Wednesday, 30 May 2018

How to Talk to People About Having Children

When I was running around my toddler and pregnant with my second, a neighbour said to me, ‘it’s good you’re having them close together, so you’re done quickly!’ 

That same neighbour recently asked me for any hand-me-downs I can give to her friend expecting a boy. 

When I walk around with my boys, strangers ask me jokingly ‘when’s the third coming along?’ Constantly. I usually smile and laugh along, but once, in a more irritable mood, I replied ‘soon, hopefully!’ The man stared awkwardly, unsure if he could detect sarcasm in my tone. 

I know women who have five or more children who tell me to get used to it. They have even had family ask them ‘surely, this is your last?’ with each pregnancy that followed the third. 

My friends who don’t have any other children complain of people asking them when they’re going to have a baby. Especially if they’ve been married a while. 

‘There’s no wrong or right time,’ my (male) friend said recently. 

‘Well, there is a better time than others, in terms of what’s physically viable.’ I couldn’t help but say.

‘What would you say is the best time?’ my other friend asked.

But it’s not a subjective question. It’s to do with our bodies. I don’t actually know when the average woman is least likely to face complications in pregnancy or labour. But I do know that after a certain age you are automatically ‘high risk’, so there must be a ‘better’ time, physically speaking. 

But that doesn’t mean we are free to assume anything about other couples’ experiences regarding their family. Maybe that couple who ‘still haven’t started a family’ have been trying for years. Maybe that woman with three under three is pregnant. Maybe not everyone sees pregnancy as a binary between ‘wanted’ and ‘unwanted’. For some people, believe it or not, the answer to ‘are you trying for a baby?’ lies somewhere on a spectrum.

I don’t think we ‘shouldn’t talk about it’, I don’t believe we should compartmentalise everything profound and personal to the ultra private sphere to the point where we only secretively discuss things. But neither do I believe these are things we can talk about with a neighbour as we run out of the door to the supermarket.

There are some things you should only ask about if you’re in the mood to listen. Because otherwise you just create frustration in the other person, who feels they have to give the answer you’re looking for, the answer that validates your own choices and beliefs. And when it comes to parenting, although there might be scientific information regarding the physical side of things that we should all be aware of, there really is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. There’s only infinite stories, feelings, anxieties and hopes, in an insurmountably broad spectrum of possible experiences. 

Thursday, 24 May 2018

5 Pro-Choice Sentiments I’m Tired Of

  1. ‘If you don’t agree with abortions, no one’s forcing you to have one.’
Imagine murder became legal. Imagine it became far more socially accepted. You say you’re against its legalisation, and someone says to you ‘if you don’t agree with murder, you don’t have to do it.’ The argument makes no sense. It’s ignoring the fundamental disagreement regarding the question of when a human is legally recognised as a human. 

  1. ‘Women aren’t just baby making machines.’
This has always seemed a case of strawmanning to me. I have felt zero pressure to make babies. If anything I have felt societal pressure to do something other than make babies, or more precisely, to choose between making and raising babies myself or delegating this in order to do something else. We could argue it’s just pro-life groups putting that pressure on women but the Catholic Church is pro life and pro nuns. Nuns don’t have children and they are in no way seen as inferior to mothers.

  1. ‘My body my choice’
Ignores the philosophical disagreement of whether it’s just one body or two.

  1. ‘It’s a woman’s right’
So many women have abortions because they feel they have no choice. So many women perceive motherhood as their individual responsibility: if you choose to have this baby you have to get the space, stuff, money, food, enter need here, for the rest of their life. So many women are not helped before nor after an abortion. So many women’s lives are affected negatively because their maternity is handled catastrophically by society. This is not just about abortion. This is about our society’s entire attitude towards motherhood. Almost all mothers are abandoned and isolated in some small way, because our society is extremely out of touch with what it means to support women. 

  1. The complete silence on the fact that you can abort a child with an abnormality as minor as a cleft lip up to birth, but you can’t abort a child with ‘no abnormalities’ beyond 24 weeks of gestation. Why is the Left so comfortable with this clear prioritisation of ‘normal’ foetuses over ‘abnormal’ ones? My guess is no one is comfortable with it, they’re just not talking about the disturbing truth that our society still does not value disabled people as highly as able ones.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Why Christian Mothers Are Called to Rest

‘Turn your back on the Tempter when he whispers in your ear: “why make life difficult for yourself?”’ 

