Relating to parents with fewer (than 9) children


I went fishing for blog topics on Facebook and as always, my friends were more than generous with their suggestions. Someone asked me two very good and related questions:

– How do you respectfully communicate with parents who are sometimes and/or all the times overwhelmed with a single child or two, when you have many (ie; not pulling the “you have it easy” card and edifying and respecting them as parents)?

– Likewise, how should those with a singleton respectfully communicate with you and your family?

I found these questions interesting because my problem is usually the opposite: people with smaller families are afraid to complain to me about their problems because they assume that I have it worst, or they apologize for feeling overwhelmed. In other words, they project their own feelings of inadequacy unto me. My challenge is not to communicate respectfully with them but to convince them that I understand.

How should people communicate with me? Respectfully is always appreciated. But if I’m allowed a second request, it would be to stop calling me (A) a Saint/Hero, or (B) Crazy. It makes me really uncomfortable to be called a saint because I’m not. I have character flaws the size of Texas, and I have been born into so much privilege I would be insufferable had I not allowed the size of my family to humble me a little. Being called crazy is just insulting. It’s probably better to err on the side of making me really uncomfortable by calling me a saint than insulting me by calling me insane. But I’m at a point where I avoid telling strangers how many children I have because intelligent conversation tends to die there. And that’s not cool because my family is my life’s work and I am immensely proud of it. Ask me anything and I’ll talk your ear off (just like I’m doing right now). Don’t just stand there with your mouth agape calling me a Saint or a Nut.

I think it’s important for everyone to know that I’ve been overwhelmed since 1996. I was struggling with two children, and with three children, and with four children… you get the idea. Nature abhors a vacuum and when given 24h, each one of us fills them to the brim. We used to wash clothes and dishes by hand and we thought that inventing the washing machine and the dishwasher would free us up. But instead of enjoying the extra time, we replaced homemaking chores with work chores. When a promotion gives us more disposable income we incur more expenses. We fill our houses with stuff and when we get a bigger house, we get more stuff. If we can’t get a bigger house, we rent a condo for our stuff (Dymon anyone?) Whether we fill the void with activities, worries or things, we take our 24h and 3 lbs of brain and use them to the max.

People feel like they have their hands full with one child because they do. It’s not my place to tell them how their hands should be full or to pass judgment on the wisdom or advisability of filling their 24h the way they do. When it comes to time in a day or in a year, we’re all dealt the same hand. Time is the great equalizer.

The truth is, I love people, and I love diversity. I love how in the words of Don Henry sung by Miranda Lambert:

Ever since the beginning to keep the world spinning
It takes all kinds of kinds.”

Listen, I have 9 children spread over 18 years. I’ve been pregnant 11 times in the last 22 years. I have been entirely focused on my family at the exclusion of everything else. If everyone was like me, the world would not be a better place. We would be missing a lot of art, a lot of excellence, a lot of invention, a lot of service and a lot of philanthropy.

Walk with me for a minute. I am a talented musician. Music comes easily to me. But I gave up honing my skills 22 years ago when I had my first child. I didn’t play any music for 12 years until I picked it up again 2 years ago. Now I dabble, I play a bit of this and a bit of that, all of it poorly. The basics still comes easy to me but I hit a wall as soon as hard work comes in the picture. Jason Isbell is almost 40. He spent the first 37 years of his life playing the guitar and getting his head and heart smashed in creative ways. He had nothing else to worry about than his own foibles before he got sober, married Amanda Shires, and had a daughter. How many hours of writing, noodling, and living went into writing Last of My Kind or Speed Trap Town? I drove 5h to upstate New-York last Summer to see Jason Isbell in concert. I have 9 children and I can tell you: outside of the four walls of my house, I never touched anyone’s life to the point where they would buy a ticket, book an Airbnb and drive 5h to watch me do my thing. Don’t try to tell me my writing is touching lives: I tried crowdfunding this blog two years ago and 7 readers committed to paying a total of $63 a month, two of them were related to me. Of the 500-ish people who read my blog, only 7 thought it was worth paying for. That did my head in for a while, that’s why I stopped writing for two years. I’m a fragile little thing that way. Jason Isbell is touching lives, including mine. The world needs him to spend a fair amount of time navel-gazing his way into thoughtful lyrics, practicing his guitar and touring the United States.

