Why We Have Kids During the First Half of Life

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Parenting is really hard.  Like REALLY hard.

(Don’t worry, this is not another post about how to parent or me lamenting about some parenting fail on my end…hang with me).

If anything has brought me to the absolute end of my rope, it’s with trying to raise my three boys. As many other parents of littles often bemoan, our children do not enter this world with an instruction manual.  And for everyone who says the Bible is God’s instruction manual for raising kids, I argue that crucial chapters must have been lost prior to publication, or canonization, whichever you prefer.

Some days I parent like a boss, am efficient, compassionate, and wise.  But who am I kidding, most days it feels like I’ve got nothing and hope at the end of my life I will get graded on a curve. If it weren’t for the objective outsiders who love me and have chosen to do life with me, I’d be an even bigger parenting mess than I am right now.

Thanks to a FB ad from Scientific American, I stumbled across a book called The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.  Of course, being the nerdy, desperate parent I am, I stepped up and got it on Audible.  I’m about halfway into it, and find it to be a really good read (or listen), along the same lines as work done by Dan Siegel and Susan Stiffleman, for parents out there who are seeking out wise voices in rearing these little creatures of ours.

One of the primary points that the authors of the Self-Driven Child are trying to make is that children in today’s world are lacking a sense of self control and self agency.  In fact, they point to studies that have been done showing that when children and young adults don’t have any sense of real control over their lives in any meaningful way, they are prone to developing depression and anxiety that can stick with them throughout adulthood. For children to develop sound mental health, they need to get a good grasp of their identity, which is found by being allowed to make decisions and mistakes, and try new things within fair limits and under the umbrella of their parents’ unconditional love. Basically, NOT helicopter parenting or authoritarian parenting.

When I was listening to the first handful of chapters of the book, I couldn’t help but notice how it correlated well with something Richard Rohr has taught about for years. In his work as a Franciscan priest, he has spent alot of time in prisons working with young men.  What he found over time was that many of these men in prisons grew up without fathers, they never gained a solid sense of identity and they never underwent an initiation into manhood. He researched cultures from around the world and found that initiation rites were foundational for men and women, but especially men, to enter adulthood as mature and purpose-driven.  Rohr went on to develop a program for men in contemporary Western culture that offer them a chance to experience an initiation of sorts.

Rohr also developed another idea of the first and second halves of life.  He argues that during the first half of life, we need a good, strong container – that is, we need a strong foundation with a solid identity. This first half of life container is what helps us learn to be successful in the world, survive, build security and families, hold down jobs.  But, he also points out that we must all have a second half of life as well, where we realize that we are powerless and not really in control of anything after all. Rohr argues that everyone will at some point reach the end of themselves; it may be precipitated by a mid-life crisis, or it may be on the death bed, but everyone will eventually realize that the identity they built up in the first half of life was really just an illusion and not the whole point of life after all. This is the stage of life where our true selves can begin to emerge.

It’s paradoxical…why build up an ego and identity, if you must simply have to shed it down the road?   Why build a life if you’re just going to have to die to it? I don’t know, I don’t really get it, but the Perennial Tradition makes this clear: you must construct an understanding of life so that you can deconstruct it, so that a true one can finally be reconstructed.  Or as the Dalai Lama puts it, we must “Learn and obey the rules very well so that you will know how to break them properly.”

Anyway, back to parenting. I’ve often wondered why we don’t have children when we are older and wiser.  Wouldn’t we be better parents by then?  I mean, grandparents are always calmer, kinder, and fun than parents.

But now I wonder if life built child-bearing into younger adulthood (for reasons other than the obvious ones like an 80-year woman with osteoporosis probably shouldn’t try to push out a baby from her hips) because it helps to offer part of the crisis we need to help jar us out of our first half of life containers and into the second half of life wisdom.

I mean seriously, what else will drive you into a sense of absolute powerlessness than children?  Like, when your six year old barfs on the moving walkway conveyor belt at the Boston airport and you have no freaking clue what to do as you watch vomit slowly move down into the belly of the contraption and you feel the need to apologize profusely to the airport maintenance who have to disable and disembowel the whole thing to clean it out?

