Guest post by reading parent Timothy Browning:
My children are the closest things to God or Gods that I have in my life right now. They are mysterious, omnipresent, and jealous against all other gods. They demand strange and repetitive rituals for appeasement. At times they seem devastatingly indifferent to suffering. And they might just be the salvation of my soul.
In recent years, I have lost most of what I would call my faith in God. But even as I have lost faith in God, I have gained faith in my children. This is not to say that I don’t spend most of my time thinking about the mundane considerations of how I will get my children to eat, how I will get them to sleep and how I will get them to just be quiet for 10 minutes while I get something done. But in contemplation of where my children fit in my soul, I am undeniably assured that they do have a place, and thus, I must have a soul. Whatever the source, I am willing to accept these feelings as clear evidence of meaning or divinity in the human experience and to be grateful for whatever it is that has created them.
As I have, in the past, consistently turned to books to help me understand my relationship with God, so have I turned to books to help me understand my relationship with my children.
I have to say, though, that I find myself constantly disappointed by parenting books. Full of strategies, tips and superficial philosophies, they barely scratch the surface of what it actually means to be a parent. I find them almost universally to be lacking in scope and empty of inspiration.
Taking a part of yourself, combining it with another, and then caring for, raising and loving the product, independent yet fully derived, or adopting or fostering a child and treating it and loving it as if the child were your own, until it truly becomes your own, brings with it complexities and depth that are perhaps forever outside of the capabilities of our language to describe fully.
When I think about books, then, that have deeply affected my parenting, I do think of some “parenting” books that have offered helpful advice, useful experience or guiding philosophies. But I have found that my richest source of wisdom on parenting has not come from books about our relationship with children, but our relationship with God. There are any number of books that have affected me consciously or unconsciously in how I parent and in how I think of my children. Three, however, stand out.
Les Miserables has a very clear narrative of what it means both to be a biological parent as well as an adoptive parent as Fantine and Jean Valjean both work to try to make Cosette’s life happy and safe in a world that is continually conspiring to make everyone miserable. Instead of placing the burden on the balance of good and evil, Valjean’s mercy is constantly opposed to Javert’s justice, and, spoiler alert, mercy triumphs, but justice does plenty of damage along the way.
Parenting is such a balance of justice and mercy, in my mind. I have yet to experience a time where my flaws in character and judgment are so often justly exposed as in parenting. I am generally a patient person, but what impatience I have is broadly on display every day as a parent. I am petty, selfish and cold more with my children than anyone else in the world. But just as kids have an ability to constantly expose your faults, bringing harsh justice into the world of parenting, they also often bring grace. Because they are both deeply connected, but also deeply independent, it is possible for even the smallest of children to spontaneously bring moments of beauty and grace into an otherwise bleak day.
However, what Les Miserables explores most profoundly is that dark space occupied neither by justice nor mercy, where terrible things happen just to happen, with no explanation. Sometimes it is clear how bad parenting develops bad behavior in kids, but sometimes even the best parenting cannot put children on a path of happiness or fulfillment and devastation can result. Fate, maybe, is the name for this, and Les Miserables is full of examples of how to fight when you can and accept when you cannot, and it is this message of parenting that stays with me the strongest.
Nature and other essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson has also been key to me for many years now, as I look for spirituality outside of a specifically doctrinally proscribed context. Finding beauty in experiencing the mystery natural world is one of Emerson’s key themes. Although he, too, rarely uses his writing to specifically examine the child/parent relationship, his writing is clear that we need not fully understand something in order to appreciate it, but that the beauty is in the attempt to understand and find our place.
Emerson is clear that we have to constantly struggle against society’s influence, whether deliberate or not, that will pull us away from getting at the wholeness of nature. Staying present as a parent is extremely difficult to me. It can be incredibly difficult to try to constantly adjust my behavior and focus to calibrate with that of a 4 or 2 year old, but if I do it with good intention, I am never disappointed at the result. Just as we try to box in nature, we try to box in our children, putting them into labeled patterns of behavior and personality. But if we truly observe and appreciate, a different child confronts us each time we give them space in our consciousness to be who they are. Being solitary with parenting, as Emerson admonishes us to be solitary with nature, not bringing any outside voices with us, can be incredibly difficult and isolating, but deeply gratifying.