St Josemaria is my favourite saint. A Spaniard who didn’t beat about the bush, he gives practical, simple guidance. He is encouraging, but he is demanding. He believed every day work was the path to sanctification for many people, not unlike Mother Teresa who called Christians to ‘do small things with great love.’

You can imagine my surprise, then, when a priest from the Work, the prelature founded by this saint, responded to my confession with a single Spanish word: ‘descomplicate.’ Literally the word means to ‘uncomplicate’ – the very sentiment St Josemaria had said not to listen to in his words above. Don’t make life difficult for yourself, this priest said to me. ‘All these things you speak of – order, rules – they’re making your life very difficult. This voice that says to you, do this, do that, this voice is not God’s.’

This is so difficult for me. One of my favourite things about religion is that it provides a clear structure to order our decisions. It tells you what is right and what is wrong by proclaiming ‘the truth’ in no uncertain terms. In a world of relativism and being left to our own devices, religion has been a refuge for me, it has helped me to orient my own morality and world-view. 

But what’s even more beautiful about the Church is that it does not allow for us to just follow the rulebook of the Catechism and then rest peacefully at night. It calls for us to do everything in good faith. It calls for us to hold a deep understanding of why we believe certain things to be right and certain things to be wrong. It demands constant study, deliberation, and dialogue.

As a mother, my day is filled with small decisions that seem to be of great importance. Do I sit down and write when the baby sleeps, or do I spend this time tidying the house so I don’t have to do chores while the children are awake, sacrificing time with them? Is it ok if they watch television? How long for? Are these toys still age-appropriate? Should I drop one of the milk feeds now? Is it too soon for daycare? 

Even a small decision such as when to wash the dishes seems to contain the much bigger question: ‘when should I do this in order to be the best mother I can be?’ Which has me wondering ‘am I doing the right thing? Am I up to the task of parenting?’ as a constant bit of background noise in my internal monologue.

This is a huge struggle for me. That constant doubt and constant deliberation builds up into unmanageable anxiety, and quickly turns to loss of patience, anger, even despair at the normal challenges each day presents.

‘Stop hurting yourself with your own hands.’ The priest said, adding, ‘internally, I mean.’ I felt like crying as I remembered the few times I have broken down and felt an impulse to hurt myself with my own hands, literally. I knew it was the Holy Spirit who knows and sees everything that was sending that message to me.

‘Whenever you can rest, choose rest. You have two very young children, it’s to be expected that the house will look like chaos.’

This priest looks impeccable whenever I see him – his shoes are always freshly polished, his meditations are always typed out onto a sheet of A4 paper that is perfectly folded into an A6 size, as though he has used a ruler to flatten the folds. He places his few, shiny looking belongings – a phone, a beautiful pen, a watch that he takes off -- on the desk in front of him, in a neat row, whenever he is about to begin to share his words. He knows that order is a natural virtue that we are called to cultivate. 

And here he was telling me that God was not asking me to bring order to the chaos around me. 

‘God wants Sofia to be rested. He wants her to be well. If you are not looking after yourself, then you can’t love others. God doesn’t want you to be una mamma bravissima[an amazing mum] and to keep the house tidy. He isn’t that kind of father. He’s a good dad, who says ‘listen, Sofia, look after yourself. Rest. Do what you need to do to feel well in yourself. Make things easier for yourself. Because you can’t avoid things being difficult right now. Things are difficult right now. So you must make life easier for yourself.’

Thursday, 10 May 2018

How Perfectionism Is Making You Lazy

I have more ideas than I can work on, or even write down. It has always been that way. My mind is like a popcorn machine of ideas. Things to do. Events to plan. Ways to decorate the house. Things to cook. Outfits to wear. Conversations to start. Books to read. Stuff to write. I don’t have ‘a notebook’, I have several, all for different projects, and they’re all intended to be beautifully organised and presented when I buy them, but they all lie about in different areas of the house, and I end up writing about a thing that belongs in a different one in whichever one is visible at the time the idea comes to mind. And mostly I don’t write anything down. Mostly I don’t make a start on the things that do make it out of my mind, through the pen onto the paper. And mostly I don’t follow through on the stuff I do begin to act on.

I have never thought of myself as a perfectionist, but I am very ambitious – and having high ambitions for each thing you do can be a kind of perfectionism. So while I don’t need everything I do to be perfect – I brush my teeth for ninety seconds fewer than the recommended two minutes – I do want certain things to be more than good, to be truly great.

Padre Maurizio Botta says perfectionism is the path to laziness. It might sound unlikely, but it immediately made perfect sense to me because it resonates so much with my own experience.