My point is not that you should be Jason Isbell or make a ton of money blogging if you have only one child. My point is that everyone leaves their fingerprint on the world and every fingerprint is different. I’m volunteering at my children’s school for the first time in 18 years! Who do you think raised funds for activities, helped with field trips, decorated the school and organized the movie nights my children have enjoyed since my oldest started school in 2000? People with two kids and a job, that’s who.

One of my parents’ dearest friends is helping Syrian refugees settle in Canada, accompanying them to the grocery store, acting as a cultural translator, teaching them how to access the services they need, finding volunteers to fix bicycles for their children, and businesses to donate food and clothing. How many children of her own does she have? None. Do you think people like me are doing what she’s doing? No, they’re not.

Sometimes getting up in the morning is heroic. Some of my friends do not volunteer. They do not run successful businesses. Some of them have grown up in dysfunctional families, some of them have suffered abuse, some of them have overcome physical and/or mental health challenges. And every day they get up and they do their level best to give their children a kind of love they have never received. I watch in awe as some of my friends create happy families out of thin air, having never been in one. They are studying and learning through trial and error the fundamentals of loving, of being patient, of being self-sacrificing, all things that I learned from my parents like my first language. Some people work way harder at normal life than I do. Raising one child is as hard for them as raising 9 is for me because I received so much from life.

And some people are just selfish. Some people are jerks. Some people roll their eyes and tell me “I don’t know how you can have 9, I only have two and it’s too much” *in front of their children*. Some people are just clueless. Last week I was volunteering at our school’s book sale during the parent-teacher meetings and the children had written lists of book suggestions to help their parents in their shopping. One mother picked up her grade 5 daughter’s list and seeing with horror that it had been written in script rather than cursives, called home to tear a strip off the kid for writing like a baby. Told her she was personally insulted by it. Asked her why she would embarrass her that way. Said she was going to buy her the books but since she had written like a grade 1 kid, wasn’t going to reward that. Her sister would get books but not her. Told her never to insult her like that again. Repeated everything twice to drive it in. I felt so bad I wanted to drive to her house, find her daughter and give her a hug. I’m sure this mom loves her daughter and wants what’s best for her. I’m sure this mom thinks her brand of tough love is how you raise competent, well-rounded adults. I’m sure this woman doesn’t have 9 children and probably shouldn’t have 9 children. It’s ok not to have too many children when your parenting toolbox includes shaming and belittling.

When people tell me they are overwhelmed with 1 or 2 or 3 children, I simply say “I was overwhelmed with 3 too!” Which is 100% the honest-to-goodness truth. I remind them what is difficult about their lives. Your children are all under 4. Or you have 3 active boys. Or your husband works two jobs. Or you suffer from anxiety and depression. Or you had fertility struggles. Or you live with your aging parents. Or you are a single parent. Don’t look at me and feel bad. Look at where you are. If you feel like you can stretch a little more, stretch a little more. If you can’t, don’t injure yourself. Accept the pace. Try to finish a little ahead of where you started, try to leave the world a little better than how you found it. If everyone reaches just a little farther, we’ll come out ahead in the end.

How do I respectfully communicate with people who only have one child? I just assume that their lives are as full as mine, just with different things. I don’t need to know everyone’s story to assume they have one.

 

 

Daily M.E.D.S. — Minimally Edited Daily Stuff


I retitled my daily blog to Daily MEDS because we’re military-adjacent and nothing says family like a good acronym. Also, I want readers to know that these daily posts are a discipline in leaving well-enough alone. I don’t need to learn how to write like Steinbeck, I need to learn how to ship. I mean… writing like Steinbeck would be nice too…

“You’re bound to get idears if you go thinkin’ about stuff”
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

 

Daily Blog: Change, Change, Change Part 4


You may be wondering why I titled my series “Change, change, change”. Everything comes to me with a song and this one was the melody to Aretha Franklin’s Chains of Fools. It just occurred to me that she’s singing “Chain, chain, chains” and that my series title made no sense to anyone but me.