Or when one of your children has emotional regulation issues and nothing you can say, do, or offer helps to reduce the massive temper tantrum they’ve been engaging in in an entirely inappropriate public setting?

Or….when you realize that you will have to endure at least 10 more years of non-stop potty humor and fart noises at the dinner table, in the car, at entirely inappropriate public settings, etc?

Parenting in the earlier part of adulthood is the perfect opportunity to ruin the strong identities we’ve built for ourselves, and we’re left with two choices: insist we still have control and try to convince ourselves of this until our children fly the nest…or, hold up the white flag, realize that as Eckhart Tolle says, our children may have passed through us, but they are not ours, and act as consultants more than dictators to help our children build up a strong sense of self and identity with which to launch out into the world.

We help them build up their identity while they help tear ours down.  What a tradeoff! Hmph.

Grandparents seem to have learned the lesson. Another reason old people don’t have babies…they wouldn’t have gotten to the wise place of powerlessness and loss of control without having first been aided by their own children.  By the time they get to their grandkids, they (generally) know which battles to fight, what really matters, and what doesn’t.   Grandparents have learned to let go of the illusion of control over children, embrace reality, and then proceed to pull their grandchildren out of the path of rampaging, frustrated parents and spoil the dickens out of them.

I kind of can’t wait to be a grandparent.  But as an Alabama friend of mine used to say, “Now ya’ll know, to get there you’ve got to leave here!” So, I will continue to work to step back and let my children strengthen their self-identities and first half of life containers by not trying to over-control them, while they doggedly and daily point out that any real control I have over their lives is illusory.  (And I smile smugly to myself, knowing that one day their own children will sweetly offer them the same courtesies.)

 

I’m Just Not That Into….Valentine’s Day.

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Photo credit: Meghan Dougherty

Disclaimer:  This post will likely not have anything all to do with science. Unless you consider the neurotransmitters in my brain that have helped me reframe and thus respond differently to Valentine’s Day than I have in the past.

I’m not going out tonight. I’m not getting flowers, chocolates, wine, teddy bears, or anything else colored red today. I’m not being romanced by anyone, nor am I pining away for anyone. I’m not listening to sappy love songs, and I’m not going to watch any cliche romantic Valentine movies.

And that’s perfectly OK with me.  In fact, I’m great with it, and I harbor no resentment or ill will or jealousy towards anyone who will be happily engaging in the traditional Valentine’s hoopla.   I think alot of the reason I’m fine with the current setup is that I’ve learned to change my perspective on what life brings me, and find the good out of what I used to categorically label as horrible.

There’s alot of people out in the world today who are hating Valentine’s or bemoaning the fact that Cupid must have been using a harmless nerf bow on them instead of getting it right and bringing them some great, true, faithful love. I completely empathize with people who aren’t having a great experience today, but I’d like to offer my own personal list of why I just don’t think Valentine’s is worth getting wrecked over.

Listed, in no particular order, except for maybe #1…..I’m happy to have a non-romantic Valentine’s day because…

1. I get to pick the bottle of wine tonight, and I don’t have to share.  It’s a Chianti, by the way…

2.  Meals at restaurants on Valentine’s Day are ridiculously overpriced and frequently underwhelming.

3. I am not a fan of the consumeristic, contrived expectations that come with Valentine’s. I mean really, how much do you have to spend on someone to prove your love?

4. If someone can only conjure up meaningful romance towards me on Valentine’s day, then there’s not much substance to our relationship to begin with.

5. Valentine’s day has always seemed to be a subtle game of comparison.  Who gets what, how big is it, how expensive is it, how novel is it… . it’s just one more way for people, especially women, to employ ranking systems.

6. I personally am more thrilled when someone cleans my kitchen  or randomly sends me an unexpected gift on another day, than all the froo froo that comes with Valentine’s. I don’t want jewelry…I want BOOKS.

