The Nature of Human Nurture

Business growth - Hands holding green plant indicating teamwork

I hear my child groaning in defeat. I look up to see that he is trying to fashion the basket he’s been wearing on his head into a hat for his hobby horse. Unfortunately, the horse’s handles, or ears as they appear to be, stick out wider than the basket rim. Its horse head provides no chin to nestle into the basket handle (or chin strap as it were) so the hat keeps falling off to the side and this frustrates him. I offer to help, fashioning the basket to the side, a little like a 1940s tilt hat. Not quite pleased, he makes an adjustment that cleans up the aesthetic and, together, we have solved the problem.

According to Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawly, Dowager Countess of Grantham, “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve; first this one, then the next, and the next, until at last we die.” If survival can be considered the ultimate (albeit distressingly circular) raison d’être for all living things, then problem-solving becomes an obvious and necessary modus operandi. Call the Dowager Countess a pessimist, but it’s a practical perspective. With a growth mentality (I can learn by solving problems!) and a positive attitude (I can enjoy solving problems!), it’s not half-bad as a worldview. Plus, problem-solving is kind of like a human creature power (to borrow terminology from one of my four-year-old’s PBS favorites, Wild Krattz): in our self-conscious self-awareness, we are deeply encoded for problem-solving, and uniquely capable.

As children, we are supported and encouraged in our learning through collaborative efforts with more skilled ‘partners’: teachers, parents, and other role models. For example, my experience with physics was observed and absorbed by my son, who was then able to execute his idea to his satisfaction. In her late 20th century book, Apprenticeship in Thinking, Barbara Rogoff calls these types of exchanges, guided participation, defined as “building bridges between what children know and new information to be learned, structuring and supporting children’s efforts, and transferring to children the responsibility for managing problem-solving.”

Social construct theories earlier in the 20th century emphasized the individual constructing reality; a paradigm that assumed isolation and a generic environment. Both of these assumptions are false because problem-solving is far from solitary: for humans it is an inherently social endeavor; and problem-solving environments are hardly generic: in fact they are very specific in their nature. Rogoff describes the relationship between individuals and society as mutually embedded: individuals participate in a society that in turn offers tools, boundaries, and tactics for disentangling its complications.

For example, the basket-hat problem wouldn’t have materialized for my son without the existence of hats and their relevance to his life; nor without his conceptualization that an upside-down basket might be used as a hat, or that a wooden horse might wear a hat. This is to say, sociocultural activity and individual efforts organize each other, not unlike the proverbial chicken and egg. Specific skills, like reading, don’t develop in a vacuum, either. While we think of learning to read as an individual accomplishment, it must be supported on many levels. Rogoff cites role models; technology; social history; genetic resources; human effort; as well as specific alphabets and other symbolic conventions of the written word as the interactive elements of reading acquisition.

Methods for supporting various aspects of child development across diverse cultures differ because goals for development vary cross-culturally. There are differences in desirable skills, etiquette, mannerisms, and cultural tools such as literacy or narrative style. For example, wearing a child on the back prioritizes an observational vantage point and the physical proximity of children over face-to-face conversation; and placing a child in a crib or playpen favors the privacy and independence of children over inclusion and closeness. Further, censoring words, subjects, and ways of speaking for children, emphasizes separateness as a protective measure; while allowing children to be present for adult activities, to observe and eavesdrop at will, communicates that “adult culture” is not specifically a separate thing. And emphasizing the importance of one-on-one play between parents and their children puts the onus on adults to foster bonding and teaching opportunities; whereas relegating children’s play as an activity exclusive to children promotes a distinct realm of peer to peer learning. These cultural differences ultimately make for different styles of guided participation, but guided participation is a human universality: the nature of human nurture.

Another groan of frustration… “Do you need help zipping up that jacket?” I ask my four-year-old. He has squeezed himself into the royal blue puffy jacket he wore when he was two and is struggling to make the zipper meet. The cuffs are snug on his forearms.

“No!” he whines with conviction, “Police officers can do everything all by themselves!” The small jacket is apparently serving as a police costume.

“Actually, Honey, no one can do everything all by themselves,” I offer.

“That’s true, Bud,” my husband chimes in. In point of fact: this parenting thing? I’m really glad we’re doing it together.

