“letting our children say ‘No’”

At my brother’s wedding reception the table is full of glasses, candles, and stacks of plates piled with delicious food. In this venue, then, one of the other guests brightly asks me, “So how long have you been homeschooling?” I point my fork at my son, sitting at the end of the table snuggling his father – “That one,” I say, “has never been to school. And he’s nine years old. My daughter,” (leaning against me, listening like a pert little wildlife creature), “she went to one year of public kindergarten. What I saw there while I volunteered twice weekly inspired me to think about something different for our family.”

This answer seems to satisfy my new acquaintance. But then my mother pipes up, leaning forward to gush, “And it’s not homeschooling, it’s unschooling!” A pause, as those listening react in confusion at the term. My mom leans over to me. “Tell her, tell them,” she says with the kind of peevish enthusiasm she gets when ordering me around (Yes. I know. I’m 36.) She presses me further: “They want to hear about unschooling!” I roll my eyes. “No, you want me to tell them about unschooling,” I retort. I’m cranky, and I just want to eat my vegetarian spring rolls in peace. It’s been a long day!

On Forcing Myself On Strangers

These days I don’t get too fired up about “the unschooling conversation“, or at least not near as much as I used to. To use a phrase whose time has probably passed, I am much more chillax about the whole business. Why? Many reasons. Because ignorance is rampant, harmful systems are both prevalent and entrenched, and child-as-second-class is the norm. It’s simply the norm. Most people think children should be ordered about for most their waking hours (even though most people don’t want to own up to this), and if there was any way my educational theories or my passionate communication skills or my words-upon-words written could force people to try things differently, I probably would still be forcing people today.

And this brings me to another reason I am (usually) less ardent in these conversations, probably my most grounded reason. Because frankly, I’ve the same impulses as everyone else, attempting to impose my sense of justice, order, or intelligence on other human beings. Shocker: I am not always right, I am not always making intelligent decisions, and I myself am plenty-ignorant. While today I am willing to share our experiences and especially to help those who seek help, I am no longer willing to argue. Why set myself on one side of a table lecturing or complaining or feeling persecuted or expressing despair at the state of child-raising in our country? Instead, I can practice gratitude for having the family I do, and I can try to be helpful to other families who ask for my help.

Today I don’t have to live by force – although I should call it the attempt to force, and the illusion of control by “winning” an argument (I include those arguments in the mind that we continue, when we’ve long left the conversation with another human being!). At the wedding party dinner I was more than happy to talk a bit about unschooling and, specifically, to answer the questions that ended up being put to me (“How will your kids get into college?” and some other typical fare). See today I don’t have to “prove” unschooling and today – blessed miracle! – I don’t even have to get upset and frustrated by other people’s ignorances. I don’t mean anything or anyone in particular, I just mean that maybe my entire life I will have that little blip of annoyance when I see how people Other and belittle children and talk about them like they’re property or chattel. Perhaps I will never move past feeling irritated and angry. But today I don’t have to rise to a state of panic and anger. I don’t have to rehearse negative thoughts and negative emotions, and I don’t have to let these emotions dictate my reality. I can take up the line of conversation, in this case, pick it up, participate, then put it down.

Then, enjoy my spring rolls.

Who gets to say “No”?

A little while back my partner and I got into a lively conversation with a parent who was also an educator. This parent became increasingly interested in dissecting our philosophies of non-coercive parenting, anti-authoritarianism, and life learning as opposed to compulsory schooling. The conversation became quite lively (I was not especially chillax) but it remained respectful. I remember very little about the content of our discussion except the tail end of the conversation. The parent kind of pushed back from the table, shook their head, and said, very slowly: “I think you and I have the same ideas… except… I don’t let my kids say ‘No’.”

At the time, I was aghast. “Not letting your kid say ‘No’” is firstly the very definition of typical American parenting – and there is no “sameness” to this parent, and Ralph and I, at all! In fact, this parent was articulating the exact root disagreement that fostered our lengthy and lively argument in the first place!

Still, I was impressed this parent was honest. Many parents, carers, and teachers I know act as if they are letting their kids exercise their agency (i.e. say “No”) when really they are only providing them the slimmest margins of freedom. These adults often align themselves with or seek out methodologies of parenting or child stewardship (some of which employ special words and more humane – to outward appearances – behaviors) to, in part, obfuscate what this particular parent stated so eloquently - “I don’t let my kids say ‘No’”. Many parents can’t admit, “I don’t let my kids say ‘No’”, because they don’t want to believe this about their parent-child relationship. This is very sad, because among other things this means they cannot get to the bottom of the parent-child relationship, and they thus block their own path to healing and deep peace.

And this can be expanded further, because it isn’t a parent thing. It is an adult thing. Somewhere along the way we all internalized the concept, so deeply ingrained that even years of active processes of unlearning by a committed individual do not remove it quickly or entirely, that one day it would be “our turn” and we would no longer be the second-class citizens of the world (at least in the sense of child/adult), but could then demand obedience and obeisance (“respect”) from the children who were to come after us. We became deeply invested in this fantasy, in part because it contains an illusion of safety, of Self-as-demonstrated, that ego-soothing “I’ve earned my place!” experience we often grasp at.

So I understand why many adults don’t want to own up to what this parent, albeit begrudgingly, spoke aloud. But looking deeper still, I see that this parent has even another lesson for me.

The Gifts of This Parent’s Honesty

What a gift this conversation was! Because the deeper truth is, we can never not let someone say “No”. They can always say No. What we can do is make consequences or environments so unpleasant – perhaps extremely so – that they choose not to say No. They are temporarily and/or outwardly cowed. We are really quite industrious and imaginative in the ways we attempt to control, to manage the outcome, to get our way. We may scream, hit, beat, remove pleasures or material goods, and employ all sorts of psychological and emotional “carrot/stick” strictures to these children’s lives. Harshada Wagner’s talk on how we create emotional pain for the world’s children will always be written on my heart, because what he says is true regardless of whether we are parent, educator, or a civilian interacting with the children of this world.

We inflict emotional pain in an attempt to control or an attempt to maintain the illusion of control. Now, why we do this is the subject of another piece. But isn’t it freeing, to finally admit we are doing this? Isn’t their some small part of you, in that space of devastation and sadness at the smallness of our attempts to control, and the uselessness of these attempts, that feels a little excited, that breathes fresh air? When we confront the truth, as it is said, it sets us free.

Our children will always be able to say No to us; if they don’t do so outwardly for fear of our reprisal, they do so inwardly. The phrase “cognitive dissonance” comes to mind, although it falls short in describing the holistic and endemic nature of the harm done when we insist we will not “let” our kids, or any kids, say No. Some children grow to hate their carers and most will continue to respond to much of life from a place of woundedness. Some grow to emulate the abuse. Many do not outgrow their fears and do not heal from their hurts. The human impulse to control, to seek security where there is none, is magnified further still and their lives become filled with suffering, with grasping and revulsion and with complexity and over-work.

When we adults present a lie in rebuttal to something the child, deep down, knows in her gut, we commit the worst kind of betrayal. Entire lives have been corrupted and wounded, and this can carry on for generations in family legacies of hurt feelings, abuse, drinking and drugging, fears, over-indulgences or pathological self-denial in otherwise-healthy activities (like eating or not-eating, or working, sleeping, and sex). I see these fallouts every day.

Therefore I submit it is the greatest responsibility of any adult to commit to honesty – not just cash-register honesty, but emotional and spiritual honesty, when we are dealing with the rest of the world, and especially with children and with the child class. If you cannot admit here, or to me, or to your counselor or spouse the ways you are not letting your child say No, it is at least a start to admit it to yourself.

The wonderful news is it is never too early nor too late. We have only to set foot on the path, today.

