These words are by UU religious educator Michelle Richards in her 2010 book Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting.
“We start our children on their journey and travel with them for as long as we are able to do so. But in a real sense, parenting is a long process of letting go. From the toddler who pulls away and insists “Me do!” to the adolescent who struggles to separate his identity from that of his parents, our children experience an ever-increasing series of separations from us. When their wings are ready, we can only watch them go and hope that we gave them the roots to find their own way in the world.”
Good morning! My name is Carrie, and I’m a member of this congregation and of our Religious Education Council. I have three kids in our RE programs here: ages 8, 6 and 2. During the week, the older two go to Cambridge public schools and the youngest is in part-time daycare. I’m an anthropologist and work part-time doing research. I’m married to a man who is not a UU, and who doesn’t normally come with us to church. I’m white and come from a long line of emotionally unexpressive New England Puritans. I was raised UU. All these things, and many more, shape the perspectives that I will share with you today.
Today I will be talking about community and parenting. I use Richards’ words today as a starting point. They show a particular model of parenting – one in which parents and children start off bound together, and where they slowly separate, until at last the child is completely independent. But I am going to try to paint a slightly bigger picture of this process, one which also shows the people and communities surrounding the parent and child through this process. I’m going to ask “what could a beloved community of parenting look like?”
I speak today to our entire community. Some of us are currently parenting young children. Some of us have older children, or grownup children, and are parenting in a different way. Some of us may be expecting children soon. Some of us do not have children. Some of us do not plan to. Some of us hope to have children in the future. Some of us may have lost a child. Some of us may be estranged from our children. Some of us may be struggling with fertility, or be waiting on a long adoption process, or have experienced miscarriage. Some of us may be parenting grandchildren, or step children, or sharing the custody of children. All of us have a place in the community we are working to build, and I invite you to consider that we all have a role to play in a beloved community of parenting.
What I won’t talk about:
Today I am going to try hard NOT talk about the many different anxiety-producing parenting philosophies that are out there. I’m not discussing attachment parenting, or tiger moms, or free-range parents, or helicopters, or French children’s diets, or opting out, or leaning in. I will absolutely not bring up any catch phrases that begin with the word “Mommy”. I don’t believe that parents are in competition with one another. If you want to learn more about these topics, I highly recommend pretty much any parenting webpage or magazine.
There are different ways people become parents, different approaches people take towards parenting, and many different experiences along the way. Children are different from one another from day one, and so are parents. I really believe that there are so many right answers for how to do it. But today I invite you to consider how everyone, everyone who is engaged in parenting, is taking part in a gradual process of letting go, of stepping back. Sometimes, it is a matter of letting go of our expectations about how things will turn out. For example, our kids may not be the people we imagined they would be. They may be more challenging, or more amazing, they may need us to love them in a different way than we pictured. And we, as parents, may not end up parenting the way we had planned.
Parenting is letting go. Anecdotes about letting go, it’s inevitable. But letting go into what?
But I have experienced, too, as Richards said, “a long process of letting go” of the children themselves. When my first child was born, I remember sitting in the bed in the hospital, holding him and looking at his tiny hands, and marveling “I get to keep him!!!” But I was wrong. I don’t get to keep him – not forever.
When he was six months old, we held a party to celebrate his first solid food. At this party, he tasted something other than breast milk for the first time. And I made a speech to our guests about letting go: how instead of depending only on me for nutrition, he would now start to depend on the food system of our wider society. I would have to take a step back and do a certain amount of trusting: that the food he ate was safe, that it contained what the label claimed it did, that the things I had learned about nutrition were correct… I soon learned, also, that he would not eat each and everything I wanted him to. So it seemed I would have to trust him, too, to eat the things his body needed to be healthy.
A few months later, he started crawling. Then he enjoyed walking while we held his hands. And one day, he let go and walked alone. A few months later, he was climbing the 6-foot-tall ladders at the playground. And sometimes, despite my best efforts, he scooted away and climbed them without me underneath. Often, other parents would be nearby and help him if needed, or just stand, watchful, until he reached the top. I felt so grateful, and tried to do the same for their kids.
We do not just let our kids go to fly or fall on their own. Instead, for better or for worse, we step back and allow our wider communities to assume the roles we previously occupied.
