Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Budding Perfectionism?

My daughter and I were doing crafts tonight, which is our Tuesday night tradition. After dinner on Tuesdays my husband goes out to play board games with some friends and my daughter and I stay home for some time together. Tonight's activity was paper making, courtesy of the lovely Kiwi Crate (http://www.kiwicrate.com) subscription a family friend started for us, which sends us a monthly box of craft projects with all necessary supplies included. Paper making is surprisingly easy and much less messy than I expected, but we were done after making about three sheets. We set our paper out to dry and moved on to coloring projects.

I realized as we were working at the kitchen table that my daughter has made another one of those startling and sudden developmental shifts. Just month or so ago she was happy to scribble away on paper. She might tell us "this is a whale" or "this is you, mommy!" but there was no effort to represent any form. When coloring in a coloring book she laid down bright swaths of color in haphazard ways, with a fine disregard for the lines of the picture on the page. Now, all of a sudden, she is forming shapes. She is drawing circles for heads and long skinny bodies, and she is asking for help in creating the finer details of facial features. She is attempting to color inside the lines. She is even writing down the occasional letter or number and then proudly announcing "look, I drew an "m" all by myself!"

I'm not quite sure when or how the shift took place, but I have mixed feelings about it. Of course it is fun to see her develop new skills and I enjoy the pride and pleasure she takes in her achievements. It's fascinating to see her represent her world and to get a window on what she is thinking and feeling. However, I notice that this growth seems to be accompanied by some anxiety on her part. She's asking for help more often. She's telling me "I can't do it, you do it, Mommy!" and at times becoming quite distressed when I encourage her to try. I'm spending more time reassuring her that there are "no wrongs in coloring" and reminding her that letters take practice. I draw abstract, loopy doodles that we can work on coloring together, which is a comforting and non-threateningly abstract project I remember being taught by my own mother as a child. Most of the time I can coax her to try it herself, but sometimes she gets really focused on her project looking a certain way. Then I hear "I can't, I can't, I can't" with a note of panic and we have to shift into soothing and calming. I feel bad at those moments, because it feels like my own perfectionism is staring back at me through her eyes.

I hope that I can soften this need to be right for my daughter. I know it is a necessary developmental step to take, to learn to compare your own work or actions with an external standard and to notice when you haven't hit your target. It's a basic neurobiological system that we use throughout our lives for many purposes and the anxiety it evokes is survival based, a leftover from a time in history when being wrong could be fatal. I also know, from experience, that perfectionism is a very harsh master in our own particular period of history. I hope I can teach my daughter, through word and deed, that making mistakes is not just ok but sometimes serendipitous or just plain old fun. Fortunately we have plenty more craft nights in front of us.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Time to Plant the Garden

The past two weeks the weather's finally warmed up in a fairly steady way and so my husband, daughter and I have been working on our garden. We're pretty excited about this because for the past two summers we couldn't have much in the way of a garden. We tried, but a north facing apartment patio on a shaded ground floor doesn't offer much hope for plants. By the time we moved into our house and got settled last summer it was too late in the season. So this year it's exciting to try again, in this new house with its east and west exposures.

Even with better sun, I'm not sure how this will go. My husband and I have tried this in the past, and while we usually get lovely green plants we don't get many fruits or vegetables. The best we ever did was in Texas when we set up an automatic irrigation system on a timer. Everything grew that year, although we ended up with lots of weeding to do and there we had some determined critter that we never could catch who took big bites out of the ripe tomatoes.

We've done better with flowers. Planting bulbs is an act of faith each fall as we place lifeless looking tubers in the cold ground in hopes of an enchanting reward in the spring. This spring the crocuses reassured us in March that warm weather truly was coming, eventually, and then the tulips and hyacinths and daffodils celebrated April. Now we've set out some geraniums and marigolds as cheerful annuals and we're waiting to see if the irises bloom or if we buried them too deeply. This fall we'll add some bulbs for summer blooming flowers to the mix in our front yard. We planted a rosebush, too, and if it does well there's a space for another one next year. Our flowers add color and brightness to our front yard, something pretty to see as we come and go each day.

We dream of an actual harvest though. I love ripe, homegrown tomatoes, which epitomize the taste of summer. My husband loves fresh herbs. I've planted some lavender and with some luck knitted sachets with sprigs of home grown, dried herbs inside will make holiday gifts this year. Our deck has good strong warm sunshine all afternoon so we've planted tomatoes, herbs, cucumbers, lettuce and peppers in containers this year, all started from seeds that we nurtured inside during the winter. If we did things right then we can have a completely home grown salad. We also planted some strawberries in a vertical planter, which we've done semi-successfully before. We're are also trying to grow a blueberry bush for our daughter after she saw it in the store, recognized the picture and pleaded for it. A berry bush is a first for us, making it interesting even if it doesn't produce fruit.