I am extremely lazy. I don’t say that in an attempt at self-deprecation, I don’t think it’s that rare to be extremely lazy. I think it’s probably actually the norm, and I didn’t really think of myself as lazy until I met a handful of people who aren’t. I’m not like those people. I’m not someone who works hard at stuff because I know the value of hard work. I have to really force myselfthrough the work, whilst every bone in my body is screaming ‘no’, begging me to abandon, because it really needs a rest from the last thirty-five seconds of yet another tedious, thankless chore.

Only after Padre Botta’s words did I realise these two tendencies in me – perfectionism and laziness – go hand in hand, and the root anchoring both of them is pride.

Perfectionism says to you: ‘what you’re doing isn’t good enough. Abandon this endeavour. It will never meet your standards. It will be sub-par. If you can’t give it your full attention and truly try your hardest you should stop wasting time on something that will end up disappointing you anyway.’

Laziness says to you: ‘what you have to do is worse than doing nothing. It’s going to cause you discomfort, maybe even pain. Don’t do it. Stay here and stay comfortable.’

They feed each other: laziness says don’t bother doing thisand the righteous ‘but it’s something I have to do’ voice is soon silenced by perfectionism which says it will probably end up a piece of crap anywayit’ll be worse than if you hadn’t done it at all: you won’t have done a good job, and, what’s worse, you’ll have given up your time and your comfort. 

This is the voice of pride. You are better than this, it says. You should only do what you can do well, and it makes so much sense to our proud heart – if I’m going to sacrifice time and comfort, it better be for something that I can take pride in – something that reflects my ambitions and my best abilities. 

The most wonderful thing about children is that children, especially in the beginning, don’t wait. They don’t wait for you to have time to do a job you can be proud of. They don’t wait for you to be rested. They don’t wait for you to be ready. They’re here, and they need to be served, and they force humility on you as you realise that not only are you imperfect, you’re also plain old lazy. You won’t always do a great job. You won’t always do a good job. Sometimes the job won’t get done. But sometimes you will just about get it done, and that’s preferable, even if it’s nothing to be proud about – only something to be thankful for. So only by the grace of God will your children thrive and grow up and be strong. Discovering that has been – and continues to be – painful, and yet also the biggest, greatest blessing.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

How to Be Present With Your Children

Recently, I’ve been struggling a lot with boredom, and the consequential guilt that has arisen from it. I find myself bored with my children. And so I find myself feeling guilty that I’m bored.

When I was at university, the development of my identity was at the centre of everything I did. Each week I studied what was interested in. I wrote about what thought. I wore things that I liked. I picked friends who made me feel stimulated. I learned to cook whatever seemed might taste delicious, I tried new sports and stopped them if they didn’t feel right and carried on if they were. Every decision I made was about what I wanted, who I wanted to be, what path I wanted to take.

Motherhood, for me, has been diametrically opposed to this. Stop – says the infant child – and be here, right now, as you are. Not to tell me interesting stories. Not to listen to me tell you mine, or unload my anxieties, or ask you for help with a difficult decision, or gossip, or joke. No. Listen to me gurgle. Watch me reach for the nearest object I can just about focus my gaze on. Watch me learn to focus my gaze on your gaze. 

Stop searching for your ‘self’, and bring your current self, as it is --a work in progress-- to the table. Be with me, as you are, right now. And give yourself over to, not just this moment but, each moment. Give yourself over to a series of seemingly inconsequential moments that provide no satisfaction to that search for truth and self-actualisation that previously formed the telos of your days, months and years. You are not the culmination of your interests. You are not your outfits. You are not the books you read nor the parties you vote for. You are a mother. You are not even what you thought that was – you are not ‘a mother’ in that sense of that image or list of tasks you had of what a mother might look like or do. No. You are not any type of mother, you are not ‘the kind of’ mother ‘you’ want to be. You are just this: my mother. This child belongs to you as you belong to this child. 

In other words, it’s boring. It sounds beautifully still and truthful and primal – but a lot of stuff that is beautiful, still, true and primal in essence is unstimulating and dull in the experience of it.

And for a long time I have told myself – and believed others who said – that it’s boring because of my internal resistance. It’s boring because we are flawed people. It’s boring because I’m fighting the pure simplicity of it. It’s boring because my mother isn’t a strong presence, hasn’t been a physical presence for a long time, in my life, so I’m anxious about how to be a mother myself, which manifests in boredom. It’s boring because I’m fighting my own nature. It’s boring because everything beautiful and good is only obtained with struggle and hard work and the inevitable boredom that comes with tedious tasks that delay gratification for a greater, future, good. 

