Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

I respect your Christian worldview.  I respect your belief in it.  I admire your tenacious commitment to your religion and your indoctrination.  I admire your decision to indoctrinate me into a system you believed in.  Your personal beliefs are strong and solid and they have led you to many courses of action.  Good action in the service to others.  Good action in the humility and grace of a life lived with meaning and purpose.  You showed me this path because you believed this is the path.  And I really appreciate that you did so.

Now comes the hard part.  I do not share this worldview.  In truth, I never really have.  I had many many questions when I was a child and the Christian worldview did not answer them to my satisfaction.  I have beliefs.  I have a commitment to them.  I am committed to my beliefs but you and I do not share the same beliefs.  I have personal beliefs that lead me to serve others.  To find meaning and purpose.  To value respect and love and peace and individuality and community.  I believe in my path.  I am indoctrinating my children into my world view.  But ironically, I am not indoctrinating them into faith or religion.  I am showing them the world as I see it and I am asking them to be inquisitive and curious and to wonder and wonder and wonder and never stop.  I am raising free thinkers.  I am agnostic.

Since I know you so well I can say that every day you practice your beliefs.  Everyday you make choices supported by your ideology of Christianity.  I practice my beliefs everyday.  I practice humanistic faith in the world, the people, this life, all this love.  I do so because it is my ideology.  It is what I know.  Just as Christianity is what you know.

You would, no doubt, shudder to imagine raising us three girls any other way than in the Methodist Church that you've called your home.  I as well would shudder to imagine raising my three boys in any other way than in this inquisitive, free thinking, philosophical, agnostic wondering way.

We are more alike then we are different.  We raise our children with conscious deliberation and purposeful planning.  We mold them to become people who will make the world a better place.  We simply have different ideological frameworks from which we start from.  The day to day decisions we make are certainly more alike then different.

Here is what I believe.
*I believe that life is a deep and AMAZING mystery.  I cannot get enough of it.  I want to read all about the Universe.  In fact, if I could, I would sit down in a hammock and read every single book about the Universe like it's my job.  I would love that work.  I wonder ALL THE TIME why we are here?  What is the meaning of life?  Where did we come from?  Was there a creator of this amazing existence?  If so, who created the creator?  Did something truly come out of nothing?  So when I say I am agnostic that simply means I do not know.  It does not mean, I do not care.  It does not mean I do not ask.  It means I ask every single day and every single day my answer is, "I don't know, but it is exciting to think about."  If I had to stop thinking about these answers and simply told myself the answer was God in Heaven and Jesus Christ was his Son sent to Us to save us from our Sins, I would be so so sad.  Thinking and wondering is simply my life's greatest pleasures!  It is this experience that I want to indoctrinate my children with.  I want them to wonder at life just as I do and to always try to ask more questions.
*I believe that religion is a very understandable and normal reaction to life.  Life does beg questioning but for some people that is uncomfortable or scary or startling or confusing and religion answers questions.  I get that.  I can't make myself believe in an active, prayer-answering God, any more than I expect to make people who believe in Him to stop believing.  I simply do not believe.  And I have tried it on for size.  I cannot fit into this mold.
*Even if religion as a construct didn't deter me the institution of the Church would.  I do not like my philosophical yearnings, my inquisitive mind, my search for meaning to be guided by a minister or a book.  I want to to be wild and untamed and I want to read many many books about all different ways of believing in order to nurture my spirit.
*Even though I am not a religious person I am deeply spiritual.  I believe a little bit in reincarnation, after all, energy has to go somewhere.  I believe a little bit in karma and dharma, and I believe that meditation and prayer are equally powerful and equally mysterious and equally the same and equally different.  I believe than when I am alone in nature or with my loved ones in nature I am in my true form more than anywhere else on Earth and so I crave and cultivate natural experiences.  Taking my boys on a hike every week is our version of Church.
*I believe in humanism.  I import ethics onto my children intentionally.  I instruct them to use the golden rule.  Value all life and all living things (except spiders).  I teach them to honor me and their father and their fellow brother (related or otherwise).  I teach them to make ethical decisions based on what they know to be good and right (if it harms no-one and benefits the greater good over the individual need).  I teach them that loving kindness is our religion because that is the only religion that comes completely natural to me and flows through my body like life blood.
*Finally, I believe in telling my children all of these things.  I tell them, many people believe in God and many people believe in Jesus Christ.  I tell them, however, that when children are born in Africa, or Russia, or Japan, or South America, or Utah, or Moline, Illinois, they believe what the people around them indoctrinate them to believe.  Without giving children stories to believe, they are simply, athiestic.  I am trying to turn them into happy agnostics.  In other words, I want them to ask questions and search for answers, but I do not want them to be told that any particular story is the one and only truth.  Because, quite frankly, that's not possible.  Just as Muslims and Buddhists and Jews and Hindus and Christians all believe in their fundamental truths, I believe in mine, and I don't think anyone has the answer.  I encourage my boys to understand Christianity because it is the religion that we are most imbedded with in this American culture.   But I am working on teaching them about Christianity within the framework of religion in general and I teach them that it is one approach to understanding the world. 