It's fun, at least, even if it doesn't work well. Fortunately for us, our meals don't depend on what we can grow, although I suppose if they did we'd try harder and do more research. As it is gardening remains relaxing and stress free. Each year we learn a little about what didn't work and try something new. We play as a family with water and dirt, sunshine and seeds, and marvel each year at how, with a little care and attention, life just develops from these raw materials.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Interfaith Life - My Messy Beautiful

It’s Good Friday today. We celebrated Passover last Monday. We’re celebrating Easter in two days. Matzo and Easter baskets, Seders and communion, we have it all. My family is interfaith. We are Jewish and Christian and we observe both religions. We are raising our daughter, currently three and a half years old, in both faith traditions.  We attend synagogue and church. We pray in Hebrew and in English. We love this. Our family and friends love this (thank you!). But it confuses and upsets a lot of people, and lately I’ve been dealing with that more.

My husband and I met as adults, at a time in our lives when we cared about our religious backgrounds but somehow they weren’t the most important aspects of our lives. It mattered more that we could talk to each other, that we shared the same values about how we treat others, how we treat the earth, how we spend time and money, and that we enjoyed each other’s company. We knew from the beginning that neither of us would change religions, and when we married after three years of dating we celebrated with an interfaith ceremony. A Rabbi and a Baptist minister officiated and in our ketubah, our wedding contract from the Jewish tradition, we promised to raise our children in both of our faiths.

Our daughter was born ten years later, and by then we had both spent plenty of time getting comfortable with each other’s traditions. We had developed a lovely rhythm of holidays, celebrating with both of our families whenever possible. My Jewish mother gives us Christmas and Easter presents. My Christian mother sends Passover and Hanukah cards. It’s beautiful. So it seemed natural to stay on that path, to keep attending two sets of services and celebrating two holidays. The central commandment for both of our faiths is the same:

“Love the Lord your G-D with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s the code we’re trying to live by.  So it’s surprising and painful, lately, when people who don’t know us well begin to criticize. “How will you possibly raise your daughter in two traditions?” we are asked, with that skeptical tone that says “I know you can’t do it.” Well, we don’t know exactly, because it’s a work in progress, but so far observing both faiths and talking about both faiths works for us. “Don’t you think your daughter will be confused?” we are asked, with the implication that of course she will be. Well, no, actually I don’t think she will be. I've done some studying about this and interfaith kids raised in two traditions seem to do just fine. Plus, adults underestimate kids' intelligence and depth. I still remember how I thought as a child. I understood some fairly complex things, like death and divorce, at a very young age. I imagine that my daughter, raised by two loving parents who support each other, can sort out two separate but related sets of religious beliefs.

“Isn’t it difficult and messy?” we are asked. Yes. Yes, it is. It’s definitely more of a time commitment, both in attendance and in study. We've had to think more, talk more, read more, and plan more to make our separate religious lives cohere into a working whole. It’s definitely more of a challenge to introduce ourselves to new communities. It’s definitely hard to be kind and patient with skeptics, to gently but firmly handle people who push for us to be a different kind of family, a family that fits better into their categories and boxes.

But, you see, it’s a beautiful mess. By being different my husband and I have deepened and sharpened and broadened our understanding of our own faiths. We each love our own traditions more now than we did when we met 18 years ago, and now we love each other’s traditions too. I would never want my husband to convert to Christianity. I love Judaism, with its ancient prayers and songs, its ritual and symbolism, and it’s deep wisdom. I would never want to lose that for him or for us. Similarly, I would never want to convert to Judaism. I love Christianity, with its buoyancy and intimacy with G-D and its paradoxical love and wildness and grace. I would never, ever want to force my daughter to choose. If she makes a choice someday, if she hears a call strongly to one path or another or even something completely different, then that’s wonderful too. I’ll keep celebrating with her. That’s our family’s messy beautiful life.