“Actually, lots of jobs, like police officer, mean always working as part of a team.”

“Well…” he falters a little, “Police officers are grownups and grownups can do things by themselves.”

“Some things, that’s true. But it’s still true that no one can do everything by themselves. We all need help and cooperation and teamwork; grownups too.”

By the 1800s the word “maid” in the old English proverb directed at young women, “a maid should be seen and not heard,” had been replaced with “children”, actively distancing and dehumanizing them instead. This characterizes an era in Western history of trying to define children and society as independent from one another. Almost two hundred years later, voices like Rogoff’s began advocating that children are not just accessories to culture but active participants in its creation. Rogoff called the individual adoption of social practices a creative process, and asserted that creativity always—and only—occurs within the context of a history and society of thinkers.

In individualistic cultures such as ours, particularly, there is a need to balance the societal emphasis on autonomy with an understanding of the native interdependence of individuals and their sociocultural context. “You can do it (alone)!” is too easily mistaken for “you are in this alone!” We need to encourage our children to try new things, to ask for help, to share their feelings, to question things, to express their creative ideas, to speak up even when they are uncertain. These are aspects of being an active and effective participant in one’s own culture. Anyone can sail through, for a while anyway, on the path of least resistance: blending in; faking it; not rocking the boat. And a few sail to the top with some luck and good publicity. Yet, we don’t solve problems through avoidance and isolation, or with ego and pretense. Humans don’t learn that way and so goals that are simply relevant to a specific social environment, like “fitting in” or “standing out” thwart our development as individuals and as a society.

The apprenticeship analogy points to the idea that the obvious aspects of a skill do not represent the most useful knowledge gained from a mentor. It is only by working together, over time, that the most subtle and nuanced lessons can be learned by the apprentice, such as how to think like the mentor. It’s one thing to idolize a movie star, to watch her films and imitate her fashion choices; yet admiring stardom does nothing to teach perseverance, work ethic, or how to cope with rejection.

The way we learn to think, both technically and attitudinally, is important. People who frame their reality with phrases such as, “I should have known better,” “This is never going to change,” “If that happens, everything will be ruined,” are said to have a pessimistic explanatory style. Albert Bandura has argued that one reason that all psychological therapies work to some degree for many people is that they all, at least to some extent, increase self-efficacy (a person’s “can-do” attitude). Greater self-efficacy results in stress-reduction and milder stress-reactions. Also, improved self-efficacy reduces perceived helplessness and the depression that often results from it.

Nature and nurture are intertwined aspects of a singular system that provides the framework for human development. Apprenticeship as a model for cognitive development can include a single novice and a single partner/mentor, but also leaves room for peers as resources in a group of novices. As my six-month-old studies the antics of his older brother, his reactions range from curiosity, to glee, to terror. He’s constantly discerning subtle and nuanced lessons, and his brother is his number one partner.

To My Children: Your life is not about how unobjectionable nor how extraordinary you can be, it’s about living as best you can in the context of society, one day at a time, and finding ways to rise to each problem in the series with confidence and optimism. That will take a lot of humility and cooperation, even when you are grownups—maybe especially when you are grownups. As you grow and learn (from one another and others) throughout your lives, I expect you to make the world a better place, in whatever ways you can. This is not a charge to fix a broken thing, but encouragement to nurture and emphasize the best and most beautiful that humanity has to offer. You are born problem-solvers; you will find a way.

The Rules of the Game

Photo credit: Luca Burattini, 2013 (International Pillow Fight Day, Trafalgar Square)

Photo credit: Luca Burattini, 2013 (International Pillow Fight Day, Trafalgar Square)

“There’s no raspberries allowed in this fighting game!” my four year old calls out. “There’s no tickling allowed in snow-fighting!” We pelt each other with soft, white bed pillows (“snowballs”). I tackle him without tickling him OR blowing raspberries on his belly button; he squirms away, giggling and breathing hard, to continue heaping all of his covers onto the opposite side of his bed. He is hoarding the snow, though I am less liberal about calling BS on his tactics.

These are the rules of any roughhousing game I’m willing to play:

  1. Try not to get hurt.
  2. Try not to hurt anyone else.
  3. When (inevitably) some frenetic misstep befalls the play, pause to show concern for injured or offended parties and apologize generously.