When I was a child the things that hurt me most are easy to identify, today. It was not the physical abuse, the scoffing at the hands of peers, illness, death of a pet or of family, or hunger or sleep deprivation. What hurt me the most was when the adults I depended on would tell me lies and insist I believe them. They told me I was Selfish (setting themselves apart as Virtuous), and they told me this often, instead of admitting the larger, breathtaking truth that selfishness is something within all of us, that all of us can make peace with and transform. They told me they were strong when really they were weak. They told me they were not dependent on anything, when really they had many dependencies (as we are all wont to have). I had the opportunity to grow and learn they did these things not out of avarice or cruelty but merely because they knew no better, and had likely been done to similarly. Today I am so grateful to see deeply into these things, and to perhaps provide a different experience for my own children, inasmuch as I can.

a few brief reflections on Mother’s Day

My Mother's Day So Far

Today is Mothers Day here in the United States, and this will mark my twelfth Mother’s Day in awareness that I am a mother. I am writing here briefly, before spending the day with family and then opening my home, this evening, to the community for coffee and cake.

Mothers Day can be difficult for many people – for those still harboring feelings of anger, resentment, fear and blame about their mother, their lack of mother, or their own role as mother – and for those who’ve lost a mother or don’t believe they ever had one. In that spirit, I’d like to offer a little bit about my own experiences. I have a few painful things to discuss, but I also hope to bring some hope, humor, and gratitude.

It is hard to be a mother in the culture I live in. It is my opinion that most individuals are very kind to mothers, on a one-to-one basis, and most folk have some respect for the work of caring for vulnerable human beings. Culturally and socially, however, there is a great deal of unskillfulness. Mothers are not supported, validated, or respected very much. They are condescended to, sniggered about, sanctified in sticky-sweet two-dimensional caricature, and left to impossible standards and back-breaking work within a deeply child-segregationist culture. Many people – and not just mothers – suffer around the issue of motherhood. Mother’s Day has not been, for many, an uncomplicated day of remembrance, reflection, and gratitude.

My childhood wasn’t perfect, and for many years I blamed my mother most of all. This caused me much suffering for many years, and because we can never truly suffer privately, I made others suffer. Every unkind word, every malicious thought, every private stoking of my resentments, caused me harm and caused others harm. I cannot overstate how my own resentments towards the adults in my life hurt me most of all. When I became a mother my judgments convicted me far worse than any person reading here could. My resentment, anger, fear, and spirit of unforgiveness robbed me of many moments I could have truly been awake, aware, and alive.

Do you know what I worried about, when pregnant my second time and carrying, for the first time, a baby to full term? I did not worry about my relationship with my partner, or how to pay the bills, or if I’d be able to breastfeed, or carseats or diapers. I worried that I would not be able to love my child. It seems a very silly fear given how things ended up, but is it really? I guess I believed that if I didn’t have a sort of bottomless loyalty and a deep bond I would not be able to do the substantial work ahead. I apparently had a complete lack of faith in something that exists within all human beings – the drive to care for those vulnerable.

I was not prepared to be a mother, and I made many mistakes as a mother. Some quite grievous. Society does not forgive a mother who makes mistakes – ever. So, I had to learn how to forgive. I had to learn to forgive, or die a messy, miserable death. In learning forgiveness I began to see that things are not always as they seem. Even very loving people do terrible things; and even those who seem incapable, can have reserves of strength and kindness that are simply incredible.

For me, being a mother is about patience, love, and service. I cannot long or happily do the work of motherhood for my own ego or personal gain (believe me, I’ve tried!). I will never be able to push my buttons to Autopilot on this one; it is a daily practice of learning, making mistakes, forgiving, usually laughing, dusting off, and getting on. It is more like climbing a mountain with dirt and sweat and moments of dark, clammy shadow before I step up on the trail and the full power of the sun warms the flesh in a way inexplicable and miraculously joyous – than it is in any picture of any glossy magazine. The strength and ferocity I get from being a mother is a byproduct of a faithful practice; it cannot be manufactured or created by myself, and it cannot be purchased or bargained for.

Forgiveness, patience, prayer, gratitude – and chores. The chores aren’t new, but the forgiveness, patience, prayer and gratitude are – relatively so. It is quite stunning when I reflect how many years I walked around without any real sense of gratitude. This was a mistake, because any human being at any moment can make the choice to breathe, and if you can choose to breathe, you can probably choose gratitude (or you can decide you want gratitude!). With gratitude, I can experience humility. With humility, I can experience humor and serenity. With humility, I do not grab up more bitterness, resentment, and emotional pain. This is my spiritual make-up; I do not pretend to guess at yours.

Yesterday, buying flowers, I saw many who were buying flowers for their mothers. Many were buying them to place on a grave. My mother still walks the earth and through her my ancestors have been carried along, and they are here within me now. The good parts, the faithful parts, and the ugly little troll-like mean-spirited bits. It is really kind of funny, as I read once: “life is not so serious as the mind makes it out to be”. This morning I can choose love, and honor, and a bit of humor, and I can show my mother some kindness. If I can show my mother kindness I can show any human being kindness.

quick and personal: my Recovery story, at least as of today

Today is my father’s 70th birthday; or would be, if he were alive. I miss him very much, and I will likely write about him later today. For now, here is a piece I penned for another site. I’m trying to keep to a writing schedule to assist with our scholarship fund. If you feel so inclined, please donate.

Otherwise, I hope what you read here in any way helps, or gives you hope.
 

Me, April 16, 2013

I am a thirty-six year old mother to two, wife, daughter, sister, friend – and I am an alcoholic. I’ve been sober almost two years which makes me a statistical anomaly and a medical miracle. That said, like many of us with lasting and happy Recovery, I give credit where credit is due. I have had a great deal of support, practical advice, a spiritual community, and wonderful friendships every step of the way. I have those things today, and I am so grateful for them all. I would sicken and die without them.

I knew I was an alcoholic a few years before I even thought about trying to get and stay sober. I was ashamed to be an alcoholic because of experiences from my childhood, so for several years I minded my drinking. For an alcoholic, this means I attempted to control my drinking - even though I didn’t see it that way at the time. I didn’t do half-bad at this, either. I avoided some of the more unpleasant episodes I’d later find out my fellow alcoholics had fallen prey to. Of course those could all be mine, if I ever get curious or as is more likely, if I ever forget where I came from.

I owe my life to countless friends in Recovery who have helped me, but the first person along this path was a physician who correctly identified my primary ailment as alcoholism (needless to say, I was seeing him for a different complaint). He asked me a few questions about the medicine he’d prescribed me, and when I admitted I was still drinking a little while taking it (I was actually drinking just about every night) he said, “I think you’re an alcoholic.”

I usually laugh when I tell this story – now – but this was the worst moment in my life. (Today, it’s a fond memory!) I can remember so much about that conversation – on my first day sober. At one point in our brief, direct, and raw (for me) conversation, he asked me, “Have you ever tried to quit drinking?” I answered him I had, but my life hadn’t improved (so, quod erat demonstrandum, alcoholism must not be my problem) – and I’d given up trying to “quit”. Then he said a few words I will never forget. He told me, “You don’t quit drinking for your life to improve. You quit because you have a disease, and it is your responsibility.” Those words gave me the courage to try sobriety, no matter what came of it – although at the time I thought I was hopeless and that only people very, very tough could get and stay sober.

That day I came home and told my husband I was an alcoholic. We’ve known eachother since we were 17, yet he didn’t know! He was confused, but he accepted what I said. He rid the house of wine glasses in a very touching demonstration of support (the first of many). Later, he told me he didn’t believe I was an alcoholic for quite some time in my early sobriety. We are both very grateful there is a program of Recovery for those friends and family who love or are in relationship with an alcoholic. He understands a great deal more about this illness, today.

My second day sober I sat with a small group of people knowing, knowing I couldn’t live with drinking, nor without it. I might be able to not drink now, or the next few hours, or even tonight. But someday I would have to drink again. Not only that, but if I was very honest to myself and not worried about managing others’ perception of me, I believed a life without drinking was not going to be a happy one. I really thought if I got sober, I’d be boring!

