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Big Bad World. When to talk to children about the hard truths?

Recently, we took turns having the flu, listening to books on tape and sharing in the misery of the world. We both became engrossed by “Edith’s Story”, Edith Velman’s autobiographical account of Jewish adolescence in Nazi occupied Holland. This piece of human history, which is part of Monika’s national history, is so painful, and yet is so necessary to know and to understand for anyone of European heritage. We began to wonder aloud about how, and when, children should be told about recent or current wars, Holocausts or genocides – be they directed at Jews, First Nations, Africans / Blacks, Arabs, Communists, or Lesbians and Gays?

The human capacity for mass murder is a crushing fact of life. For parents who are squeamish about approaching the topics of sex and birth, how much more difficult is it to tell children about the truly frightening evils of the world—war, environmental degradation, extreme poverty, social injustice, racism, and other unjust by-products of human endeavor? Children, we hope, are sheltered for a few years in a family circle that knows no malevolence. The beaming face of a four-year-old, pleased as punch at his accomplishments, or absolutely confident that her drawing taped to the fridge is a masterpiece, is a sight that every parent wants to savor forever in its innocent, guileless joy. And yet, it is not a mature face; it is not ready to inherit its complicated birthright of an earth that is, for every generation, full of both great promises and terrible threats. Sooner or later, they will learn about the darker sides of human nature.

How old is old enough to read Anne Frank? To hear about Aids in Africa? To see planes flying into buildings? To watch the evening news? To go to the World Community Film Festival and learn about child slavery? To watch Batman? Nine? Nineteen? Ninety?

North American culture is deeply conflicted about protecting children from violence. On the one hand, every major disaster brings out a well-intentioned, and probably useful, barrage of expert advice on how to talk to children about what they have seen or heard. We were eager to debrief children who watched the Trade Towers go down in 2001, or the Tsunami hit the tourist beaches in 2005. On the other hand, we call even the most extreme and graphic television violence “entertainment”. And we have, for generations, accepted schoolyard bullying, especially of the psychological variety, as if it were some dark rite of passage that children must endure, bewildered, without us. At home and on the playground, we leave far too much for children to sort out on their own.

Most children begin, usually sometime in elementary school, to seek out knowledge and understanding about the darker sides of human nature. Parents notice new fears, often of the dark, and of dying. Creepy personifications of death abound—Boogiemen, vampires, Freddy Krueger et al. Children re-create, and try to master in fantasy what they can’t quite put their fingers on in real life. They are learning about their own dark sides, and about the dark sides of others. They are reaching for tools to help them to understand and overcome their fears, and to believe that the good is stronger than the bad.

At this age, perhaps 9 or 10, it is right for parents and other wise adults to offer something more substantial than cartoon images of superheroes and villains. Children who are exposed to violence or other trauma at a younger age will, of course, have need of much more adult guidance, earlier, in order to sort out what they have witnessed. The main idea of adult help is not only to pace the exposure, but, more importantly, to pay attention to what else, besides the terrible truths, children are learning.

In front of the evening news, there is little to learn except the bigness, the strangeness, and the remoteness of violence, and the helplessness of ordinary people to change it, interspersed with commercials. In superhero adventures, children learn that while ordinary people are helpless in the face of evil, someone with magical or superhuman physical powers can contain it…for a while. Superhero figures offer temporary relief from a child’s relative powerlessness, but they have little of lasting value to teach about the resourcefulness, skills, strengths and hope that a real human can aspire to. Well-chosen children’s literature, by contrast, may tell of blood-curdling hardships, fear, despair and disaster, but it always does so within a more intimate story of children, often families, finding their own sources of strength. Many families have their own historical stories of displacement, war, immigration, hunger, oppression and danger. When these stories are told, they become stories of survival and hope, because the children themselves are evidence that the family was not destroyed; they carry the seeds to begin again.

Sometimes adults try to shelter children from hard truths, not because the children are not strong enough, but because the adults themselves have difficulty remembering, thinking about, or talking about it. The many untold stories of war vets and refugees are a case in point. Telling our children a story of strength and hope demands that the adults, first, find that hope within themselves. If an adult believes that there is nothing but despair, and cynicism to offer, then what can they teach but despair and cynicism, also? Raising children gives us the responsibility, and the opportunity, to find more.

One of the best ways to help children to deal with the really bad news about being human is to give them opportunities to pitch in and help. At the recent World Community Film Festival, Serena asked some 12 year olds, who were among the youngest people present, what they had seen. Enthusiastically, they told her about environmental threats, child labor, political intrigue, and more. They were really happy, they said, to be finding out more about the real world, and how it worked. But, Serena asked, did they feel overwhelmed, discouraged, frightened by it? Not really, they said. They already knew what it was to be frightened about such things. What they were seeing at the film festival was how people could do something useful in response to the bad things. They were seeing people who were brave, creative, and who had enough faith to try and help. The children, in turn, wanted to help. All around them, at the bazaar, were opportunities to do something—from writing letters and signing petitions, to cleaning up streams or taking on a fund-raising project. Even better, there were adults

Crossed skis: life lessons from the Rockies.

Crossed skis:  lessons from the mountain.

This article was first published in spring, 2008.  It’s one of our favorites, and it recalls our last holiday as a couple before the adopted kids arrived!

By the beginning of March our yard was carpeted with patches of purple and yellow crocuses, snowdrops and mud, as winter retreated from the sea-level coast to the mountains and the forsaken prairies.  By the time this reaches print, the hummingbirds will be on their way, and we will be on the lookout for lambs and calves.  But as April approached, we were not ready to let go of winter.  So we did the opposite of what most people do about winter holidays; we fled spring and headed to the Rockies for ten glorious days of cross-country skiing and snow.  Our goal was to catch the tail end of winter at Nipika Lodge, an eco-resort off the grid in the West Rockies.

 

Packed with food, ski gear, snowshoes, our two dogs, and ourselves we set out in our t/rusty station wagon.  A West Coast Mountain car, it makes up in traction and reliability what it lacks in glamour and comfort.  Two very long days and very sore bottoms later, we arrived at the end of Settler’s Road between Radium Hot Springs and Banff where the resort was known to be.  Off-the-grid eco-resorts can be awfully hard to find in the dark.  We got out of the car and followed a faint light to what we hoped was the manager’s cabin, where we found (in order) Nahanni, the naturalist’s dog, and Gudrun, the naturalist, who cheerfully checked us in.

 

After a day of sleeping and tenderly caring for Serena’s sciatica with ice packs and eucalyptus baths, we began exploring trails along the Kootenay and Cross Rivers.

 

Being therapists and teachers by trade, we are inclined to find philosophical and practical meanings in just about everything.  We do not leave this inclination behind when we go on a vacation.  Skiing, it turns out, is full of metaphors and lessons for real life.  Being writers with a column due, we began a list of observations.

 

1.  If something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.  Monika learned to ski as a child in Germany, and feels fairly comfortable on a variety of trail conditions.  Serena is a latecomer who learned to ski at the age of forty.  We won’t say how many years she has been practicing since, but suffice to say that she is more often described as a trooper than a contender.  Her most profound discovery in skiing was that she could fall down repeatedly without major injury.  This was freeing.  Perfectionism is vastly over-rated.

 

2.  Things go better if one is well prepared, and stubborn resistance has consequences.  Monika packs sunscreen, layered clothing, wind protection, snacks and warm drinks even for a short run.  Serena, impatient with the packing and organizing, refuses to stretch properly before starting.  “For Pete’s sake, let’s go!” she says.  She spends the next half hour teetering back and forth atop stiff joints, her body moving in a block and her balance precarious at best.

 

3.  There is, in any endeavor and on every downhill slope, a point where momentum takes over and you just have to say a little prayer (or curse), and try to enjoy the ride down.  It’s scary, in other words.  Having finally learned to snowplow, Serena now postpones this moment as long as possible.  She digs the sides of her skis in so hard that she grinds to a standstill half way down a fast slope (an amazing feat for her on simple touring skies).  But absolute control, like perfection, is over-rated.  Better to flex the knees, get really close to the ground, breathe, and let go.   The closer to the ground you get, the less it hurts if you fall.  And if you do make it to the next level spot still standing, it feels wonderful.

 

4.  When your partner is on the ground and her skis are in the air, it’s the wrong time to say,  “But I don’t understand…it was such a small hill.  It’s really easy.”

 

5.  If you cross your own skis, you have to sort it out.  If you cross skis with your partner, sorting it out is more difficult.   The metaphorical implications of this are obvious.

 

6.  Not everything is a personality test.  Monika on skis is more adventurous and hardy, confident in taking small risks and flexible even at fairly high speed.  Serena is physically cautious, with long moments of terror at the top of every hill.  “It may look small,” she thinks, “but what if I can’t stop?  What if this time I injure some part of me that I need, like my head, for instance?”  Monika sails down, while Serena debates whether to snowplow, crab-walk, slide on her butt or take off her skis and walk.  Watching us ski, one would be tempted to label Serena as cautious in temperament, and Monika as a devil-may-care, full-speed-ahead kind of gal.

 

But off our skis, and in matters, say, of the heart, it is Serena who will launch down a steep slope full speed, letting the consequences sort themselves out later.  In career, she is inclined to stop at the top of the hill and think too long before acting.  Monika is cautious in love and career, surveying the terrain long and well before committing herself to a path that she won’t be able to turn back upon.  The ski hills remind us that confidence is situational.  It’s good to cultivate empathy and patience with one another’s pace in love, business, and skiing commitments.