Hillary Frank, host and creator of the Longest Shortest Time, made it her 2015 new year’s resolution to “do more pillow fights” because, she claims, it is one of the most effective things she does against letting power struggles dominate her relationship with her five-year-old daughter. As in: parent-child dynamic getting a little tense and unruly? See if you can pause for a pillow fight. (Plus, pillow fighting is just fun).

And it doesn’t have to be pillow fighting, exactly. Frank got the idea from Lawrence J. Cohen’s 2013 book, The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears, in which Dr. Cohen advocates roughhouse play, generally, as a way to safely exercise power struggles, while also providing an opportunity for connection between parent and child.

More than that, Cohen and coauthor Dr. Anthony T. DeBenedet write, in their 2011 book, The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It, “Play—especially active physical play, like roughhousing—makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful.” DeBenedet even did a TED Talk on roughhousing, where he bemoaned what he calls the “marginalization of play” in the following forms: slashed gym programs and abbreviated recess in schools; physical, imaginative play replaced with screen time; too many fear-driven “hands-to-yourselves” rules; and an overemphasis on academic success as the highway to happiness. He advocates that we should fear apathy and stifled creativity far more than we should fear bruised shins or abraded elbows.

What?! Wow! Could pillow fighting be the antidote to whining and aggression? Could so-called horseplay be corrective of preschool histrionics and incessant fart-talk? Well… umbrella solutions are almost always too good to be true, but here’s the science behind Cohen and DeBenedet’s actual claims:

Smart: having or showing a quick-witted intelligence; clever; bright; able.  Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is released during physical play, is a chemical that stimulates neuron growth. So, those adorable, romping baby lions in the Sahara? They are practicing hunting skills and displays of dominance toward their future success, but they are also pollinating their brains, specifically the cortex and hippocampus regions, with BDNF. Those brain regions in mammals are responsible for learning, language, logic, and memory—the functions that make us “smart.”

Emotionally intelligent: able to recognize one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior; emotional awareness; social savvy.  This is where the rules come in. Rough-housing involves reading and regulating emotions. Anticipating another person’s “fight” moves means paying attention to where that person is coming from. Designing play tactics that comply with the rules of the game means regulating personal behavior in the heat of the moment. Players learn to intuit the ethic of reciprocity and how to challenge another person without posing threat, cruelty, or endangerment—great skills for navigating a lifetime of human interaction with efficacy. And all of that reining-in, amid chaos, amounts to the practice of regaining self-control, which is emotionally empowering.

Likable: easy to like; pleasant; friendly; good-natured.  Physical ease with another person is a declaration of trust and friendship. This declaration comes from an understanding of the difference between well-intentioned playfulness and antagonistic hostility.  Negotiation and leadership are implicit in the rules of the game: there needs to be respect, agreement, and commitment all around; and some sort of turn-taking is involved in equitable roughhousing. These practices prepare children to be good friends and partners.

Ethical: upholding behavioral principles; moral.  Moral development in animals correlates with play-behavior, especially physical play. Parents and older siblings model the kindness and restraint of someone stronger holding back when they allow someone smaller to win sometimes. This behavior both builds confidence in younger players, and also demonstrates to them a priority on the bonding/teaching opportunity over winning. When we understand that winning is not the end-all be-all, we are less easily swayed toward reckless, unethical risks in pursuit of the illusion of power that is winning, and we are free to feel less terrified of loss and failure. And, as educator Sara Wilford points out, children have more control over imaginary worlds when the images aren’t provided for them (as they are in television or video games). So by developing a game of physical conflict literally, iteratively, and together, children get to adjust the “plot” as they play and they are challenged to come up with their own (ethical) solutions to problems as they arise.

Physically fit: able to function effectively and efficiently in work and leisure activities; healthy.  Simply put, using the body in “free form” scenarios amounts to well-rounded development of complex motor skills, coordination, concentration, strength, and flexibility. And if roughhousing is done with gusto, your heart rate will elevate and you will break a sweat.

Joyful: feeling, expressing, or causing great pleasure and happiness; cheerful; exuberant; radiant.  Play is a human quest for, and an expression of, joy. We bond over it, we distract ourselves from worry with it, we share delight and humor through it. And every side effect of physical play listed here leads to more joyful living: wit, compassion, likability, ethical groundedness, and physical fitness.