7. Romance is fueled by obligation, guilt, or hormones. (Oh look, there’s some science!).  Not to say there’s anything wrong with romance and the sweaty palms and beating hearts that come with it, but the state of being “in love” is unsustainable in the long term.  We fizzle out after a period of time with the other person, and unless there’s some foundation that’s been laid beneath the hot romance, the relationship will struggle.  It’s much more appealing to me to have a person who comes through for me 75% of the time and completely spaces Valentine’s day than it is for someone to blow Valentine’s day out of the water yet never really gets to know me or be there when it counts.  Anyone can manage one day out of the year; the true test is the people that stick with you over the long haul.

8. I don’t get worked up over not having a fancy Valentine’s day because I am very well loved already. I have my tribe of people – the ones who have seen me ugly with bedhead and no makeup, the ones who have heard me swear like a sailor, the ones who know my deepest shame and worst failures, the ones who know my dreams and what I most fear, the ones who push me to be my best self, the ones who hold to me when I’m not a good friend and don’t love them back well.

The fact is, at some point we’ll all get ugly, we’ll all get saggy in spots, and maybe we’ll eventually stop making adequate amounts of sex hormones ,which will result in a lost interest in or physical ability to do romance anyway.  But the thing that stays is our capacity to connect with others on a deeper, more meaningful level than romance or sex can take us. To truly know other people, and be known by them, will always be more important to me than whether or not I have a hot Valentine’s date.

9. Finally, I am my own best Valentine.  I will never leave myself, I always look out for myself, I’m really good at picking out gifts for myself, it doesn’t take much to impress or amuse myself, and in general, I show up for myself when it matters. And when I get down deep to my core, past the ego and selfishness to my true self, I live and move and have my being in the great, good Love that connects all things.

 

 

 

Show Up For Yourself

love you

There have been certain times in my life where the Universe seems to be trying to teach me about something.  Either that or it is just alot of random coincidence converging on me in a short amount of time. Two particular cases that really stuck with me were the topics of baptism and the book of Revelation, back in college.

It seemed like every time I turned around during my junior year, the topic of baptism would come up in church, in lectures, in random settings.  I could not get away from it.  I now know every baptism related scripture verse, every possible understanding of the texts, and have probably heard almost all of the possible jokes surrounding baptism-like, does it count if you’re baptized in a mirage?  Or, what if you drown while being dunked and don’t make it back out of the water before you die?

During the last half of college and for a while after, every time I turned around or visited a new church, it was all about Revelation.  Pre-tribulation, post-tribulation, amillennialism, amillennialism with moderate preterite tendencies, Jesus rapture or no Jesus rapture…on, and on, and on. In many settings, my being unwillingly thrust into another Revelation experience was preceded by (read this in a sing-song, Southern accent): “We’re going to be doing a Bible study on the book of Revelations!”  By the way, if you ever hear someone say the book of Revelations in regard to a Bible study, I can tell you with about 99% accuracy the specific content that will be covered and with what degree of literalism.

Was the Universe really concerned about my grasp of the various permutations in understandings of baptism and Revelation?  Meh, I don’t know. But I can say this: whenever I attend a church who announces they will be covering either of these topics, I will decidedly not be showing up those Sundays.

On to the point of this post.  I’m encountering another period where the same topic keeps showing up in my life from multiple avenues.  Maybe it’s the universe, maybe it’s just because of the tribe of people I hang out with, the books I read, the podcasts I listen to, etc.  This new idea that is hitting me from all angles?  The need to show up for YOURSELF.

So, last night I went on a date. It turned out to be a date with myself and my 16 oz Blue Moon, because the guy that was supposed to meet me never showed up.  Years ago, pansy, no self-confidence Julie would have been hulimilated, feeling rejected, and completely anxiety-ridden about having to sit by myself at a restaurant. I would have told myself stories like: “He probably saw me from the window and took off.” “I bet he magically figured out from my online profile that I have nystagmus and he just couldn’t handle someone whose eyes involuntarily move ninety-to nothing.” “I probably screwed up again and miscommunicated about where and when we were supposed to meet.” “I’m a complete dork…of course things would go this way.”