Now that you know what some of my beliefs are, let me tell you something I am struggling with.  I have a great big job to do.  I have to introduce my children to concepts that are daunting and philosophical and very difficult to grasp.  It's going to take me some time.  I am growing my library of literature and I talk with them at any moment that they wish to talk about it but it's an evolving process, their religious education.  It's also a sensitive process.  I am careful to be clear and accurate when I describe beliefs or when I draw them "pictures" that I know are laying down very cryptic ideas into them.  So, bear with my sons if they ask questions and go ahead and tell them what you believe.  Just do me a favor and remind them that it is your belief and not the truth and the light.  Could you do that for me?  I have been working very hard to ensure my boys respect Christianity because after all people are Christians and people should be given respect.  So also, if they are a little, inappropriate in their responses to your questions, or they say things that shock you, it's okay to tell them how that makes you feel, just do it gently.  Say, "oh you know that's what I believe and when you say what I believe it's silly, it hurts my feelings," and then when they say, "sorry, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings,"  maybe you could say, "that's okay, families forgive, let's eat some ice cream!" 

Mom, I tell you all of these things because I am not going to send my kids alone into the world.  I am not going to have them respond to the question, Do you believe in God? honestly and with great enthusiasm and interest and thoughtfulness and wonder if I haven't stepped out too and answered these difficult questions right along with them.  In most of my life people know that I am an agnostic woman.  I can't keep you in the dark any longer.  It isn't fair to you, it isn't fair to me, and it definitely isn't fair to my kids.  

Thanks mom,
P.S. I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner.  I thought you didn't want to know.
P.P.S. I hope you are happy that you now know.

Your 33 your old daughter

Friday, April 26, 2013

Middle son blues

I am so mad at myself.  I have been a terrible mother to my middle son.  He is 4 and terribly needy for my attention.  Which I almost never give him.  Because he's also constantly acting out and constantly dragging his feet when it's time to leave or darting into the street when it's time to stay.  He defines acting out = attention seeking.  I know what he needs is more of my love and more of my attention and more of my patience and more of me.  And I don't want to give it to him.  I want to get more time away from him.  He needs me and I don't want him.  Not the him he has been lately.  And that's why I am being a terrible mother to him.  I know I have to change this and truthfully every single time he's asleep I tell myself - tomorrow will be better and by 7:05 he's challenging me.  And I just don't want him to.  I want coffee first.  I want quiet cuddles.  I want love and kisses but I don't want challenges.  And I don't want to battle his will to do what he wants to do.  And I don't want to think critically about how to respond.  And I don't want to empathize with his feelings.  I just want him to be good and I just want him to be easy and that again is why I'm being a terrible mother to my middle son.  So, I am mad, but I am also sad.  Because I know I'm doing this and I can't even make myself stop.  What is it?  Older son and I have discussions, poetry, pleasant talk, dialogue.  Youngest son and I have a new skill of walking to practice, and cuddles to give, and diapers to change.  Middle son and I?  That is the problem.  He's the jumping bean loud and obnoxious and throwing his body all over the bed when I'm trying to hear oldest son's reading.  And he's the belly flopping, body jiving, hopping fool when youngest son is trying to take his steps to the couch.  And I am always telling him he's in the way.  And he must feel so terribly sad about that.  And yet he is in the way.  I do need to hear older son read or help younger son walk but I too easily forget that he needs to feel that he's not in the way.  And I often don't recognize that.  And I often don't take care of that.  And that's why I'm being a terrible mother to my middle son.

This weekend I have vowed to make changes.  Spend more time.  Give him more of my love and affection then he's had in too long.  But I also am fearful.  What if I fail?  What if I can't?  What if I don't.  What then?

I gotta go.  I just felt inspired to pick up my middle son from day care and go get some ice cream.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What I want for my kids.

You know what I want for my kids?  I want them to not give a shit about what people think (of them).  I also want them to give a shit about how people feel.  I just don't always know how to install these themes into them.

There is a herd mentality to raising kids.  I am not saying I'm completely unaffected by it, I am affected.  But, I don't (typically) cooperate with the herd but I'm always Always ALWAYS conscious of the pull.