 

7.  We live on an astounding planet.  On our third evening, we sat on the front porch, a dog in each lap, watching the full moon rise from behind a mountain.  A patch of silver light backlit the trees, grew into a small glowing hill, got caught in the branches and finally broke free, a great ball moving toward the heavens.  Then, just when we thought it could get no more beautiful, a single bark became a chorus of coyote howls.  From the Northwest and the Southeast of us came the call and response of two packs, filling the long valley with music that seemed to contain every possible emotion, from ecstatic joy to a deep and haunted longing.  All night the cries came, separated by long pauses of silence, then echoing up and down the mountains.  We were spellbound.

 

8.  Seasons do pass.  Nothing stays the same for long, although all things probably do come around again in their time.  Spring is a subtle thing in the mountains, but it is in the renewed strength of the sun that melts the snow to a soft mush in the afternoon.  Night comes, and freezes the melted patches to ice.  We can’t hold on to much, really.   Seasons, holidays, our youthful bodies, our parents, our dogs; all of these things have their time.  Neither of us is particularly graceful in accepting this, but time makes reluctant existentialists of us all.

 

We hate leaving the mountains, but it will be good to see the hummingbirds arrive again, and to resume the work that we sometimes resent but mostly enjoy. Some changes and hills in the coming year are expected, and some will no doubt take us by surprise.  So if you see us teetering, inflexible and block-like, as we careen along, do gently remind us to bend our knees, get down low to the ground, let go of control, and glide, breath and pray (or curse) our way to the next level place.

Parents demystified: a guide for children.

Parents demystified:  a guide for children

This article was first published in the Island Word in the fall of 2009. 

Our younger children, adopted last year, seem at times a little bewildered on the subject of parents. Dropped into a permanent family at ages 8 and 11, they experienced a tremendous change in circumstances—not the first in their young lives. From the perspective of pre-teens, we find ourselves a pretty complicated subject—perfectly logical one minute, then spurting questions about improbable events (“Have you left your jacket at school?” “Are you going to follow so-and-so into trouble at school?”) the next. Where, they ask, do we get such notions? Do we go around worrying about all the things that could go wrong with their upbringing? And what’s with the physical touch thing—what are we always pulling them toward us, ruffling our hair, sitting close to them?

So we have begun preparing a primer on how to handle having parents. We thought this might be of interest to others, including children with “normal parents” (come on, we know you’re out there somewhere), who might even write in with tips of their own. This month, we are sharing the beginnings of this project with our readers.

Why do children need parents, anyway? This is a very good question, and children have been asking it since families began. (When was that, you ask? Not as far back as dinosaurs, but definitely before wholly mammoths.) Parents have three big jobs. First, they must keep the children alive. They must provide food, shelter, warmth, and help for sicknesses and injuries. This may not seem like a big deal, but sometimes they are very hard to get. Having parents means that children can spend more time learning and playing, and less time worrying about catching dinner and setting up camp every night.

Second, parents need to nurture the child to become the best that they can be—to learn, to try new things, to find what they might excel at or find joy in doing. Because each child is different, the parents need to pay attention to, and honor, the particular person that you are. You can help them in this by telling them about yourself, trying out many things, and sharing the ones that make you happy.

Third, parents need to teach children how to fit as useful community members: how to be polite, work hard, smell nice and look tidy. Morals, compassion, responsibility, and self-control also fit in here, as do the 3 R’s of readin’, ritin’, and ‘rithmetic. They may get some help with formal education, but parents get children up in the morning and see that they get to school on time and ready to learn. Parents share with children their faith, their values, their traditions, and their way of living a life worth respecting.

These three things: surviving, becoming your best self, and fitting into the community. don’t always go together easily. What if your best self is a pirate, a misunderstood artist, or a would-be hockey player with bad knees? Parents have to deal with that. They may not always understand or be proud of you, but, if you give them a little bit of time, they will always come around to acceptance, because they have to love you. It’s built in.

What’s with all the touching? Why do parents always want to hug me, kiss me, or fix my hair? Families touch. It’s part of how we become close to one another. Dogs, cats, monkeys and people all bond with their offspring through touching. Be grateful if they don’t go through your hair every day, looking for fleas to eat. Monkeys do that.

If you, the child, find it hard to be touched in some ways, you might suggest an alternative kind of touch that feels better. If hugging doesn’t feel good, you could sit next to one another on a porch swing, or exchange foot massages. We know some children whose parents spell words on their backs with their fingers, as a guessing game. Some love to have their hair brushed, and others hate this above all else. Whatever works, find time to let your parents do it. They will be less cranky, and more understanding about that missed homework assignment if you offer them this happiness.

PS. Parents like to smell you, too. So make sure those feet smell good.

Why are parents so curious? Do they really want to know my every thought? It may seem so, but they don’t really want to hear every single thing that goes through your head. They just want know you very, very well. They especially want to trust you. But how can they trust you if they don’t know you? So they ask questions. Lots of questions.

Here is a really big hint for dealing with parents’ curiosity: Tell them stuff you don’t mind them knowing, before they ask for it. If you tell it before they ask it, it’s worth extra points—you are in charge of the conversation, and they will ask you less.

A second hint is this: tell them the truth. You might get by with lying to them sometimes, but parents really great BS detection systems. Once they catch you in a fib or a lie, they move back their trust-o-meter a few notches, and they start asking even more questions.

If it’s freedom and privacy you want, then tell the parents truthful things, often, before they ask.

Why is it so hard to keep parents happy? Won’t they ever just think I’m good enough as I am? This is probably the most common problem with parents: on average they keep up the child-improvement project until about age 40, even though most children stop listening somewhere between 13 and 20.. A few stop giving “helpful advice” as soon as the kids leave home. Others keep trying until death, and then, when they are no longer there to appreciate it, the children change and get everything right. It’s really the luck of the draw which kind you get.

Parents have hopes and dreams for their children. They take your success personally. They probably shouldn’t: it isn’t the parents who study for those exams or sweat through those athletic practices. But, if you are honest, there is usually a parent behind the scenes, helping. They drive you to practices, sit and read with you, amd make sure you eat well. They invest in you—can they help it if they have high hopes? And would you really want them not to have high hopes?

If you really feel oppressed by your parents’ expectations, bring it up when nobody is feeling angry and everybody can be as calm as possible. Maybe by talking, you can come to some shared high hopes. Then you will be on the same team, cheering for improvements.

If all else fails, remember what we said about becoming your best self. They may not be thrilled, but if your best self is a pirate with bad knees, a studio full of abstract paintings and the manners of a monkey, well, they will eventually accept and love that about you. They have to.

Just how long do I have to live with these people? That depends. Parents can be a great source of free (or cheap) shelter and food through university and beyond, if you treat them well! Just give them a daily hug, tell them what’s on your mind lately, keep your stuff reasonably tidy and stay out of the kind of trouble that you know would be bad for you, anyway. If you cook occasionally and clean the kitchen, they will be really, really nice to you in return.

Sounds easy, right? Actually, most people find that it gets difficult with age. One should probably move out at age thirty or when the folks stop buying the pizza, whichever comes first.

Why can’t my parents be cooler, less embarrassing, and more normal? Because they are real parents. Cool, normal parents are actually TV characters. Some are even cartoons (We, too, are in love with Marge Simpson). In real life, everybody is embarrassed of their parents, who were once embarrassed of their parents, and back and back through history.

Embarassing parents do, however, make for great comic inspiration. Take notes—you can use the material someday for your stand-up routine, or your graphic novel. Without dysfunctional families, there would be no great art.

This is so complicated! What else do I need to know? Every parent is different. One likes back rubs, quiet alone times and patchouli. Another will be delighted to share your new Rolling Stones album. You may even be living with a secretly frustrated hockey-star-wanna-be pirate/artist who longs to show you his abstracts in honor of the 2010 Olympics; who knows? The only way to find out is to ask them questions about themselves. Ask about their childhood, their school friends, their heroes, and the dreams they had for their lives. If you have grandparents, you have access to the mother-lode of insider information on your parents. Keep your eyes and your ears open, and ask for help when you need it.

But do I really have to love them? Parents and children are a bit of a grab bag affair: we don’t get to choose one another, and most of us are flawed in some ways. Those who are perfect almost never get family members that measure up: perfect parents can raise difficult children, and perfect children can get difficult parents. Of this we are sure: your parents began with good intentions. They really want to do a good job.

We can’t always validate our parents’ efforts by turning out spectacular, but we can try to show them some kindnesses along the way. Smile at them. Hug them. Claim them in public. Show them, and tell them, that they are, if not the center of your universe, then at least the next couple of planets out in your solar system. Do a little of this every day, and watch the results. Chances are, they will shine.

Will you love them? Who knows? These things tend to take us by surprise when we least expect it. For now, just keep the door open, and try to create a space—through kindness, honesty, touch, and curiousity–that love might choose to enter.

 

Raising Teens, part 2.

Raising Teens, part 2.

Face of the future, or faceless enemy?  Kids and social media.

This series was first published in the Island Word between February and June, 2012.

When Serena was a child, certain TV programs were not allowed at home, including shows that glorified violence (ie, Gunsmoke) and the boomer’s version of vampire delight: Dark Shadows. Nonetheless, she and her siblings loved these shows. They watched them, of course, at their friend’s houses, and at grandma’s house.

There was only one catch to this clandestine TV watching. It could be scary. The night they slept along in the travel trailer after a particularly chilling episode of Dark Shadows, Serena and her sister shivered with every breeze and snap of twig in their grandparents’ back yard. But could they go inside and admit defeat? Never! Because to do that would lead to disclosure of why they were afraid, which would lead to “I told you not to watch that show.”

What goes around comes around, and it seems that Serena’s mother’s favorite curse (“may you have the children you deserve”) may have come to pass in the age of Facebook. We thought that 16 was a good age to allow a Facebook account. After all, it’s rather like driving, in that it can take a child far outside of their parents’ loving, guiding gaze and into territory where bad things can, and do, happen. But sure enough, the kids will find a way. Even at school or in the library, they can easily do now exactly what we wanted them to wait a few more years to do. Only, without our consent, a false identity was necessary. And if they did get themselves in over their heads, there was an additional barrier to parental guidance: they didn’t want to tell on themselves.

