise, the qualities I wanted them to possess. I was sometimes cruel to them in the name of "raising decent adults". I was convinced that this is the way a child must be raised, or chaos and apathy would surely be all I could expect of either of them.
Realizing how much that is like the reasons my parents gave when they were cruel to me, and remembering how deeply those physical punishments and emotional humiliations in the name of making me a decent adult hurt, helped me understand how they kept me from being fully myself, from growing into all I might have been.
The truth is, even as a child, I always tried my best to behave, to be kind and do as I was expected to do. Most of the time, I was a "good kid". That was my nature, with or without punishmet, to want those around me to be happy, or at least calm. When I made some kind of mistake, I already felt bad. Having it spanked or screamed into me wasn't necessary, as I had been told it was. The physical punishments and the screaming were really about my parents' frustration, and about the wounded children still living within them. They were locked in a pattern, replaying, in milder form, what had been done to them. And they told us and themselves that we were lucky not to have it as bad as they had. I don't know if my parents have ever made the connection between what was done to them, what they did in turn to us, and in how that affected our lives in a way far more negative than they had intended, and predisposed us to playing out the same pattern again when we had children. It's not something, even now, I can discuss with my parents openly. And I don't need to know their reasons to know that I am not going to do the same to my children, although I have, and that can't be undone, only, hopefully, healed into a scar that won't be too obtrusive.
When I began my ow parenting journey, eight years and a few months back, I repeated the pattern. I hadn't wanted to, and I hadn't begun that way, when Jeremiah was born. We lived in Montana, far from both of our families, and I had largely just what I'd read, my wonderful midwife, and my own instincts to go on. I hadn't wanted to put him down, ever, and I nursed him when he wanted.
We drove across country when he was 5 weeks old, Jim driving our big Dodge trucks with the dog in the cab, and the cats in the travel trailer behind, Jeremiah and I following in our little blue Toyota pickup. He slept the entire morning we were at Mount Rushmore, and I got a clogged milk duct that was agonizing. He would scream for miles on end, as I tried to remain sane on a highway with no shoulder, a frighteningly high speed limit, and exits 80 miles apart. It was an ill-considered move, and we made it worse when we decided to stay with my parents while Jim looked for work and we found a home.
We were there three months, and the pattern became entrenched as, time after time, I put making peace with my mother ahead of my relationship with my son. The pattern continued, even after we were in our own home, and, although I was never comfortable with it, I was only slightly kinder to Jeremiah than my parents had been to me. Like them, I reasoned that it was better than the treatment I'd had, so I was doing well enough.
There was a time, after Elijah died, after Annalise was up and walking, and we had the immeasurable joy of her being whole and healthy as Elijah had never been, when I realized I had become my parents, and was treating my children just as I had been treated. It was too much. There followed years' worth of learning, growing, and exploring why being a mother wasn't as joyful as I'd wanted it to be, and trying to figure out some way to make it that way.
Unschooling showed me, once and for all. I needed to remember who I'd been at their ages, how I'd felt when I was punished, how I'd tried to do my best, how often I had felt unjustly treated, misunderstood, unheard, and unsafe. I realized for the first time that the punishments, the control, had never been necessary. I became a decent adult not because of them, but in spite of them.
I will never really know who I might have been, if I hadn't been raised as I was. My parents loved me (or the idea they thought was me, anyway) as much as they were able. They gave me many ideas. Some were good - work ethic, sense of humor, love of learning, willingness to help, teamwork. Others were not. I was required to respect adults, simply because they were adults. I learned while small that adults can command and demand your respect, and punish if you don't show it well or often enough to suit them. But I never saw anyone respect a child, and, until I truly began to understand unschooling, I had never given it much thought, if any.
Now, though, I know what a respected child can be like. Actually, I know what two respected children are like, in this moment. They are endlessly creative, very very often messy, sometimes loud and unreasonable. They are friendly to pretty much everybody, do random nice things, smile a lot, play and sometimes fight with each other, get mad, cry, play, sleep, and eat. They say bless you pretty much every time anyone sneezes, and they are exceptionally good company at home and out. Like me, they get irritable when too tired, too hot, too hungry, or too stimulated.
By learning to see them as they are, to come to them gently, tenderly, and remembering myself at their ages, I have learned to see what's best in them. I also see that the parts of them I'm least fond of are still parts of them, their own, and need to be treated as such. I am never going to punish them or shame them into being what they are not. All I will accomplish that way is what was done to me....I will raise adults who don't know their own minds, hearts, and souls, who do things out of fear of repercussions rather than freely and willingly, because they want to. And, if they become parents, parents doomed to play out the same patterns with their children - my grandbabies.
So, this year, my greatest gift is the family I have, that has inspired me not simply to be less unkind to my children than my parents were to me, but to, once and for all break the cycle. To become a mother who respects the wholeness and completeness and integrity of these two young people right here and right now, exactly as they are. To be a mother in all of me, to be the mother who is an outgrowth of the very best I have to offer, because these children deserve nothing less. To be a mother who comes to my children where they are, and take their hands with love to lead them to the future they choose for themselves.
A mother who remembers that they are people already, and that they want to do the best they can, and that they want to live in a happy and peaceful home with adults they can love and trust, and give respect to because they know what it feels like to be respected.
Soon enough, maybe a lot sooner than I'd like, since they're both the independent type, these children will be grown. They won't need me as they do now. Already, they need my physical help far less than they did, even a year ago. I am grateful that they remind me every day that I will miss their childhoods, then, and that I should take great care not to waste them with hard feelings, battles I won't remember next week, but they might for a lifetime. To not squander their love and trust and regard in a quest to make them decent, when true decency comes from feeling loved, heard, and understood.
And I am grateful for the man making this journey beside me, healing himself and his relationship with these children, right there with me working, too, on growig our marriage strong and deep and wide and true, so that, when there are no longer young humans depending on us, we will know each other, still, and still find each other endlessly fascinating.