In my previous post, I wrote that children can withstand a lot of life-altering change without trauma when the fundamentals of attachment are well in place. But, you ask, what do you do if you are not starting from a place of perfect attachment? Last weekend, I reposted two old posts about spanking and in the ensuing discussion on Facebook, many mentioned that a swat on the bottom, applied in an otherwise loving relationship, was of no consequence. Love and attachment are not the same. We can love our children fiercely while leaving attachment gaps the size of Eurasia in our relationship. Love is what motivates neglectful parents to pull all the stops when their children are the object of a removal hearing. Love is why abusers apologize and beg their victims to stay. Love is imperfect and subjective. Most of us wretched sinners would be well advised to approach questions of attachment with a droplet of humility and assume that we are currently messing-up our children in all sorts of harmful and harmless ways, just like our parents did before us.

Listen, none of us get into this parenting thing hoping to mess people up but many of us will. Forewarned is forearmed, that’s all I’m saying. When our families are facing life-altering changes, can we take concrete steps to guard our children’s little hearts and make it as easy as possible for them?

In my previous post, I mentioned Gordon Neufeld’s “Hold On to Your Kids”, which should be mandatory reading for every parent. In fact, they should make parents read it before discharging them from labour and delivery. Like a car seat check for children’s hearts. But Neufeld is talking in broad lines: don’t hit your kids, don’t shame them and remember that children need a large quantity of quality time to attach properly. For practical input, I turned to Kim John Payne and his book “Simplicity Parenting. ”

Kim John Payne is an educator who studied the cumulative effect of small stressors on cognitive disorders and mental illness in children. His studies revealed that when parents were able to reduce the bombardment of stimuli on their troubled children’s brains, cognitive disorders such as ADHD, ODD and OCD became manageable to the point of becoming a quirk rather than a dysfunction. He identified 4 paths to simplifying our children’s lives. When I started reflecting on what our family did to ease our children through moves, new siblings and general life adjustments, I realized that our approach lined-up with Kim John Payne’s paths to simplicity.

1. Predictability and routines. Children thrive on predictability, it’s one of the pillars of attachment. A child’s life is built on answering two recurring questions: Am I safe? and Can I trust? When these questions are answered positively, children are freed to be creative, innovative, attached and secure. Based on their temperaments, some children require more predictability than others. As parents, we must accept the hand we’re dealt and avoid dealing in “should’s.” When our lives are in upheaval, when our families enter periods of instability, we cannot always maintain routines but we can always be predictable. The instability and upheaval can be predictable. Even when routines are difficult to maintain, small routines around meal times, bedtime, and points of transition can be upheld and go a long way in grounding our children in what they know, even in the middle of the unknown.

2. Declutter toys and books. When I wrote about Kim John Payne in 2o12, he mentioned that the average North American child had 150 toys, in which a 3,000-piece Lego set counted as one toy. An over-abundance of toys and books and our inability to declutter reveals more about our state of mind as parents and resistance to change than our children’s. When we explore why we need to provide so much for our children, we often have to address deep-seated fears and insecurities. When our children watch us — and eventually help us — declutter toys and books with a focus on quality, they learn that our identity as a family doesn’t come from what we own but from who we are. It flexes the change muscle in small ways every day so that we are trained when big changes come our way.

3. Media. Our family went through a screen detox almost a year ago and we still limit our children’s exposure to screened entertainment. Overuse of screened entertainment and media rewires our brains, stunts our creativity and shortens our attention span. It may not be immediately obvious how over-exposure to media can affect our children’s ability to weather changes with equanimity but bear with me. When we cut our children off screens last winter, we realized how much mental energy they used thinking about their video games or TV shows, even when they were not watching them. Media of all stripes — especially media directed at children — is designed to be addictive, to grab us and make us come back for more. As parents, we appreciate the calming effect of screens but this stupefying effect comes at a cost when our children come to need screens as a coping mechanism, as a tool of emotional self-regulation. To face challenges and to adapt, our children need mental agility. Over-exposure to media ribs them of that agility.