So there it is, folks. Counsellors make mistakes. In our defense, we are not counselors or psychologists all of the time. In the long, unpaid hours of parenthood, our attention tends to wander, and we are as prone as the next person to emotions, dreams, and wishful thinking about our children. We underestimated the impatience of children to taste forbidden fruit and to be trusted as adults, and we found our authority rendered irrelevant when we couldn’t lay down the law, so to speak.

Facebook and other social media are the automobile of our generation: they are the thing that our children run wild with while we scatch our heads and wonder whether and how to control the damage. They present undreamed-of powers: to try on different identities, to find kindred spirits across geographical barriers, to become directly involved in causes, and to get instant information on everything from what your best friend is wearing to school tomorrow, to what kind of government reigns in Zimbabwe, to how to make an atomic bomb or an origami crane. Even the schools are on-board, and we are hard pressed to find educational options that support our quaint notion that children really ought to spend their first 15 years or so in the three-dimensional, multisensory world we like to call “reality”.

The automobile brought in the roaring twenties, and nourished the youth culture of the 1950’s. It took a few decades to bring in such safeguards as licenses, speed limits, and crash-tested car safety by design. Where will the internet take us? It will take generations to know.

By the time they reach college or university-age, the good effects of the internet are visible in this generation of young people. They are more aware, and more caring, toward events around the world then even we boomers could have been. National Geographic and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom were wonderful introductions to the world beyond our doorsteps, but they pale next to the possibilities of online learning, which offers the added opportunity for direct involvement. “Click here to feed an African child for a day,” and “Share this story on your facebook status” buttons put real powers of change at our fingers, and this re-making of democracy appears to be our best hope for a future beyond spreading tyranny and planetary destruction. It is as though they all live in the crossroads of trade routes; those places where ideas as well as commercial goods are brought to a common market and where business, if not benevolence, leads us to broaden our minds.

For some, this richness of diversity is literally life-saving in its ability to offer a niche of understanding and belonging for everyone. If your tribe cannot be found at home, you can be certain of finding it online. Gay. Lesbian, Transgendered and Bisexual teens now have a way to find community and acceptance. Those with shared history, be it personal (as with abuse survivors) or so big as to be built into one’s epigenetic blueprint (as with second- and third-generation children of war), can find each. Life is less isolating than it used to be for all kinds of people.

One dark side of all of this diversity is that one can also find social support for any position, including the some very stifling and even dangerous ones, online. There are groups of pro-Anorexics who exchange tips on how to resist treatment, and White Supremicists who spread the rationale and practice of discrimination. Discussions of even the most illogical, ignorant or cruel ideas tend to reduce all participants to equality at the lowest level. Teens do not have the maturity or the education to critically sift through this marketplace of ideas on their own. They are prone to extremism because of the all-or-nothing absolutism of their limited experience and cognitive processes: the answers are still theoretical, and therefore “right” or “wrong” to them. They will eventually have to make peace with ambiguity and with some forms of situational ethics. But for now, they tend to be ideologues.

A distinctly adolescent blend of over-developed judgementalism and under-developed compassion also contributes to social media’s most troublesome feature among teens: social cruelty. Exposing another person to ridicule or collective disapproval is just so easy. Adults do it all the time, although mostly to politicians and celebrities. But just as the internet brought about the ordinary person’s “15 minutes of fame”, it has made possible the ordinary person’s 15 minutes of shame when their body, their words (true or manufactured), their intelligence or their trusting gullibility are broadcast to a large audience in an instant. Anyone who been 14 must remember how it feels to want to disappear from shame. How much is this experience magnified by social media? Perhaps fewer teens self-destruct from isolation than did in the pre-internet days, but it is fairly certain that more self-destruct from shame.

A third concern on the dark side of social media is its anonymity. When we were teens, we experimented with alternate ways of being ourselves by going to summer camp and meeting kids who didn’t go to our school. Today’s teens have a much more powerful tool for this. They can ghost-write under any number of pseudonyms, and use these guises to argue, to make friends, to have adventures with superhuman abilities, and even to do a “virtual” form of dating, often carrying on semi-romantic relationships with no intention of meeting in person. All of this can be liberating—like a souped-up version of summer camp. Trouble arises when the “real life” relationships, which demand a certain level of authenticity, are replaced in the center with virtual ones, which thrive on inventiveness in deception.

Families and small communities have built-in limits to deception–one can’t, for instance, pretend to be 18 in school when one is really 14. Nor can one present parents and siblings with the photograph of a more attractive person and say, “here I am”. This forced honesty gives teens a sense of continuity—the knowledge that they are the same person today as they were yesterday, and will be again tomorrow. Years of continuity give rise to an inner sense of identity, so that even if sorely tested by circumstance, we can count on having a “Self” that is guided by the values of our past. Large communities, impersonal schools, and, most of all, the infinitely large and impersonal community of online space, tend to erode and to postpone the development of a clear, consistent and integral Self.

It takes a self to have self-worth, and it takes self-worth to survive those inevitable shaming experiences and to want to stay in the world. If the core of the self, under all of the masks, is empty, then we have nothing to offer for our right to exist but the superficial qualities of attractiveness and achievement. In a world that bombards us with images of “perfect” people who appear to magically know how to look both competent and beautiful, who can be beautiful enough? Who can achieve enough?

Wise parents learn that love for our children is not the same as pride in showing them off. We love them for their uniqueness; their irreplaceable selves. What we need in order to fight the dark sides of social media are more ways to reflect back to our kids images of their irreplaceable, authentic, quirky, selves in a loving, appreciative light. We need more ways, also, to show them the value of vulnerability and imperfection, so that they can truly value the round-about journey toward perfection more than the (false) promise of getting there.

Here are some ideas that might help:

• Compromise on social media. Keep the computers in the family room or kitchen. Think carefully about giving children the means to go online from a cell-phone sized instrument, as this level of portability sorely tempts them to be more clandestine and involved in their use of social media. Some families have a rule that friends on facebook must also “friend” the parents, at least up to a certain age (what age? That depends on the child. Maybe 13 or 14 on average, but with exceptions for those whose social intelligence is later or slower to develop.)
• Try to reinforce having a daily limit on recreational screen time, and model these limits as adults (yes, that is hard! But at least show where you stand).
• Use facebook to share things that inspire you with your kids.
• Minimal bottom line: No texting at the dinner table or during family functions. Use these times to share what has happened in your day, including both online and offline interesting experiences.
• Support teachers who use the internet in positive, responsible and empowering ways with tweens and teens. Support teachers, also, who maintain a schooling environment where virtual reality takes a distant second-place to multi-sensory, “real life” experience.
• Encourage creativity for its own sake. Resist the temptation to over-bask (yes, we made that word up) in a child’s achievements, but do bask in the glow when they overcome their reluctance to try or their discouragement when the development of talent comes slowly, and they keep trying. Show pleasure in the process more that the product.
• Model and teach empathy and kindness.
• Develop and encourage a sense of humor that does not rely upon put-downs of other people. Richer humor celebrates the imperfection in all of us and our shared vulnerability in life.

Re-inventing Christmas for Family Sanity

Re-inventing Christmas for Family Sanity

This article was first published in the Island Word for Dec. 2003.  It’s still a good one!

“We don’t need the baby Jesus,” says Serena’s sister-in-law, “We need Martha Stewart!” “Martha’s in jail”, comes the not-exactly-helpful reply.
“I know! And that’s not the point. This season is out of control and I’m tired!”

Christmas once represented our fondest dreams for happy families, traditions, belonging and peace on earth. But we know few adults who are content with the season as it is now, burdened by expectations borrowed from sentimental greeting cards and advertisements, where children love their gifts, everyone gets along, and, for once, no one is left out. For the adult who is striving to put it all together, Christmas is a demanding project with a fixed budget and a million demands on the tight production schedule. Get it wrong, and our children might be ruined forever, destined to be little Scrooges with no sense of holiday spirit, no happy memories, no baby Jesus at all in their lives. Maybe we are sad, or grieving, or tired. Maybe we just don’t want to do it this year. But we’d better hide those doubts, because the constant piped in cheerful music and the lights pushing just a little too relentlessly against the winter nights seem to say “no darkness is allowed here!”

It wasn’t always this way. In ancient and modern times, the dark and cold Northern winters have forced people closer together to share light and warmth. Where people gather, food and stories are shared. In agrarian societies, winter is the time for making beautiful and useful objects for the home, treasures and toys. The festivals of light, warmth and meaningful stories fit well this time of year, and every Northern spiritual tradition has made use of this time to gather, to teach the young, to share wealth and to enrich the sense of community among its members.

As societies grew from tribes and villages to estates, towns, city-states and nations, the festivals of December changed, as well. We still may long to gather still to hear the stories that heal and that bind us together. But a second agenda has grown along with the size of our tribes. It is not enough to just belong; we are also under constant pressure to excel, to compete, and to achieve security through prevailing in the great race for status. Size matters, we are told, and the size of the Christmas tree, the pile of gifts, and the credit card bills that follow all seem to be necessary if we are to give our families the “correct” experience of the holidays. Where, in Medieval times, the wealthy held feasts to share with the poor the necessities of life, we are now encouraged to build the pile of luxuries ever higher for our own families. We live in fear of gift-giving faux-pas—the unexpected gift that we have no exchange for, the present that we spent far too much or far too little for, the look on someone’s face that says, “this thing is hideous”. Meanwhile, work pressure is heavier, not lighter, than in other months. This, combined with an overloaded social calendar means less, not more, time to prepare the feasts and the decorations, the personal gifts, the wrappings, and every little tradition that our families have come to remember and to insist on repeating or “it won’t be Christmas!”

