Parenting Archives

In which we replace “abnormal” with “extraordinary”

Over the years I’ve read and listened to my fair share of material about “calling.”  The late James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling is the only book I’ve ever read that has helped me making sense of  it (Hillman was a famous Jungian analyst and died a few weeks ago).

Hillman eloquently describes how calling  is separate from our vocation and our talents and is present at our birth. He uses the ancient word “daimon,” – religious traditions would call this a “guardian angel.”   Hillman describes the daimon as a soul-companion that never leaves your side, has your best interest at heart and helps you carry out your destiny (for more on daimons see author Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular TED talk).

Although this isn’t a parenting book, and he only touches on the topic, what he says about childhood and parenting is very compelling. Especially this:

Our lives may be determined less by our childhoods than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods. We are less damaged by the traumas of childhood than by the traumatic way we remember childhood as a time of unnecessary and externally caused calamities that wrongly shaped us.

In regards to children and their psychology he says:

I want us to imagine that what children go through has to do with finding a place in the world for their specific calling. They are trying to live two lives at once, the one they were born with and the one of the place and among the people they were born into.

The entire image of a destiny is packed into a tiny acorn, the seed of a huge oak on small shoulders. And its call rings loud and persistent and is as demanding as any scolding voice from the surroundings. The call shows in the tantrums and obstinacies, in the shyness and retreats, that seem to set the child against our world but that may be protections of the world it comes with and comes from.

And on how a children’s dysfunctions are part of his or her gift:

This book champions children… It seeks to make sense of children’s dysfunctions before taking these disorders by their literal labels and sending the child off for therapy… Psychopathologies are as authentic as the child itself, not secondary, contingent. Given with the child, even given to the child, the clinical data are part of its gift. This means that each child is a gifted child, filled with data of all sorts, gifts peculiar to that child which show themselves in peculiar ways, often maladaptive and causing pain. So this book is about children, offering a way to regard them differently, to enter their imaginations, and to discover in their pathologies what their daimon might be indicating and what their destiny might want.

As a parent, I often find it tedious to be a parent in an era where parent is no longer simply a noun but is now a verb (parenting). So I appreciate how Hillman disses the modern notion that a child’s fate is largely determined by his or her parents.

The worst thing a parent can do is neglect her own calling and focus solely on the child:

If we do not differentiate her daimon from her child’s, then mother must also be declared a monster maker, whose daimon or demon lives out its life in her physical child.

I also like how he lets parents off the hook here:

To expect parents to see through the child into the acorn, to know who is there in nuce, and to tend to its concerns – is far too much. That is why teachers and mentors come into the world…

As caretakers, parents cannot also be mentors. The roles and duties differ. It is enough for a parent to keep a roof over your head and food on the table, and to get you up and off to school. Providing a cave of security, a place for regressions is no small job.

One of the most painful errors we make is to expect from a parent a mentor’s vision and blessing and strict teaching, or expecting from a mentor shelter and concern for our human life.

The best thing a parent has to offer his or her children is imagination – having a fantasy about the child:

For it is not ultimately parental control or parental chaos that children run away from; they run from the void of living in a family without any fantasy beyond shopping, keeping up the car, and routines of niceness. The value of the parental fantasy for the child is that it does force it into opposition and into a beginning recognition that its heart is odd, different, and unsatisfied by the shadow cast upon it by the family’s view.

Far better for parents to wish the new baby were a boy, call her Harry, Sidney, or Clark, and cut her hair short, than for them not to have any wish at all. At least the acorn is challenged and has a reality to contend with, the reality of the parental fantasy, which can result in seeing through the parental fallacy itself – seeing that I am not conditioned by and the result of my parents.

Again, parenting is not the focus of this book, but I just wanted to highlight the parenting parts in this post. The overall theme of the book is that we should learn to exchange the term “abnormal” for “extraordinary” and discover how to correctly imagine our lives.


“No more questions!”

Below is a delightful video of an 87-year-old Chinese-American woman as she’s being interviewed by her children. I love her impatience with the questions (“No more questions!”) and her frankness.

As she recalled some of her sassy behavior as a child, it occurred to me that the most interesting stories older generations tell are the ones where they did something unexpected, misbehaved, took a risk, made a huge mistake, or anything at all that isn’t from the Goody Two-Shoes playbook.