So, should we pass over educational programming, participation trophies, and standardized tests in favor of some boisterous, good old-fashioned (and not-so-frivolous-after-all) rough and tumble play? Well, at least some of the time, yes!

To My Children: With a wistful burden on my heart, I reluctantly accept that one day wrestling your mom will lose some of its gleaming awesomeness. I have faith, however, that you will find willing and worthy opponents as you grow and that you will find a breadth of rich relationships in which to cultivate your intelligence, your kindness, your congeniality, your principles, and your joy. Meanwhile, “Ready, set… 3-2-1…Hut! Sumo!”

Leisure and the Language of Love

Artist's Palette and Brushes

“I have no time to myself.” I will admit this statement recently brought me to the brink of a truly demoralized state of being—as a mother of young children, it holds meaning like never before. With a tight throat and big, hot tears I cried, “It’s just…I haven’t been alone in a really long time!” And of course I don’t mean that I generally prefer solitude, but there are desperate moments when I have very little to give because my days haven’t included time for self-care, creativity, relaxation, and curiosity, and when I am not allowed those parts of myself, I stagnate and I don’t relate well with others. For these reasons the constant companionship of being “home with the kids” can be hard and lonely, even though it’s exactly where I want to be.

Sometimes I call the luxury of doing one thing at a time (or perhaps doing nothing for a moment) “whole brain, two hands.” As heartening and engaging as time with my children can be, they claim significant portions of both my mental and physical being whenever we are together, which is most of the time. Thanks to my village (a supportive spouse, the kids’ grandparents down the road, and friends who are into what my son calls “go playdates” [the ones where someone’s parents leave]); I see some leisure hours, even in my young motherhood—I spend some of them on this blog. In the moments when I have myself to myself, there appears an opening for conscious breath, unique observations, gratitude, and imagination. It’s refreshing to have the peace of mind to notice a thought-provoking or beautiful thing, to form a question or an idea that is unrelated to the needs of others.

Still, the other evening, after we put the kids to bed, I let my husband know that I felt like I needed some kind of indulgence before calling it a day. Yes, I was whining, even though I’m really trying to get my four-year-old to cut back on that same behavior, just a bit. That said, while no one likes an egomaniacal complainer (OR that grating octave my son is somehow able to achieve), I’ll ask for the same slack I try to remember to give him: people don’t whimper and moan because it makes them feel good, they do it because they feel bad and they don’t know how to feel better. Thankfully my husband understands that. He said, “Sounds like your day wasn’t good enough; we should work on that.” I had been thinking a taste of wine or whisky, maybe with a side of chocolate or comedy; however, I took his big-picture assertion to heart. Yeah, I thought, I bet people would spend far less time on escapism (in the form of food, drink, screen-time, or worse) if they felt generally contented—I know it’s usually some form of angst that drives me to my vices.

Culturally, we stigmatize leisure-time as “bougie,” a snobbish pursuit for the lazy at heart (think tee times, tea times, and zero meaningful contribution). Meanwhile, we praise the survival of stressful working conditions as “hard work”, we celebrate over-commitment (calling it “doing-it-all”), and we brag about sleep deprivation (attributing it to our laudable “busyness”).

Tom Hodgkinson, whose charming book is called, The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids, writes, “In our quest to give our kids everything, we fail to give them the two things they need most: the space and time to grow up self-reliant, confident, happy, and free.” In other words, we fail to teach the value of leisure. And doesn’t everyone, at any age, deserve space to be self-reliant, confident, happy, and free? Wouldn’t we be more contented by that than by anything we can click-to-buy? It may be time we stop disregarding leisure as a choice to do nothing and start revering it as an opportunity to do anything.

Throughout history, leisure-time has allowed for the study of interesting things for their own sake and has led to discovery, invention, and progress. Experimentation, exploration, innovation, and debate don’t happen unless people have time to encounter the world around them, to form passions, to focus, to revise their ideas.