We have each considered, at least once, opting out of the holidays altogether. We dislike status races on principle. We also dislike the oppressive cheeriness that greets thoughtful or stressed expressions with orders to “smile, you grinch!” and leaves no room for the quiet or sad emotions. We dislike canned electronic music and plastic Santas that say “ho, ho, ho!”

But we keep being drawn back to the hearth. December is still dark and cold, and we want to recreate a holiday of quiet and beautiful hope. We want a holiday that does not banish sadness, but offers comfort. We want to share the stories; from our families, our religious heritages, and our favorite books; that make us cry, laugh, and hold our loved ones a little more dearly.

So, how do we reclaim the holiday season? Each family has its own version of holiday traditions and challenges, so each will need its own plan unlike any other’s. We recommend starting to plan and to talk together early in the season, asking questions like, “What is your very favorite thing about the holidays?”, “what is your least favorite thing?”, and “is there anything you’ve been wanting to try differently this year?” Here are some changes that some families have found useful in simplifying and making Christmas, Channukah, Divali, Solstice or other winter holidays worth repeating.

–Have a time to sit in darkness, and light one candle at a time to represent the people or concerns that we want to “place in the light”. Talk about each candle and what it stands for. Light candles to remember loved ones who have died, or who are far away. Send them love and good wishes wherever they are.

–Read out loud. Take turns reading a story while doing a craft or cooking together.

–If your family has school children, consider waiting until after Christmas Day to deliver gifts. This can take some of the pressure off the early weeks of December, which quickly fill up with school, community and other events.

–Replace 25%, 50%, or all of your holiday gift shopping with gifts that don’t cost the earth, or that make it a more fair place to live. Fair trade and organic tea, coffee and chocolate are all available in now in most cities or from on line vendors. Locally produced goods and services, from Apple Cider to Zippered clothing, are easier on the earth and good for the local community.

–As a family, choose one local, and one global charity to support. Share with your children what the money helps to do.

–Volunteer together (but be careful; leave plenty of time for the family to do “nothing in particular” together, too).

–Spend some time outdoors, paying attention to what the earth is doing this season.

–If nature’s resting time so inspires you, try to claim some dormant time for yourself, too. What seeds of creativity may be sleeping, gathering and storing up energy within you? Send them some love, too, and give thanks for the dark places that shelter and feed them.

–Talk to your children, partner, or others about what gives you strength, meaning or faith in your life. Worship in whatever ways you find most beautiful.

–Invite people over one or two at a time rather than in large groups. Invite someone who you think might especially enjoy being a part of your family for an evening.

–If you have a blended family, try not to buy into pressure to double the list of expectations by preserving every single tradition from before. Talk about it, express your need to keep things simple, and come up with a short list.

–Try very hard not to give past your point of resentment. Giving “too much” and regretting it acts as poison in relationships, and nobody wants that. Risk some honest limit-setting, while not holding back on the reassurance of your fondness for the recipient.

–draw names for gift giving.

As a society, we spend a great deal of time, energy and money making this season happen. Imagine holidays that recharge, reconnect, re-create and re-commit us to what matters the most in our lives. Imagine that what matters is not having the biggest, brightest, or even the best Christmas ever. It’s the same things that have always worked best to give comfort in the dark season—warmth, nourishment, faith, sharing what we have or what we need, and lighting candles in the spirit of love.

Gardening to Life

Gardening to Life: Sore Muscles, Lilies, Artichokes and Metaphors

this article first appeared in the Island Word, spring, 2006.  It is one of our favorites.

The long days have arrived, and Monika can be found every evening in the garden, until long after Serena has declared it to be “dark” and gone to bed. For Monika, the garden is a long-awaited joy, a place to renew her spirit and to use her senses as she delights in the new life all around her. With a new yard to play in this year, Monika is thrilled with each new plant to show itself. The hummingbirds are back, providing aerial displays while they rival over the bright red feeders that Monika puts out for them. There are more than a half a dozen Mason Bee houses on the lot, already stuffed with the pollen and larvae packages that will be next year’s early pollinating brigade.

Oddly, this is not Serena’s favorite time of year. Her NIC students have left; some for summer jobs and some off to university. For four long months, no one takes notes when she speaks. Her admiration of gardening is mainly from afar, and we have decided for the most part that this is a healthy compromise between hurting herself trying to help, and withdrawing in pain and humiliation. She loves the metaphors of gardening—compost into flowers, roots going deep into the soil, buds opening, fruit ripening, and the endless, comforting rhythm of the earth’s cycles. But when Monika calls eagerly, “oh, come smell this!”, Serena’s sinuses fill up instantly and she sneezes. Recently, Serena returned home from a conference to find 2 yards of bark mulch that needed moving to make way for the 5 yards of fish compost on the driveway, which, in turn, needed spread before the delivery of next winter’s wood by the following Tuesday. She tried valiantly, but after three days of hauling, four chiropractic visits, ice packs and massage, she is recuperating and next year’s wood is still on the driveway (atop 3 yards of fish compost). Meanwhile, who can she complain to? Monika is in garden-heaven, and she leaves her cell phone on the kitchen table when she goes out.

Allergies notwithstanding, it is safe to say that everyone needs a knowing connection with the earth. Serena remembers a friend she met in college who had only lived in cities, and who, as a child, had assumed that the whole earth was paved, with small holes in the pavement for things like trees, and larger holes for parks and farms. Once, Serena’s Mid-western brother picked up a visitor at the airport from Los Angeles. Driving home, the car air conditioner masked the sound of cicadas and locusts outdoors. But when the two men opened the car doors, the one from Los Angeles dove to the ground for cover, having heard what he believed were sirens from all directions. Serena’s family tells these stories with an air of pity for the city folk; how strange to know so little! How do they live in such a world?

Of course, we now know that we carry the code of all of nature within our own cells, and that our bodies are the landscape of a complex community of living things, mostly microscopic. So, while we may dream of “getting away to nature”, in truth, we have never gotten away from nature. But being connected and knowing about that connection is not the same thing. Knowing about our connection to the living world gives us important opportunities to become more resilient, smarter, and richer spiritually.

Take the garden, for instance. Plant a rose under a cedar tree, and it won’t do well. Nor will wishing make a plant change its characteristics. A cabbage will be a cabbage, even if the planter wanted it to be a rose. And if a person were foolish or naïve enough to ask the plant, “what’s the matter? don’t you care about what I want you to be?”, the experienced gardener would reply, “Find out what kind of plant it is, and what it needs.” The gardener learns to choose plants that are a good fit for the environment that she can provide: daisies and sun flowers need sunny places, but violets like some shade. He also learns to adjust the environment to the plant. If our hearts are set on fragrant lilacs, we add lime around the roots to neutralize the Rain Forest acidic soil. Children come into the world believing that it revolves around them, and that wishing and making things happen are one and the same thing. But no amount of denial will make a lilac grow well in acidic soil. Gardening gives wonderful lessons in “it’s not about you”. This is both liberating, and frustrating. But if you want healthy plant, you have to start with what it needs.

Assessing a school child’s learning style is not that different than figuring out what kind of plant you have and what it needs. The tools are different, of course, but the attitude of wonder, and the questions, “who are you, and what do you need to shine?” are the same. Relationship counselling is often like gardener apprenticeship, where the participants learn to better recognize and honor the nature of one another, and to facilitate growth in its own terms. People are more flexible than plants and most animals in their ability to change environments to suite them, and to change themselves to fit in the environment. And this is a double-edge sword; it can make it very hard to discover a mismatch of person and niche, and to identify the changes necessary to achieve a more healthy and lovely expression of “true” identity. A human “lily” may be well disguised as an “artichoke”, and may have valid reasons to hold on to the ruse. Therapy is still guided by that old adage that people flower best when they are offered an atmosphere that allows for self exploration, and that lets them feel that whatever “flowers” they harbor inside are going to be welcomed as a gift to the world. As self-knowledge of one’s inner garden grows, the counselor can help to teach the right “fertilizers” and tools needed to continue its care.

Meanwhile, the heat of the afternoon has passed, and it is time to go outdoors again. There is fish compost to spread, and wood to stack. The landscape that is our bodies needs stretching and exercise (Serena’s needs an allergy mask). If the column is short this month, blame (or thank) the back yard for calling to us.

Workplace Bullying: What to do in a workplace Harassment Emergency

Workplace Bullying:  What to do in a workplace Harassment Emergency

It was a good job, in her chosen field. All that training had paid off; she was making good money and was on her way to seniority. There was a union. But by the time she reached our office, Trina* was frantically looking for a way out of it. She was tearful and anxious, doubting both her ability and her worthiness as a human being. She wasn’t sleeping. She felt defeated, lonely, frightened about the future, and fragile. Trina, isolated by a whisper campaign and targeted threats and insults both anonymous and open, was suffering from a problem that schoolgirls understand all too well. She was being socially bullied, and she was in danger of losing her job over it.

Bullying on the job may be on the rise—uncertain economic times bring out a heightened sense of competition and a mean edge in some people, and some workplaces seem to encourage scape-goating and betrayal among the work force. As a new employee, and new to her field, Trina was particularly vulnerable. And because workplace bullying bears a strong resemblance to the social bullying that girls experience (although boys are not, by any means, immune) so painfully in their school years, it seems that women are particularly sensitive to its dynamics and its effects.