Example:  School Picture Day
This week, my 4 and 1 year old's daycare had school picture day.  First off, it's crappy photographers with crappy backgrounds.  They know they'll make big money on these kids so they ask to come.  The teachers arrange the children and coax smiles and pictures are snapped.  Picture day is coming, the flyers announce!  In my head I make a mental note, "get nice clothes out."  Day of picture day, 4 year old WANTS to wear his favorite Buzz Lightyear and Woody shirt.  Total favorite shirt in every single way.  I spend about 30 seconds listening to the "pull" of cultural norms, "it's picture day, shouldn't he wear something nice?"  Then, I have the duh moment.  No, he shouldn't wear something "nice" he should wear something special.  And this Buzz and Woody shirt is very special to him.  That, I want to capture in a photograph.  So, off we go to school.  When we arrive at school it is immediately and abundantly clear that TODAY is Picture Day!  Every little girl I encounter has on a dress, a bow in their hair, pantyhose, sparkly shoes, curled locks.  Every little boy I encounter has on a cute little button up shirt, with a vest, sunday shoes.  And then, there's my kids.  4 year old with a buzz lightyear shirt and a pair of baggy sweats and the still stuck on temporary tattoo from 2 weeks ago, 1 year old with a frog onesie.  And I think they look absolutely adorable.  And I could not be more proud.

I know I'm counter-culture in many ways.  I only hope my kids will understand, will be okay with it to.  How powerful are the cultural themes, how strong is their pull, will my kids bend to them, shouldn't they anyway for a while, how will I know what to do?

The List

I am a mental health therapist, by trade.  I work with college students aged 18-22 (+).  Working with this age group is pretty interesting.  They are defining themselves, identifying the aspects of their personalities they like/dislike.  They are examining their childhoods and criticizing the mistakes of their un-cool parents.  And they are shaping their futures with goals and ideas.  It's cool.  Except that I'm raising kids while these "kids" are looking back.  So, in my mind, I always have this checklist going.  What does it take to make them "turn out all right?"  I have to know.  It's the most important thing to know!  So I have a little list.

One day, I was being particularly list-driven and I shared it with my husband.  I prepared him for my realization and I think he expected to be blown away.   (I mean, it is THE LIST of essential ingredients to successful kids).  So I delivered him the following list.  The list that took me about 3 years to complete and the same list that I have validated in rigorous follow up interviews for about 5 years since.  Ready for it?  Here it is:
Things we really need to turn out "all right" or to be "all right"

A mom who is loving and nurturing, kisses all the boo-boos.

A dad who does things with you.

Mom and dad who tell you the truth, even if others may think, it's age inappropriate, better to be told the truth than to know your not being told the truth by the very people who teach you to trust.

That's it, folks.  That's the list.

You probably won't be surprised to know that my husband was utterly underwhelmed.  I think his response was something along the lines of, "yeah, I already knew that."

And, awesome news, we already do that.  But in parenting, I so often make things more complicated than they already are.  My mind has to take the concept and throw it up onto the old poker stick in my brain and spin that baby around on every single angle and examine it, make implications about it, make predictions, relate it to other things, separate it from other things, decide its meaning, decide it's value, decide its worthlessness.  And, honestly, if I couldn't do that I wouldn't be me.  I do that.  It's what I do.  And, it gives me pleasure.  It interests me.  It occupies my mind.  So I will do that indefinitely but I also will know that I am already doing everything on "the list."

The list makes so much sense.  Women are good at relationships and good at nurturing.  They just have maternal instincts.  And men are do-ers.  They do stuff. They are action oriented.  So, if you happen to be in a heterosexual coupled family system, you need a mom who's nurturing and a dad who's active in your life.  Those are pretty good basic requirements.  Of course, if your in a homosexual coupled family system I'd argue you just need those two areas covered, nurturing and activity-oriented relationships.  And your good!  The truth part is where it gets tricky.  I have found that the people who are most successful navigating in and around and out of love relationships, dodging the bullets if you will, and being open for the right people at the right time, are people who have trusting relationships with their parents.  If you know you've been told the truth, you can certainly count on it continuing.  If the truth is never given, why would you expect it ever will be?  And I am not suggesting that Christian families don't tell their version of "truth."  I believe they do.  They are being truthful when they indoctrinate their children into their worldview, that's their truth and it's not mine but it is theirs and that's okay.  Athiest/Believers alike, you must be told the truth by your parents.  The parents need to be transparent.  Open.  Flexible.  Easy to find (their soul/psyche, that is).

That is THE LIST.

Simple.  As so often everything really is.

Hell. That was a terrible lie.