I wrote this post for Momastery's Messy Beautiful Warrior’s project, to celebrate the paperback release of “Carry On, Warriors.” You can check out the project at http://momastery.com/messy-beautiful-warrior-instructions/. You can also check out the book (which I definitely recommend, it's a great and inspiring read) here http://momastery.com/carry-on-warrior/.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Frozen: Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

My three and a half year old daughter absolutely adores the movie Frozen. It has eclipsed Cinderella and Tangled (a.k.a. Rapunzel) as her favorite. I think we must have watched it about 15 times in the month since it came out on Amazon instant video. It was the first movie she ever saw in the movie theater, so that's part of the fascination, but I think it's more than that. She really seems enchanted by the characters and the story. She wakes up most morning stating to me "I'm Anna and you're Elsa!" and wanting to pretend that she and I are the two sisters in the movie. She can sing the theme song "Let It Go" and frequently does, at the top of her lungs and slightly off-key. She repurposed one of the knitted toys I made her (a reversible doll) into an "Anna and Elsa" doll and has been asking for an "Olaf" (a snowman) knitted toy.

Which she'll probably get, eventually. I don't mind that this is her new favorite. There's a lot to like about this movie. I don't have the same enthusiasm for it that my daughter does but I haven't been tempted to hide the Kindle yet. The songs are fun, there's plenty of humor, nothing is crude, and of course the Disney artwork is visually appealing. It's a female-centric film in which women do most of the powerful and heroic deeds, which appeals to my feminist sensibilities.

My favorite part of the movie, though, is the central moral. The two major characters are orphaned sisters. Elsa, the oldest, has magic powers to create snow which she deeply fears and can't control. Her fear causes her to successfully avoid human contact, even to the extent of always wearing gloves, and to less successfully attempt to avoid any emotion. Her mantra, taught to her by her father, is "conceal, don't feel." This doesn't work and her powers grow steadily wilder and more frightening. Anna, the younger sister, is exuberant but desperate for human contact and seeks love and affection from anyone who will offer it. Her hunger gives a scheming prince an opportunity to take over the kingdom. In the end Anna saves both herself and her sister by giving up her chance to live in order to keep Elsa alive. She has learned that true love is placing someone else's needs before your own and through Anna's act of true love both sisters are saved. Elsa learns that love, not fear, is the way to tame her power.

I love this lesson. My daughter and have talked about it quite a lot in the past weeks, as we discuss the movie and why the characters do different things. We talk about the power of Anna's loving heart and how my daughter (and all of us!) can share that same power. We talk about what love is and how love is stronger than fear. I remind her that love can overcome fear.

I think this is really important, because I work with many fearful people. We live in a fearful and anxious society and many people try to use Elsa's strategy to manage their fears. They freeze inside, become rigid, close the gates of their homes and hearts and put all their energy into controlling what scares them. And sadly, they have about as much success as Elsa, which is to say none. Life becomes a cold prison of anxiety and fear management and there's no room for laughter, joy, adventure, fun or beauty. And the really horrible thing is, living this way is a cheat. It doesn't protect anyone from loss. It doesn't keep the feared things from happening. It just robs life of the brilliance that could balance out the sorrow.

It's about to be Easter again, the Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. Easter celebrates the victory of love and life and the end of death and fear. When I put it together with the words Jesus spoke and the deeds he did Easter is a celebration but also an invitation and maybe even a dare to step out of fear and into love, to live brilliantly. And honestly, I think the invitation and the celebration are for everyone, each one of us, no matter what we do or don't believe. The gift is for everyone. There is no fear in love, and perfect love casts out fear. No one's heart has to stay Frozen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Confession of A Helicopter Parent

I read an article in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin last month entitled "The Over-Protected Kid" and I've been mulling it over in my mind ever since. The gist of the article is that parents today attempt protect their kids by altering their environments and by constantly supervising them, but that it isn't really working. Tragic accidents still occur at the same rate. On the other hand, the cost of all this protection is that children are less able to take risks, feel more anxiety, and demonstrate less initiative. The article didn't offer much in the way of a solution. It did talk about a very cool sounding playground in Wales, UK named "The Land" which allows children to take more risks and experience more danger, but since I live in the mid-Atlantic in the US that's more interesting than useful.

The article woke nostalgia in me, because it talked about how, 30 or 40 years ago, children roamed much more freely. I know that this was true for me. I can remember being three years old myself, the age my daughter is now. I was allowed to run around in our front and back yards by myself or with other kids but with my mom in the house. I was allowed to walk alone down the street to the playground, which I think was about four houses down. I was allowed to walk another older but still little kid to the street corner on her way to preschool and then she walked the rest of the way alone. I can actually remember doing these things. I remember not being allowed to cross the street and I remember getting lost when I broke the rules and walked the other little girl past the mailbox. (My dad came and found me quickly - I think the only bad thing that happened to me was a spanking and having to sit in the time out chair for quite a while.) When I was older, around 6 years old, and living in a different neighborhood, I remember riding my bike up and down the street, running around in the woods behind the housing development, and generally being out of my mom's sight for hours at a time. I think I followed the rule about not going into anyone else's house, mostly because none of the moms on the street wanted us running around inside anyway. The older I got the longer my leash became, until by the time I was 12 or 13 I would literally be roaming miles through our extended neighborhood, just walking and thinking. My mom wasn't a chill, relaxed parent, either. She was teaching us about stranger danger, good touch bad touch, and making us buckle our seat belts long before these things were standard. My sister and I thought she was really strict.