Vision of parenting community
During this time when my first was a baby, and especially after my second child was born, two years later, I often felt so, so alone and overwhelmed. My need and desire for community was, and is, deep – I felt that the very best thing someone could do for me was to give love to my kids.
I have a vision of a beautiful, harmonious community of parenting. In this vision, which I think I share with many, we all would love each other’s children. Both parents and non-parents would recognize that raising and educating children was the vital work of ensuring our society’s better future, and that it was a collective job. Our kids could trustingly approach any adult for help, knowing that they would receive a loving response. Parents wouldn’t feel in competition with one another, or isolated from each other or from society as a whole. Having children would not be seen as a liability for women (or men) in the workplace. We all would have good intentions towards one another, and more or less agree on how to parent. We wouldn’t judge or feel judged.
BUT parenting community isn’t always 100% harmonious. Anecdote about climbing
But in the real world, it doesn’t always work so seamlessly. To go back to the playground… My kids were all early climbers, and I have found that I am usually willing to let them take the risks of climbing. Sometimes, other parents see my tiny kids climbing and assume that I haven’t noticed and warn me, saying “your child is on the ladder!” Other times, other parents just cast alarmed glances at me repeatedly, while hovering under my kids themselves. This makes me feel very self-conscious, as if others are thinking that I am neglectful. When this happens, I try to stick up for my own parenting techniques and instincts – assuming good intentions, trying not to feel judged, and explaining that yes, they are allowed to climb there. I often defensively explain that they take fewer risks this way… but I find myself succumbing to pressure and moving closer after one of those conversations, while inwardly grumbling about it.
So we do not always agree. These letting-go milestones happen at different times and in different ways for different families. And we have different ideas, emotions and histories that shape how we handle them.
Every time we let go, though, for better or for worse, we’re not just leaving our children to flail around by themselves. Sometimes, we do have to trust them to make the decisions that are right for them. But often, we must let larger society also step in. If we let them walk along a street without holding our hands, yes, we trust them not to run in front of cars. But we also trust drivers to look where they’re going and not drive on the sidewalk. If we send them to school, however much we may talk to the teachers or volunteer in the school or know the curriculum, or not, at some point we trust the schools to keep them safe and teach them correct and appropriate things, and for the children’s peer groups, to be more or less positive and safe. Or, sometimes, even if we don’t trust these things, we accept, however uncomfortably, that trying to control them is a losing battle.
Giving up these pieces of control is so, so hard. In kindergarten, my oldest was introduced to a relatively violent TV cartoon by a charismatic little classmate. At first, my son just pretended to be the characters, but then he started reading the companion books and became an authority on the complex, shifting relationships and characters of the fantasy universe, not to mention all their fighting techniques. And I discovered that I was not going to be able to prevent him from having pretend fights – the harder I resisted, the more he was fascinated by them. I realized I would have to let this one go, just a little bit. I am consistently clear with him about why I don’t like fighting and violence. I try to be and steer him towards non-violent role models, and talk about other ways to resolve conflicts. But I recognize that not only do I not control his interests, but that he and I are living in a larger society which has extremely conflicted ideas about violence – glorifying and fantasizing about it on the one hand and absolutely prohibiting it on the other. And short of moving to a desert island with no broadband connection, we will both have to cope with this in our own ways.
I used to feel so angry and sad with this specific little classmate who introduced him to the cartoon. But then, my second child learned to read… and she discovered, by herself in the wholesome environment of our library, a series of extremely gendered and disempowering books. She quickly became hypnotized by this series, and the harder I resisted, the more she was fascinated by them. Sound familiar? I’ve recently come to believe that perhaps even if my oldest never met that classmate, he would have encountered similarly troubling ideas some other way.
My mom tells a story about a similar experience she had while raising me. She was very opposed to Barbie dolls, with their unrealistic body proportions and disempowered roles. She didn’t let me own one, even though my friends at the time were all very dedicated Barbie doll owners. This lasted until the day, when I was maybe 6 years old, and I came home from a friends’ house, and she discovered that I had stolen one of my friends’ dolls. That day, she made me return the doll and apologize, and then took me out and bought me one of my own.