Workplace bullying may take a number of forms. There may be rumors and lies being spread, causing the target to be socially isolated. Personal characteristics may be singled out for mocking or for criticism, including mannerisms, looks, perceived race, religion, nationality, or social class. A common target is perceived rebellion from gendered standards of behavior: a man who is “too feminine” or a woman who is “too masculine”. Alternatively, a woman may be criticized for being “feminine” where a tough, masculine role is expected. Signs, “jokes”, notes or remarks signal that the target person is not welcome, or not to be appreciated for his or her skills here. The target person may have difficulty getting the cooperation he needs to complete projects, or she may repeatedly fail to get credit for her ideas and accomplishments. The bully may be a single instigator, or a group of people.

The effects of workplace bullying are substantial. Trina is typical (in fact, she’s an amalgamation of many such clients we’ve seen). Tearfulness or full-blown depression are common responses, as is anxiety and sleeplessness. A profound sense of helplessness is both common and logical: this is something that is not under the victim’s control. Harassment knocks the wind out of the sails of people whose sense of power and agency comes from their work. A vague but powerful sense of being fundamentally flawed may set in. Finally, grief and loss are significant but often unrecognized. There are so many losses facing Trina: the loss of her job, her confidence, her sense of fairness, the belief that good work will be rewarded, and possibly even the career that she trained for. And while leaving may seem the way out, having been driven off a job often haunts a person for years afterward.

While workplace bullying is a maddeningly difficult life experience to go through, there are some strategies that can help rise above it, perhaps even keeping one’s job and transforming a bad environment. A bullying workplace is toxic to everyone: the bully, the victim, and the many bystanders who witness. Knowing what to do in response to bullying that is experienced or witnessed is important for all levels of employees and supervisors. Here are some tips for overcoming a poisonous, bullying atmosphere on the job.

1. Create a record. Start carrying a simple black book. Write down what is said and done, when and where, and who witnessed. This isn’t a secret activity. In fact, ask a harasser to repeat their words—you want to write it down correctly. Ask them to clarify what they meant. This simple act often nips harassment in the bud. But if it doesn’t, you have a record. You can take this step as a victim or as a witness/ally.

2. Be clear about what you don’t want. Tell the person that their behavior isn’t welcome. Tell them to stop. Often, people try to lighten a tense situation by joking with the bully, returning witticisms for insults. Don’t—this confuses people into not knowing what is, and is not, acceptable to you. Again, if you are a witness/ally, you can do this on behalf of the direct victim, and on behalf of your own right to a respectful workplace environment. What denigrates one, denigrates all.

3. Assess where power lies. Both the formal chain of command and the informal one matter. You won’t be able to get much help from people who have less power than you—either in rank or in social influence. Asking vulnerable people for support puts them at risk, and they are likely to disappoint you, and perhaps themselves, by protecting their positions first. Go one step up for help.

It is a supervisor’s role to create and support a safe (including emotionally safe) and respectful workplace. At each step up the chain of command, this responsibility reaches farther and subsumes everyone beneath. No one likes to be skipped over in a complaint process; this makes them look bad. So choose carefully, and start by trying to make an ally only one step up from the position of the person doing the harassment.

If you have a union, go to the shop steward. If your steward is involved in the harassment, go one step up, and keep going up one step at a time until you get help.

4. As a witness, supervisor, or steward, focus any intervention on the harasser’s behavior, not on the victim. It doesn’t matter if the victim is being “sensitive”. It doesn’t matter if they are different, odd, or in some way weak. If they are indeed sensitive or vulnerable, then what makes them feel safe will set the bar high for a respectful workplace, and everyone will benefit. Appreciate having been sent such a clear messenger to help achieve a better workplace.

5. As a supervisor (or a union steward), use informal and proactive interventions whenever possible. When the approach taken is retroactive and punitive, the staff tends to take sides, and the rift that develops can be permanent. Likewise, formal grievances rarely give anyone the sense of security and satisfaction that is warranted, and they often backfire in behind-the-scenes intimidation and isolation. Try to give the instigator room to move, and a way to save dignity. Be clear about future expectations and consequences, but focus on the way forward.

Training, posters, leading by example, and recognizing positive examples of collegial support among staff all have a place in establishing and maintaining a respectful workforce. Make no secret of the position that diversity in the workplace is a strength to be cultivated, and that bridging differences is a shared responsibility.

Workplace bullying is a serious and costly issue with major consequences for individuals and for companies and organizations. Although we work with the consequences in individual counselling, we’d rather see and hear about successful prevention or early workplace interventions! By the time a victim reaches us, they’ve suffered a preventable injury to the soul.

Further Resources:

www. worksafebc.com/topics/workplacementalhealth/introduction.asp?reportID=36882

Living Well with Pain: A 9-Step Program

Living Well with Chronic Pain:  a 9 Step Program

By Dr. Serena Patterson

I am one who has lived with pain for over 20 years now.  There are ups and there are downs; times when it recedes into the background and times when it seems relentless and exhausting, distracting me from what I want to accomplish and shortening my patience to deal with the setbacks.  I try to consider the pain to be a gift or a companion.  But if it is a gift then I want to send it back to the store for a something else; and if it is a companion then it is a whiny, tiresome one. 

Readers with chronic pain will know what I’m talking about.   Giving up the pain is not an option, nor is giving up on life.  The search for something better is on. 

Recently, I ran into the best book on pain I’ve read yet:  The Pain Chronicles by Melanie Thernstrom.  I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

I am working now on a distillation; a short list of steps that are helping me to claim a full and beautiful life with pain as a companion.  This my work-in-progress. 

Here are the steps (thus far): 

 

1.     Stop apologizing.  Chronic Pain is not a personal failure.  It is a disease.

2.     Accept pain as part of the human experience.  Embrace it. 

3.     Develop a Language to communicate about pain.

4.     Re-arrange your life to realistically accommodate your pain.  

5.     Be curious about your body; learn all that you can about it.   Develop a physiological understanding of how your pain works. 

6.     Build your personal repertoire of pain relief and feeling better strategies. 

7.     Pay attention to what you love about life—not what you wish for, but what is there already. 

8.     Watch what stories you tell about your pain.  Don’t let your pain represent the tragedies of life through your body; remember, it’s just pain.  

9.     Build a spirituality of beauty, gratitude and wonder. 

Stop apologizing. 

We live in a pain-phobic time and culture.  Therefore, if you are in pain, you are likely to be treated as the problem—deeply shamed, socially rejected, and economically marginalized.  That’s the way it is; but not the way it should be. 

There is a common stereotype about people with chronic pain:  we are portrayed as whining, demanding, weak-natured, addicted, lazy, and parasitic.  Even in the training that doctors receive, these negative stereotypes are too-often repeated and reinforced as though they were true.  

Yet these views are bigoted and wrong, like racism.  They stem from the fear of pain that won’t go away, and from cultural ideas we have that deny weakness and even mortality.  

As children, we absorb the shaming associated with expressing pain.  We are told not to cry or whine.  “Suck it up, Buttercup”, “Poor muffin,”  and “My heart bleeds for you” are responses that deem all complaining to be weak and illegitimate.   By the time we are adults we are fully indoctrinated in the rejection, not only of our own pain, but of anyone  who has the audacity to claim suffering as their own.   

Short-term pain with a purpose (like childbirth), or following an injury is acceptable,  if one is “brave” and doesn’t suffer overly long or loudly.  But chronic pain, which does not have a clear-cut or straight-forward relationship to injury, is definitely NOT OK. 

People with chronic pain are sometimes treated badly.  They lose friends, jobs, and income.  They often lose their very closest relationships that they had before the pain—marriages and families are strained not only by the pain but also by the stigma and judgment that accompanies it. 

Within the insurance and health care industries, the bias against chronic pain takes a cruel spin.  Insurance companies force the pain patient to prove the unprovable—that one is feeling terrible despite looking “fine”.  There is a political and financial stake in perpetuating a biased and negative psychological view of “the pain patient” as a cardboard stereotype of the failed human being—there is no obligation to treat the untreatable.  Shamed into silence, the pain patient fades from view. 

Pain Disorder is still listed as a Mental Illness in the DSM-IV TR (the diagnostic handbook for Mental Disorders that is used by insurers and health care institutions almost exclusively across North American and much of the world) , and there is a less formal but pervasive belief among physicians that Chronic Pain is a personality disorder, rather than a physical illness. 

A little bit of perspective is useful here:  Epilepsy, Asthma, Stomach Ulcers, and Diabetes have all been widely considered to be emotional disorders in the not-so-distant past.  In every case, as medical knowledge and treatment effectiveness has advanced, the stigma has dropped, and these disorders have come to be understood and treated as physical, not emotional, in origin. 

I believe that medical breakthroughs in the treatment of Chronic Pain are close.  With new (profitable) treatments, Chronic Pain will gain new respectability.  For better or worse, it is the profit motive which often moves medicine forward, knocking old stereotypes out of the way as it goes. 

Until then, reclaiming quality of life has to start here—by refusing the shame. If we are treated badly, then the shame belongs to those who dish out the lies and the abuse; not to those on whom it is heaped.  Throw it off, and back where it belongs.

Never, ever apologize again for the fact that you are feeling pain.  It is not a sign of weakness.  In fact, it takes great strength to get up every morning with pain, facing the day with hope and purpose.  Carry yourself with pride. 

Accept and Embrace Pain as part of the human experience.   

Pain has always been with us. Our experience of physical and emotional pain lies at the heart of all religious and philosophical systems.  We have minds that allow us infinite hopes and dreams, but bodies that confine us in the limits of flesh.  “How are we to live in a world of pain, of limitations, and of death?”  is the question that drives us to look for something that is more than mortal—something greater than ourselves to believe in and to follow. 