Perhaps even more importantly, we need a certain amount of leisure-time in order to relate meaningfully to other people. Not only to spend time in their company, but to tune our brains to engage expressively with others. In order to continue to discover each other, we owe it to one another to stay rapt with life and thereby stay interesting. In this way, leisure can elevate love to something richer than simple loyalty. For those willing to take leisure seriously, trusted relationships can be more than a safe respite from the rat race; familiar interactions can be inspiring and fun. If we stopped underrating leisure (which is different than escapism), might we become more contented through leisure? Might we love better, feel more connected, and be more intelligent?

When the question,What’s new?” is met with, “Uh, I don’t know… Work?” that exchange is over. I think the typical teenage response is accompanied by a shrug or a glare and goes something like, “Nothing.” Both answers express a tone that begs, please leave my brain alone right now (perhaps less politely). Of course, we are all in that parsimonious mental state at times, the state that says “I’m anxious, stressed, and tired, and since my amygdala is firing with Yosemite Sam vigor and randomness, I really can’t process new information or recall old information right now.” I’ve been there a lot lately; I just had a baby.

It’s a natural, normal, brain space, evolved toward basic survival. However, human potential far exceeds survival. We are not an endangered species and where we thrive is in our creative minds, where we can hypothesize outcomes, conceptualize art, and find meaning in our lives. Synonyms for leisure are given as “freedom,” “rest,” “relaxation.” Happy people, not harried people, have the energy, the presence of mind, and the inspiration to share ideas and humor, contemplation and reflection. And sharing in this way is one of the most intimate human experiences. It’s how we know each other outside of physical recognition and a track record of behaviors.

How do we get there? Well, we have to change the paradigm: we have to aim to thrive; we have to make an effort to stop spreading ourselves so thin; we have to get some sleep.

And we have to stop imagining that gobs of wealth or luck are required to embrace leisure. Greater resources may provide broader opportunities for hobbies, vacations, and other non-work activities, yet leisure only requires basic security and basic education. Unfortunately, billions of people in the world live below the poverty line, hundreds of millions live with food insecurity, and according to United Nations statistics, adult illiteracy is around 800 million. On the up side, perhaps if we choose to value leisure we might develop a greater appreciation for the gifts of basic security and education.  Perhaps if more people prioritized leisure time, there would be more creativity aimed at solving such global and societal problems.

On a smaller scale, I hope to cultivate and exemplify a pace of life that allows adequate leisure—for the sake of my marriage, my children, and my mindset. The pursuit of leisure can only increase the happiness of all three. Leisure-time creates space for conversation outside of day to day business, and for romance. Leisure-time allows for unexpected encounters with people, places, and things. Leisure-time can be devoted to many facets of self-care, creativity, relaxation, learning, and intimacy.

Loreal isn’t selling leisure (in fact, vanity may be the evil mistress of leisure: an inversion of self-care), but why not prioritize leisure-time “because you’re worth it,” and value it all the more because no one is selling it to you?

To My Children: Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning writer Pearl S. Buck penned, “The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A…cruelly delicate organism [with] the overpowering necessity to create, create, create—so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

May you always find the leisure time to feel alive, to be in love, and to wax industrious in this way.

Memory Poem

Fresh red petals

His little kid lips part,

“When your dad was a baby

and we were his parents,”

The story begins;

And so life can seem

To twist in on itself

Repetitively,

Like an ancient nautilus shell.

In a city park

People hold hands

Forming circles inside circles:

“Are those all the

people in the world?” he asks

And so the world can seem:

So small, and yet it is so large;

And yet, say the stars, so small.

Still, I can search for days

In my mind

For things that I know are there,

Things I know that I know;

And yet, when he asked,

“What do lupines smell like?”

I didn’t think I knew,

But I do.

Happy Birthday

Note PicThis month I turned thirty-four. Four years ago, as I turned thirty, my waters ruptured and a quick, fierce labor brought my firstborn into the world. That was the beginning of my motherhood, a powerfully happy birthday, and it came hours after the last birthday party I would have for myself for a while. (Even that last one was a rather sedate dinner party, given my “condition,” as they say).

In motherhood, my own birthday has become less prominent. It may be that the enchantment of birthday parties loses something for most adults. After all, it is not just because I have children that I celebrate fewer of my own milestones, my life has become more stable, and my sense of self has settled into something less distinguishable from year to year. In fact, I feel lucky that I get to shine a light on my son’s birthday and deflect a lot of my own birthday hype that way. These days, as far as I’m concerned, his birthday is wildly exciting and mine just is. Of course I’m delighted when my birthday poses an excuse for people to reach out with thoughtful words or gestures; there is just no inherent thrill in turning thirtywhatever.