I contrast this with my daughter's experience. I mocked helicopter parents before I had a child (and, by the way, I'm sorry!) and now I have to admit I am one. My daughter rides in a car seat with five point restraints. This is the law but I'd do it anyway. My daughter isn't exposed to stranger danger because she's never by herself. My daughter isn't allowed to go to the playground alone. It's right outside the door across the street, and I can see it as I type. But she's only allowed to go if an adult is with her. Partly this is because there's a sign on the playground stating children under 12 must be supervised by an adult. (And what child 12 and up is going to want to use the playground? My daughter's getting bored with it anyway, because at age 3 she's pretty much mastered the elements.) I'll be honest though, I'm not sure I'd let her even without the sign. I can tell myself that the stories in the media are freak events, that playing on the playground alone is quite safe, but culturally it feels wrong. It feels like bad parenting. I can see that none of the other parents in the neighborhood are letting their kids out alone either, at least not under the age of about 10 or so. The playground, the fields, the little woods near our home all seem to be vacant most of the times I look.

We're trying to break or at least limit the helicopter habit. My husband and I are starting to encourage our daughter to play in the backyard (fenced, locked, screened from view and essentially another room in our house) alone. We both struggle with this and find ourselves checking on her by peeking through a window every five minutes or so. We also struggle with allowing her to explore by turning on the faucet and then experience the consequences of being wet when she didn't want to be. I think my daughter is struggling too. She'll play for about 15 or 20 minutes and then she wants to come inside and be with us. It's what she's used to. My husband is a stay-at-home dad, so except for the hours in preschool, she's pretty much always with one or both of us. Most of that time we're interacting with her; either playing with her, talking to her, or getting her to help us with what we're doing. If not with us, then she's with a babysitter or grandparent who will indulge and play with her even more. Occasionally at home she'll play alone, but she'll often invite us into her game and usually we respond. The article talked about this too, how children in general today spend much more time with their parents, and how there are some advantages in closer family relationships to balance the loss of risk taking and challenge.

In the end, I'm still not sure what to do with all of this. I want my daughter to be as safe as I can make her, but I also want her to live a rich and full life. I see that those things are not always going to run along the same path. I loved my independence as a child. I loved the freedom to roam, to explore, to be on my own. I do want that for my daughter. I want her to feel like she can be alone without being lonely, to believe that she is capable of mastering challenges and handling mistakes. I understand that this means I have to let her be alone, be challenged and make mistakes. On the other hand, I want to limit the danger of the consequences she could face. I don't want mistakes to be fatal or even severely painful. I also don't want anyone to call Child Protective Services on me. Moving to Wales to gain access to that playground seems like a very impractical solution. I don't have any clear answers here. Just a whole lot of wondering.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mass Shootings, Work Conflict and Love

I was talking with a colleague today about the shootings at Ft. Hood and her response was that we need better security on military bases. Then we moved on to talking about an issue at work between two colleagues that she was anxious about. I talked with another colleagues about the work issue later and she was upset about it too. To both of them I commented that it seems part of the problem is that we don't have solid relationships amongst all the different people in our department. We are so busy working that we don't spend much time getting to know each other. Then when problems come up we aren't working from a place of mutual trust and respect. Instead we end up viewing the other person as an antagonist, someone who is motivated to harm us or at least make our lives harder. I think everyone ends up feeling unappreciated and not valued.

I was thinking about this again as I read more of the coverage on the Ft. Hood shooting. Beyond the sick, sinking feeling of "again? another mass shooting? what is wrong with us?" and the frustration with all the expected and unhelpful responses (we need more gun control! no, we need to arm everyone! he was mentally ill and the military doesn't do enough to help! it's unfair to stigmatize mental illness!) it came to me that maybe, fundamentally, these problems are the same. That the answer to mass shootings isn't more security and the answer to work problems isn't more rules. Instead, the answer to both problems lies in how we approach each other.