Whereas with our children, we aren’t so enthralled when they do things not from the Goody Two-Shoes playbook, and it won’t be until they have children and grandchildren that tales of these exploits will have a more receptive audience.

Here’s the video:

No More Questions! from StoryCorps on Vimeo.


Slow Resurrection

Her small Easter. Resurrection came slowly. – Six Word Story #37

The phrase “slow resurrection” has been much on my mind the past week or two, after reading the text of an Easter sermon Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein posted on Facebook.

Everyone loves a dramatic resurrection story, whether it’s a story of a spontaneous remission from cancer, a runner who falls flat on her face during the final lap of a college championship race yet somehow bounces back up and not only manages to catch up with the rest of the runners, but wins the race, or an actress who catches a big break early in her career and goes on to fame and fortune.

Most of our resurrections are of the slow variety, however. The fractured relationship with a family member that doesn’t show signs of healing for years or even decades. Living on the financial edge through a lengthy bout of unemployment. The quiet, daily tending to the maintenance of a disease that will never go away.

Of the tending of diseases I have much experience. For example, ten years ago at the age of five, my second daughter gave herself an insulin injection for the first time without the slightest hesitation.

A year previous, while in the hospital after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, she screamed in terror whenever the nurse would prick her finger to test her blood sugar and give her a shot.  It was heartbreaking for me to have to answer her “Why???” questions with “if you don’t take insulin, you will die.”

Helping her get over the certainty of having perfect health, and accepting that diabetes management would require discomfort several times a day for the rest of her life, were daunting tasks. This is why my memory of her bravely giving herself a shot a year later stands out in my mind, even though there was no audience to applaud, and no one to give her an A for effort. It was a slow resurrection moment. Her life force was triumphing over her fears.

To be sure, there would be other times down the road she would be incoherent while in the throes of a high blood sugar and I would again have to trot out the “if you don’t take insulin you will die” line in order to get her to see the gravity of the situation.  Or I’d have to stand over her in the aisle of a store or other public place while she was in the midst of a low blood sugar episode, order her to drink a sugary beverage, lean over her for quite some time to ensure she drank it all, all the while drawing “what the hell is that mom doing forcing her kid to drink a Mountain Dew?” type looks from passers by.

I guess all slow resurrections are like that. They either go unnoticed or look weird to outsiders.

Come to think of it, even the dramatic Easter resurrection story shows Jesus initially going unnoticed by his disciples. The first signs of his resurrection were emptiness…the emptiness of the tomb and the empty burial clothes. Then when they ran into the resurrected Jesus they didn’t recognize Him for a while and were more preoccupied with their fishing. Even in the midst of that epic first Easter, their own personal Easters were small, as are many of ours.


Happy Birthday Beverly Cleary!

Today is Beverly Cleary’s 95th birthday. Her books, especially the Beezus and Ramona series, have been very popular with my daughters over the years.

When I was a kid the Runaway Ralph book was my favorite. The idea of a mouse who rode a motorcycle was compelling to me.

The New York Times posted a profile of her today. I especially like this part:

How does Cleary explain her popularity? “I wrote books to entertain,” she told me. People often asked what she was trying to teach in her books. She would reply, “I’m not trying to teach anything!” This was the same attitude she had when she was first reading. “If I suspected the author was trying to show me how to be a better behaved girl, I shut the book,” she remembered.


An only child, whose parents were forced to sell the family farm, Cleary was painfully shy. Troubled at school and beset by bad teachers, she didn’t learn to read until the third grade. Though, as she remarked tartly in our conversation, “My mother always read to me, so why should I learn to read?”

What ultimately drove her to write for children, she recalled, was a book she noticed when she had a job in a children’s bookstore in the 1940s. In it, a puppy said: “Bow-wow. I like the green grass.”

“No dog I had ever known could talk like that,” Cleary said. She wondered once again, as she frequently had while working as a children’s librarian, “What was the matter with authors?”

Her conclusion: “I knew I could write a better book.”

I let my youngest daughter take a personal day off from school today, so as to give her have some down time away from both her sisters and the classroom. I’m now going to see about reading some Runaway Ralph to her, in honor of Beverly Cleary.