Someday I will party again. Maybe when I turn forty I’ll get some friends together for some kind of celebratory adventure, and I’ll get really excited about that event. At that point my sons will be six and ten and will probably look forward to a weekend away from me, doing their own special thing, with as much anticipation. Meanwhile, I’m happy to take the back burner. And while I’m at it, I thought I might as well take not-making-my-birthday-all-about-me to the next level. This year, I decided to go about making my birthday special to me in a less traditional way.

Making and distributing thirty-four homelessness care kits is what I settled on. And then, because so many things are commonly sold by the dozen, it became thirty-six. Homelessness is present, visible, and prevalent in my community, so homelessness kits seemed a relevant opportunity to educate my family about homelessness, cultivate empathy, and practice kindness.

Last fall I wrote about how our own generosity can make us feel kind and empowered. I gave some examples of how to collaborate with your children to make material donations or show kindness to others around the holidays. When researching what to do in honor of my birthday, I was inspired by Sheila Sjolseth’s penniesoftime.com efforts toward teaching kids to serve. I am moved by the idea that, through conscientious efforts, we might raise a generation that is able to temper the immediate feedback of social media and the speed of technological advancement with applied humanitarianism.

Homelessness is often categorized as a public nuisance or a political problem. I grew up thinking of homelessness as a static plight, as in, “some people are homeless: they are ‘the homeless.’” In recent years I’ve interacted with some of my community’s homeless population through my involvement with our local needle exchange, but in order to better understand the human face of homelessness, I did some further research. My sources were the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and The Huffington Post:

Who are “the Homeless?”

Individuals or families sleeping on the streets, in shelters, living in their cars, or taking up residence in tent communities are considered part of the nation’s homeless population. Many people who meet this description do not self-identify as homeless, since the title of homeless carries stigma, and because it’s not easy to personally accept homelessness. Less than 15% of the homeless population is chronically homeless (defined as long-term or repeated homelessness, often coupled with a disability). Homelessness is most often a temporary state; a person who is homeless may be considered “between homes,” much the way a person out of work can be said to be “between jobs.”

What Causes Homelessness?

Lack of Employment or Underemployment—These conditions mean loss of benefits and financial instability.

Lack of Affordable Healthcare—For families and individuals living paycheck to paycheck, facing an illness or disability can increase the risk of homelessness.

Domestic Violence—For battered women living in poverty, homelessness can be the only alternative to staying in an abusive relationship.

Mental Illness—A significant number of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness. About 40% of homeless men are veterans.

Addiction—For people who are poor, addiction can start a downward spiral into homelessness.

To assemble each homelessness care kit, I took a pair of athletic socks, and put one inside the other. I rolled the outer sock down to the heel and stuffed it with the following:

  • 1 toothbrush kit
  • 1 pack of wet wipes
  • 1 snack bar
  • 1 travel deodorant
  • 1 travel-size hand sanitizer
  • 1 small bar of soap
  • 1 lip balm

Once the sock was full, I pulled the top of the inner sock over the outside of the outer sock, using the force of elastic to make a neatly contained package.

Why this stuff? Homelessness is tough on feet, and keeping feet healthy is difficult in homeless environments, making clean dry socks a valuable commodity. The socks, lip balm, and snack bar are all intended to provide opportunities for comfort where comfort may be scarce. Toiletries allow a person to clean up a bit, to not “look homeless,” and that outward representation of worth and dignity can aid in a person’s recovery from homelessness, practically and psychologically.

I also included a hand written note in an envelope—as pictured above—and inside I copied out one of these four inspirational quotes:

That best portion of a good [life]…little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.
-William Wordsworth

No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.
-Aesop

How far you go in life depends on you being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.  
-George Washington Carver

Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.  
Seneca

Four years ago I spent my birthday giving life to my son. This year I hope our family will be able to brighten the lives of 36 people struggling in our community through another act of giving.

To My Children: Touching the life of a person currently experiencing homelessness is just one way that we can be good and do good in the world and I look forward to discovering more, together. All people grapple with some form of hardship or injustice, and if we can find ways to help each other, we all are made better for it. It helps to remember that every person among us was once a helpless, grinning infant who knew nothing but persistence and love.