These first few days – without treatment or detox, in the home and in the relationships I’d had for years – were frightening and painful. I suffered a great deal physically and I didn’t know how to reach out nor treat myself like the ill individual I was. I was sick and frightened, but more than anything else I was confused. I heard people saying getting sober was the easy part, staying sober is hard. This used to drive me mad with fear, as I was suffering so much and I didn’t want to suffer more. Despite my fear, I did follow the suggestions of those I met in Recovery, and I quickly realized I wouldn’t have to suffer like that again. My journal reveals that even in these early days, I had periods of clarity and even bliss. Soon, I stopped wanting other people’s “time” in Recovery, and I became happy with my own. Another beautiful moment of many in my Recovery.

My life improved quickly, but getting over my guilt and shame did not happen overnight – especially when it came to my mistakes as a mother. However, I didn’t let these feelings of inadequacy, fear, remorse, and (self-)blame stop me from seeking out Recovery on a daily basis. Over time, I began to learn to be kind to myself. One thing I have not yet seen in the thousands of alcoholics and addicts I’ve worked with, is the ability, in early Recovery, to be kind to oneself. It comes in time for many, but it drives many more back out to suffer and die.

Today I live a joyful sobriety. I am a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and citizen than I was while drinking. The anger and fear I used to have over the ways I’ve been abused and mistreated is no longer with me; I have also accepted my own role in mistreating others and I make amends today. I practice Buddhism, the faith tradition that has appealed to me my whole life. The other day I read, If you die to the past, you enter into the greatest adventure there is. “Dying to the past” is how I can practice kindness today. My past is factual information I can use to help others – it is no longer Judge, Jury, & Executioner. My past is one of my greatest assets, especially when I work on a daily basis to help other alcoholics who think they are hopeless – the way I used to think I was hopeless.

I have always enjoyed films or television shows that depict, with some degree of emotional or spiritual acuity, what it’s like to be an active alcoholic. It seems so many cultural and media edifices characterize and cartoonify the disease, making a maudlin spectacle of what I’ve come to think of as a beautiful, complex spiritual illness. Funny thing – I enjoyed films about alcoholics long before I ever got sober, and I still enjoy them today. The Long Weekend, “Prime Suspect”, Magnolia. I know what it’s like to hit “bottom” and I love when I see this articulated in film or a song. It is a beautiful, amazing, heartrending, wonderful thing. I treasure this memory as it was necessary for me to have what I have today.

a tightrope or a feather bed: recovering from addiction

As promised, as part of my writer’s hustle to support a family scholarship, here is another article in a series. 

***

We run carelessly to the precipice, after we have put something before us to prevent us seeing it. – Blaise Pascal

This piece is dedicated to a friend who marks one year clean and sober, today. – Ed

***

It might be a minute before I tire of talking about addiction, and recovery from addiction. Many consider the matter as being either Not Personally Relevant (to their lives), or, in another version of the same, intensely compartmentalized (you know, my cousin has a problem, but No One Else in my life and certainly not Me!). There is a widespread misconception that addiction involves substance abuse, and that process addictions are not real. There is also a great deal of stigma and ignorance imbued in the subject. Rehab television, fictionalized and maudlin plotlines in film and books, and celebrity-stalking internet edifices have reduced addiction, Recovery, and treatment to a cynical joke. Still others think it an unseemly landscape - a graphic, bloody, war-torn one populated with skid-row drunks, avid-eyed pillheads, nodding-off junkies, and jittery tweakers staggering about – a world one should not talk about at all. One of modern-day society’s leper colonies.

It is a good thing most people are thinking, compassionate creatures who know a little better, even if they don’t understand a great deal about the subject.

Addiction is everywhere, hidden in plain sight and amongst all walks of people – which is why those movies and those Othering depictions of addicts and alcoholics are so inaccurate. More incredible still, those in affliction are often those most deeply invested in denial – and denial is not a willful act. If that sentence doesn’t scare you the way it scares me, you should drop me a line and tell me how it is you comprehend and move through the Universe.

Since I got sober, I’ve often wondered: how on earth can I possibly reach even one soul who might be suffering right now, deep in their own muffled Self – consumed with hatred, self-obsession, non-forgiveness, obsession and compulsion – while putting out that brave face to the world, while her own suffering is all but completely hidden from her or blamed on other people, life’s circumstances? I cringe when I think of writing openly about addiction, to have the individual who needs to hear this glazing over my words thinking, Not Me (even though deep deep in his gut he knows – there is that little bit of awareness: Yes, Me), then going on to more years of a type of walking death and unconsciousness that addiction always, fast or slow, spirals into. Everything Is Fine, I Don’t Have A Problem – this is what kills so many people and causes so much suffering – not the drugs and alcohol themselves.

I have been clean and sober almost two years now, and I am only starting to settle down over this matter of the still-practicing addict – especially the fellow I think about most, the one ramping up into the life, for whom drugs, alcohol, and process addictions are still working. I know a little bit about how many years of Hell he is stepping happily into. It is hard for me not to panic. But these individuals remind me that things happen on a timeline not my own, and not mine to dictate or control. These individuals instruct me in the disciplines of compassion and humility.

***

This morning, while I moved through my home doing housework and while my children slept, I gave myself a break for still finding so much rich experience to pore over in addiction and recovery. After all, it is a very phenomenal process I am going through. As I recover, my brain and body continue to change. I have experienced in this period of sobriety more peace, serenity, humor, and expansiveness than I previously would have thought was possible for an individual to experience.

Recovery can feel so personal, and I do have a faith tradition I practice which has helped me a great deal. I often think, “No one wants to hear about that!” I realized today though, that many probably don’t consider this a spiritual issue at all, and I could consider speaking to people in non-spiritual terms. The doctor who first suggested I get help, for instance, considers abstinence from narcotics coupled with a peer-supported treatment plan, to be literally re-training the brain. I don’t know if he also believes there is something spiritual going on in active addiction and in recovery (as I do), or if he is a science-only man. In any case; progress (or deterioration) regarding substance abuse or process addiction can be measured scientifically, if only in part. I remember as I write this that my pulse used to be thirty points higher – that’s thirty - when I was drinking, than it is, consistently, today. The incredible thing is, I was not consciously aware of the strain – body, mind, heart and soul – this illness was subjecting me to.

Many people in active addiction are aware they are addicts, and have some knowledge of what addiction is doing to them. Sometimes they have severe complications and life circumstances. And yet they continue. They aren’t immoral, uncaring, and they certainly don’t lack intelligence. Given this, why aren’t more people interested in this field?

If there was anything I’d like to leave my readers with today, it is this: the individual who has realized she has a problem, and who is considering a life of recovery, sobriety, and complete abstinence from mind-altering substances and compulsive process is facing a fear so grave I believe you must yourself face it, to understand. It is the fear of annihilation; the fear of an entirely joyless life. She stands at a great, yawning abyss, and a tightrope stretches out before her, swaying in a chill wind. There is no net. There is no assurance of anything on the other side, Heaven or Hell. Perhaps there are people shouting behind her in a great clamor and perhaps those voices have been distracting, but at a certain point the crowd doesn’t matter; nor do the muffled voices of those on the other side calling out, It’s worth it, you’ll live, it’s amazing, trust us! We crossed over, you can do it too! She is alone with the God or godlessness of her own making, and that doesn’t have anything to do with your conception of God. They are in a quiet congress you will never be entirely privy to no matter should she try to relay it or write it all out or speak volumes of prose later. Should she step out on the tightrope today, it will leave an indelible mark on her. This moment of terror will become a most treasured memory. This is why so many recovering addicts often honor their first day sober, whether they call it a birthday or anniversary or something else. It was the day they met their Maker, and that is exactly as scary as it sounds.

If you are looking at someone who is committed to Recovery, you are looking at someone who has put their head in the jaws of a tiger and still remembers its hot breath and the feel of a fang against the cheek.

So: yeah, it might be a minute before I tire of talking about addiction and recovery from addiction. And for a little while there I was thinking perhaps my fervor and excitement might be a getting tiresome. But then I realized: that’s what I sometimes worry other people might think. Is their (imagined) judgment and opinion deserving of much weight and reflection, on this subject?