In the past, I would have projected all kinds of stories onto the situation and ended up feeling horrible. But, because I’ve learned a thing or two over the last decade, and even the last month, and I have had people show up for me in life, this is how I responded to the situation: “Hmm, too  bad for him…I’ll see if some of my friends are available to join me.  Oh, they’re not.  Well, hey!  I get all the chips and salsa to MYSELF!” And I proceeded to chow down on the chips (which I’ll have to run off today) and enjoy my beer and….it was fantastic.  I thoroughly enjoyed my own company.

Last night’s no-show was a great exercise for me to practice showing up for myself.  Unlike unwanted insertions of more baptism and Revelation into my life that make me want to gouge my eyes out, I willingly embrace this learning to show up for myself.  Because, myself is all there really is.

No, this is not me being narcissistic and thinking that everything exists for me.  Rather, it’s about the three following ideas:

  1. I’m the only one that will always be with myself.  I will never leave myself, even when others come and go
  2. My ideas about other people are really just my projection of my own beliefs and stories onto them.
  3. People mirror back to me reflections of myself.

Point number 1 is pretty easy to grasp.  We all know we’re stuck inside our bodies until we die…there’s no hopping around to other people, and we can’t really check out from ourselves.

Point 2: What we see and believe about other people comes entirely from our thoughts and perceptions about them. We can never REALLY know another person or their motivations.  We can only speculate about them based on our thoughts. And just because a thought comes down the pipeline of our brain does not make it true, no matter how true it might feel.  It is still biased and subjective on some level.

Point 3: Scientists frequently talk about mirror neurons in child development.  They suggest that children learn behaviors and skills by watching the adults in their lives and then mirroring it back with the help of specialized “empathy” nerve cells.  Anyone with children knows this phenomenon is true, both for good and bad.  It’s super cute when your baby mirrors back peek-a-boo, but not so cute when they mirror back the “God dammit!” that you let fly out of your mouth when the toilet overflowed from excessive toilet paper insertion.

People mirror back to us what we believe about the world.  If we see the world as malevolent and dangerous, we experience anger and danger from other people. If we see the world as good and abundant, we experience that abundance in our relationships and daily life.  It’s all a matter of how we perceive things and what thoughts we believe about reality.

Back to showing up for myself. If I’m going to be the only one who is certain of sticking with myself through it all, and my life is really just about the stories I project onto it, then it seems like I need make myself a priority. Obviously I’m not talking about doing whatever I want at the expense of others. What I’m talking about is getting to know and value  MYSELF at the deepest level possible.

Our tendency is to worry about how others perceive us, and then mold and present ourselves in ways that will please them, or at least grant us some level of favor in their eyes. We frequently do this to the detriment of our hearts and betray our own core values. Which, when you think about it, is really kind of dumb when there’s no guarantee that those people will ever come through for you or stay forever, and what you think they think of you is probably a projection anyway.

The things I’m talking about here can feel kind of nebulous, and maybe won’t resonate with anyone.  The first time I heard these kinds of ideas I thought it was alot of New-Agey crap. But the more I observe my own life, the more and more I believe that it comes down to me.  Of course, I’ll pursue meaningful relationships, and I’ll do the best I can to really KNOW other people, and I’ll try to live my life in such a way that others are benefitted.   But…in my mind’s eye I’m thinking of an asymptotic curve (you learned about these at some point in high school math).  An asymptote is a line that a curve approaches as it heads toward infinity, but it can never quite reach that line.  My analogy is this:  we may be really, really accurate about the way things are and know about other people, but we can NEVER be completely accurate.  And so I am left with this: I am the asymptotic curve.  All I can really know is myself and where I am.  I can never completely know anything for sure outside of me. And so, showing up for myself, and really being authentic to my core, and loving myself, is all there really is.

Others will leave you, but you will always have you.  So, love yourself well, and make sure and show up every time.