Until I started reading a book. Well –listening, in fact. I started listening to an audio book, because I barely have time to read now, so I put on podcasts and audio books during the hours I spend with my children, because I don’t want to ‘be present’ with my children. There, I said it. I put on audio books in the background. And I pay attention to them. I listen to them more than my toddlers’ screams and singing and shouts and laughter. I listen to pre-recorded adults more. And I find it more interesting than my own children. And I feel ashamed and I try to limit how much I do it as much as possible – I do it feeling wrecked with guilt that I’m not fully focussed on That’s Not My Duck.

I started listening to this book, One Beautiful Dream– Jennifer Fulwiler’s ‘rollicking tale of family chaos, personal passions, and saying yes to them both’ – which I have not yet finished but which I highly recommend for anyone who’s wondering what they’re called to do in life re: children/career/family size. I started listening to this book and the realisation suddenly hit me, that, maybe, just maybe, I find being with my children boring because it is boring.

It’s not boring because there’s some internal battle within me struggling against something that is in fact wonderful and good and meant for me and the best thing for my children. Maybe it’s just boring. Maybe I’m just not supposed to be doing parenting that way. Maybe defining ‘being present’ in a particular way that refers to your actions, your thoughts, and the amount of eye contact and focus you place on your child is not only narrow but downright incorrect. Maybe being present is something a lot more fundamentally earth-shatteringthan looking like a Montessori-trained nanny. 

Jen (we’re on first-name terms after I listened to her read her memoir to me) talks about writing being her ‘blue flame’ – her God-given gift that, when used and cultivated, has her setting the world on fire. ‘Be who you were created to be,’ says St Catherine of Siena, ‘and you will set the world on fire.’ For Jen, it’s important all mothers find out what their blue flame is and use their gifts in order to be better mothers.

This wasn’t particularly new to me: the idea that you should reserve some time for yourself, pursue your interests, leave time for things other than childcare and household chores etc, in order to be a better mother. In order to ‘be there’ for your family. You can’t pour from an empty cup, etc.

But I still thought of this as a binary between ‘myself’ and ‘my mothering self’. I would have some ‘time off’ to go and do what fed my soul, and then I would go back and give myself completely to my children, give them my full attention, point out the names of things to them, smile back at them, make them giggle, gently tell them off when they do something they’re not supposed to, or consistently put them back on on time out, ensure they choose their own outfits, insert parenting advice from parenting web article here, etc, etc, etc.

Then I realised: maybe that’s not it. Yes, time apart from your children/the home is of upmost importance if you work in the home. It’s important to have time where you are not working. But that doesn’t mean your work can’t be stimulating to you on a personal level. It doesn’t mean if you’re not suffering then you’re not doing the best job you can. Sometimes mortification is about letting go of our narrow, human conception of an ideal and opening up to what God wants of us. Sometimes to deny yourself is to deny yourself that ideal that you’ve been striving for – that ideal that you’ve been, paradoxically, denying yourself for (or so you thought). 

That kind of sentence makes me cringe. A voice in my head (I bet I can guess whose) is saying ‘no, that’s just hippy crap people tell themselves to justify their own human failings and inevitable falling short of the high standards God has for us.’ The voice in my head is very clever – smarter than me – it tells me that the path to doing a good job is to try hard and accept you will fail and ask for forgiveness and energy and try hard again. Not to give up on the things you feel guilty about if you’re not doing them. That’s the path to comfort and it’s fundamentally short-sighted and defeatist.

That’s true, in a lot of ways. But sometimes a true thought or sentiment is leading us to a false conclusion. In my case, this idea that I shouldn’t give up on something just because it’s extremely hard (true) was making me think that the best mother, the present mother, does not listen to audio books (less self-evidently true). She pays attention to her children. Her mind isn’t elsewhere. She is aware of their gurgles, their smiles, their coughing, their crawlings, their teeth coming through.

The thing is, some mothers are like that, and that is them being ‘the best mother’ they can be. Maybe a lot of people’s good mothering looks like that. It could even be that the vast majority of good mothers look like that. But what do you look like when you’re present? What is it like when you’re present, not when just ‘a good mother’ is present?