What teachers really teach

Image and video hosting by TinyPicWhen my daughters talk to me about their teachers, they rarely talk about the subject matter but about something funny the teacher said, how the teacher made them feel, and the stories the teacher tells about his or her personal life.

I thought of this while reading how Carl Jung, while giving talks to educators, would tell them that teachers don’t teach their subject. They teach themselves.

I can’t recall a thing I learned in fifth grade, but I will never forget how my teacher made me feel at ease about being an introvert, as she was an introvert herself and never ragged on me about being quiet during class discussions, unlike the other teachers I had up until that point.

I also can’t remember anything I learned in my 8th grade math class but I will never forget how the teacher told us the story of the childhood wounding she received that made her decide to forever avoid men and become a lesbian.

I will always remember how to read music and play the violin, even though I’ve barely touched it in 25 years, thanks to the orchestra teacher I had for 7 years. I stuck with the violin that long, not because I was any good at it, but because I liked the teacher and his stories. He freely gossiped with us (I loved that), worried about us like we were his own children, and invited us into his home once a year for a spaghetti dinner that he prepared and served himself.

One day I entered my high school psychology class and noticed a Moonie there preparing to give us a talk. My best friend and I turned on our heels and marched directly to the office to tattle, as we intuited this was probably against school rules. Yep, it was, and she was reprimanded. We were quiet kids who usually didn’t assert ourselves like that and my boldness took me by surprise. The next time we had class the teacher came up to me and gave me the most sincere apology I’ve ever received. I had a great rapport with her the rest of the semester with no ill feelings. I can’t recall her name, or anything I learned in that class, but I’ll never forget what she taught me through her apology.

I still retain a smattering of French, and that is thanks to my high school French teacher, a reserved man with high expectations, but who also had a dry sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye that communicated more than his words did. I knew he liked me even though he never said as much, and even though I was far from proficient in French. I won’t forget how he showed up at my high school graduation and told me it was the first graduation he had attended. His watery eyes and quick hug said more than his words could ever say. I was deeply touched. The way he made me feel, and what he taught me about himself, is probably the reason I took far too many French classes in college.

My favorite high school English teacher taught me much about herself, including how a devastatingly dry wit can put teenage boys with huge egos in their place. She could even find something witty to say about Jonathan Edwards’s sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which was required reading in our textbook. I loved what she taught me about herself and I suspect that had a significant role in my choosing English as a major. Fortunately I had the opportunity to tell her that when I ran into her in a store several years ago. She died on Christmas Eve 2009 .

So it would seem the ability to be vulnerable and authentic is something the best teachers excel at and probably matters a lot more to our kids than the teacher’s credentials and it sure beats being lectured at. They also probably wouldn’t mind if all of us adults were more like that.


Creating kingdoms out of complexes

The older I get, the more I wonder if we ever have direct encounters with other people, or if we only interact with each other’s complexes, projections and neuroses.

The idea of the complex is considered to be Jung’s greatest contribution to the field of psychology and most of what follows in this post is a synthesis of Jungian analyst James Hollis’s thoughts on complexes and projections.

A complex is an emotionally charged, internalized experience that has a splinter identity and a splinter script. When you get defensive and start justifying something, you are in the throes of a complex. When your reaction to something is disproportionate to the situation, that’s a complex. Bodily changes often accompany this.

An example of a complex is when you talk on the phone with one of your parents and find yourself reverting back to childhood in your feelings, behavior and what you say.

Some common complexes are the power complex (seeking sovereignty over environment and other people),  the fantasy of immortality complex, and the fantasy of the magical other (the notion that there is one person out there who is right for us). And, of course, the mother complex and father complex. “How many children are enlisted into the impossible, not to say unfair, project of making their parents feel good about themselves?” Eek.

Hollis says one can create an entire kingdom out of a complex.

Complexes are what bring people together. One might marry to find the good parent in the other, to find an abuser in order to confirm a wounded sense of self, or seeking what was missing in family of origin.

So what about projections?

Hollis says the central law of projection is that which is unconscious will be either repressed or projected. We are never free of projections. “It is truly frightening to realize how little one is conscious in the formation of intimate relationship.” Eek.