The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is perhaps the most challenging book I have ever read, both in its complexity as well as its themes, so it is appropriate, I think, that the challenge of parenting is so clearly reflected back to me in its pages. This book, out of the three in this post, is most direct in its confrontation with God. It is also a direct commentary on family, putting us right in the middle of a terrible family situation. This book is among the three, the most concerned with what it really means to be a family and to be responsible for each other.
Short story: everything is a mess. The family life is a mess, the convent where the most innocent of the brothers wants to go is a mess, the society around the family is a mess. How can God possibly be responsible for allowing such a mess to be? How can he possibly work out salvation for anyone, let alone everyone, in such a messed up world?
While hopefully I am a better parent than Papa Fyodor and my children are never suspected of murdering me, I can’t but feel sympathy for and resonance with every member of the family, as if Dostoevsky meant it to be. As we come to care for each of the characters, we mourn with them. In this life, where so many things can be stacked against us, especially our own natures, how can we have any hope of real happiness or true divinity, even touching our lives for the briefest of moments?
One of the key points of this book, epitomized by Alyosha (perhaps my favorite character in all of literature), is that loving people is not enough to save them. Nor can we count on the love of others to save us. I said, at the start of this post, that I have gained faith in my children as I have lost faith in God, and that I now wonder if my children might, in the end, be my ultimate source of salvation. Of course, a deistic faith in someone is much too big of a burden to place on a child, or any other human for that matter. I don’t expect them to give unending joy to my life by their presence and attention. Then again, it’s not, really, that I think my children, themselves, will save me.
If I am to be saved by anything, my life given ultimate meaning, my soul ultimate redemption, it will be by the love that I have for my family, especially my children, flesh of my flesh. Is pegging my life’s meaning on how truly I can love my children asking too much of a relationship? Setting us up for failure? Risking ultimate damnation? Possibly. But if our love for our children cannot handle the responsibility of granting our life meaning and salvation, what can? If I fail at life by putting too much into my relationship with those closest to me, than I am willing to fail. If I succeed, I expect that success to cover over any other failure that my life might accumulate and grant my soul peace.
I love and respect those that choose not, or are not able, to have children. I recognize that their lives have equal meaning and worth to my own. But the reality of life that confronts me is that I must gather my meaning, my salvation, where it lies, just as everyone must, and, for me it lies with my family, and though sometimes I might definitely wish it, this truth cannot be shifted.
Read more by Tim here.
Do you think this is true? Probably not as stated, I’d imagine. One might ask, “what exactly is a perfect parent?” And I’d have to agree that it’s a standard without definition and the narrower the definition the less true to the standard it probably becomes.
Before I go further let me report on another reading success this month: Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. Are you a Gilbert fan? I don’t know that I am. I read Committed and liked it, but I haven’t read any of her other work out of a choice I’m not sure I understand yet. But Signature has been enjoyable; the scope of the work is ambitious and interesting. Considering that this is the first novel I’ve read in quite some time I feel like the fact that I’m well on my way to finishing it constitutes praise for this book. So if you’re looking for something to read, there’s that recommendation (I will admit that sometimes I find that Gilbert’s voice gets in the way of the story, but that’s a matter of personal opinion).
Central to the story are parents Henry and Beatrix Whittaker. Neither are perfect people by any means. By extension, many would say they aren’t perfect parents either. Where Henry is raucous, irreverent, selfish, hurtfully blunt, and kind of a rake in general, Beatrix is disciplined, cold, corrective, strict, sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, and unrelenting about her childrens’ faults.
Yet for all that, somehow Beatrix in particular showcases herself as a parent who is perfect. In what way? Well, you see through the novel that she was the perfect parent for her children. Her idiosyncrasies and her beliefs allow her daughter Alma to accomplish wonders, and her adopted daughter Prudence from falling in line with the ruinous path of her biological parents. [Here are some impressive Beatrix quotes: "'At no moment in history has a bright young girl with plenty of food and a good constitution perished from too much learning'" (p. 52). "A child's intellect, Beatrix said, is an object of impressive elasticity . . . The human mind, if dutifully trained, should be able to perform anything we ask of it. It is all just a matter of working hard" (p. 74-75).]