On a fundamental level, in our society, we (speaking broadly here) don't see or treat other people as people. We see them as objects that either fulfill our wishes or frustrate them. Our friends are our friends because they tell us we are right, allowing us to prop up our shaky sense of self with a sense of belonging. Our enemies are people who oppose us, which challenges our sense of self. So we respond by demonizing them to shore ourselves up. We might have one or two people we see as individuals, maybe more if we're both lucky and mature. But in general we fail to treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

I'm not trying to throw stones here. I confess I've done this myself. I've attributed malice to colleagues at work instead of recognizing a difference in perspective and acknowledging that we are all under a lot of stress. I've chosen to associate with people whose views I knew were similar to mine rather than seeking broader perspectives. I've seen other people less as distinct, precious, infinitely valuable individuals and more as objects that are either helping me or frustrating me in achieving my own ends. I've done this, and I certainly have enough training and experience to know that it is both unhealthy and morally wrong. I have less excuse than many other people. So I'm not trying to be accusatory. I'm just trying to describe how I see the problem, what perhaps may be the underlying cause of a disease that's infecting our whole society, not just the military. A disease that takes on a thousand different forms. A disease that in extreme, late stages tells people that it's okay to take a gun and open fire on an unsuspecting crowd of other people.

I've been reading a book lately entitled "Disunity in Christ" by Christina Cleveland. She is a social psychologist and the book is an analysis of the ways people use groups to feel good about themselves and how that creates in-groups, out-groups, and a lack of cohesiveness within the Christian church. I haven't finished the book yet but so far I find her observations and her psychological science to be spot on. Much of what she is saying reminds me of another book, "Searching for God Knows What" by Donald Miller. In this book Donald Miller writes about what he calls the "lifeboat" phenomenon; the idea that we are all trying to assert our significance and prove our worth. Specifically we behave as if we are attempting to prove that we are worthy of a seat in the lifeboat and shouldn't be thrown overboard.

I am not sure yet where Christina Cleveland is going to take her book. Donald Miller concludes in his that G-D is standing outside the lifeboat, telling us that we are all worthy and that we are all significant. We don't need to compete for popularity or shore up our self esteem or try to feel good about ourselves, because G-D is there, loving us. He is even telling us we don't need the lifeboat. He is calling us to walk on water, to live in his infinite love.

I regularly tell my daughter that she is precious, that she is my treasure, that she is a blessing to me and that I love her so much, and that G-D loves her even more. I tell her that G-D made her exactly who and how she is and that G-D never makes junk. I pray for her to experience G-D's love. I want her to live her life in the beauty and confidence of that love, to be secure enough to be brave, to face her challenges, to admit her wrongs, to grow without fear. I want her to not need to demonize those who oppose her but to be able to love, to love both the people she likes and the people who really challenge her because she has been so filled up with love that she truly, genuinely loves herself.

I don't have any easy answers, not to the problems at my work and not to the problems of mass shootings. I'm talking about love, but love is not an easy answer because love isn't some squishy sentimental thing. I don't think it's a noun at all. It's a verb. Love is a tough, committed discipline. It's an action and a choice. It's something you have to wake up and choose every day. It's something that you get wrong and try again and get wrong again and keep trying. It's recognizing other people as truly other, as precious for themselves and not for what they give you. It's persistently, patiently, uncompromisingly seeking the good of each one of us messed up and frightened individuals. It's remembering, as C.S. Lewis said, that each human soul has the potential for unimaginable glory - just because she is born. Just because he exists.

I read somewhere that people love themselves quite naturally but as a psychiatrist I don't see that as true. Most people don't love themselves very much at all. They might go easy on themselves, or spoil themselves, or indulge themselves, or hide themselves in any number of ways, but it's really rare for me to meet someone who genuinely seems to love him or herself. And I think if you don't love yourself it's really hard to love anyone else. And if you don't feel loved by others it's hard to love yourself and then once again hard to anyone else. It's hard to bring that tough, committed discipline into your life if you feel empty and small and unloved.

In the end, what I would want to say to my colleagues, both those in conflict and those who were stressed about it, is that they are valued, precious, and worthy. That they are loved, although we don't talk about love at work because it's unprofessional. So, I don't say it. Instead my goal is to live it, to demonstrate it what I do that I believe G-D loves them and therefore I love them too. I think the Christian faith was supposed to bring that kind of love the world. I think our good news is supposed to be that each of us is loved deeply and passionately and infinitely by G-D. We've royally screwed up that mission, but it's still good news and a true statement. I think the world really needs to hear it, to know it, to start living it. I don't think we're going to be able to stop killing each other until we start living in that love. So that's what I want to say to you too. You are precious. You are valued. You are completely, totally, infinitely, irrevocably, forever loved.

Related Posts:
Redeeming A Symbol
Choosing Hope: A Response to the Navy Yard Shootings
The Christmas Story for Three-Year-Olds and Adults