Last night I was reading with my oldest.  He's been really into poetry lately so we've been working through a book of children's poetry.  Toward the back of the book there are poems for older children.  He's only 6 1/2 but he was intrigued by the drawings and wanted me to read them.  Many of these poems have Christian themes, not all, and not always overt, but they are definitely there.  For example, prayer will be mentioned, or God, or, as was the case last night, Hell.  Now, my son is always inquisitive to the meaning of words he's never heard before and as luck should have it, he's never heard of the word Hell before.  So he asked.  And I told him.  And I flashed back to age 7, maybe 8 when I really fully realized what Hell was and I was scared to death.  I remember understanding that a demonic place with fire and pain and torture and screaming existed "under" the world.  And that we would go there if we were "bad" enough.  This would have been right around the time that I also realized that it's considered sinful to be "proud."  Which I totally didn't get because my parents were always proud of me and telling me to be proud of myself.  So, if I was proud, would I go to Hell?  I was literally scared out of my mind.  I have a very vivid memory of the imaginary place in my head that I created during that time.  I can go there easily and see the red fire and the devil sitting there with his pitchfork all horned out.  I can hear people screaming.  Oh my god.  That is so horrible.  Poor 7 year old me.  

So when my son asked me so innocently, "what is Hell?"  I had to tell him about it, I'm definitely not going to distort it for him, I sure don't want anyone else to clue him in. As these talks frequently go, when we started the discussion I had no expectations and as I usually am, I was pleasantly surprised with what he had to say.  Kids who have never been indoctrinated with themes of belief or rules with how to frame reality really have stunning insight.  Here's the parts I can remember:

"You know about Heaven, right?  The place some people believe exists where you go after you die if you believe in God and Jesus or maybe if you are just really really good?"  Yeah.

"Well, Hell is like the opposite of Heaven.  Hell is a place some people believe exists where if you are really really bad, you go there after you die.  And it has a man called the Devil there.  And there is fire and monsters and bad things." 
So, you mean, it's a trick to get people to do the right thing because it scares them with stories of monsters and bad things into being good all the time?

"Yes, that is what I think."

That's what I don't like the most about these stories other people believe, it's like they are trying to trick everyone to do things they want them to do by scaring them or telling them they get to go to a really good place.  That's not true though.

"Well, what is true, then?"

When you die, you just die, your body melts back into the Earth but it takes a really long time."

"Yeah, that's right, and that's called decaying.  And people are really sad when people they love die and that's why some people believe in Heaven, because it makes them feel less sad."

That deer we saw in the woods that day we were hiking was decaying.


I think Hell is a mean trick.

"Me too."

 We talked on some more about how life has meaning and the meaning of our lives is something each of us gets to decide.  I suggested that finding hobbies and pursuing passions and interests is one way of prescribing meaning to our lives.  I suggested being kind to others and doing the right thing just because it's right prescribes meaning.  And my son was inspired by those ideas.  So much so he decided he would infuse meaning into his summer vacation by writing a book of poetry.  I'm pretty stoked about that little nugget, we'll see if he still wants to do that in a month when school is out.

So all of this absorbed into my soul and after bedtime kisses were given and the kids were all tucked in my mind was spinning.  I am CONSTANTLY reminded that MY baggage is MY OWN and my son does not have the same fears/hurts/damage that I do.  I want to reiterate I was not harmed by religion, per say, but I grew up inside a box that framed my interpretation of reality.  I understood EVERYTHING, either directly or indirectly within the parameters of Heaven and Hell.  I went to Church every single Sunday and I sat at a children's table underneath a picture of Jesus and I walked up the stairs and saw him in a painting 6 feet tall and I was scared to death.  Because I knew that everything was not adding up.  And I was scared that if I could not get the "rules" down right, I would go to Hell.  Luckily, my sons do not have these indoctrinated beliefs.  We talk.  A Lot.  And we explain.  A Lot. 

They are natural skeptics and they are free thinkers and they are philosophical and they have meaning and purpose and they are happy and joyful and they are naughty and nice and they are imperfect and perfect to me and they are little miracles of evolution's birth and they are free from the lies and I am freer through them then I have ever been.


Friday, April 19, 2013

An agnostic mother's response to tragedy in the world today.