You might argue at this point, and I’m inclined to agree, that such things probably appear much cleaner and more obvious in works of fiction. Cause and effect is so much more obvious on the page than in real life, isn’t it?
Setting all that aside, wouldn’t it be nice if we as parents did ourselves a kind favor and assumed our own rightness for our children? What if we suspended our doubts and fears and told ourselves, “I don’t see it yet, but one day it will become clear to me and maybe even to my child that I was the right one for them. In essence, I was the perfect one for them. It was meant to be.”
Reader: I’m aware that many believe that the idea of the perfect parent is a fallacy, and therefore controversial and a waste of time to talk about. Do you have an alternate definition for “perfect” when it comes to parenting? What are your thoughts about this?
Today I am so excited to welcome reading parent Ben Blair to our reading parent series. You may remember from this post, but Ben is the creator of one of my favorite TV web series, Olive Us! He and his wife have formed a formidable parenting team I’ve admired from a distance for a while now. Hearing him answer my questions as to how reading informs his parenting has been a real treat I’ve been eager to share. Enjoy!
Tell us about how reading works for you as a parent.
‘Try’ is going to be the operative word here. We try to read every night together as a family, and also individually to our younger 3 children as they go to bed. For the individual reading, we try to rotate so our different kids have turns reading to each other. For together reading, we used to take turns reading, but that often took too long, and would bore the older kids so we have adapted to have family reading time, where a parent, or one of the older kids reads to everyone, and individual reading times. We still have occasional family reading time where we all take turns reading. When we read individually with kids, we typically take turns–a parent or “older” kid reading, and the younger kid reading–it’s about growing as a reader as well as listening to a good book.
Has what you read changed since you became a parent?
What reading have you done since becoming a parent that has impacted your parenting in a big way? Any aha! moments that made you re-evaluate your impulses or past decisions?
Gabby shared the following in an interview once:
“. . .We have tried to create a warm, nurturing, orderly, hard-working, creative, loving environment, but we have a ways to go. Ben is really conscientious about the environment of our home. He asks what the art around us is suggesting. What the books on our shelves convey. On our last over-nighter (it was a while ago) we spent probably 3 hours talking about what books and what types of books we want on our shelves. We are at least aware that our books aren’t the ideal library we want our kids to remember — and admitting it is the first step to recovery.”
In your “aims of the series” video, you mention conversations that inspired the series. What it means to be a good sibling seems to be a point of concern and fixation for you. Did any reading impact the way or degree to which you think and care about this topic?
A few books come immediately to mind (a lot of these will sound like a broken record): The Boxcar Children–the Olive Us series could be one big homage to the Boxcar children. A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Little House books. These portray anti-Disney channel siblings. They love each other, they support each other, they work hard together, etc. And books are great entry points for conversations. After reading a Harry Potter chapter, we talked about how do you know Malfoy is bad? What makes Ron and Harry good? Are the Weasley’s good siblings? etc.
While I rely on reading a lot to help me try to be a thoughtful and deliberate parent, I wonder if it is the same way for you, or if other habits of thinking or being influence you to be this way.
Yes, reading is important–really a vital part of being a deliberate parent. I think another part of our approach is to drill down to target activities and conversations. So when I think about the environment I want to build, I think in terms of questions like these: “What activities do we want to make really easy to do in this space?” “What kinds of conversations do we want to take place here?” And to try to write up samples in as concrete way possible. I think books like those I have mentioned earlier have informed both what activities and conversations I want to aim for, and they have also shaped this whole mindset. We are working right now on a reading nook in our home, and not surprisingly, the primary activity we want to make easy and pleasant is reading.
Felicity and I love your family’s work on Olive Us. The episodes balance and capture so many beautiful things: the comfort of the familiar and the exhilaration of new discovery; the beauty of being solitary, but the importance of belonging to each other; I could go on, we love it!
True to form, (no commentary on whether this is a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, please) my attention span and reading interests just haven’t been as predictable as they ordinarily are. Here a is small sampling of the books I haven’t been able to finish/start. This is in no way a commentary on the inherent value of these books.
