The Writing Parent

Of all of the parenting decisions my mother made when I was in middle school, perhaps the one I am most grateful for is how she chose to write about me.

My mother spent several years as a professional writer. She pursued that occupation with an energy, resilience, and enthusiasm that was inspirational. She was quite prolific during those years, but there is one piece that was published that I particularly think of as “my book” —  a book of prayers for children transitioning into adolescence called Junior High’s a Jungle, Lord.

The summer after my seventh grade year, I went away to a summer program for several weeks. My mother missed me so much that she wrote a book in a voice that she imagined might be like my own internal voice.

She took experiences of my own and experiences of hers when she was my age and she fictionalized them. She wrote in the first person, from the point of view of a fictional me – she entered imaginatively into what it might feel like to be someone like me in a school like my school. The whole project was arguably an exercise in empathy, which is, after all, what intercessory prayer requires. And if a person is writing prayers for someone to pray for themselves and their peers, then in a sense, that writer first is praying on the reader’s behalf.

In the work, what I saw as a thirteen year old was a mother who thought deeply about me and my experiences, who was making an effort to understand me, and who missed me when I wasn’t around. It was heart-warming.

It helped that I got to read it in manuscript form, so I didn’t get blind-sided by what she had chosen to reveal, as I sometimes did when my Dad would use me or my siblings as a sermon illustration, bless him. And in any case, she wasn’t reporting on facts – she was using my experiences as a jumping off point for an imaginative work. Anything that didn’t scan with my own experience of events I could brush off as artistic license.

Now, as a parent myself, I see my mother’s books as an example of how to parent in public. Writing about one’s parenting struggles may be honest, but parents need to remember that, at some point, their children learn how to read. And (a concern my mother’s generation could not have anticipated when they had children at home) how to use an internet search engine. When we are writing about parenting for other parents, we may, ironically, be forgetting that we are parents – that we have children who are perfectly capable of listening in on the conversation.

When instead we write for children, we are not forgetting that we are parents — and hopefully we are further remembering what it will be like for our own children to read what we have written, and perhaps even to meet people who have also read what we have written. (Though Christopher Milne might have qualified that with the response, “Not necessarily.”)

Of course, it is also possible to write for grown-ups in a way that remembers that our children will grow up – but never forgetting that their relationships with trusted adults (and particularly with their parents) requires a respectful discernment about what information is appropriate to share with any person who could ever come across it. Some things are best reserved to be shared at carefully chosen times within intimate relationships with known people. That isn’t dishonest: it’s setting healthy boundaries.

There are a number of concerns that I have struggled with pertaining to writing for public consumption, and this one is near the top of the list: once something is published, you don’t get to chose who reads it. It is out there for literally anyone, at any time now or in the future to consume and then interpret, without any further mitigating input from the writer.

I have been reading Let the Children Come, by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore. I highly recommend it, but not without any reservations. Her central idea is something I have believed for a long time myself, and she puts it extraordinarily well early on in the book: “children must be fully respected as persons, valued as gifts, and viewed as agents.” (from the author’s Introduction)

However, I also have many disagreements with her book. I was going to say, “many small disagreements,” but I think that the implications for some of these ideas of hers that I question may be – at least, let’s say, non-trivial.

For instance, in the very beginning of her introduction, Miller-McLemore articulates the need to which her book responds with an extended reflection on the difference between parenting very small children and parenting older children: “Perhaps that is why [Anne] Lamott and other women have written powerful accounts of early motherhood but seldom delve into experiences of long-term parenting. After the first few years, the waters become incredibly muddy.”

Leaving aside for the moment that this book was written in 2003 and that Lamott has written a great deal since then (not to mention all of the new figures that have risen up to write about parenting in that time), it does seem that there is a lot more written about life with babies (and toddlers and preschoolers) than memoirs about life with older children.

Certainly I wrote a great deal about my daughter earlier in her life, but I have made few blog entries related to her in the past couple of years. (She is now 10.)

Speaking for myself, that is not because parenting a child this age is “muddier” or more complicated, or because I am trying to hide from my inconsistencies as a parent (which are, as I am a human being, positively rife), or because my daughter doesn’t do anything wonderfully inspiring anymore (she inspires me every day!), or because it eludes my abilities to say anything meaningful about this time in our lives.

Instead, I write very little about her because I am trying to be thoughtful about how best to share our stories, in a way that not only respects her privacy and her wishes now, but that respects our relationship into the future.

I wanted to record her earlier experiences, in part because I knew that she would not remember them, and I feared that I might forget, too. As she has gotten older, I have remained interested in writing, especially in writing about children and their integral role in the kingdom of God. But I have been becoming increasingly thoughtful about how to do that in the way that love demands: with a respect for the particular people of all ages that I have been blessed to get to know in person.

 

Asking the wrong questions

Last week, a young woman was slashed in the throat in Queens. Apparently, she had offended her male attacker, by ignoring him when he tried to initiate a conversation.

“But why did she ignore him?” I am hoping you are not asking yourself. But I don’t know why I am bothering to hope that. We live in a nation where the burden of proof is on a woman when a man violently attacks her – she is guilty of her attack until proven innocent (which she couldn’t possibly be – otherwise he wouldn’t have attacked her.) In much the same way that any black man shot in by a white man in this country is guilty of his own death. We don’t blame *all* victims, just certain ones – just women who are victims of men, black men who are victims of white men, civilians who are victims of police officers… power confers immunity to blame, powerlessness confers moral suspicion.