These three stories have one thing in common: my mother and I were pitting ourselves against the values of the community surrounding us, while our children resisted. We stepped back from the immediate conflict in the hopes that our ideas would prevail in the long term… or at least that we might salvage enough relationship with the child to exert influence elsewhere.
I see this as a fairly common theme in parenting stories. We see ourselves, mostly as individuals, fighting a losing battle against outside influences, whether those come from our children’s peers, the media, or even our own extended families. On the other hand, we have this image of the idyllic, harmonious community of like-minded people where we wouldn’t have to fight these fights, or at least not alone.
Community is a conflicted concept in the society we live in, and, I feel, particularly with UUs. We value finding our own truths and thinking independently. This is a very individualist idea of how truth is arrived at. It also ties in to the wider societal valuing of rugged individualism – we UUs are so rugged and individual that we even make our own religious creeds!
According to these ideas, community can be seen as oppressive, and restrictive. Relying on community also carries negative connotations of dependence, and even of uncritical thinking.
This leaves parents, who are doing a job that absolutely requires community, in a bind.
One way to cope is to seek out people very similar to ourselves, who have backgrounds and have made decisions similar to the ones we’ve made and who will presumably share much of our parenting philosophy. This very understandable impulse to find an approximation of the idyllic, harmonious community, runs the risk, however, of walling us off in homogenous, non-diverse enclaves.
It also isolates children from others at different stages of life, which is unfortunate for both.
On the other hand, UUs, in the words of our service here, ‘strive to create the beloved community of Martin Luther King Junior’s dream.’ This community arises when a critical mass of people adopt non-violent principles, and is based on agape love: the type of love that is directed towards everyone, regardless of any deserving-ness. To “hate segregation but love segregationists”, in Kings’ words. (http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy#sub4). This vision of community does not include the idea that there would never be conflict – merely the principle that conflict would be resolved non-violently, and that in resolving conflict, the opposing parties would have the opportunity to grow in understanding of each other.
What could a beloved community of parenting look like? Could we strive towards this here?
It wouldn’t mean that we had to be on the same page about everything related to kids. There would be disagreement, and even conflict. But this conflict would be resolved without the violence of assuming bad intentions.
I also suggest that a beloved community of parenting should include people in many stages of life, not just those currently parenting young children, or just those who ever intend to parent, or even just those who feel generally positive feelings about young children. I adore kids – I recognize that not everybody does, and that a room full of emotional, kinetic preschoolers, for example, or sassy, narcissistic middle schoolers, is not everybody’s idea of a good time. I think it’s sometimes good for kids to realize that they are not universally adorable and appealing, and that inviting kids into spaces that are not always Kid Spaces can be healthy both for kids and the adults around them.
It would have to start from a few shared assumptions, however. One of these might be that people, including children, have inherent worth and dignity. Another might be that children form an important part of the interconnected web of all existence.
Could we imagine a beloved parenting community in which it feels natural to everyone, both parents and non-parents alike, to talk about “our kids,” not just your kids or my kids? What could we do to build a community where it feels natural for anyone to hug a tearful toddler, or remind a kindergartener to say please, or ask a second grader to help with their work, or try to initiate a respectful, listening conversation with a glum-looking fourteen year old?
What could we do so that parents, when we see people doing these things with our children, don’t feel judged?
I believe that these changes in culture arise from changes in social structures. And as a congregation, we’ve taken a significant step in this direction. In our budget for next year, we’ve agreed that there will be childcare every Sunday starting at 9:00 and lasting until 2:00. There will also be lunch available here at church every week. This will go a long way, I believe, towards easing the logistical difficulties of church attendance; making it easier for parents of young children to participate more fully in the life of the congregation and making church a more welcoming place for families. We’ve also been working on various ways to include our youngest community members in the weekly activities of our congregation, and on creating opportunities for people of different life stages to form relationships.
These are some of the ways that we could build a beloved community that is fully inclusive of children of all ages, parents at many different stages of parenting, and those who aren’t parenting. Letting go into a sometimes hostile society is so hard – how much easier can it be when we know we are letting go in the context of a community where, even if we don’t always agree, we hear in the words and deeds of people around us: “I support you”, and “your feelings are valid”? “Your children -- our children -- are important to me and to all of us”, and “we’re in this together”?