The Family Dinner (I picked this one up at the library just before the worst throes of my morning sickness began. I could hardly pick it up without feeling incredibly nauseous because, hello, it’s about food. Also, while I am a deep believer in family dinner, it all goes to pot when a certain family member (ahem) has to flee to the other room anytime food is prepared. Maybe I’ll pick it up again someday.)
Childhood Under Siege (Yeah, brought it home from the library, haven’t picked it up once.)
When I was a Child I Read Books (I’ve tried and tried. It just feels like too much of a chore and I DON’T KNOW WHY.)
The Good Life (I recommended this book to my brother as soon as I heard about it. I knew it would be a book we’d both love. This kind of thing is right up my alley…when I’m not pregnant, apparently.)
My one reading success this month: being totally engrossed by this biography on Frida Kahlo. I couldn’t put it down. My family was deeply mystified by my absorption in this book.
Currently, the only book I feel excited to read is Noam Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle.
Amanda N left some great advice when I first expressed my worries about how pregnancy might impact my reading: do some re-reading!
What are some re-reads that would go on your list?
Confession time: I had a very bad parenting moment this morning, in which I behaved very badly.
It’s amazing and awful how as very human parents, what in the moment seems like unforgivable behavior from our children, when reflected upon, later makes us wonder what we were so upset about.
Shortly after my outburst with Felicity this morning, I realized that when I get irrationally angry with her it’s usually due to some unspoken, deep-seated fear that I have about my parenting. And needless to say, some of those fears are irrational.
So what is my biggest parenting fear? I am terrified of raising lazy children. And if Felicity ever exhibits behavior that to me indicates laziness I become overzealous and angry.
What was her grand offense this morning? Well, she asked me to do something that I know she can do for herself. When I told her no, she then created a mess in what appeared to be an attempt to make the task she didn’t want to do a little easier for herself.
And I lost it. I acted shamefully. I shamed her, yelled at her, and was rough with her. And now, as we usually do, I feel terrible about it.
We all do it. We all lose sight of the moment-what is actually happening-and give in instead to some irrational fear of what this moment may mean for the future. How to stay in the moment? As a parent, being mindful of the present moment is one of my largest, most ambitious goals. It is one of my greatest struggles.
One book I read about parenting and mindfulness encourages parents to think about what is going on for your child at this moment. To take this moment to pause and reflect alone is helpful, I think. But it also may lend itself to more effective parenting strategies.
I could recognize, for instance, that instead of blaming Felicity’s unwillingness to be independent on inherent laziness, I could reflect instead on the fact that maybe she’s not ready to be as independent as I want her to be sometimes. Even if I don’t do the dreaded task for her, I could still say something to the effect of, “no, that’s something you need to do yourself. But when you’re finished we can do (insert more pleasant task) together.” Because maybe her asking for my help has less to do with unwillingness, and more to do with wanting to spend time with me or wanting to feel loved.
And when our unfortunate parenting moments are tied less to fears, and more to moments of exasperation, there are undoubtedly other strategies as well. I read this one the other day. I’ve seen parents do this in my Instagram feed, and it seems to be a brilliant solution that might at least suspend the worst of we parents’ wrath.
So what do you think? What are your solutions to these kinds of moments? What are your biggest parenting fears that rear their ugly heads in this way?
I may have mentioned this before, but I absolutely love the New York Public Library System. It’s centralized, with branches all over the five boroughs, and a wonderfully useful website unites the whole system. It has really been vital to our life here.
But to be truthful, with only one exception I’ve loved every library I’ve been to for different reasons. And, like this Pew study (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/24/10-facts-about-americans-and-public-libraries/) indicates, my library usage has changed over time. While we’ve lived here we haven’t had the time or inclination to participate in any of the library-sponsored story-times for kids, whereas at past libraries we sometimes attended on a bi-weekly basis!
What’s your favorite thing about your library?
As you may have guessed based on my last announcement-related post Felicity has watched A LOT of TV over the past few months. Judge if you must (I’ve certainly, and embarrassingly, been on the giving-end of such judgments), but that is often the reality of ill parents. And of course I didn’t always feel great about that reality and how it might be impacting my daughter.
Wow. Media choices are tough aren’t they? Tried as I might to choose shows that didn’t at least give me the gags there were times over the past month or so that I noted how media seemed to influence Felicity’s behavior.