I should recommend the book Loving What Is by Byron Katie.  If you pick it up, the first time through you will think she is a nutty old lady who does not have a firm grasp on reality. But if you hang with her, what she says about only having yourself in life will start to make sense.

 

The Great Allowing

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I’m becoming suspicious that my second-born son is a little mini-me.  I’ve taken to calling him Preacher, because he is fascinated with anything related to God, as I was at the same age.  He is definitely latching on to the evangelical Christian story, and feels the need to defend God at every turn.  At Christmas he was offended when the local drive-through Christmas light event only paid homage to Jesus through one small display.

Part of  me is thrilled that he has a spiritual side to him, a side that sees and is enthralled with more than can just be seen with the naked eye.  But part of me is afraid for him.  I fear the unlearning that he may have to endure as I did in my twenties and early thirties.  I want to control the growth and evolving of his understanding of God and the divine: to protect him, to keep him from latching onto unhelpful dogma, to keep him from being the me of my own youth.

Inevitable in discussions with my son are conversations about the beginning of life.  Just this week were visiting the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, one of our favorite places.  In one exhibit, overhead were posted these words by Carl Sagan: “If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the sun and the stars?”

Preacher was quite upset by this, and told me that we shouldn’t be worshipping the sun or stars, but only God.  This led into a discussion about the Big Bang, and I told him that when we are awestruck by what exists and has been created, we are worshipping God.  Besides, I told him, we are all stardust. We should honor that from whence we came. This further vexed him, as he is still more well read in Genesis than he is astronomy.

My conversations with Preacher brought me back to questions I have been grappling with in my own spiritual introspection.  The primary one I have dealt with of late is the struggle to accept reality as it is and then try to reconcile that with the understanding of a good Creator.  I’m more of an atheist these days…I believe in a force that is holding all things together and is the essence of life, but I can’t swallow a truly theistic notion of God anymore.  But despite this, something in me insists that this Ground of Being has to ultimately be good.  I really have no clear, succinct arguments or empirical evidence for this…I just believe it in my bones.

Which brings the age old dilemma that millions before me have faced….how can bad things and evil be part of or come from something that is good? I don’t know.  But I think maybe the Big Bang idea speaks of the goodness of this Ground of Being.  I’m calling it the Great Allowing.  My very limited understanding is that before the Big Bang, all the stuff that would soon explode outward was compressed into an immensely dense state….a state of extreme potential energy. And then boom…the universe burst forth and began its outward expansion and fusion created new elements and somehow over billions of years the right elements joined up at the right place in the right environment and life began.  Freaking amazing when you think about it.

And then, it seems to me, God, the Ground of Being,  let the universe take its course. Seemingly limitless possibilities were allowed. Maybe this galaxy would form over here.  Maybe this would form over there.  Maybe in this tiny corner of the galaxy the right circumstances would line up for a place called Earth to grow people.  And those people will be subject to countless factors that will influence their lives and interactions with each other.  And they will do horrible things to each other and the places they live, but they will also love dangerously and beautifully and sacrifice themselves for the good of others and those same places that they live.

What I’m trying to say is that it seemed like God sure took a huge chance when he decided to open Pandora’s Box of Big Bangs. The outcomes could be wonderful, or they could be disastrous. But he was willing that it happened.  The Great Allowing commenced.

We all tend to think that we are dancers dancing life.  But I like the way I recently heard Byron Katie put it, that we are the dance and Life is dancing us. Life is the dancer.  Or what if, life is the Ground of Being, God, and he (sorry, English is lacking in good neutral pronouns) is dancing us.

I tend to be afraid to allow alot of things in my life. Control has been a great hallmark of all that is Julie, I just never recognized it until a couple of years ago. But….2017 was the most courageous year of my life.  Some days I look back and am like, “Damn, girl! You ALLOWED a whole lot of stuff over the last year!” I allowed myself to face some of my biggest fears. I allowed myself to try hard things and dream big dreams. I allowed myself to love quickly, wildly, with abandon, when in the past I would have shrunk back into the shadows, afraid of being hurt. I allowed myself to say no, and I allowed myself to say yes. I allowed myself to dig deep inside myself to uncover more of who I really am…the things that I love about myself and the things I despise. I allowed myself to sit long with hard emotions, and I allowed myself to “Fuck it all!” on some of my really dark days. I opened my hands and allowed many things to land, and many to freely fly away.