Nah, not really.

me, april 1 2013

what you could stand to learn about addiction

As promised, as part of my writer’s hustle to support a family scholarship, here is another article in a series. 

Smashed

First, a bit about who I am, and a bit about who I am not. I am a sober alcoholic, clean and sober two years this coming May if I don’t fuck it up. I have a good life today. I come from a large family who drank and drugged throughout my childhood, and I share my writings about this, and about my life today, trusting it will help you to read a bit – and hoping my personal and public information won’t be used for exploitive or hurtful purposes. One of my passions is working with and helping other alcoholics and addicts, as well as their families and friends, and to that end I pen this piece.

I am not a therapist, doctor, social expert, or chemical dependency counselor. I am merely an addict who works daily in the field with many other addicts. I don’t earn money or a professional reputation, and I’m not trying to sell you anything. So: there. Those are my qualifications, or lack thereof.

As I see it today, here are some things I wish more people knew about addiction.

Everyone has an addiction – or several. YOU are addicted.

One of the most interesting things about substance abuse is how quickly people want to be on one side of the fence with this. “We” aren’t as bad as “They” are.  “Poor so-and-so, her father was a such-and-such.” “I like a drink – but I’m not an alcoholic.” Even the most honest of those who admit they might indulge a little too much are very loathe to have their behaviors pathologized or even remotely subject to criticism (as the refrigerator magnet says, “I’m not an alcoholic, I’m a drunk. Alcoholics go to meetings. Drunks go to parties.”)

Addiction is not relegated to narcotics we might put into our body. Gambling, eating disorders, codependency, rage, self-harm are all examples of process addictions and behavioral illnesses that can be as deadly as a heroin habit (and not just to the individual with the behaviors; I have a close friend who ran over someone while driving and in the throes of food-binging). When you become willing to see similarities instead of differences, and when you become curious about your own addictions (rather than frightened of or ashamed of them or actively resisting the label No Matter The Evidence), you are beginning a wonderful journey of self-discovery and healing. So very many people never get to this place at all!

Finally: addiction is a continuum. The things we do compulsively and obsessively rarely start off with a bang, but instead creep up on us, progressing quickly or very slowly. They are as personal as a snowflake and to my mind, as beautiful too! Recognizing our compulsions and obsessions with great kindness and curiosity is a wonderful way to ensure they do not metastasize into something incredibly harmful.

Another person’s addiction has nothing to do with you.

When we think “addiction” we usually think of another person, or persons. At this moment I invite you to realize you will never, ever, wrest control of another person’s addiction and their pathway to healing, if they ever find one. Addiction is one of the most personal experiences I can attempt to describe; it is as personal as sex, as parenthood, as childhood, as our deeply-held moral or spiritual convictions - and it encompasses all those things, as well. When you meet someone in addiction who tells you they are in addiction, recognize they are handing you a gift, almost as if they offered to let you paint them in the nude. You can be confused, terrified, or repulsed – but remember, it is not all about you and if you act like it is, you are missing a tremendous opportunity.

Your addiction has everything to do with you.

No one can diagnose you an addict in any meaningful, lasting way; even if they did, you could continue to resist this as much as you like. I have seen people resist the awareness and admission of addiction to the most astonishing lengths; conversely, I have seen those who’ve only felt “the first nip of the wringer” demonstrate profound awareness of their addiction. Addiction is personal; you are an addict when, and only when, you say it and know it for yourself. As the phrase goes, when you “fully concede to [y]our innermost [self]” (and I’m going to add, when you admit it to another human being). In my story so far, one such moment of concession was both the worst in my life, and my most sublime.

This profound necessity of self-diagnosis is, to reiterate, true of other people, even those you might lie awake wishing they would only wake up and see. They will see when they are ready. The question is, are you ready to see what you need to see?

If you’re not getting help, you can’t be much help.

There are plenty of resources for discovering the nature of one’s own addictions and taking that first step in learning to care for them; there are plenty of resources for learning how we can help the addicted in our lives. To name a few: yoga, a variety of forms of spirituality or religion, meditation, counseling, reading, behavioral therapy, and avocational peer-work. Personally, I caution against relying wholeheartedly on anything that involves you paying a professional. I also believe altruistic peer-work to be the most effective strategy (although I have utilized all others listed here). With regards to substance abuse, or imbedded troubling familial patterns, 12 Step groups and Al-Anon (which is a 12-Step group for the families and friends of the addicted) are often regarded as one of the most effective and widely available peer resources to help – not to mention, participation is free. My husband and I are both members of Al-Anon which thrives even in our relatively small community.

Remember, it is more difficult to ask for help if you are invested in the self-soothing act of arrogance.

***

Here are a few practical tips if you’re having trouble with the whole Existential, “we are all addicted” stuff. This is kind of the section of, “please don’t make life Shit for other people unnecessarily, while you’re bumbling about with the rest of us trying to find the way”:

Stop stigmatizing.

Please, stop calling people tweakers, junkies, crack-whores, drunks, whatever – even in jest. How individuals refer to themselves is their own business – not yours (although if you’re curious feel free, if the relationship is appropriate to do so, to ask why they use the terminology they do). Even in cases where you do not have a pet name for someone suffering an addiction – perhaps someone with an eating disorder or who compulsively works out, or who has a gambling addiction – please hold this person very gently in your mind and heart and quit setting them aside as an Other. The moment you start pretending their suffering is elementally different than yours or their plight is one they “deserve”, is the moment you lose Consciousness and you cannot help them or yourself.

Addiction is an illness; it is a disease. If you would not call someone with a physical disability a “cripple”, then stop saying “dusthead”, or “tweaker” or whatever. If you keep using these terms myself and others will likely identify you as ignorant, lacking compassion, and part of the cultural problem that helps facilitate addiction at the unprecedented levels we see today.

Stop trying to “get it”.

I work every day with many addicts and it seems the more I do this work, the less I know. Addiction is one of the most fascinating, cunning, baffling, and simply amazing phenomena I’ve seen. In addiction – mine and those I work with – I have experienced the most genuine Buddha-belly laughs, the most heartwrenching tears, the most terrifying rages, the most sublime highs (while actually high, or while clean and sober!), and the deepest quietudes.

I’ve long enjoyed the term “spiritual malady”, as it puts its finger on the Unknowable that medical science still – still - has not been able to define, let alone cure; this phrase sums up the endemic nature of the illness. If you don’t understand addiction – your own, or anyone else’s – that’s okay. That means you might be able to do something intelligent from here on out.

Stop being a buffoon.

Since becoming clean and sober I have been treated with almost universal kindness and consideration by my friends and family – those who are clean and sober, and those who are not. However, there are a notable and very small population of people who’ve been most unskillful or even rude. Since I understand the topic of addiction, especially substance abuse, can be a very confusing, embarrassing, or frightening one, I offer some practical advice.

To wit: do not offer someone in Recovery a drug or alcohol, nor offer someone close in their family a drug or alcohol. If they want drugs or alcohol they’ll find it somewhere, trust me. The same logic extends to someone with an eating disorder. Put food out at a gathering like you normally might, but do not harass or cajole your friend into eating or drinking.

If you know someone in Recovery, do not point out their addiction unduly and do not joke about it (sorry! You get to joke about this shit only if you’re in Recovery, and even then, please do commit to sensitivity and tact). Do not gossip about it, and by gossip I mean, use their life’s experiences to get that juicy ZING in a conversation. You know if you’re doing this; I don’t need to describe it to you.

Conversely, don’t make a big show to alter your own social behavior, or whatever, out of fear you will trigger a relapse in the addicted. I am not going to get drunk because you’re drinking; your friend is not going to go on a gambling spree because you bought a scratch ticket. Obviously. Remember: the addicted friend or family member has trusted you with something very special, something very personal and amazing. So if, say, he has told you he has an eating disorder, to make self-effacing comments about your own food habits is the height of unskillfulness.

Educate yourself.