4. Protecting their innocence and sense of wonder. Sometimes change is imposed on us by circumstances and sometimes we need to make changes that are difficult to comprehend for children. We need to use extreme caution in sharing details they are too young to understand. It doesn’t mean that we lie to our children but we need to use judgment when exposing them to the motivations and possible consequences of a change. To be able to embrace change positively, our children need to believe that the world is a beautiful place. Children are naturally able to see beauty and goodness in every circumstance and we must protect their sense of wonder as long as we can. If we do that, they will show us the beauty in the mess and help us see the world through their eyes.

I speak too!


One of my favourite things in the world is public speaking. The topic doesn’t matter: if you invite me to speak and give me a topic, I’m your girl. If you don’t give me a topic, I’m your girl too. I have presented on my life as a mother of (fill in the blanks), on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (in my previous life), on budgeting and family finances, on raising virtuous children (yeah right I did), on discerning homeschooling (ouch…) and on some more esoteric topics of biomedical ethics and law. I even participated in the Ottawa Human Library twice where I got to give 7 30-minute talks in a row without knowing the topic of any given one (you can read about it here.)

In the past, I have volunteered on the organizing committee of a yearly parenting conference offered in Ottawa. One thing I know from experience is that good speakers are hard to come by, and when they do the price tag is often prohibitive for small groups and charities. I know that our group had a few cases of sticker shock after contacting some well-known speakers. We could barely cover our costs by selling out a 200-seat venue. If some people think that speaking to anything smaller than an arena or a fundraising shindig at $5000 a table is not worth the drive, more power to them. What floats my goat is speaking to smaller groups where we can really dig into the Q&As. I’m all about connecting with my audience.

Well, have I got an offer for you! For a $100 pledge to my Kickstarter campaign, I will come and speak to your group on a topic of your choice. Fun, brainy or both, I can chat my way through just about any situation. You give me an idea of the topic — or not — and I run with it.

What’s Kickstarter? Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform used to finance creative projects. It’s the “Amazon” of crowdfunding: it’s well-established and reliable. I am using it to fund the writing of my first novel by offering e-books, speaking engagements and other rewards in exchange for your contribution. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing proposition: if I don’t reach my fundraising goal by February 8th, you don’t get charged for your pledge.

Please talk to your mothers’ group, your book club or your church group and consider making a $100 pledge to my campaign in exchange for a speaking engagement. You can find my Kickstarter campaign here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/790312039/chance-a-novel-about-medicine-law-and-the-people-i?ref=user_menu

“I was spanked as a child and I turned out fine”


A Facebook Friend (who is also a blog reader, hi!!) recently posted this meme on her timeline:

for-those-of-you-who-are-against-spanking-your-children-79911

As a result of spanking or in spite of it?

Hitting children is not new and the world has kept on turning, I’ll concede the point. But I always get a chuckle when people claim that despite something “they turned out all right” . From politicians to policy-makers, business and community leaders, from the smallest to the largest units, people “who turned out fine” are having the babies, making the decisions and overall having a direct impact on the world we live in.

The numbers are in and can we really pretend that “we turned out all right”? Whether you lean left or right, it’s hard to argue that everything is all right with the world today. As a society, we’ve been unwilling to care enough about the consequences of our purchase decisions to pay for their actual cost. From environmental degradation to sweat shops, if our wallets are happy, we’re content to let “others” live with the consequences of our actions. We have a hiccup of remorse when tragedies like the Rana Plaza put us in front of our lifestyle choices but not enough to change anything. That would require sacrifice. And sacrifice is hard, especially when it involves others. We like the kind of sacrifice that get us ahead somehow. Like saving money, or going to school. Paying $200 for a pair of ethically sourced shoes? What’s in it for me?