The Dictator

the-world-on-a-stringMy three-year-old son’s voice quavers as his eyes well, “I wish Obama was never our president,” he spits, “I mean, I wish we had a dictator!”

“Oh, Honey…” I realize there has been a grave misunderstanding and so I attempt to soothe his grief with rationale and a hug; “It isn’t up to President Obama to decide when you can nurse or not. You know how I was telling you that a president’s job is to listen to everyone’s ideas and make compromises? And that compromise is meant to help most people get what they need most of the time? Well, in a family the parents have that job. And I’m sure you don’t want a dictator for the country or the family. Dictators don’t listen to what anyone else needs and they don’t compromise.”

There is a brief pause in our exchange while he composes himself. “Well, my baby brother is a dictator,” the three-year-old reasons earnestly, “because he gets to nurse whenever he wants.”

Oh, boy… (Two boys that is; now we have two.)

The preschooler has a point, but we are working on not “blaming the baby” for everything. As in, “You can’t [any number of things] because your little brother is [insert sleeping, eating, needs something, exists]. Calling him a dictator is next-level vilification, though it’s understandable. And considering that our firstborn had a nursing routine until about the time I became pregnant again, nostalgia and territoriality are certainly playing into his angst.

In fact, we are all responding to our newly reconfigured family with a slew of emotions including bittersweet nostalgia, hopeful excitement, overwhelming love, and bursts of acute stress response. And that compromise-negotiation part of the parent job? It’s harder than ever.

Our older son asks some fairly sophisticated questions these days and my husband and I muster what our tired brains can to offer him answers that are abridged but not dumbed down. I’ll go ahead and fault parental exhaustion for the mix-up that resulted in his statement against the president; but it’s easy to forget that simple assertions like “because he’s a baby” are nuanced and contextual in their own right. I’ve toyed with describing our new arrival as larval, since it would be an analogy relevant to his big brother’s current interests, but dehumanization doesn’t seem like the right path.

Still, we can all agree that a newborn is not much of a playmate. “Are you being a good big brother?” “Do you love your baby brother so much?” My three year old avoids these questions with flared nostrils, lifted chin, and a certainty that things ignored will surely go away. People don’t ask these questions with a “no” response in mind. It’s like when I’m asked if I’m “so in love” with my newborn: Well, the answer certainly isn’t “no,” but… Well, right now I’m mostly sleep-deprived, delirious, and scatterbrained.

Our culture promises that having children is one of the great pleasures in life, a sentiment echoed by parents. We say we are expecting a “bundle of joy.” We call our offspring precious, gorgeous, angelic. We say “if only we could spend more time with them.”

However, since the 80s, psychologists have been collecting data that supports a different reality. These studies link parenting—especially spending 24/7 with young children—with a measurable decline in happiness. “Moment to moment, you may be exhausted, frustrated, sometimes angry…You have more negative emotions,” says Dr. Peter Ubel, professor of medicine and psychology at the University of Michigan. And perhaps all the idiomatic hoopla about the glory of parenthood is a set-up for disappointment.

On the other hand, a recent study by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of Psychology at UC Riverside and author of The How of Happiness, offers an alternative to the “parenthood as just another daily grind” theory. She writes, “Parents randomly beeped throughout the day reported more positive emotions than nonparents, and parents reported more positive emotions and meaning when they were taking care of their children than when they were doing other activities, like working or eating.”

If Ubel and Lyubomirsky are both right, then perhaps we are talking about lowered baseline happiness, a sea level landscape interrupted by Burj Khalifa spikes of pure bliss. Bliss, like when my infant locks his gaze on mine, grinning and cooing. Or when my three-year-old throws his arms around me and says, “Let’s do cheek to cheek,” and lays his warm, pink cheek into mine; then, adjusting his head position, he murmurs “Now let’s do ear to ear;” then with, “Now let’s do nose to nose,” he nuzzles me head-on.

“Good” and “hard” are far from mutually exclusive; and both are relative, subjective, and personal. Even when the change amounts to the fulfillment of one’s efforts and aspirations, change is hard. I feel for the president, whose job it is to triage the needs of diverse factions of people and seek equitable compromise; and I stand by my assertion that worthy leadership in a family poses a similar challenge.

