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.

 

“The Talk”

Update / Correction: I have changed this post slightly from when I first posted it in 2013. I have replaced previous instances of the word “breed/breeding” with “mate/mating,” which is more accurate. Otherwise, the piece is just as originally posted.

Several years ago, a friend of mine spent the summer in South Africa.  She stayed with a family in a small town where, as in so many other small towns all over the world, the houses each consisted of one large common room.  After a couple of weeks of sleeping in a room with several other people, she summoned the courage to ask a young unmarried woman about her age, “When do your parents get any… umm… privacy?”  The young woman laughed, “You mean sex, right?  They are modest, of course, but they don’t really get true privacy the way wealthy people do in some other places.  I understand that there are children who have to be told about sex!  Not here.  No matter our parents’ best efforts, most of us have seen them having sex by the time we are 5 or 6.  It is no big deal.”

No big deal! Contrast that with the Kia ad that premiered during this year’s Super Bowl, in which a dad and mom anxiously avoid their child’s question about where babies come from, making up a ridiculous fairy tale, and then drowning out his rejoinder with the car stereo.

About a year ago, my husband and I took the baby monitor out of my daughter’s room, but she still wakes up in the middle of the night about 1/3 of the time, so we leave the door to our bedroom a little bit open, so that we can hear her if she calls.  But she doesn’t always call out, especially in the morning — sometimes she comes to our room instead.  In the past, I had considered the monitor and our doorknob’s creaky turning to be our early warning systems.  Instead, over the past months, I have been trying to work out what we are going to tell her if she walks into the room when we are having sex.

I had been a bit anxious about it, honestly.  More than once I have paused to check the clock and done some calculations about when she would likely wake up that morning before deciding whether I was comfortable having sex right then.  But in the past few days I came up with something to say that has me almost hoping that she does walk in on us one morning in the next year or so.  Remembering my friend’s story – that for many children all over the world, having seen their parents have sex is “no big deal,” I wondered about the difference between that attitude and the conviction of my friends when I was a child and teenager that the mere thought of their parents’ having had sex was “gross!” In movies and on television, I have “walked in on” countless young, beautifully airbrushed couples having sex – but rarely married couples, and never  in real life.

But back to what I would say to my six year old, if she were to walk in on my husband and I having sex in the next several months, and were to ask what we were doing:

1) We’re mating…  This might sound like a weird thing to say, but I would be beginning here by placing what she had seen in the context of what vocabulary she already has.  My daughter LOVES animals, and has been checking lots of books about animals out of the library – and a word that comes up a lot is “mate.”  She doesn’t know what mating entails precisely, but she knows that it is something that two animals do together in order to make a baby (or lots of babies).  So by saying, “We’re mating,” she knows right away that what she saw is related to how humans make babies, without me having to go into a lot of age-inappropriate detail.

2) … but unlike most other animals, humans don’t mate just to make babies.  This is important for three reasons.  The first is because it is true, and I want her to learn what other things sex is for from me, not her peers.  The second is because it is the necessary thing to say before telling her anything else sex is for.  And the third is because, as a family that has been trying to adopt for a few years, my daughter is aware that, “Mommy can’t grow any more babies in her belly.” So if Mommy and Daddy are mating (doing something that makes babies), then already that raises several questions in her head.

3) When humans mate, we call it “sex.” And couples have sex to strengthen the bond between them.  This is the critical part right here.  Too often, “the talk” includes (or even begins with) “when two people love each other very much.”  This can be very confusing.  Love can mean a lot of different things to different people.  Talking about love – about what comes before sex – tends to endorse anything that might happen when swept up in an emotional moment.  Instead, I feel like it is important to frame sex in terms of strengthening of a bond between two people – the results of sex.  Unlike “making a baby,” which only results from sex sometimes, “strengthening the bond” happens every time.  It can strengthen that bond in good or bad ways, it can strengthen that bond with a person who is good for you or bad for you, but it makes the bond stronger each time.  My daughter already knows (from us telling her, and from her observing us) that Mommy and Daddy love each other very much, that we respect one another and trust one another, so there is really no need, if she walks in on Mommy and Daddy having sex, to tell her that it has something to do with love.  But as parents of her friends divorce, I imagine the idea of sex as strengthening commitment will be reassuring to her.

Naturally, this version of “The Talk” leaves a lot out.  After all, I have thought about it with my six year old in mind.  For instance, now is not the time to get into “there are many ways to have sex, but only vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman can result in a baby, unless you take advantage of in vitro fertilization, which is a way of making a baby without sex at all,” or “There are ways to avoid having a baby when you are having sex, and some of them work better than others, and some don’t work at all, for instance…”  These matters can be addressed later, in bits and pieces, as she gets older and as she has more and more questions.  Actually answering those questions honestly (instead of trying to distract her from her questions by singing her favorite song, like the parents in the Kia commercial) will tell her that I am open to this conversation, and that will encourage her to continue asking me questions when they arise, instead of asking someone else.