I am convinced some addictions are more stigmatized than others; some are downright tacitly encouraged. It is the process of a lifetime, weeding through information and mis-information, but there are plenty of passionate, humane people out there who are bringing great awareness, sensitivity, and intelligence to the field of addiction and healing. As we educate ourselves we learn more and more that the power of our speech and the import of our actions both have the ability to help heal; conversely, the ability to further harm.

Which path shall we choose?

***

I will close this piece with a little anecdote. From the beginning of my sobriety I was “out” about being an alcoholic in Recovery, which is a pretty brave thing (I add, however, that many people view these kinds of things as medical and/or private, as is their right). For the most part, my friends and family rallied around me and were incredibly supportive and loving.

A month sober, I was invited to our friends’ house for a barbecue. As we walked across the grass, one of my friends turned and asked if it was okay they served beer at the gathering. Let me tell you, that was a beautiful moment in my life. Not just because of the vulnerable uncertainty and care my friends were showing me in that moment, but because of the intense relief of being able to be Out and honest about my illness. These days, when I’m at social gatherings hardly anyone knows or notices I don’t drink; when offered, the times I’m with people who do not know me, I simply say “No thanks,” and that’s it.

However, I have also excused myself early from social engagements, not because the drugs and/or alcohol distressed me, but because I have spent enough time in the company of maudlin, sentimental, violent, self-pitying, drunk people being asses. Because, you know, sometimes that’s how people who drink and drug act. When I was a child I didn’t have a choice to excuse myself; today, I do. I can always treat myself with the same courtesy as my friends did on the night of that barbecue.

Living in Recovery is one of the most amazing things; it is a true freedom I thank the Universe for on a daily basis. I hope in any way this little piece extends some of that exciting, breathtaking world from my heart to yours.

quick hit: pro-tips from a cranky craftivist

Tattooed and Ready For Action

(just in case you all forgot my main sources of inspiration)

My sewing acumen is brought to my attention profoundly every now and then – like today, as I assisted a woman in making a dress and watched her attempt incredibly counter-intuitive methodologies. I am not a classically-trained professional, but I do have experience, and I have it to offer others. I’m reminded of this body of work (often hard-earned through much trial and error) when I’m helping someone who is new.

Now of course, the “mistakes” my student made weren’t really mistakes, as she was a beginner. Indeed, watching a student for a few minutes is the best way to gauge where they’re at and how to best help them. I’ve had students who took to sewing near-immediately, and ones who couldn’t, despite repetition and several different methods of explanation, easily grasp even rudimentary concepts. When someone sits down at the sewing machine I can always tell if they sewed as a child, or if they’ve sewn at all. I remember a young woman I helped in my dining room; her husband had wound the sewing machine bobbin for her – poorly, and all by hand. Very sweet, and the kind of thing that never would have occurred to me since I’ve “always” known how to correctly wind a bobbin.

My craft – garment sewing, although I get up to all sorts of other stuff too - is not a popular one around these parts. It is very odd but at least where I live there is a simultaneous lust for, and devaluation of, the artisan craft – the homemade, homesewn, tailored, and bespoke. I’ve spoken about these issues before, but today I want to write on practicalities. To wit, how to not make an ass of yourself around those who knit, sew, sculpt, build things that are amazing. To wit: if you really admire someone’s work, stop making it about you. To wit:

How To Be Friends With The Super-Crafty*

1. Don’t call them “crafty”. “Talented” works fine. Or “skilled”. Or “impressive”. Stop saying “crafty”.

2. Ask them about their process; but. But, if they don’t seem to want to talk about it, drop it. Most artisans have something they’re really into, or a latest-thing they’re geeking out about. They probably do want to talk about it. This is a great opportunity for you to learn a bit more about what goes into what they do. You’ll learn a bit, and also be poised to help your crafty friend, and your other friend desirous of craft (or instruction), meet up and make a beautiful craft-partnership. Isn’t that peachy?

3. If they do any work for pay, feel free not to comment on their pricing. I earned my first sewing dime, probably fifteen years ago. I’ve tried all sorts of pricing and not-pricing and sliding scale and low-balling and I’m just now coming up with what works for me. You’d be surprised (or maybe not?) how many people try to tell me what I should be doing.

When it comes to an artisan’s prices, just: don’t (that includes gossiping about it behind their back, by the way). Now, if they open this discussion, it’s probably fair game. But ask questions rather than giving advice.  What are their goals? What has their experience been? And here’s an idea. If you really really feel you have some advice? Ask, “Would you like my suggestions?” and then literally pause and wait and see if they do or not. Their body language and mannerisms are going to tell you a lot about whether this field of discussion is helpful or interesting to them.

It is unlikely you have thought about this as much as they have. You also don’t know their resources. I knew a gal who wasn’t particularly technically gifted, but was able to sell her simple items – made of high-quality materials – for a very good price. She had independent source of means, and connections in a few high-circulation publications (whether her connections were through privilege or doing footwork, I have no idea). It is inappropriate to guess at or tell someone how much they should charge because you don’t know what their craft means to them, why they do it, how much support or resources they have, the market they’re aiming to – or if indeed they think of their work like a business at all (many don’t).

4. Don’t ever ever tell them “You could sell those!” There is likely not a single soul out there, who is any good at making something, or even marginally okay at it, who hasn’t had this thought flit across their mind. And it is far more likely, especially if they’ve been an artisan for some time, they’ve imagined ways they could sell, or sell better, or earn more, or reach more people. Et cetera. “You could sell those” can be replaced by a lot more interesting conversation. And for all you know, they are profoundly uninterested in selling, and likely have valid and interesting reasons why they’re not.

In short:

Please. Please. Please quit commoditizing their craft. Please quit telling them to charge less, or charge more, or market this way, or make this, or make that. Just: stop.

You know what? This might be a time in your life you get to walk away not having told someone what they should do with their beloved work. This is actually a good exercise for all sorts of situations, maybe I’ll write an article on that at some point.

5. Ask for favors and freebies. Why not? This is not going to be a popular suggestion with some people. But I say, it’s on the craftivist to say, “I’m flattered, but no thanks.” I have sewn and helped others for free (or the cost of materials), and through both missteps and slam-dunks I’ve learned what I can comfortably say No or Yes to. Coming to mind, the time I made a jacket and offered it up to help a friend’s blog – as a give-away. You know, I never heard word one from the person who got the jacket gratis – gift-wrapped and all – but I did enjoy making that jacket, and I also enjoyed learning: fuck giveaways. For me, personally.

6. Give feedback. This is going to vary from artisan to artisan, but I absolutely want to know how fabrics and garments held up under performance conditions. Often people buy my pieces and never tell me if they were happy or not. I haven’t had to issue any refunds (and I offer a 100% refund policy), so either people are happy, or too reticent to be honest.

7. Don’t tell people what to make. This happens to me often. People tell me to sew clothes, if I comment on ill-fitting ones. People tell me to sew curtains, if they see I don’t have any yet (I hate sewing curtains! And it is cheaper to buy them than sew them!). A better bet: ask someone. “Do you sew clothes for yourself?” “Do you sew home dec stuff?” (or for different crafts: “How many different cheeses do you make?”, “Would you ever make an ashtray?”, et cetera). Again, a better conversation for everyone.

8. Ask for help. Do you want to learn how to do something? Look online first (after all, we often make tutorials and we usually answer emails!), but then, if you can’t find it or if you’re lost or need details or even hands-on assistance: ask! I’m not too grumpy to love teaching. I spent a handful of hours today helping not one, but two women. It’s not only an opportunity to learn skills, it can be an opportunity for the artisan to let their imagination fly. And, curmudgeon-y tone I am writing with aside, I obviously like to help people.

9. Want a requisitioned piece? Do your homework. Most artisans have a body of work. Investigate and figure out if you like their style. If you don’t, look elsewhere. Avoid unnecessary dissatisfaction.

10. Don’t compliment gifts if you don’t mean it. When I’m making a gift, I really do try to make the “perfect” gift for the intended recipient. But in general, I do not need someone to like my pieces or my style. I like my work, and that’s enough for me.