Last night, as I was laying next to my 6 1/2 year old sleeping son, I was thinking about this world that my husband and I have brought 3 children into.  I was thinking about the fact that the "right" answer to my fear is I'm adding loving kindness into the world in three human forms and that is the reason why I should choose to be positive.  But, since he was asleep, and looking so completely peaceful and innocent, I was not easily finding the right answer to be comforting.  I was sad.  I was sad because I was thinking about the parents who lost their kids to a school shooting in CT.  And I was said because of the boy who died at the Boston Marathon.  And I was said because in the future the unknown is going to happen and whatever does happen, my kids, randomly could be the victims.  Will all three of my kids make it through life?  Will I?  Will we all survive and not get cancer?  Will we all survive and not be harmed by terrorists?  Will each of the 5 of us in this little family unit live to the ripe old age of 90 and die blissfully in our sleep?

How do I love fearlessly when I am so fearful? 

So, I'm laying there snuggled up in bed with my son and the covers are around us and I am still shivering.  Clearly warm and cozy, he doesn't move an inch.  And I have this metaphor in my mind.  If I believed that God exists, and he 'works in mysterious ways' and he will someday take my soul to a heavenly kingdom in the sky, where I will be reunited with my loved ones and live eternally with them for the rest of eternity without ever having to fear any possibility of hurt/pain/loss entering my life, I would be so warm.  I think, if I REALLY really bought that, what would that be like?  And I thought, that would be so warm.  Like a big soft down comforter taken out of the dryer on top of me, a downy pillow of just the right plumpness under my head.

It's just that, the blanket I have is not all that warm.  It's scratchy.  It's lumpy.  It's still a little wet from the rinse cycle.  And try as I might, my feet always stick out the bottom.  I don't have "that" warmth.  And this helps me to really understand why people believe.  Because, you know what, if you can buy it, that this sub-reality is real...that this paranormal existential plane of "heaven" and "God" exists...then good for you.  I bet that feels warm.

I need warmth like that on nights like this.  I cried myself to sleep next to my big baby boy.  And I thought about all the ways that I could try and make each day more intentional.  More present.  More grateful.  Because I know that life is random.  And by chance, people I love will be victims of malevolence, or cancer, or car crashes, or ....  but all I can REALLY do about it is to not place energy into the possible/probable/maybe but instead place energy into THIS moment.  So, I pulled myself into my senses and I gazed at my son and I burned his face into my mind's eye and I smelled his head and I clicked the camera in my brain over and over again to hang out tight to the here and now.

What else can I really do?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Move On.

I have this amazing sister.  She was married to 16 years to a grade A asshole.  He basically was/is miserable and depressed and angry and she loved him unconditionally and cared for him completely all of their marriage in an effort to love him enough to fix him.  Then, she realized she couldn't.  So she granted him a divorce and she moved on.

She dated this guy, Max, about a year after her divorce.  He, was a kind/nice depressed/miserable person.  She didn't see it coming right away, she thought, eh, he's not "that" broken.  But, he was broken.  And after a year of that 'relationship' she realized that she couldn't make him happy either and that she was settling for less then she deserved.  So, she left him.  She moved on.

Now, she is Open.  Not bitter.  Not jaded.  Not guarded.  Open.  Do you see why she is so amazing?  If anyone has the right to be bitter and jaded, she does.  But, she's not.  She's completely open to finding love.  She says, love is the most natural emotion in the world.  Everybody wants somebody to love. 

She has met a new guy.  He's kind, warm, loving, Open, and emotionally available.  Their story has only begun but already it's obvious that they are suited perfectly. 

You know what she told me?  She said, "you know what the secret to life is?-it's moving on."

She's totally right.

Life goes on.  Move on or don't, the choice is yours.  But if you don't move on, you will be stuck.  And being stuck feels like it.  And moving on feels like that.  Good.  Move on.

Being a therapist, I am always talking to people about their lives, their emotions, thoughts, moods, ideas, beliefs, etc.  Some sessions are more existential than others.  But, fairly regularly, I have philosophical, existential conversations with people who are examining their lives and themselves.  And, it's a pretty amazing job.  And, I totally agree with my sister.  If I look at my own life and ask myself, why, really, why did I "turn out allright?"  Why, am I happy/content/at peace?  Why do I feel so okay when these people who I sit with do not?  One answer is, I moved on.  When things upset me, unsettled me, provoked me, challenged me, hurt me- I moved on.  First, of course, I felt the emotions, and I worked with them, validated them.  Then, I moved on. 

This begs the question, why can't other people move on?  What installs in us the desire to move on?  What prevents us from feeling motivated to move on? 

Self worth? 

And, with these three boys I (with my husband) am raising, what can I do to ensure they always move on? 

Teach them to live in the present moment?
Teach them to name their emotions and then lay them to rest?
Teach them to value themselves but to also not take themselves too seriously?

But, how?

Because moving on is a very very important skill to have.  I need my children to acquire it, it might be the most effective skill they have.  How do I make 100% sure they have it?