This is what I learned from my own year of Great Allowing: I felt more alive than I’ve ever felt in my entire 37 years. I felt real, authentic, genuine…even if I didn’t always like certain aspects of myself. Everything seemed more meaningful, even though I had fewer answers about everything than ever.  There were days I felt like a really great human, and days I felt like I probably sucked worse than any human that has ever lived, but at the same time, I felt like I could accept it because this is what being human is like, and this is what the dance looks like when life is dancing in a temporarily crummy person.

I do revere the stars, and the sun, because they remind me that whatever is behind life, Ground of Being or God or some clockmaker in the sky…it is not scared of letting go of all control, is not afraid of allowing whatever will happen to happen. If that same dancer, who wound up the tune of the universe and danced as the music box opened with delight, then somehow I believe I can trust life to dance me well, this tiny, insignificant little waltz in the corner of a spiral galaxy.

 

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!

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Photo credit: Mycatkins

I have ADD. More specifically, I have the subtypes of inattentive ADD, anxious ADD, and overfocused ADD. And, I have the brain scans to prove it, courtesy of the Amen Clinic, my former upper-middle class status with fantastic insurance, and my white privilege enabling me to cross the country just to spend the weekend inside a SPECT machine.  Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have been able to see what all is going on in the mess between my ears.

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This is my brain without any stress or concentration. The white and red indicate activity.  So, here my brain is functioning pretty well.
brain 1
This scan shows the activity in my brain when under stress or having to really concentrate.  Much of the activity decreased in most areas of my brain.

Basically what these two particular scans are showing is that when I have to think really hard or am put into stressful situations, my head short circuits.  At other times, I get hyper-focused and obsessive about certain thought patterns.  Most of the time I’m able to compensate for this fairly well, and now that I understand what is going on, I can plan ahead for some of my brain farts. But sometimes, especially if I’m put on the spot with a question or task when I’m already nervous, I am left paralyzed and clueless.

Here’s an example.  Last semester during one clinical, the nurse I was working with asked me what the classic signs of a heart attack are.  We were taking care of a patient who was experiencing chest pains, and we were deciding whether or not she was really exhibiting heart issues or if she was just having anxiety.

When the nurse asked this question, I just went completely blank. I could not think and could not produce any kind of intelligent answer.  It was so frustrating because the question was not a difficult one. This kind of scenario leaves me in a panic, frantically searching the databases of my mind and coming up empty.  The result is that I feel completely incompetent, and it only increases my anxiety level, which makes everything worse. A second side effect of having these types of ADD is that I can be completely blind to things at time.  If I’m nervous or stressed and am looking for something, I can literally not see it even if it is right in front of me.  This phenomenon drives me crazy, to say the list, especially when it makes me look entirely stupid.

Over the last several years, I’ve been trying to incorporate practices into my life that will help calm my brain.  ADD drugs have never been helpful for me…they make me hyper for a week and then stop doing anything.  So, I needed alternative methods to help soothe my nerves, literally.  I’ve found that doing yoga and sitting meditation have helped tremendously in this area, because they force me to be where I am at that moment, and only focus on what is right in front of me.  I have also learned that if I get less than eight hours of sleep at night, the next day will include multiple episodes of brain freeze.

There is a word play off an old adage that goes “Don’t just do something!  Sit there!” This mindset totally goes against most of our natures.  We believe that to solve problems or change things, we must do, do do.  I totally fall prey to the mindset that I will find my answers externally, and if I just work harder or find the right book or talk to the right person, or, or, or…I will discover the solution to my problem.  The same happens when I’m having one of my ADD attacks. Instead of leaning into the discomfort of my brain momentarily shutting down and letting it calm itself, I internally panic and start grasping for anything to help me feel right again. This never fixes anything, and only exacerbates my anxiety, which then lengthens the time my brain is out of service.

