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.

 

Speed bump

It has been a long time since I have written a new blog entry. I have been ill since the end of May. Many days, I am in too much pain to sit upright for longer than 5 minutes at a time.This illness has kept me from doing so many things I had planned to do. I had hoped to take my daughter to the zoo this summer, to reorganize my study, and to prepare to lead a group of Daisy Scouts… and I had planned to devote many hours to writing. Instead, it has been difficult simply to keep up with my correspondence. Impossible really, when you consider that often it takes me an hour to write an e-mail, and I have been receiving 10 or more personal e-mails a week.

What we thought was a minor problem that would soon pass has consumed the summer. It appears that I am going to need surgery, but because of my health history, scheduling surgery is taking some time. So I wait.

It is easy, when I am lying on the sofa (yet again) for my vision to extend no further than my own body. Pain relief, distraction from pain, food, water. When I lift up my eyes, I often don’t lift them very far: my daughter, my husband, the accumulation of e-mails waiting for a reply.

But this illness is not constant. There are good days. And I am learning to take advantage of the good days.

Two weeks ago, I was feeling well enough to drive my daughter to camp at the NC Museum of Life and Science. And after dropping her off at her classroom, I was feeling well enough to stay there and take a walk on the grounds! It had been a long time since I had been able to take a walk alone with God, with no place to get to and no time to be there.

There are so few people at the museum at 9:00 am, and the air was not yet hot enough to be uncomfortable. I was walking, remembering times taking my daughter to the museum when she was younger, and thinking of all the families that visit there every day, when I saw what looked like splotches of mud crossing the asphalt trail.

The words formed in my mind, “Stop. Look closer.” So I did. The trail wasn’t dirty – these were racoon tracks – crossing from the quarry pond to the undergrowth adjacent to the bear enclosure.

My vision zoomed out all at once, dramatically – while I had been in bed the night before, racoons had been gathering and washing their food, turtle eggs were incubating, owls were silently gliding through the sky. Truck drivers were driving, nurses were tending patients at the hospital, mothers and fathers were changing diapers and rocking restless babies back to sleep. As they slept, trees and teenagers were growing taller, and people of all ages were assimilating all they had learned that day. And that was just in Durham! In other parts of the world, my night was not night at all, but day. As I laid down to sleep on the East Coast of the U.S., people in Japan were starting their day: some to work, some to learn, some to play — and some to wait in frustration, ill and unable to do any of these things, just as I had been the week before.

There was so much more to the world than I could see, but as I bent over the raccoon tracks, I was reassured that God sees it all, God holds it all, God knows and loves it all! “Thank you,” I whispered.

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Today is not shaping up to be a low pain day. I wrote part of this with the aid of dictation software, which I am using here for the first time. And I wrote part of it sitting up, which I am really beginning to feel! But I am grateful for the light shining through the leaves of the trees outside my window, reminding me of God’s providential care for all creation – for “all things, seen and unseen.”

 

Welcome!

I have been noticing an increase in traffic to my blog over the past week, and I’m supposing that it might be driven by readers of the Adult Bible Studies Sunday School curriculum.

For those unfamiliar with this series, it is a United Methodist curriculum for adult Sunday school classes, based on the scripture selections of the Uniform Series. This summer, the theme is the prophets (beginning in June with Amos.) And I wrote the student booklet for the summer quarter. In the “Meet the Writer” section, at the end of a brief bio, this blog’s address is printed.

So – if you are here for the first time because you saw my blog address in your Sunday school book, and you were curious – welcome!

From time to time I will be posting things here that might be helpful to teachers preparing these Sunday school lessons, but I hope that they will prove to be of general interest as well. Like my post earlier today about sycamore figs. Enjoy!