So this whole, you-don’t-like-my-stuff thing doesn’t have to be awkward. If I or some other craftivist gives you a gift you don’t care for, you can say “Thank you,” and leave it at that.

11. Tell your friends. If the crafter makes pieces for sale or barter, tell your friends who seem like they might like the artisan’s stuff.

12. If you’re able & willing, send them money, buy them yardage, give them supplies. I have had so many friends pick up something at the thrift store, or out their closet, and give these items to me as a gift or loan. Sometimes the materials aren’t to my taste, or something I can use. But very often I can use these things, and I’ve had wonderful projects come alive from these gifts! One woman mailed me a quilting ruler stand. One woman gave me an old sewing machine – that I love dearly and use regularly! I’ve sewn with yards and yards of gifted fabric – and the items I haven’t used, I’ve assiduously donated to the appropriate artisans/shops. Cash donations are wonderful and have helped me make wonderful clothes for my children (that then get passed to other children). Think of it this way: most artisans are creative and want to splash out goodness to the world. Give them something to work with!

***

Tomorrow: pro-tips TO the cranky craftivists.

handsewing & bitchy

Handsewing & bitchy

* YMMV of course; just a list of my preferences and many others’ I’ve spoken with.

putting children in their place

Unschooling Beach
Unschooling Beach
Unschooling Beach

My children Phoenix & Nels – having a typical “school day”

“I have used the words “home schooling” to describe the process by which children grow and learn in the world without going, or going very much, to schools, because those words are familiar and quickly understood. But in one very important sense they are misleading. What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children’s growth in the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn’t a school at all. ” - John Holt, Teach Your Own

It’s that time of year again. At a meeting recently a few acquaintances of mine caught up and compared notes as to how much their schedule is uprooted when their children are out on summer vacation, and how the new school year restores order. I (innocently enough, I swear!) shared aloud, “Our lives don’t change that much, because our kids don’t go to school.”

Immediately: one of those awkward record-scratch-at-a-party moments. The atmosphere in the room abruptly shifted and the talk suddenly fell silent. Then one woman sternly corrected me, literally giving me side-eye as she admonished: “Your kids go to school. They just do school at home.” Everything in her demeanor and tone was one of chastisement, likely (I know today) originating from fear. Quick, immediately assure me of The Order of Things so we can go back to pleasantly talking again. Or something like that.

This would be kind of funny, except it happens to me almost without fail now that I no longer let people off the hook by offering them their own perceptions – that is, by using the word “homeschooling”. The cumulative effect of so many acquaintances and strangers repeatedly correcting me about our family life is surreal. That is, people are more or less constantly telling me we’re living our lives in a way we are decidedly not.

When we first removed our children from forced institutionalism, I was nervous – as anyone might be – about departing from the mainstream. Like most parents and guardians, I wanted to do the right thing for our family. I personally had been a “success” in public school and then at a state university – yet now in untrodden ground I allowed others to put me in the extraordinary position of homeschool apologetics (a position I am underqualified for). And for a number of years when casual conversation brought up home education, or unschooling, or life learning, I thought the adults we were talking to had honest and founded doubts about how children learn. That is, I thought these adults’ objections, questions, assumptions, biases, and cynical commentary stemmed from their honest desire that children be given the best educational opportunity possible (“The Conversation That Never Happens”Life Learning Magazine July/August 2010).

However as years have passed and I’ve had hundreds of these conversations, I have come to a much more unsettling conclusion. Simply put, many adults believe with every fiber of their being that children belong in school. Full stop. Whether school is that great a place or not is not really the main issue on the table. Most adults simply don’t have better ideas for kids. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they’re overwhelmed. It is precisely because it is so daunting to face our responsibilities of caring for vulnerable citizens – draining emotionally, mentally, and physically – that many adults don’t want the job (be it children, older, frail or sick people, or anyone marginalized or oppressed). When it comes to the child class, we find comfort in our cultural arrangement that children are second-class citizens for us to herd like cattle (although few grownups will want to own up to this bleak strategy in such a direct manner). If you threaten the correctness of this arrangement – by say, merely living as a radical unschooler and not closeting – many people become quite upset. True story.

If they’re honest with themselves, many adults simply equate compulsory schooling as a type of cultural hazing, a necessary evil, and in a weird way justified simply because it exists. School isn’t too great, or sensible, or effective – and every one I’ve met can elucidate on long lists of the ways they personally found it dissatisfying - but it’s just How Things Are. They had to go through it, so today’s kids should too. As an operating strategy, many adults don’t want children to have much better than what they themselves had (but again, good luck getting a grownup to admit this!).

This makes it sound like I think these people, or even most people, are terrible. I used to think that, kinda, but I was incorrect. I now believe these people are merely frightened and overwhelmed. I used to be one of those people, so I can relate.

Most adults believe we should do the best by children that we can reasonable manage. However this desire – be it altruism, spiritual principles, or evolutionary strategy – has been consumed to skeletal remains by a lifetime of cultural indoctrination and in many cases, deep-seated shame and resentment. Rare indeed is the adult who, upon listening to our family’s experiences (or those of other life learners) and after observing our children – thriving, vibrant human beings who regularly get praised and commented upon regarding their maturity, intelligence, and inner strength – suddenly says, “Well then kids don’t need to go to school at all!” It happens now and then, and at that point our conversation immediately gets about four thousand times more interesting than, “But what about math?” – or, when speaking to my children – “How old are you?” and “What grade are you in?” (and those latter questions reflect the typical patter of grownups who actually think kids are worth talking to – many don’t!)

I wish these conversations, the ones where we imagine better opportunities for children, happened more often.

But instead, I am met with the same objections day after day, and the days pile into years, until now there is a general sameness to people’s objections and self-labeled “skepticism” (read: cynicism – also, some commentary at “Unschooling for Haters [...]“). As this adult begins to tell me why we can’t let kids A, B, or C because X, Y, or Z would surely result, they are on a predictable quest within their own deep country – that of their ingrained social conditioning and heretofore unexamined biases. While they voice aloud their predictions on how unschooling won’t or can’t work, their mind simultaneously closes to what is before their very eyes: a family with many years’ experience unschooling, two children who’ve not been forced into institutionalism – and who can speak up for themselves – and our collective experience knowing many, many other unschoolers.

It’s been pointed out to me that in moving from childhood to adulthood we experience one of the only, if not the only, instances where we are nearly guaranteed to move from a position of oppression to a position of privilege. The truth of this is worth contemplating. Unless we are very careful and very wise and very dedicated, we reify what was so heavily imposed on our own little bodies and our own terrific minds. A sobering thought: I can tell you I have worked very hard over the past decade to actively strip adultist framings from my consciousness. And yet to this day if I’m feeling cranky I will command my child(ren) in a completely terse tone, expecting in some part of me their obedience, apparently believing in these moments that such demands are my right and responsibility. (Tangentially, my children know they can say, “No” without reprisal – most children cannot.)

If I have worked harder on this UNlearning, harder than anything else in my life, and yet the irresistible oppressive reflex still remains indelible within – where does that leave your average adult who has examined the implications of childhood oppression only a little – or not at all?

“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that. And we are not likely to become the majority in my lifetime. This doesn’t trouble me much anymore, as long as this minority keeps on growing. My work is to help it grow. ” - John Holt, ibid

I have to leave behind my sorrow that so many cannot, or will not see things for how they are, built upon pessimism and fear; let alone try the work of living a different way. It’s not so much hard work as it requires, like all honest effort, a continued return to the work. Faithfully. Daily. Each day I return to my desire to do no harm. I return to my practice of allowing my fears to inform me instead of driving me recklessly. I return to knowing I have a responsibility to help my children – not an edict to [try to] control them. Days of that effort accumulate; over time I have a body of work and a new way of living. It’s not magic – but then, having a few years under my belt – it kind of feels like it is.