Pain is like an inner wilderness, unknown and full of dark and scary places.  The cross-cultural anthropologist can show that societies have approached wilderness with two somewhat contradictory strategies:  Some, primarily Aboriginal societies, seek to understand, to know, and to live in harmony with wilderness.  Others, primarily those societies that have descended and spread from Western European traditions including Capitalism, Colonialism and Industrialism, have sought to conquer and destroy it.  So it is with pain; the desire to conquer it and the desire to understand and live in harmony with it are at odds, and are evident throughout the records of human history and pre-history. 

Yet whatever one thinks about clear-cutting and destroying wildernesses (and this is generally frowned upon now, as we see the true loss to our planet), those of us who live with chronic pain must admit defeat when it comes to banishing pain.  We can reduce it, but we can’t “clear cut” destroy it.  We can sometimes transcend it, but we can’t conquer it.  It is the price we pay for living in physical bodies.  And as frustrating as it is to be of this physical, embodied nature, it is all that allows us to live at all.  Without our bodies, we don’t exist.  Pain lies at the heart of it all:  the paradox of being human. 

If we can find grace in a life with pain, even chronic pain that is debilitating or severe, then we can find grace in life.  We can be blessed amidst anything—loss, confusion, and even the certainty of death. 

Pain is a guide.  Pain is a gift.  Pain is. 

Develop a language of Pain. 

 

Communicating pain is difficult.  Oh, how often I have longed for a Pain-Ometer for my forehead, so that my loved ones could just read my pain state like the weather report, and I wouldn’t have to do the reporting and the explaining day after day.  “Cloudy with a 60% chance of migraine”, it would read.  “Current pain index:  3/10; highly unstable and reactive to noise”. 

Alas, I have to tell them.  And every time we give the “weather report” of pain, it’s like coming out of the closet, again, with that thing about us that others find so difficult—we are chronic pain patients.  We have special needs.  We are not just like everyone else. 

Just remember step one, and NEVER APOLOGISE FOR YOUR PAIN. 

A very accessible starting point is the 10-point scale of pain intensity.  Typically, nurses use this, asking patients to think of “the worst pain you’ve ever experienced” and label that a 10.  Zero is no pain.  Where is their pain now? 

This is good, but a better version of the scale uses some observable and fairly universal “anchors” to help us to navigate between the poles of denial (“it’s better now; just a 1 or 2, so let’s forget about it.  Sorry I complained”) and panic (“it’s a 12, for the love of God!  A 13!”)  My pain scale goes like this: 

0=I’ve done a good checkin with my body, and no pain found.  This almost never happens. 

1=Pain is perceptible if I stop and tune in to it. 

2=Between 1 and 3.

3=Pain is perceptible even if I’m doing something else, but it’s not too distracting. 

4=Pain is mildly distracting.

5=Pain is interfering with my ability to stay focused on other things.  Thinking is harder, and I have to stop and concentrate to answer a questions well.

6= Between 5 and 7.

7=Pain is dominating my experience; it’s the main thing I’m able to think about. 

8=I could cry, and I can’t do anything “productive” right now except to hurt.  I need help with basics like cooking dinner.  I’m at high risk for making mistakes on my medication (taking it out of the bottle, but leaving it on the table, for instance). 

9=Sweat and/or nausea accompany the pain.

10=Pain causes vomiting, cold sweats, and/or symptoms of shock. 

Beyond intensity, pain has other characteristics. It can be burning, prickling, or aching.  It can feel pointy or round, sharp or dull, focused or diffuse and widespread.  It can be felt deep in the body or just under the skin.  One patient describes her fibromyalgia as feeling like an envelope of burning pain that follows the contours of her entire body, just under the skin.  Another describes her irritable bowel pain as squeezing, or as an urgent need to eliminate but finding there is “no poop there” (wonderfully described in medical literature as “non-productive urgency”).    Some people use colors to describe their pain, and/or color it onto a human body shape on paper when they talk to their doctors or their loved ones about it.  It takes practice to develop a language for the qualities of pain, but the pay-off in mutual understanding is great. 

Most people with pain are afraid of “whining”.  They fear that they will be perceived as childish, demanding, or just plain annoying.  Here are some tips that help to minimize the fear of whining: 

1.     Use a low tone of voice; avoid high pitches.  Be matter-of-fact in tone.

2.     Keep to the anchored scale; don’t dramatize or exaggerate. 

3.     Say “thank you” when people listen and respond appropriately.

4.     Use paper and pencil charts or notes; paper is very patient while we work out finding “just the right words”.  Also, writing it down means we don’t have to repeat it. 

And speaking of doctors and loved ones, chronic pain patients need to take a trusted person with them every time they see the doctor.  This person can take notes, witness, and even speak up to help the doctor understand the impact of pain on the person’s life. 

Re-Arrange your life to realistically accomodate pain. 

 

Flexibility is not our natural strength when we are in pain—rigidity and withdrawal tend to come with the territory, as our brains click into “fight or flee, freeze and appease” mode.  We try to push on through bull-headed stubbornness, and/or to avoid the conflicts with others that life changes, big or small, might involve. 

Still, pain greatly impacts by the one’s life, and to ignore this is to risk disaster.   

Time management is probably the most universal challenge with chronic pain.  There is a limited supply of energy now available for doing things.  To ignore this basic fact is to set ourselves up for repeatedly running ourselves to the point of pain flare-ups and setbacks.  We have to manage our time and our energy very consciously because there is no “fudge factor” of spare time, or of staying up late and pushing ourselves through to meet deadlines. 

Given a reduced resource of productive time, what will we prioritize?  Whatever gives us maximum meaning and quality of life.  For some, this will be driven by pleasure: do what makes you feel best.  For others, it will be driven by duty:  do what you are most committed to.  For most of us, there should be a balance between these things.  Put what will let you feel most good about yourself at the end of the day on the top of your list, and do this early when you feel at your best.  Eliminate whatever falls toward the bottom of the list.  Delegate—to your partner if you have one, your paid assistant if you are extremely blessed, your colleagues, your children, and, of course, to God and/or The Universe; whichever you prefer.  To the latter goes all worry time. 

A second site of much change after chronic pain is relationships.  Marriages and/or romantic partnerships may end.  Some friends will quit you; others, who are able to handle it, will stay by your side.  It’s not personal.  You will find new sources of love.  Chronic pain is a great acid test for relationships; learn to be grateful for its power to save you from wasting your time on people who cannot handle you—pain and all.  You are now a high-maintenance person to be involved with, and you are worth it. 

A third site of change and adjustment is making a living.  Some continue their previous careers.  Some manage to get on to disability payments of some kind.  Others change careers, finding something that they can still do, usually for less money than they made when able-bodied.  All of us fear falling off of some edge into poverty.  Like all fears, this one is best faced boldly and without shame.  Reduced circumstanced may be mandatory; shame is not.  Low income need not equate to poverty.  But living well on a small income does require creativity. 

Living with any disability is an art form.  This is even more true for invisible disabilities without accepted protocols, strategies or props (like wheelchairs and white canes) to let us, and others, know what is expected. 

There are no expectations for living with Chronic Pain.  No rules.  No roadmap.  As a chronic pain patient, the main social expectation is that you disappear and/or conform to a negative stereotype—this is impossible.  So you create a life.  If every answer is “wrong”, then at least you are absolutely free to choose the ways you be wrong.  You are free from “normal”; you are an artist.

Art is the attitude, but the practice of surviving and thriving is concrete and practical.  Make soup—it’s easy, creative, comforting, and cheap.  Make something every day—no matter how small.  Give yourself bonus points if your “art supplies” cost nothing.  Go to the library.  Have one part of your home that you can make as warm as you like without driving the whole home heating bill to the sky.  Don’t skimp on services like massage or home help if they keep you in the saddle for your paid job.  Maybe you know someone who will cook in bulk for you once a week if you pay them.  Brainstorm and budget.  Take pride in what you create as a lifestyle and DON’T APOLOGISE.

Be Curious about your body.   

There is so much to learn about human bodies in general, and about chronic pain in particular! 

Far too much health education is couched in lists of “should” and “don’t”.  “ Do exercise.  Don’t eat potato chips. Get to the gym.  Get off the couch.  Eat vegtables.”  Red wine and chocolate?  The jury seems to be out.  Why? Perhaps because “do” lists are, deep down, shaming devices.  “You wouldn’t be in pain if you had kept in shape,” say the nasty voices in society and in our heads.  That, of course, is bull.  We’re in pain because we have a pain disorder. 

Any list of “should” and “don’t” intended for the masses is going to be oppressive to those who march by the beat of their own drum.  We chronic pain patients are made differently, and will have to find our own ways of making it through to a good life. 

We can drop right now any shaming voices in our heads about how badly we’ve screwed up on the “should” list.  Remember Step One:  you didn’t get chronic pain because you failed.  It’s a disease, not a cosmic commentary on our life performance. 

Better than “shoulds” is an attitude of curiosity and learning.  Probably the first thing to look up is the difference between Chronic Pain and Acute Pain.  Acute pain has a nice, clear relationship to tissue damage.  It also has a nice, clear evolutionary purpose (it causes us to retreat from action and guard the injured part of ourselves so that healing can occur; it also teaches us what experiences to avoid, like hot stoves and nettles).  Inflammation is part of the Acute Pain response—inflammation of muscle, skin, and particularly of nerve cells themselves.  Psychological factors greatly impact the experience of Acute Pain.  The excitement of a sport event will dull the perception of pain; lying alone injured on the road will exacerbate it.  A loved one’s face decreases the need for morphine after surgery. 

Chronic pain also involves inflammation, although sometimes only the nerve fibers are inflamed (everything else looks infuriatingly normal).  Inflamed nerve fibers may not be clearly visible even on the most sensitive MRI imaging reports, and even if we can determine where along the pain pathway to look for them. 