But just in case the question is still bothering you, and just in case you didn’t know, women get to ignore men if they feel like it. Women are people, as much as any man, and have agency, and the right to choose who to speak to and when. Being alone is not the same as being available to and bound to recognize every man in the vicinity who exhibits an interest. Theoretically, anyway.

In practice, a woman is guilty from the moment she steps out the door. If she looks sexy, she is an offense; if she is not dressed for the male gaze, she is an offense. If she is young she is an offense, if she is old she is an offense. Her hair, the shape of her body, the color of her skin – no matter what it is, it is a provocation. And when a male speaks, from a seemingly innocuous, “Hello,” to a catcall of lewd appraisal, she has a choice – will she be guilty of responding, or guilty of not responding? Either can be dangerous. To speak can be viewed as having “encouraged” him, to not speak as “insulting” him (no matter how insulting his speech or gaze may have been.) Insult or encouragement: either is an invitation to sex, to violence, to both. And however the story ends, any injury to herself is only what she had coming to her.

But turning from our every woman to the particular child of God who was critically injured in Queens last week: why did she ignore him? Because she had the right to do so? Because she was afraid to respond – afraid to “encourage” him?

If she hadn’t ignored him, isn’t it possible, even likely that her attacker would have ended up cutting her anyway, that we would now be asking, “Why did she speak to him?” And even if not, do we want to be living in a world where we accept that ignoring a man is reason enough for him to land you in the hospital?

We have been asking the wrong questions for too long. Instead we should be asking, “Why did he think that her ignoring him entitled him to slash her with a blade?” We should wonder, “Why are so many men so emotionally fragile that even a perceived rejection from a woman he doesn’t even know is an invitation to violence?”

I was with my not yet 8 year old daughter when she received her first catcall, just a few weeks ago. A man drove by slowly, and called out, “Nice dress, sweetheart!” in a creepily appraising tone. She was confused, “Did we know him?” No. No we didn’t.

“Why did he call out to me then?” I thought quickly – I didn’t want to prejudice her against men. I’m sure parents of black children would prefer not to have to prejudice their children against police officers, either – but realistically, aren’t we obliged to have “the talk” with our children – to be honest with them about what people most endanger them? I sighed. I knew what I had to do.

“Some men think that they have the right to comment on the appearance or clothing of any girl or woman, whether they know each other or not.” I love the shocked look that comes on my daughter’s face when she encounters such rank injustice. “But! Mommy! That’s not right!” I smiled sadly, “No Bunny, it is not right. It is not right at all. That man needs to keep his opinions to himself. You wore that dress for yourself, not for him.”

Heaven help me. It was only the beginning of a long conversation about how her gender places her in our country and in the world – only the start of me saying to her, “Some men think that they have the right…”

Hat tip to Dr. Anthea Butler, who tweeted the link to this news story this morning.

Aspiration

Jesus Blesses the Children (detail of a photo by Walters Art Museum, posted here under Creative Commons license 2.0)

Jesus Blesses the Children (detail of a photo by Walters Art Museum, posted here under Creative Commons license 2.0)

Today, on Twitter, Whitney Simpson quoted St. Augustine: “You aspire to great things? Begin with little ones.”

Glancing through my feed, I thought to myself, “I have always believed that! I didn’t know Augustine had such a high view of children.” Because of my bias towards children, I had understood Augustine to mean that anyone who would do great things should spend time with children. Which is not, upon re-reading, the meaning of this quote at all, but if it is a misreading, at least it is a Biblical misreading! Jesus said that grown ups need to become more like children in order to enter the kingdom of God, and furthermore that if we lead little ones astray, it would have been better for us if we had been drowned in the sea.

The time I spend with children is time that I spend learning. From my daughter’s questions, I learn how the world is in the grip of sin, and from my answers to those questions I learn what I believe. When teaching a children’s knitting class last spring, I learned anew how different we all are: how different we are in what we understand and what we notice and whose opinion of us matters, and how that determines difference in how we learn and what motivates us. But I was also reminded that most of us are the same, too, in having someone that we desire to impress, in needing another’s patience when we are frustrated, and in delighting in mastering a new skill. From a Daisy troop, I finally started to get a handle on group dynamics by observing the shifts in group functioning when different combinations of girls showed up.

But the time I spend with children is also time that I spend shaping the persons that they will become – giving the knitting students a sense of competence, as well as a stress relieving life skill, for instance; or giving the Daisies another instance of an adult who is not their parents who cares about them, and who cares about how they treat one another…

Do I aspire to a kinder, more equitable world? Then I need to invest in the little ones.

When I was in college, I used to say that the most revolutionary thing a person could do was to raise a child with intention, and my daughter is certainly on the receiving end of a great deal of intentional parenting! My husband and I are shaping who she will become, not just from our direct influence, but also through choosing other people to be in her life (and through the mistakes we make, as well.) Who she is and how she interacts with the world is influenced (though not completely determined) by who we are and how we have raised her. What had not occurred to me when I was nineteen was how much she would shape us, too – how much all the children I have known were shaping me all along. I could spend many hours thinking and writing about it!

Right now, however, I might need to take St. Augustine at his intended word. I am aspiring to PhD work. I have been so long out of school, that I first need to take some new classes, so that I can get “fresher” recommendations. Which means that if I aspire to a PhD, I need to begin with the (relatively) little task of my 200 word essay for my application as a special student. There are no skipping the little steps on the way to our greater goals. So no matter how inspirational it may be at times, I had better log off Twitter and get to work – before my partner in revolution gets home from school.