When we fall in love, what we fall in love with is some aspect of ourselves reflected back to us in the other. What we do not know about ourselves or will not face in ourselves will be projected onto the other. We project our childhood wounding, our infantile longing and our individuation imperative. Hollis said that when he was a college professor, his students could never grasp this, for they wanted desperately to believe that their romantic partners were the fulfillment of their dreams and couldn’t accept the huge role projection plays. “I’ll see you when you’re 40,” he would tell them.

Blaming our partner for stepping on mines we have laid is where most couples are when they walk into therapy, he says.

How to become more aware of and perhaps begin to outgrow some of our complexes and projections?

This requires that we ask ourselves of every impulse and behavior: “Where does this come from within me? Where have I been here before?”

If one can identify unquestioned, reflexive tendencies in one’s life, those for which rationalizations are immediately available, one might be able to walk backward to the formative experiences of which they are the ‘logical’ expression. Then one might be able to imagine alternative attitudes and behaviors as possibilities.

And as for projections in our relationships, he says we should ask that most difficult of questions: “What am I asking my partner to do for me that I should be able to do for myself?”


Erma Bombeck: Treat Friends, Kids the Same

I was looking at my blog stats and noticed someone found my blog by searching for this particular column of Erma’s.

Unfortunately that person had to go away empty-handed as I didn’t have that column posted here, so I thought I should correct that.

This column literally made me LOL, which felt good, as there have been plenty of reasons as of late to not LOL (the AZ shooting in January, blizzards, the political kerfuffle here in WI, etc.). Plus with all the client writing I have on my plate right now, it’s nice to let Erma do some of the heavy lifting.

Here’s Erma:

On TV the other day, a leading child psychologist said parents should treat their children as they would treat their best friend…with courtesy, dignity and diplomacy.

“I have never treated my children any other way,” I told myself. But later that night, I thought about it. Did I really talk to my best friends like I talked to my children? Just suppose…..our good friends, Fred and Eleanor, came to dinner one night and……

“Well, it’s about time you two got here! What have you been doing? Dawdling? Leave those shoes outside, Fred. They’ve got mud on them. And shut the door. Were you born in a barn?

“So Eleanor, how have you been? I’ve been meaning to have you over for such a long time. Fred! Take it easy on the chip dip or you’ll ruin your dinner. I didn’t work over a hot stove all day long to have you nibble like some bird.”

“Heard from any of the gang lately? Got a card from the Martins. Yes, they’re in Lauderdale again. They go every year to the same spot. What’s the matter with you, Fred? You’re fidgeting. Of course you have to go. It’s down the hall, first door on the left. And I don’t want to see a towel in the middle of the floor when you’re finished.

“Did you wash your face before you came, Eleanor? I see a dark spot around your mouth. I guess it’s a shadow. How are your children? If you ask me I think summer school is great for them. Is everybody hungry? Then, why don’t we go into dinner? You all wash up and I’ll take up the food. Don’t tell me your hands are clean, Eleanor. I saw you playing with the dog.

“Fred, you sit over there and Eleanor you can sit with the half glass of milk. You know you’re all elbows with it comes to milk. There now, your host will say grace.

“Fred, I don’t see any cauliflower on your plate. Have you ever tried it? Well, try a spoonful. If you don’t like it I won’t make you finish it, but if you don’t try it, you can just forget dessert. And sit up straight or your spine will grow that way. Now, what were we talking about? Oh yes, the Gerbers. They sold their house. I mean they took a beating but….Eleanor, don’t talk with food in your mouth. I can’t understand a word you’re saying. And use your napkin.”

At that moment in my fantasy, my son walked into the room. “How nice of you to come,” I said pleasantly.

“Now what did I do?” he sighed.


Those 4000 bus rides finally paid off

Those “When I was your age” moments in parenting, when your story of hardship trumps your child’s story, are always one of those most satisfying moments as a parent.

I had one of those this morning. Because one of our vehicles had issues yesterday due to the extreme cold, there was a likelihood my oldest daughter would have to drive the youngest two daughters to school and drop them off a half hour early.

From the perspective of one of my younger daughters, this was considered a hardship of the highest order. “I’ll have to wait in the cafeteria for a half hour? That’s so boring!”