Any minute increase in the price of gas  or electricity sends us writing to our MPs. Heaven forbids we should pay the actual cost of our endless thirst for energy. We want the SUV and the soaring two-storey windows in a sub-polar climate, how are we supposed to have this without energy subsidies? We subsidize the rich and the poor equally in the name of an infantile understanding of fairness. We hate to pay taxes, yet expect Cadillac entitlements on a K-car budget. Let the others pay the taxes. We shake our heads in contempt at governments’ willful blindness on debt, deficits and quantitative easing, yet we run our personal spreadsheets according to similar principles. We vocally take financial institutions to task for raking-in record-breaking profits while doing the same thing with our personal money. Let them share the banks’ obscene profits but not those of our favorite sports and entertainment personalities. We elect tax-cutting governments, then turn around and require social services. We suffer from a collective inability to be consistent with our political and economical beliefs. It’s all about me: my money, my entitlements, my job, my lifestyle, my stuff. We lean left when the State giveth and right when the State taketh away. We are unable to see that our day-to-day decision-making reflects that of the world leaders and financial planners we so adamently denounce for their self-serving ways.

We were spanked as children and turned out all right, yet incidences of mental illness and addictive behaviours are soaring, not only amongst ourselves but in our children as well. School yard bullies and victims grow into workplace bullies and victims. We profess zero-tolerance as harassment and belittling reduce our neighbours and colleagues to rubble. We reach deep into our reserves of righteous indignation when a child dies at her own hands but we look the other way when the hazing happens in our own backyard. How many parents of bullies were spanked as children and turned out all right? How many bullies have grown out of attachment voids passed down generations? Meanwhile, social and medical academic litterature has been linking addictive behaviours to unmet attachment needs since the ’70s and we keep spewing nonsense about “turning out fine.”

We are not fine. Our marriages are not fine. We are unable to put others’ wellbeing before our own, even when research consistently shows that children are wounded even by the most amiable of family breakdowns. Whenever someone declares that they were spanked as children “and turned out fine” I always want to start a game of 20 questions: oh yeah? How’s your relationship with your teenagers? How many relationships have you left? How’s your relationship with your boss? Your colleagues? Authority? Your faith? Are you still with your spouse? Is it possible that the voids in your life might have been left by unmet attachment needs? Would you entertain the idea that being hit by your parents might have had an influence on your inability to persevere through challenges or — the opposite — to leave abusive relationships?

We suffer from that psychological condition known as “respect for others” which causes us to share heartwarming viral stories about disabled people beating all the odds while we terminate our disabled pregnancies in ever increasing numbers. With the growth of prenatal diagnosis and the expectation that “the government” will take care of our medical needs, the primary care of physically and mentally disabled people has become a matter of choice. We call ourselves tolerant, fighters, believers. But when our turn comes to rise above, accept difference and take a chance at love when love is scary, we refuse. Today, 9 out of 10 pregnancies of children affected by Down Syndrome are terminated. Our psychological condition known as “respect for others” doesn’t extend to our own children, which we are not quite ready to love unconditionally. We tolerate difference only in the most limited sense of the term: to allow the existence of something that we do not necessarily like or agree with. We celebrate difference on the outside but on the inside we believe that the disabled life is not worth living. 

In a recent ad for a radio segment on Alzheimer’s disease, the announcer declared: “Alzheimer’s: first it robs you of your memories, then of your physical abilities, and eventually of your dignity…” Does it really? Is the indignity of the aged and the ill such an accepted fact that we no longer pretend to respect them? Our psychological condition known as ‘respect for other’ is an exclusive club where the “other” worth respecting is young, healthy and suitably well-off. The poor and the downtrodden need not apply: we’re so full of “respect”, we no longer have room for compassion. 

So stop with the memes already and go hug your kids. Your parents’ smacks are not genetic, you don’t have to pass them down a generation. Let’s see if love can build a better world than spanks have.