This notion of ‘being present’ just isn’t me. ‘Situational awareness’ is actually my Myers-Briggs type’s lowest cognitive ability. My strongest is ‘introverted intuition’. That means that my preferred, and most capable, way of apprehending the world is intuitiveand introverted. Concretely, that means that for a long time – my whole life – I have tended to be the last person to notice if someone is smiling at them. This doesn’t change when it’s my own children doing the smiling. I suffer from a severe case of ‘resting bitch face’ because I am always absorbed in my own thoughts and forget to manifest a variety of emotions to the external world and the people surrounding it. If I am reading (or, more likely, texting) it takes several seconds for me to register that someone (in the real world of the flesh) has spoken to me. Do not be offended if I don’t wave back to you when you run into me in the street – I have either not seen you or not recognised you. I cannot find my way from the station to a friend’s house that I’ve visited dozens of times before. In short, my head is always in the clouds.

I knew this, but what I didn’t know was that this would make me terrible at a lot of mother-child activities. I am never going to enjoy sitting on the floor of the boys’ nursery  whilst colour sorting legos. Or building cars out of legos. Or building anything out of legos. Just anywhere near legos. Legos are dull. It’s just stuff. Stuff is boring. Toys are boring. Books are less boring – but kids’ books are still prettyboring. Teeth coming through are boring. I don’t care. Milestones are kind of exciting, but the run-up to them is not. If our children got up one day and started walking, that would be cool. But the gradual, slow, process of learning to walk is not, for me, a joy to witness. Singing nursery rhymes is boring. Trying to teach my infant children anythingis boring. I do it as far as it’s necessary, of course, but I’m never going to relish the opportunities for it.

I was feeling so awful about this, riddled with guilt, thinking maybe I didn’t belong in the home with my children. Maybe, even though I wanted to be a stay at home mum, really I wasn’t meant for that and I should think about finding a job. Then this book changed everything. I realised that just because I found a lot of stuff I was expected to do boring, this didn’t mean I found my childrenboring. It didn’t mean I found being a motherboring. In fact, when I let go of expectations of what I am supposed to do, I am not bored in the least. I am fulfilled. Yes, I still need a break from work regularly. Yes, I still need to directly use my ‘blue flame’ gifts in moments apart from my children and away from the house. But when I let go of my expectations of what a good mother must do, what ‘being present’ looks like, then I am at peace with my children. Not bored. At peace.

And when you find peace, you realise the wealth of things that brings you joy. I like listening to podcasts and audio books while my children explore the world, largely ignored by me, but perfectly capable of getting my attention if they need it. I like – no, love– cuddles. I can cuddle for hours, and we probably do, aggregately, every day. I like putting on loud music and dancing, and I never not find my toddler’s dancing hilarious to the point of laughing out loud. I like story time, but I only like it at bed time, when we’re in pyjamas and in bed and have had milk and we’re huddled up under the covers – and it’s fine that that’s the only time I enjoy it. I like doing very dramatic readings, with different voices and accents, which I am terrible at. I like making jokes that only an adult can understand, but to my children, mostly for my benefit, but also because I don’t want to have a ‘child-friendly’ personality the whole time I’m with them. I love taking them to church. I love doing household chores with them – whether or not they’re interested in what I’m doing. I love going for silent, non nature-focussed, non-game related, non-educational, non-adventurouswalks down the same streets every afternoon. I love being with other people with my children playing freely in whatever way they want (as long as it’s not life-threatening).

More than anything, I love letting them be. Not interfering. Not teaching. Not demonstrating. Not modelling. Not talking. Not watching. Not listening. Simply aware of their presence, while I inhabit my thoughts.  And that may not look or sound like much. It might even look like I’m distracted. Maybe I am distracted. But I have always been distracted. It’s being distracted by thoughts that gives me a need to write. And my need to write isn’t separate from my being a mother. My being distracted isn’t something I put on hold while I am fully focussed on my children. I am a distracted mother because I am a distracted person. And that isn’t something I need to address or change in order to fit better into a mould of what an ideal person is like (‘present’). That isn’t something I need to be anxious or guilty about, even if it has negative outcomes as well as positive ones. That is just part of who I was created to be. I am distracted by things that interest me. Being a distracted mother means I am a mother with interests. Being interested in things other than my children doesn’t mean I am disinterested in my children as people.Being distracted doesn’t mean I’m not emotionally present – that is a facile distinction to make. Being detached doesn’t imply coldness. You can feel a distance from your immediate surroundings without lacking in empathy. Your mind can be engrossed by a million thoughts but 80% of them might refer to the children you would rather contemplate than play lego with. You don’t know what being present looks like for you until you allow yourself to ‘stop’, as a newborn demands of you with such urgency, and bring your present self – a work in progress – as it is, to be with them, as you are, right now.