Parenting is demanding, but it’s enriching. As Dr. Karen Reivich, research associate in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “Happiness is more than just that smiley feeling, it’s also feeling a connection to something larger than yourself. When people are in service to something bigger, they describe their lives as filled with meaning…when it’s all over, you realize you’d do it again.” As parents, we get to realize that over and over again; and I don’t doubt my older son will eventually come to a similar perception of big-brotherhood.

To My Children: As the 1st century philosopher Epictetus said, “To be content is greater than riches, so love what you have.” It’s an opportunity for great happiness.

(Image via: http://timcoffeyart.wordpress.com/2012/01/07/totally-chaotic-world-on-a-string/)

My Own Backyard

ruby_slippers_by_mscholl21Bed rest is like a cross between a “staycation” and jail. Well, that’s unfair since I’ve only fantasized about what a staycation might be like, and most of what I know about jail time I learned from Orange is the New Black. Still, the intent to relax at home for an extended period makes me think of the former, and the emphasis on, let’s say, limited freedoms, reminds me of the latter. I’ve been trying to look on the bright side: to embrace the gift of time to sleep, meditate, contemplate, and to binge watch the second season of the aforementioned series on Netflix. Let me restate: maybe this is a little more like what I imagine house arrest to be (minus the ankle monitor, and also minus the liberty to, say, rearrange my closet several times over).

The Catch-22 I’m finding on bed rest is this: Time alone; a prescription to do as little as possible–what mom wouldn’t celebrate ten days of that? On the other hand, it amounts to a lot of time alone and just one thing to do: stay pregnant (and in case I have to tell you, the miracle of human reproduction doesn’t really obey anyone’s to-do list). Bed rest is all about relaxing, in a certain sense of the word, but it’s not comforting or fulfilling. Not to mention, for a writer, when bed rest collides with the death of a hard-drive, the obligatory time off is truly double-edged (I am limping through this writing effort in Notepad on a slow and unreliable old netbook). Woe is me.

That aside, I will admit here that as I’ve pictured my growing family over the last few months and imagined our lives evolving, there is something that I’ve worried a lot about: community. When I think about how to help my family thrive, “community” is an idea that motivates and inspires me. It also troubles me, in this mobile, global age. Not only does everyone seem to be untenably busy, over-connected, and over-committed, there is transience among even the settled. Families regularly hoist anchor as an educational or career move, to be closer to family, or to seek out a lower cost of living.

The concept of upward mobility is part of that equation. When we have limited resources and opportunities, we rely on each other. There are intrinsic rewards in reciprocal altruism; it is how humanity prospers. Yet personal freedoms and opportunities, ideals that underpin the individualism celebrated in American culture, allow and perhaps drive us to seek out greater prospects for ourselves. These are how an individual gets ahead.

According to that cultural narrative, we each have the right to leave home and follow our dreams, to lose touch with friends and family because we are too busy chasing time and money, and to isolate our efforts inward because it’s overwhelming to get involved in other people’s lives.

The cynic in me has even wondered if “keeping up with people” (the Facebook version of that aside) has much to do with community. Could it just be one more thing we do to measure personal success—a quantifiable measure of our general adequacy?

Yet–though I’ve worried that between my neuroticism and society’s it might be out of reach—my heart’s desire is to feel grounded in a sense of community and to foster reciprocal altruism in my life.

So, what does that have to do with bed rest? Well, despite the woe-is-me sentiment, there has been a clear silver lining to my temporary incapacitation: my sense of community has been affirmed. People have come out of the woodwork to offer empathy and assistance, to distract me with company or phone check-ins, to share their stories, to pay it forward with prepared food and play dates for my older son. I have never been so grateful for or so aware of my community. It’s humbling, awesome, and delicious.

Community isn’t something we can quantify because it isn’t something that exists outside of us… Living it makes it so.

To My Children: Home, to me, is less the roof over our heads and more about the people we love and care for, and those who love and care for us: our community. We are rich and lucky because of the wonderful people in our lives. As a certain young lady once said on the silver screen, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” Since sometimes the answers we seek (think that famous pair of ruby slippers) are invisible or unknowable until a key turning point in our personal journey.