What I’m gradually learning over time, but still regularly forget, is that when things blow up in our faces, the best thing to do initially is to not react. We need to just sit there and look that situation or person head on without judgment.  Because when we jump into action straightaway without letting it be, we are acting out of our beliefs and thoughts about that situation or person, and our thoughts may or may not be true.  Or, as in my case with ADD and I literally have NO thoughts that will come, I’m just reacting out of habit and knee-jerk reflexes, which have never been helpful in these circumstances.

It is better to sit and watch and understand before we try to do anything. Then, with time, out of a calm and relaxed mind, we can make balanced decisions about how to proceed, without being motivated by fear, or for me, blind panic.

“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you. “

-Thich Nhat Hanh

 

I Know Why People Stay

Stay
I just started my third semester of an accelerated nursing program. (Woo hoo!  Only 32 LONG weeks to go…) During our orientation for Community Nursing, a local social worker came and did a short presentation on domestic violence, and the cycles that cause people to stay in or return to bad relationships.

It is an insidious cycle, that gains more momentum with each turn. Some type of abuse occurs, followed by a honeymoon stage, where the perpetrator tries to draw the victim back into a false sense of safety and acceptance with loving gestures, flowers, gifts…  Then, tension begins to build as the abuser’s dark side again begins to manifest itself, finally resulting in another abusive event.  This cycle continues and continues until the victim feels completely incapable of leaving the situation because of fear, manipulation, and sometimes the belief that they are at fault or must “save” their abuser.

During the orientation, the social worker offered us a short role role play, where an “abused” mother was handed heavy books representing all the difficult things she would face if she tried to leave the abusive relationship she was in.  Delayed court dates, struggle to find childcare, manipulation and intimidation by the abuser, lack of good community resources, lack of family support, potential for getting fired at work….the list went on and on until the role play volunteer was holding a hefty stack of heavy books in her arms, looking defeated herself.

I compared this role play to my own life. I didn’t leave my marriage because of blatant abuse, but so many of the outcomes of the role play still rang very true with me. It got me to thinking about how people in our culture view those who get divorced, why so many of us stay in bad marriages, and maybe how we should start reframing the whole divorce narrative.

First of all, I want to point out some things I’ve noticed about marriage and divorce, especially related to the “Christian” culture that still pervades much of our society and influences dynamics that occur within churches. I must preface by saying I’m throwing out some big generalizations, but I think there is truth in all of them, especially after the countless conversations I’ve shared about them with other people.

  • In many circles, marriage offers a step up in citizenship.  I noticed this shift personally both within my family and within churches that I attended.  Singles are given lip service, but the “sacrament” of marriage still carries so much weight that people are treated as though they are even just a bit more worthy, more capable of offering something to the outside world, if they are in a legally bound partnership. I can recall all the dumb books I read growing up that circulated among so many people I knew.  I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Lady in Waiting, and countless other dating and courtship treatises weighing down Christian bookstore shelves that taught us how to prepare ourselves for the ultimate initiation rite of marriage.  Looking back at them, it’s all quite nauseating to me.  We believed if we could just get to marriage, we would arrive…and in some cases, like mine, we did arrive. My status definitely improved in many ways.
  •  In the same way that marriage offers us a leg up, even in our modern culture, divorce causes us to take a step backwards.  Actually, I would venture to say even several steps backwards….even below where we were as virgin singles. Those who have been through a divorce get it, but so many who haven’t exude skepticism about our marriage commitment in the first place, or one’s connection to God, or one’s effort to make the marriage partner happy, or etc, etc.  I suspect this is partly why so many people rush back into marriage…partly out of loneliness, and partly because we want to be treated like whole, complete people again.
  • I’ve gone to so many conferences, retreats, and Christian counseling sessions where a another hefty pile, this time guilt, is handed to people struggling in their marriages.  You made a vow before God, you need to honor it. You decided to marry this person, now it’s for life.  Women, you need to respect your husbands. Women, it really only takes a few minutes…will it really kill you to give your husband what he wants? You’re just being selfish. Men, you were placed as the head of your household by Christ, you need to lead it properly.  And on, and on.  (And don’t even get me started on how the definition of rape needs to be broadly expanded within the institution of marriage….and the definition of nagging and hen-pecking for that matter.)  The bulk of these platitudes thrust on me, even by well-intended people, never helped me at all