Around this time I read this manifesto, written by Olive Us creator, Ben Blair. He says, “I know that what television programs my children watch is not the only influence on how they behave, and that, as a parent, my behavior is a much more significant influence. And that even allowing my children to watch television programs is a decision with consequences. I accept that responsibility.”
From the limited amount that I know about Ben Blair, he seems to me to be a very deliberate parent. And I love what he is doing with Olive Us. It is a show Felicity absolutely loves, and it’s one I love to watch with her (I include links to our favorite videos below). And it does make me relax a little to know that we’re watching a show created by a parent who is thinking very seriously about how media impacts his own children. There is a level of transparency with Olive Us that I wish were present in all of children’s media.
Wait, don’t go yet! What are some of the harder media-related choices you’ve had to make with your kids? What decision/s did you ultimately come to?
Here’s a list of some of our favorite Olive Us episodes. Let us know if you like them as much as we do!
Felicity’s favorite videos:
An adorable Red Riding Hood adaptation.
Hand Cookies with Grandma. (Do you sense a theme here?)
One of the questions I ask respondents in my reading parents series is how their reading lives have been disrupted or changed since becoming parents. Some have responded that time became and continues to be a struggle; others that becoming a parent changed some of their reading interests.
I’ve always heavily related to the latter. The former miraculously has not be an issue for me yet.
But let me lay it all out and say that I never struggle so much with reading as when I am expecting a child. That’s right. We are adding to our family and are expecting a baby in the summer. The past two months have been, to put it bluntly, hellish. Morning sickness is a harsh mistress.
You won’t believe the insipid things I watched on Netflix during this period. My stack of books waiting to be read gathered dust and I didn’t care. The only things I read in the month of December were Facebook status updates that failed to inspire me or my parenting.
I found that when I was pregnant with Felicity a lot of motivation left me. Easily bored, nonexistent attention span. As much as I ordinarily think of reading as a luxurious activity, the truth is that certain reading requires a lot of us; focus, thought, the ability to empathize. Survival mode often kicks these three to the curb when it has to. So, like other parents whose reading interests changed with parenthood, my reading interests changed drastically with my first pregnancy. What did I read? Well, a lot of kid lit. I read Little House on the Prairie. I’m pretty sure I even read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. And then, right after Felicity’s birth, my attention span returned, good as new.
So, readers: are there any ideas on how to inoculate yourself against dead-brained survival? Have you ever had a similar experience, where reading was just too hard, too much? Let’s commiserate together.
Rest assured, despite my complaints about the past two months, I am very excited. And just take a look at this lovely pregnancy announcement my talented cousin, Lisa, put together for me:
I first saw Blame it on Fidel years ago, shortly after I became a parent. It has swiftly become one of my favorite “parenting” movies.
Told from the perspective of a young girl who enjoyed a sunny, privileged life before her parents messed everything up, this is really a film about how changeable, fallible, and well-intentioned parents can be; it shows how they can be both right and wrong, sometimes at the same time.
This blog focuses on how reading impacts parenting and daily family life. Sometimes reading does this in a way that dusts the surface off of what is already there, offering new resolve or vindication for what we’re already doing. Sometimes reading offers solutions or new hope for problems we’re facing. And sometimes reading can crack the very foundations of our world and how we see it. As parents, the consequences of such alterations will inevitably effect our children, even when we do not wish them to.
Although reading isn’t the catalyst of Anna’s parents’ transformation in the film, the question Anna asks her parents is often one that sends me searching for new reading material: “How do you know you’re not wrong?”
On a lighter note, the film also shows the resilience of children in response to such changes; it shows ways in which Anna suffers and grows. And Anna isn’t the only one who has suffered and grown because of her parents’ decisions. At the end of the movie, we learn that her father has responded similarly to his own parents’ choices.
The film is currently available to view in its entirety on Netflix.
Have you ever undergone a transformation, akin to Anna’s parents? Do you ever examine your choices and wonder if you’re “wrong”? Have you ever had an experience like Anna’s, where you were effected by your parents’ transformations?
Most importantly, as a parent, how do you answer the question, “How do you know you’re not wrong?”