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Some of the wisest pieces of parenting advice my Accomplice and I received, when we were expecting our first child fourteen years ago, came from our midwife, Stacey Haugland.
“No matter how well you think you know who your baby will be, you can’t,” she told us. And this gem, as my pregnancy went day after day past my due date, in a sweltering, high-altitude Montana summer, “This is the easy part. Once that baby comes out of there, that’s when the real work gets started.”
A smart woman, Stacey.
Motherhood, the first days. Photo by James B. Burton.
I didn’t get nearly as many things right as I’d thought I would, back during his first years. I got swept away by mainstream parenting advice, the patterns and attitudes of my family of origin, my own ingrained or stubbornly held beliefs of what it meant to be a Good Mother.
And I patted myself on the back that my kids weren’t brats (Annalise joined our family when Jeremiah was not quite three years old), that I was firmly in control, that I knew how to Raise Good People.
We had Rules, and Logical Consequences, and a Naughty Step…
And a LOT of conflict. I was the Enforcer. I watched for infractions, and I, in my own past words, would “come down on them like a ton of bricks” when either child ‘dared’ to commit them.
From the outside, we looked like a happy, loving family, and we were. People commented on how well-behaved the children were, and we laughed a lot –
But I also yelled. A lot. Hit, a lot more than I wanted to. Humiliated, demanded, punished – and congratulated myself that I wasn’t as severe as my own parents were, in raising me.
Parenthood comes with many moving parts….Photo by Shan Jeniah Burton.
One day, my husband came home, and found both children sitting on the Naughty Step, sobbing, while I screamed and raged at them.
He took one look, and called me a monster.
I was furious- my rage was easily shifted, in those days, and explosive. I turned on him.
But he was right.
The children I was lambasting for making messes and not cleaning them up were 3 and 6 years old, at most.
I wasn’t only being cruel – I was demanding the impossible – a level of attentiveness that neither of these very new humans was remotely able to meet. I was terrorizing them for their perfectly natural inability to comply.
Life in those days was filled with a seething resentment, a feeling of being trapped, of doling out punishments and demanding restitution – even when, more often than not, by the time we got to the end of the punishment, I couldn’t even remember what the punishment was for.
It wasn’t what we signed up for, when we decided to have a family.
I came to know, slowly but certainly, that something had to change.
I had to change.
I had no idea, how, at first- until I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to bring the kids on an outing with a local radical unschooling group. It was strongly suggested that new parents unfamiliar with this way of living read at Joyce Fetterol’s wonderful website, Joyfully Rejoycing, which was a comprehensive introduction to a very different way of parenting.
I remember reading the educational posts, and nodding along. Trust that children will learn, even without lessons, homework, tests, or other forms of educational coercion. We’d never sent the kids to school, and our homeschooling had already been evolving into a far more relaxed form than the lessons at the kitchen table we began with.
I knew kids could learn rampantly, if simply provided with lots of interesting things and experiences, and time and freedom to explore, because we lived it every day.
I was feeling pretty confident and sure of myself….
But then I read the ‘life’ side of Joyce’s page, and my chest got tight and my stomach a little sick. Don’t require chores, set bedtimes, limit foods and technology? Really?! Were these people CRAZY?!?!
These people HAD to be crazy. Their houses must be an endless free-for-all, with exhausted parents forever cleaning up after and sacrificing themselves for ungrateful, lawless, hedonistic offspring…
No way we were ever going to go THAT far. Because that would be total anarchy, and we were NOT going to raise brats.
Dangerous Delinquents – or Just New People? Photo by Sha Jeniah Burton.
We went on the nature walk, and, during the course of spending the day with some happy families, I met four year old Lily. I’ll have a warm place in my heart for her, because she changed our lives – just in the confident way she spoke to me about her life, her family, and herself.
Lily met my eyes when she chatted with me. She didn’t pause to see if I approved of her or what she was saying. She had things to say, and she said them.
I wasn’t a “mom”, and she wasn’t a “kid”. We were two people interacting.
It was then that I knew that’s what I wanted for my own family, my own children.
But, in order to get it, I was going to have to do something that made me intensely uncomfortable; something that I had no idea how to do.
I was going to have to change.
I was going to have to shift my perspective.
I was going to have to grow…
Next Week, Part Two: Learning How to Change
Potent message, and my ideal….Photo by Shan Jeniah Burton.