The pain perception system, in other words, is working much like it would in the case of an acute injury.  With two important exceptions:  There is no injury, and the pain response loops around in a positive-feedback  system that makes it stronger and more sensitive over time.  The pain response has become disordered; that is the disease of pain.  The pathways along which pain messages travel from the parts that “hurt” to the brain and back are strengthened and deepened with each experience of pain; the system teaches itself to be more and more sensitive.  The more we hurt, the more we hurt. 

Psychological factors apply as well—why would they not?  Emotions and thoughts happen to use the same information highway in the body that tissues use to communicate about pain—the Central Nervous System.  Whatever else is happening on the CNS “highway” that day is going to impact the message.  Inflamed and damaged nerve fibres send faulty and disorganized messages along the highway, and this sometimes will cascade into whole-system “pile-ups” with the emotional, physical, cognitive and stress messages of the day.  

Pain researchers are making very promising inroads in understanding the micro-mechanics and chemistry of pain perception.  There are working models of understanding for how this works, and these will eventually work their way into common knowledge among physicians, physiotherapists, and others who still claim that, as one family doctor put it to me, “you hurt and we don’t know why.” 

With such an exquisitely sensitive system for perceiving pain, it behooves us to learn more and more about whatever parts of our bodies happen to be squeaking out for attention.  Got irritable bowels?  Read up on digestion, and on possible inflammatory influences in the gut.  Learn about the wonderful and fascinating world of intestinal flora and fauna—you’ve got an entire ecosystem in there.  Got phantom limb or pain?  Read up on how severed nerve fibers regenerate in unpredictable and disorderly ways.   This tendency also underlies the phenomenon of chronic pain developing in the months following surgery:  a nicked or severed nerve can wreck havoc. 

I have an unusual and cheeky mantra when it comes to pain education:  Don’t tell me what to do.  Pain patients are told what to do almost every day of their lives.  Everyone they come out to about their pain has a very good suggestion that they are certain will fix everything.  And it doesn’t; and then the well-meaning friend who suggested it feels awkward, maybe even judgmental. “Maybe you didn’t try hard enough,” they say.   And the pain patient thinks, “maybe I didn’t try hard enough.”  The friendship suffers and so does everyone’s self-esteem.  So don’t tell me what to do.  

Tell me how things work.  Explain the system to me.  Let me develop a working theory about my own body.  Then, if people have suggestions, I can think about them carefully, asking myself, “does this make sense?  Is it likely to work?  Why or why not?  What will it cost me to try?  Is it worth the money, the time, the hope?  Or should I thank them and move on?”  

Build a repertoire of Pain Relief.

Gradually, we get a list of strategies that help.  There is no cure; no miracle treatment.  Not yet, anyway.  Just symptom relief. 

What worked yesterday may not work today, and visa versa.  What works for your friend with the same condition you have may not work for you, and visa versa.  

Medication dosages may work best delivered on a schedule so that they can kick in before the pain gets going; or you may prefer to manage it more flexibly around periods of flare-up and remission. 

Massage helps most people.  Other methods of creating counter-stimulation and increased circulation at the skin and/or muscle level include brushing the skin with a natural bristle brush, taking hot showers, and bathing in espon salts.  Hot tubs help some and make others hurt more. 

Warmth helps some, especially radiant warmth from a woodstove, an infared sauna, or Moxa packs (available at natural pharmacies and as small hand-warmer packets in outdoor wear stores).  Electric blankets, not so much. 

Accupuncture and Chinese Medicine help many.  Stretching helps many, and it’s cheap.  Physiotherapy is a good place to learn, and to pick up new ideas. 

Gentle walking helps most people most of the time, but there may be days to avoid the great outdoors with its icy blasts, bright sunlight and potential for wet feet.  Walking with a dog is often better than walking alone, and there is the extra benefit at home of radiant dog-body heat next to you on the couch. 

Finding lists of suggested things to do for pain relief is not hard; they abound.  The key is to find balance between keeping an open mind vs. jumping in for a miracle, and not becoming cynical in the face of limited results.  Some relief is of course better than none, and life gets better little by little. 

As we get a list of things that work, it helps to write them down and put them on the front of the refrigerator (if that is where one looks for help).  Putting the list in view helps because when we have pain flare-ups, we aren’t very good at remembering how to help ourselves. 

Pay Attention to what you Love .

 

As I write this, I am watching the birds at the suet feeder by my window.  I love those birds with all of my heart.  I wish them every bird blessing.  Their lives are not long, and I have seen them suffer in winter.  But what joy they have, too!  They fly, for heaven’s sake!  How cool is that?  Some sing, and some (ravens and crows) talk. They court, and once in a while I get the dramatic experience of watching a family hatch and fledge—oh, what exquisite hope and danger! 

There are three very good reasons why we need to pay attention to what we love.  First, doing so guides us in Step 4, which was to rearrange our life to get more of the good stuff.  Whatever we love IS the good stuff. 

Second, when we pay attention to it, we deepen the experience of what gives us joy.  Those feeling-good neural pathways, like the pain neural pathways, get deeper and stronger the more they are activated.   The principle involved is called neuro-plasticity; the brain “rewires” itself constantly, strengthening the pathways that are used and weakening those that are not.  The more we feel good, the more we feel good.

Third, we will care about and protect what we allow ourselves to love.  Love keeps us engaged with life.  It brings us out of ourselves into places of wondering and wonder.    

Watch the Stories that you Tell about your Pain. 

 

We are story-telling, meaning-making creatures.  Something as life-changing as chronic pain demands a story, and we will create one.  This is natural and almost inevitable, but it carries with it a spiritual danger.  

Physical and emotional pain interact.  Whatever physical pain we are experiencing when a tragedy strikes us is amplified.  Conversely, tragedies compounded by physical pain are harder to manage.  Losses get associated with the physical pain, and the pain reminds us of our loss. 

If the story we tell is that our pain is caused by an emotional event,  then the story we tell ourselves about our pain will deepen the connection between the two kinds of pain.  If our story says, “This (physical) pain is here because my marriage ended badly”, then every time the pain flares up we relive the bad ending to the marriage as though it were etching itself into the very fibres of our being; which, in a way, it is. 

It is very understandable and natural to construct our pain story around such big loss events.  Emotional and physical pain inhabit the same nervous system, using some of the same neural pathways and many of the same chemical messengers.  We use the same language to describe them;  it’s pain.  And because most of us have never gotten a good physiological explanation for our physical pain, it’s origin has been a mysterious void to us.  We don’t like mysterious voids.  We fill them up with stories—in the case of pain, these will be painful stories.  If we are blamed for the pain, then these will stories filled with themes of personal failure, trauma, and/or betrayal by those whom we once trusted.    

Probably the kind of life experiences that are most likely to get confused with Chronic Pain are those associated with betrayals in close relationships.   It has long been observed that patients with chronic pain are much more likely than those without to have been abused by their parents as children.  People with chronic pain are also inclined to have great increases in the pain when important relationships break up.  And when pain flares up, many people find themselves ruminating upon the ways that they have been mistreated by people they trusted—the parent who abused them, the sibling who humiliated them, the partner who cheated on them, or the doctor who misdiagnosed and then blamed them. 

But the truth is that Chronic Pain, like Diabetes or Asthma or Epilepsy, is a disease.  All of these things flare up worse during times of loss or stress; Chronic Pain isn’t so very special this way.  If we didn’t have the disease of Chronic Pain, then stress would just be stress.  It might affect us physiologically in other ways, like a headache or unstable blood sugars or a crashing immune system and bronchitus. None of these things ARE stress; none of them ARE personal failure or humiliation or abandonment.  They are the body’s weakness showing up in times of stress. 

So it is important to have a story about body pain that lets us separate life history from the disease.  Then, when we have a flare-up, we can think of the trigger event as  just a trigger event, and the disease as just a disease.  No punishment, no blame, no shame.  Pain isn’t anger, or grief, or humiliation.  It’s just pain. 

 

Build a Spirituality of Beauty, Gratitude and Wonder.

The life of a person living with Chronic Pain becomes smaller in scale.  Extroverts may even become introverts.  We rarely have to be told to stay home from the bars; night life is just too stimulating and probably too expensive.  Simplicity becomes the rule of the day. 

How does one cultivate contentment on such a simple scale?  The answer is not particularly difficult; it is by tuning in to the natural world around us and within us.   If we can’t make it to the mountains this year, the palm of our own hand is miracle enough—what a wonder of natural technology it is.  The way the different kinds of tissue—bone, muscle, cartilage, nerves, blood vessels and skin—are laid out and interact.  The worlds within worlds of individual cells.  Whatever one’s religious faith (or no religious faith), one can’t escape the conclusion that this is amazing.

Chronic Pain is not a disease with a happy ending for most of us.  It’s a disease of coping over many years.  But it does not define us, or rule out very happy moments.  It does not rule out love. 

Perhaps it is a gift of Chronic Pain to slow us down, turn us inward, make us think carefully and observe deeply.  The earth is still worthy of our presence—to witness the sometimes heartbreaking beauty of it all; we are still worthy of the honor. 

Why we raise Mason Bees

Why we raise Mason Bees

This article first appeared in the Island Word in spring, 2012.

It’s late March, and the kitchen table has been taken over once again by bee houses. There are containers of small black cocoons crowding the refrigerator. We hope no one mistakes them for beans. Here at the table we gently pry bee cocoons from the tunnels that they share with mites and predators in our wooden Mason bee houses.

When things start blooming, we will put cocoons in a small cardboard box with a quarter-inch hole for the new bees to emerge from, and we will put this atop a nesting box with clean tunnels for the females to return to. The newly hatched female bees will close off the back of each tunnel with mud, then bring pollen and nectar supply and then lay an egg, then a mud wall to form a cell for beginning another new bee. Another pollen and nectar plug, an egg, more mud. Another pollen supply, and egg, a mud wall…until the tunnel is full. Over the summer the eggs will hatch, the larvae will eat and grow, and by September new cocoons will be spun with next year’s bees inside.