I see today that from the moment my children were born I was not willing to subject them to what I was subjected to. Out of that willingness grew action, and out of that action grew not only love and stewardship as I’d not experienced as a child, but another gift: forgiveness for those who raised me in the ways they did. I am truly grateful for the practice, as it keeps me from despairing when our deep commitment to humane family life is often labeled “fringe”, radical, and strange.

unschooling for Haters, especially my favorite kind of Hater, the “skeptic”

Wynoochie River With Friends

a typical day for my kids

Hi. I’m a radical unschooler named Kelly! Listen, I feel ambivalent about labels. On one hand they are helpful for the human mind to process; on the other, the human mind invariably dredges up bias and preconceptions the minute it can label a thing. That’s just how it is. As an experienced unschooler, I thought I’d flesh out many of my encounters with those who hear the term “unschooling” for the first, second, or third time, and the biases so many continue to hold on to.

If you stop reading in a few seconds there is one takeaway I’d like to leave with you: the term “unschooling” means different things to different people. If nothing else, if you go about your day remembering that whenever you hear that word, it could mean something different than what you’ve previously perceived, EXCELLENT. My job is halfway decently done.

I’m actually not going to write tons on what unschooling and autodidactic learning looks like in our family. I write a bit about how our lives play out here and on my personal blog. I’m happy to answer any specific queries you have. You can reach me best by email at kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.

I hope what you read here is helpful.

Unschooling For Haters, Especially My Favorite Kind of Hater, the “Skeptic”

or, how my family life is not all about YOU, but thanks for playing

I resent your choice of words. I’m not a Hater, but I am a skeptic. My cousin unschools and her kids are noisy/dirty/can’t read etc.

On balance, skepticism never helped me much. It didn’t make me smarter, kinder, nor gave me a roadmap to life. A lot of time my skepticism was actually just a barrier I put up because other people’s lives, ideas, strategies, or existence frightened me deep down in the pit of my gut (for me that wall-building action is part of… being a Hater). I understand it’s human to be frightened of the unknown but any strategy – including one of perception and thought – that I develop out of that place is usually a poor one.

Anyway I’m sorry but I think unschooling is irresponsible/neglectful/elitist/etc.

I think contempt prior to investigation is irresponsible. I think you should come to my house and hang out with my kids – or give them a call or email and talk to them directly – before you decide I’m neglecting them. As for elitist, this might make more sense if I didn’t passionately and consistently work with, and know of many other unschoolers who work with, many schooled children, and if we weren’t learning in a much deeper way how to participate in public life, rather than being daily confined to age-segregated institutional procedures. In short, any of these charges might make any kind of sense if unschooling didn’t, you know, work so well at increasing our sense of humanity and our experience of community.

(Oh, and I know you’re not really “sorry”. But, that’s cool.)

Well that’s just my opinion and it’s a free country.

I have a little experiment. Let me ask: is your opinion defensible enough you’d warrant it’s worth five dollars? I mean after all, your opinion influences the choices and realities of so many, and you’re deciding what’s best for like, tens of millions of children (in the US alone). So, are you willing to back up your opinion? Listen to Jeff Sabo’s talk addressing the hundred varieties of “it’s just my opinion and I have a right to have it” conversations he’s had. It will be money well spent. Promise.

I went to school and I turned out fine.

Really? Are you “fine”? I went to school too. I’m “fine”. I smoked for 17 years and I’m “fine”. Is “fine” what you want for your children? And mine? Do you begrudge the parents and carers who might want to explore beyond “fine”?

I went to school and I turned out fine. Kids need discipline.

If you can look deep, deep, deep inside your guts, inside your Knowing Place, and tell me you have absolutely no bitterness at the thought of today’s children having a better life and more freedom, autonomy, and opportunity than you had as a child, I mean if you can really dig in there and tell me that’s not even a tiny part of why you want to force kids into school, then I am willing to entertain that line of thought.

If you know that’s not a part of how you feel, please do read some of Idzie’s blog. She has a great resource, interviews with many grown unschoolers.

On the subject of compulsory schooling being requisite for character development; my unschooled children age eight and ten demonstrate more discipline, sense of self-worth, self-control, kindness, openness, interest, critical thinking skills, and social abilities than most grownups I meet. Full stop.

And briefly: discipline is an inside job. You cannot inoculate a child with discipline no matter how much you coerce, praise, blame, hit, scream at. You do, however, run the risk of creating a praise-dependent, risk-averse, and fearful person.

I’m glad I went to school. I learned blah blah blah

I’m glad I went to school too. I learned wonderful things there, including the experience of forced institutionalism for young minds and bodies. If things had gone differently, I’d probably tell you I was glad to have been unschooled; but we’ll never know, as I wasn’t given the choice to NOT attend school. I think it’s pretty cool my kids get to choose. I won’t be haunted I didn’t let them. My grandkids, should I be so fortunate to have any, will probably get more choices and more nurture still.

Addendum: I used to be someone who took a great deal of pride in my degree, my education, and my soi disant expertise. You know, having those letters before or after your name, having an office with a big important desk and stuff. When I had children I fully planned on raising them academically-achieving, clean and well-mannered, etc. Problem is, when you decide for another human being how they should spend every minute, and how they should act/look/behave (even if you don’t admit to yourself you’re doing this), there will be intensely unpleasant fallout. For everyone. I’m grateful I started to perceive this early on in parenting.

No one stripped my degree from me and no one can take away my accomplishments (real or imagined). Today I willingly relinquish the illusion my education, my position in society, and my privilege make me a better or more deserving person.

If I didn’t make my kid/forbid my kid to X, Y, or Z he would A, B, C (eg. watch TV all day, never bathe, ONLY eat cookies, et cetera).

Yeah. As an unschooler, I hear that stuff a lot. Often from people who don’t ask us if our children watch telly all day, or eat only marshmallows and white rice (they don’t, to either). Most fear-disguised-as-anger, handwringing, and pearl-clutching about unschooling or non-coercive/non-punitive parenting comes down to just a few issues. Screen time (computers and television), bedtime (on the adults’ schedule of course especially since a school schedule is required), hygiene, math worksheets, and food. I can tell you I’m grateful to have left behind mainstream schema on all of that business. My kids’ hygiene is fine, they are active, they eat all kinds of food, they get enough sleep, they have mad life SKILLZ, et cetera.

You’re saying I’m a bad parent.

I haven’t met a “bad parent”. I’ve met sick parents, parents who were lost and overwhelmed. I’ve met parents who’d entirely abdicated their responsibilities. I’ve met parents who chose their addiction over their children (usually not even knowing they were doing so). I’ve met parents who parented with strategies different than mine. I’ve met many, many parents. I’ve never met a “bad parent”.

You’re saying I’m a bad parent.

No, I’m not. Do you think you’re a bad parent? What, specifically, do you have doubts about? Are you seeking help for those or are you surrounding yourself with strategies of Ego-preservation? Why do you care what I think? Your opinion matters more than mine; if not, it should.

You’re making me feel bad.

That is not my intent. This is not all about you. If you can put aside this experience of persecution for a moment, understand this: if others hadn’t written boldly about this non-mainstream way of parenting and living family life, I would have never had a choice of my own to parent a way that has yielded tremendous dividends. I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to those people, and I’d like to pay forward to other parents and children. I’m sure you can understand.

Well this is all fine for YOU but I’m not ______ enough to homeschool (rich, brave, smart, educated, patient, etc).

I’ve met parents with disabilities, mental and emotional health issues, single parents, poor parents, impatient parents, chronically-ill parents, who homeschooled and/or unschooled. I myself used to think I could never hang out with my kids all day, good Lord I needed a break! I’m so glad I faced my fears; I had everything to gain.

I don’t have to defend myself to you or anyone else. 

Nope. You don’t. And you also have the option not to take the piss re: other people’s lives. If you were really relatively serene about your own parenting style, why would you need to pick on others’?

Listen. I’m not the unschool police. I don’t have the right nor responsibility to come to your house and see what you’re doing and hit you with a cat-o-nine tails. No one does. You might be beating yourself up a little but I can assure you I’m not beating you up. There’s nothing I can do about your skepticism and/or rudeness and/or ignorance and/or self-doubt, although sometimes I wish I could. Your judgment and your fears are affecting others’ realities.