“The Talk” is not one conversation, but a commitment to years of conversations.  In a sense, I already began talking with her about sex when I talked to her about marriage more than a year ago. “One day, when you are older, you may find someone who you like so much, and who likes you so much, that you want to see them every day, and help one another do everything, and be family with one another…” Liking one another, commitment, helping, family…  again, I didn’t use the word “love” because it didn’t seem to be the most helpful word in the situation.

Love is great and important!  My daughter and I use the word love a lot!  But because there are so many different ways to love people, I didn’t want that to be the only word that comes to mind when thinking about marriage.  Our culture will guarantee that it is the first word she thinks of – I can give her other words as well.  And by giving her these other words when she thinks about marriage, she will think of these words too when she thinks about sex.  As long as the first context she has for thinking about having sex is marriage, and not the sex she will see portrayed in movies and on TV time and again as she grows up — the sex that is simply scratching the inexplicable itch of desire.

Most of us will inexplicably desire many people in our lives who would be poor partners – to whom we know we would prefer not to be strongly bonded.  Respect and mutual support and commitment and enjoying one another’s company and desire? That’s what I want for my daughter.  My hope is that she is given unmistakable clarity in finding such a partner.  But because we are all fallible, because it is so easy to be deceived by our desires, shame is not on my agenda for my ongoing conversations about sex with my daughter.  If she is to flourish as an adult in a sexual relationship, if she is to continually strengthen the bond between herself and another person, I don’t want to do anything to impede her freedom to sever a bond that is better broken.  Especially if the sex was nonconsensual, for instance as Elizabeth Smart spoke about at Johns Hopkins when sharing her experience when she was abducted from her home.  But even if the mistake is hers – even if she chooses to have sex with the wrong person – telling her that she is now something like a “chewed up wad of gum” that no one will want is not simply hateful and contrary to the demands of Love, but also a way of preventing her from being equipped to form a life-giving relationship later.

So I am going to stop eyeing the clock in the morning, and not worry so much about our creaky bed frame.  If our daughter sees my husband and I having sex, it is no big deal.  It might even be a good thing.

Father-less Day?

Last year was the first Father’s Day since my own Dad died. In the United Methodist Church, Annual Conferences are typically held around Father’s Day – including the Virginia Annual Conference, in which my Dad was an ordained elder. So last year, instead of being home with my husband – my daughter’s father – I was in Roanoke, Virginia. The Saturday night before Father’s Day was the time appointed for the annual memorial service for pastors who have died in the past year, and I wanted to be there with my mother. She and I skipped church the next morning – neither of us were much in the mood to hear a single word about fathers – and instead spent the day driving back to her home outside Richmond, bemoaning that it was hard to find an antique store in Southern Virginia that was open before noon on a Sunday. Antiques shopping instead of church? It was almost as if we were calculating ways to pretend my sternly Sabbath-keeping father had never existed.

For me, my best ally in processing my grief has been my astute and sensitive five year old, who still has moments of being “sad about Grandpa Cosby.” (Not to knock my wonderful husband, friends, and therapist – I have a great team!) Hannah asks very intelligent questions, like “Is Grandpa Cosby still your Dad?” (yes!) and “Does Grandpa Cosby still have a birthday?” (yes!) And as I have talked about my continuing relationship with him and about my memories of him, I have felt his loss a little less keenly. I still have a father, even if he is not reachable by telephone.

I remember last year, feeling the loss so deeply – it was Father’s Day, and I had no one to call! But this year, celebrating at home with my husband and my daughter, I didn’t have time to think about it – every day of the past week was consumed with Hannah’s plans for making her Daddy’s Father’s Day “the best ever!!”  Keeping alive the flower she picked many days too early, making cards, planning a special breakfast in bed…  And then on to the Episcopal Church – not least because I can count on those reliably liturgical Episcopalians to leave these civil holidays nearly unmentioned.  I do not exaggerate to pray, “On Father’s Day, I thank you for the Episcopalians, most merciful God.”

I am an American – in this world, if not of it (I hope) – and so I do still find it not just impossible, but undesirable to escape celebrating Father’s Day.  There are lots of men I could call today – to thank them for being there for me, to encourage them in their own fathering… with the aid of a year of growth and reflection, I can see that I am certainly not without anyone to call on Father’s Day. And I must remember to call my mother on this Father’s Day – a woman who long ago lost her father, and more recently lost her step-father and then the father of her own children.  I wonder if she wonders who to call today?  I wonder if she went to church today? I wonder, if she did, if it was a healing or a wounding hour spent in the pew?

We who grieve on this day are not alone – there are many more like us. Rather than organizing our day around our loss – at least as the years go by – I pray that we find ways to celebrate what we had and continue to carry with us, and the many fathers we know and love who are still a telephone call away.  And I pray that the church continues to find ways to nurture those who need true comfort on the days when the culture seems to exclude their grief.