I knew I’d have to hear that again this morning, so before she woke up I calculated that when I was a kid I took the school bus to and from school each day for 12 years, for a total of 4000 bus rides.

The first thing my daughter said upon arising was, “Did the van start yet?” I told her I hadn’t checked yet but if she does end up getting an early ride, I’m not going to tolerate any whining because when I was her age I took the bus 4000 times and not once during those 4000 bus rides did I have fun. Her eyes widened and she was silent for many minutes. Yes!

I went out to try to start the van and it fired right up. Dang. I was so disappointed because I was already prepared with a comeback. You see, one of the other triumphs of being a parent is being able to use your own parents’ hardship stories that you were forced to listen to as a kid. It’s a fun way to recycle their stories. So I was all prepared to tell my daughter:

“When I was your age I didn’t complain about those 4000 bus rides even though we had a second car and my mom was a housewife and home all day and theoretically could have given me a ride and spared me the boredom of the bus. Why didn’t I ask her? Because my mom would have said, ‘You think walking to the end of our short driveway and hopping onto a school bus is a hardship? When I was your age I had to take a *city* bus all the time. The bus stop wasn’t anywhere near our house, either, and I had to walk many blocks just to get on the bus. We didn’t have a car, so we had to do this not to just go to school but anytime we needed groceries. Yes, that meant schlepping those groceries in a little pull cart for many blocks, even when the sidewalks were icy and it was freezing cold outside.”

As a kid I learned how to not trigger those stories but now as a parent I would have loved using that story of my mom’s as a trump card this morning. But that reliable Toyota didn’t give me a chance. Oh well. Maybe at least I can count on my 4000 bus rides story getting recycled in 30-40 years.


Deceased yet Consolation

It’s something of a coincidence that this week, of all weeks, my 8-year-old daughter had to master the pronunciation of the words “deceased” and “consolation.”

Today, which is also coincidentally the day 9-year-old Christina Taylor Greene was laid to rest in a casket handmade by monks in Tuscon, AZ, it was my daughter’s responsibility to stand at the lectern of the Catholic church associated with the school she attends and read the petition for “consolation” and “for all the deceased” during the morning mass.

She landed this gig a week ago after playing Rock/Paper/Scissors with the neighbor boy, who also wanted to read this petition. She won and had been elated about that ever since, working carefully with me every evening to make sure she pronounced “consolation” and “deceased” correctly, over and over again.

A perfect refrain for the week, as it turns out.

She recited the petition perfectly this morning and I thought of Obama’s speech last night (perhaps the first time I’ve ever been deeply moved by a presidential speech) and the part where he said we see ourselves and our children in the victims:

For those who were harmed, those who were killed – they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but we surely see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis – she’s our mom or grandma; Gabe our brother or son. In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America’s fidelity to the law. In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.

And in Christina…in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.

So deserving of our love.

And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.


Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

After my daughter read the petition, the priest addressed a recent conflict at the school by encouraging the kids to not lash out in anger when hurt, to instead seek healing and to help heal others. That, along with Obama’s speech, are small steps in the direction of consolation, along with the stories of the acts of heroism that occurred during the shooting.

My daughter doesn’t really yet know what the reality of being deceased means,  as she hasn’t lost a loved one. She can pronounce “consolation” now but has yet to express it or experience it at a deep level.  When that day arrives, I hope, along with Obama, that this country really will live up to her (and all our children’s) expectations and that she’ll have reason to say, “We are so blessed. We have a good life,” like Christina used to say to her mother.

Memory Eternal, Christina, Dot, Dorwan, Judge Roll, Phyllis and Gabe.


In which we replace the word “fricking”with Jabberwocky

I heard the word “fricking” one time too many today (ah the joys of half days of school) so I made a certain daughter recite the Jabberwocky poem out loud.

I told her I dislike the repeated use of this word, not because it closely resembles the F word, but because it indicates a lack of imagination. This poem would show her that there are far better made up words out there than “fricking.”

When I was in fourth grade my class had to memorize and recite this poem. I did this with far more relish than I did my recitation of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in college.

Of course my daughter loved reciting it. I intend to require recitations of it again if there are other “fricking” violations.

Here’s the poem, which is by Lewis Carroll:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree.
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came wiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Frumious” and “uffish” would make for great substitutes for “fricking,” methinks.