Good luck!

 

the personal: how the fuck did i ever survive being a new mama?

This post is dedicated to my friend Kiara, a kick-ass mother.

Please No Thank You

A few years ago my mother announced she had a complaint. When she came over to pick my two kids up for the odd playdate (a less-than-once-weekly occurrence), they weren’t always fully dressed. “Can you make sure to have them in coats and boots in case I want to take them somewhere? It was terrible today as I wanted to take them on a walk and we couldn’t.” She was actually mildly pissed.

The blood rose in my cheeks as I experienced, lightning-fast, a series of emotions. Shame, because I failed as a mother, of course, by not having My Shit Together 100% Of The Time (and also, my small children’s Shit Together, that too is requisite), then a mixed-up flaring of resentment, impotent rage, and despair. The same old despair I’ve felt in every restaurant when my two year old’s happy laughter received glares, in every mom’s playdate group when women would talk about their duty to do all the nighttime parenting because, of course, their husbands did “real work” during the day and shouldn’t have to care for their own children at night, the same despair I’d hear when people sneeringly spoke of “soccer moms” and “housewives” and their opting-out and how it destroyed Feminism plus America, et cetera. I could go on.

The despair was so familiar it just made me tired. Here I was, 24/7 with two small children, working my ass off around the clock, around the clock, to feed and clothe them, often without being able to eat or take a crap by myself – let alone have quality private time to reflect and pursue my art and craft, or to read, or to watch some trashy television uninterrupted – and yet someone who comes over every two weeks to take my kids for an hour or two can’t be bothered to spend five minutes finding jackets and boots? What the fuck, mom? Don’t you remember having kids and having to do everything, all the time?

It gets better, because before I could say anything at all my husband assily weighed in. “Yeah, I notice sometimes when I get home from work the kids aren’t fully dressed.”

FUUUUCKK YOOOOUUU. Just: Fuck You.

That’s what I thought, anyway. What I said, I can’t remember. I think it was something like: if you want to go on walks with your grandkids, keep spare coats at your place. Husband, do you not remember your one year at home and how much work it was to care for small children, P.S. you only had ONE to care for at the time and you only did it for ONE year. I don’t remember what I said; I only knew I had the presence of mind to stick up for myself relatively politely. Because: yeah, it would be nice if the kids were fully dressed whenever was convenient for, you know, other adults, and if I was on that 100%. But it would be even better if other grownups understood that caring for babies and small children is demanding on every plane – spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical – and the primary carer needs as much help as he or she can get. Have a little grace, people.

You know, 99% of the help I received as a new mother- and I am not exaggerating here – was from other new mothers (and occasionally, some veteran moms). Full stop. Looking back on this I feel despair for how undersupported we were – and many of these women were middle-class and college-educated, with a variety of privileges, et cetera – and how this culture of “moms can do everything [& therefore they better damn will]!” stunts the humanity of so many who haven’t had the opportunity nor responsibility of 24/7 care of a dependent. Shit, during infancy and toddlerhood I can count on one hand the times a friend without children watched my kids for more than five minutes. And a father, without his wife or female partner helping – including my OWN father? ZERO. Motherfucking zero! My own brother and sister have never watched my kids nor hosted them for a playdate or sleepover, with one exception a few years ago when my daughter hung at my brother’s house for a couple hours while I caught up at a bar with a friend about to get married.

I know what you’re thinking. Well, those of you readers who are jerks, anyway. The world doesn’t owe me anything because I hatched a few kids. You’re right. The world owes me and my children nothing, I suppose. But then, the world didn’t owe you anything, either, when you were a baby and infant. Right? Good thing someone gave and gave and gave and gave, no matter how half-assed or whatever! Looking ahead, presumably the world won’t owe you anything should you live a long life and see your body fail with age, or should you become disabled or dependent in any way. Yup. Nobody owes anyone nothing, right?  What a lovely little world that is you’ve dreamed up.

What some of you other readers are thinking, is: new moms are goddamned heroes. And  they are! The women who helped me when I needed help, are the absolute keystones in my faith in humanity. The only regret I have – the only one! – is I didn’t ask for more help when I needed it. See, I was operating on that whole Self-Sufficient, Perfect Mom thing. It is an absolutely debilitating meme to live by, and the children involved suffer more than anyone else.

Now, I’m aware my experience isn’t universal (it is, however, visceral, as you can probably tell by my writing style here). I’ve had things easier, & harder, than others.

In some ways I’ve been rather privileged. I’ve always had enough to eat and always had a home. I was raised by a family that, while definitely idiosyncratic, demonstrated a lot of love for one another (and yeah, just so you know… I’m a lot easier on my mom and my husband, today, now that I respect my own needs more). I’m a white working class woman, married to a white man, the father of my children. I’m cis-gender and occasionally have passing privilege as middle class. I’m not physically disabled and I’ve had an actively invested partner, however brilliant or poor his strategies as a father have been.

But on the flip side, I know there are many new mothers out there who receive or received support from not only their partner but many people in the community – not just other new moms. I think this is far more rare than it should be, but I know that this is some women’s experience. And for several of the years I was parenting I also was battling the disease of active alcoholism – a subject for another writing some day – and the resultant and root mental and emotional health issues, which I will briefly say kept me in the veil of Self-Sufficent, suffering mama. In other words, I didn’t ask for nor accept help as much as would have benefitted me. I would have told you I was supported just fine. I would have told you I had it covered. I was determined to be a Good Parent and raise Good Kids.

My kids are ten and eight today and not a day goes by people don’t try to place their every behavior – and their education, and their clothing, and their social niceties or lack thereof – as an issue that should be addressed directly to me, their mother, because you know it’s All My Business to control, basically. And I say, No. I can’t live that way any more.

It is an act of radical feminism that I no longer allow people to push me around on this noise; that if someone has a complaint regarding my child’s behavior (which is rare), whenever possible, I arrange for them to discuss it with the child. It is an act of radical feminism that I “let” my kids go begging at my mother’s for food – which they do on occasion – because, if she doesn’t want to feed them, she has the right and responsibility to say “No” just as I have and exercise a similar right and responsibility regarding the other children in my neighborhood, when I don’t have the groceries or time to spare. It is an act of radical feminism I “let” my kids dress as they see fit, I “let” them cuss, and I “let” my kids have their own life, so I can watch it unfold and, when it seems needed or warranted, I step in to help them.

Because as their mother I am their nurturer, advocate, and Helper. I am not their Warden nor their Jiminy Cricket; they need their own conscience, their own spirituality. It is an act of radical feminism I no longer apologize for my children or for bringing them on this planet; it is a sheer act of Will that I don’t operate from this place. You think mothers aren’t indoctrinated with this? You’d be wrong.

I still don’t have the ovaries to send my kids on the Amtrak down to their uncle’s place in Portland and say, “Hang out with them for a few days, your future family life could benefit.” I still feel that sting of Obligation when I see the kids’ socks are worn-through because their father doesn’t track that stuff (because he knows I will). I’m not perfect as a mother, nor as a feminist.

I don’t resent the help I didn’t get – anymore. Honestly, I don’t. I just feel sad about it. Sad my family and friends – and larger culture! – couldn’t do better, because they were scared and self-protective and selfish. Sad about my inability to ask for help, because I was full of pride and fear. I’m sad about my history, but no longer ashamed or angry. Today one thing I can do about my past – hustling my ass to be the Perfect Mother and never letting my kids make mistakes, nor allowing myself this courtesy – is help other children and carers, especially mothers. I can open doors and smile at them and show compassion when their child is melting down in the grocery store. I can tell them, You Aren’t Imagining It when they tell me they feel unsettled, overworked, and under-appreciated. I can tell them, obliquely or directly – you don’t have to apologize for being a child, or a mother who cares for a child.

Not on my account, anyway.

Creepitude!

My mom “nurses” a creepy alien baby at the Art Festival.

"Do Your Job"

My son & I.