Mason bees are one of thousands of species of pollinating insects that are wild and native to Canada. They don’t make honey, sting, or work cooperatively in hives. Where honey bees are valued for their long and versatile pollinating season, native pollinators are equally important for their very efficient and intense work of pollinating, each species covering a shorter and more specific season of blooms. They are part of the intricate web of co-evolved, inter-dependent and mostly invisible-to-us life that sustains our own presence on this planet.

Like most smallish critters, the bees are part of the food chain and thus have a low natural survival rate. Even our coddled and protected bees cannot escape being food for predators. We control the presence of pollen mites but in some of the cells, the mites eat the pollen supply first and the mason bee larva starves. Others still fall prey to parasitic wasps before they get the chance to take wing. One year we awoke to the toc-toc-toc of an eager woodpecker mama who was systematically emptying our bee-houses of their fat larvae, while her enormous fluffy-but-incompetent youngster stood by with open beak.

This year Serena actually suggested we might pass the supplies and knowledge to someone else, and get out of the bee business. Our lives seem so crowded now with our private practice, our sandwich-generation family life, and the encroaching aches and pains of age. We have little time for human friendship, does it make sense to keep up with this one-more-thing hobby?

But our bee hobby is another kind of friendship, and it has worn its way deep into our lives. To hold a cocoon while the bee hatches, cleans itself, poops and takes to the air (all within a minute) is to witness an intimate and thrilling thing. It shows us there is more than one kind of intelligence in the world, and that feelings akin to joy and purpose may not be unique to the human animal. Survival and reproduction behaviors must just feel right and good to the animal, no matter how small, or they wouldn’t be done. And life would stop. Is it possible that joy is all that marks the difference between energy conversion machines and life forms? Perhaps our capacity toward wonder and awe is not an accident of evolution, but rather a key component that motivates us to keep life going a little bit longer; until the next generation can pick up the job. We will protect what we love.

Economists make much of productive labor, which produces a surplus of goods that can be hoarded, stolen, traded, bought, or sold. Honey bees are one of the rare animals that engage in productive labor (they can be induced to produce more honey than they actually use, and we can speculate that this innovation allows them to ‘trade’ the excess honey for the protection and care of a bee-keeper, which in turn increases their own survival success).

But most critters stick to reproductive labor, and much of that labor is wasted, so to speak, on youngsters that merely end up as food supply for some other species. Our bees just copulate, gather pollen, lay eggs and pass on; provided they don’t get eaten first. It’s a way of life that doesn’t conquer anything, build any empires, leave any monuments, or discover anything new. It goes in circles and doesn’t get anywhere. Yet there is probably something glorious about diving into a blossom full of pollen; a moment of joy in the life of a bee.

This is a difficult time in the Patterson and Grünberg home. Our much-loved son is making choices that are difficult to accept but impossible to prevent. Serena’s relationship with physical pain frustrates her passion to get out and change the world. Monika’s German Mutti, our Oma, is recovering from radical cancer surgery. Everything changes, and we never do know what next year or even next week will bring.

Because we were children of the cold war, we spent a lot of time in our youth thinking about what we’d be doing when the nuclear holocaust came. The disasters we fear now are less dramatic, more personal: a child losing its way, a parent suffering, our own eventual and inevitable deaths. Still, like gardening, making soup, comforting friends, or listening to a child’s day, protecting and raising mason bees is one of the things we’d like to be caught doing when any size of holocaust comes down.

On a day when all seems lost, Nature doesn’t say, “Write a great novel. Get famous. Build a monument to outlast your short time on earth.” Nature tells our bees to “emerge when its warm enough. Have sex. Find a nest. Collect enough pollen and nectar to feed the egg. Lay an egg. Build a little wall, and start again. Sometimes, sit in the sun and warm yourself. Our bees share this with us. Raising bees might not stave off disaster, but it does stave off depression.

To be quite honest, getting that great novel written would be a comfort, as well. Serena is a poor, impatient Buddhist at heart whose ability to accept the Zen of life only goes so far. And that is precisely why we aren’t giving away the bee boxes this year. We need the practice.

Parents’ Days

Parents’ Days

This article was first published in the Island Word in spring, 2006.

It’s that time of year again, when the brave new family forms of our time run up against well-meaning but painful tributes to convention; when single parents and same-sex couples with children grit their teeth; when children whose parents are not there experience simple school crafts like shards of crushed glass upon tender hearts. We’re talking about Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Once in a while a brave parent sets forth to question why schools still honor these days by having children plant geraniums in paper cups and copy sentimental poetry on cards. Those who do so are blasted by the defenders of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, who accuse the rebels of everything from anarchism to ingratitude; bad manners to radical politics. We would not be foolish enough to wade into this territory.

But it does strike us as a situation ripe with insensitivity, to say the least, when a child undergoes a yearly ritual of being made painfully aware of a difference that can only be perceived, in this context, as something missing. Is there any way to make Mother’s Day or Father’s Day less like salt in the wounds of children, and of adults, who don’t have the celebrated parent? And what about parents whose children are estranged, or missing, or dead, or longed for but never born? With no one to deliver the burned toast and cold coffee on a tray, how do we who long for and miss children in our lives mark these days without tears?

In English-speaking countries,
Mother’s Day seems to have had its beginning in 1870, with Juliet Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation, a political rallying cry for an end to war:

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

How far we’ve drifted from Mother’s Day as a political statement! Still, we know plenty of mothers who would rather have $7 a day daycare than a bouquet and brunch. Or how about a rise in the minimum wage, a lifting of family welfare rates, better schools, and free post-secondary education? If we widen our perspective to international issues, Juliet Ward Howe’s cry against war is more poignant than ever. The greatest Mother’s Day gift we can imagine would be a truly world-wide commitment to restoring a world where it is safe for children to play outside.

And what about Father’s Day? To our knowledge a North-American phenomenon, this one was created in 1909 by Seattle resident Sonora Dodd, who dreamed it up while listening to a Mother’s Day sermon, and thinking of her father who brought up the children after his wife’s death. Because “Father” and “Mother” are treated as nouns, not verbs, it made more sense to her to create a special day for fathers as male parents, rather than honoring a man for his mothering ways. And so it is today: we’ve tried to congratulate certain men on their good mothering skills, but no matter how many skinned knees they’ve patched or how many tears they’ve caught for their kids, they generally insist on calling it “being a father” or “papa” or “dad”. Gender seems to be more important to some people than to others.

What makes a man a father? The minimum investment needed to be a mother is nine months of pregnancy and child birth—no small feat. Even then, if the woman does not take the child for raising but opts for adoption, she is accurately called a “Birth Mother”, to distinguish her from the Mother who delivers day to day care. Over 90% of children in Canada live with a woman who fills the female parent, or “Mother” role. But defining what makes a “Father” is more difficult. Nearly half of Canadian children do not live with the man whose genetic heritage they share, and many of these children receive no financial support or visitation from the men known as their fathers. For example, one of the more extensive studies in Canada found that 1 in 4 children lost virtually all contact with fathers within 5 years of divorce (from the Department of Justice Canada). Are these people still fathers? What do they do on Father’s Day? What do their children do?

We suspect that Father’s Day has always been particularly hard on children without visible fathers. In a society that puts great store in fathers (that’s why it’s often referred to as a Patriarchy), the absence of one hurts. “My dad is bigger than your dad” still carries some weight on the playground. Fathers command respect, even in these embattled father-figure times. At school and in the community, a dad is someone who can fight battles for you by making other people listen. It is still a lucky child who knows who his father is, and an unlucky child who, on Father’s Day, has no one to celebrate.

Maybe the answer is a gender-neutral “Parents’ Day”, but that sounds so contrived and sterile. “Parent” is a bloodless word compared to “Mother” or “Dad”. No poet ever spoke of the “Parentland”, “Alma Parent” or “Parent Earth”.

We like to think of “mother” and “father” as verbs to describe different, but complementary styles of supporting and caring for children. Thus, when Serena’s daughter was a baby, she would put up her arms and say, “Ma!” when she was hungry or tired, and “Da!” when she wanted to play. Perhaps if we had all kept this up over the years, we would get both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards, along with, “Hey, Mom, will you dad me a loan this month?”, or “I’m so blue, I need you to mom me right now.”

But our best fantasies of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have to do with political action in support of what caring Moms and Dads want for all children. Imagine a Father’s Day parade with men carrying banners for the safety of their daughters, equal opportunities and education for all children, and an end to war. Imagine a Mother’s Day rally with women marching for high quality day care, a clean environment, and an end to global warming. Imagine mothers, fathers, and grandparents together designing and then demanding a humane, non-adversarial, free and wise alternative to Family Court for the resolution of custody, access and support post-divorce. Imagine that instead of crafts, children spent dedicated “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day” time in school learning about the ways that governments and other public institutions could, and do, help families. Wouldn’t that be great?

Meanwhile, we would remind teachers that children need some privacy and freedom around who they choose to make cards and gifts for on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Then, we would remind parents who have divorced to support their children in sending appropriate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day greetings, and to be as generous and reasonable as possible in supporting a continuing bond with the person who broke your heart. A bouquet and thank you for the person who sends financial support for the kids, or who takes care of them day to day, is never amiss. And finally, we would remind children of all ages to say “thank you” to those who mother and father them, whatever the gender and whatever the ties (blood, adoption, or choice) may be. For whether by choice, adoption or blood, a parent is as a parent does. May we all be blessed with as many people to mother and father us as it takes to get us through.

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Grünberg Patterson Centre for Counselling & Assessment has been providing services in counselling, psychotherapy, psycho educational assessment, and education since 2004.

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