All of this is to say: I think the main reason that good people stay in bad marriages is not because they are more committed people, or more God-fearing, or more sacrificial.  I think it’s because they are freaking scared of the alternative: a fall from status and alot of really hard things to sort out for an indefinite period of time.

I was chatting with a friend recently and told her, “This is the kind of day that makes people stay in a bad marriages.”

You know, the kind of day when you can’t find a last minute babysitter, and you have a $2,000 leaky roof bill, and you can’t figure out how you’ll save for college on your own, and your kid is throwing up at school but you can’t leave what you’re doing to get him, and you have to board your dog for the day because otherwise you’ll come home to an accident on your already gross carpet, and you can’t go to the doctor for anything less than an antibiotic-resistant flesh-eating bacteria because you have a ridiculous deductible, and you can’t remember the last time you were hugged by an adult much less kissed or held by one, and you’re afraid you’re going to freaking go out of your mind trying to coparent with someone you don’t even recognize anymore, and you’re praying that your kids aren’t ingesting too many endocrine disruptors because of the crap you’re feeding them lately, and  you want to go out with your friends but based on your current schedule you can see that maybe happening next month…and..and..and…

This, friends, is why people stay in bad marriages. Because we aren’t taught that we can make it on our own, or that we have inside us what we need to survive.

Now, I should clarify, there are some marriages that really should be fought for.  But let’s just call a spade a spade and recognize that some broken marriages are necessary endings.  Necessary not always because of abuse or infidelity, but because the people in the marriages are suffocating and living out of motivations based in fear.  Which is not how ANYONE should be living.

This is how I lived for years.  Oh, I’d tell myself I was doing it for Jesus, but that was only superficially true.  I stayed because I was scared of regressing to my pre-marriage status, of pissing off God, of being judged by my family and the people around me, and of screwing my kids lives up forever.  And I know I’m not alone in this…I know alot of people who have lovely looking marriages on the outside, who appear to be thriving in this “staying together under God’s umbrella of blessing” idea, but in reality, at least one of them is dying inside.

So, to reframe…

Christian culture shames the heck out of divorced people, and places so much emphasis on the traditional nuclear family.  But I say that in a good number of cases, the people who chose divorce were actually the bravest people of all.  I know what some of you are thinking…Julie, don’t you think commitment is important?  Julie, what about the kids in these situations?  Julie, don’t you believe in keeping promises and the importance of family? I get it……but…

Sometimes staying in an unhappy marriage is the safe thing to do.  And for a time, this may serve us well, just like it did me.  In fact, I think it was a growing field for me – a place for me to grow brave in other areas of my life first.  But to finally break free into a world of uncertainties and unknowns takes a whole freaking lot of courage – it doesn’t matter if you’re the primary breadwinner and make a crap ton of money or if you’re having to build a new career over from the ground up.  Leaving the familiarity and safeness and status that comes with marriage is so hard.

So going back to the people who have been abused in relationships.  I TOTALLY get now why many return to the situation again and again – if it took me so many years to leave something that wasn’t abusive -and the rest of us have absolutely no business shaming them. So many of us stay in bad marriages for far fewer reasons than people caught in the cycle of domestic abuse with everything, including survival, on the line.

Staying in any situation in life just because of fear is a horrible way to live.  I fervently believe that while we may not always agree with a person’s reasons to leave a relationship, we should absolutely ALWAYS applaud them when they are breaking free from the tyranny of fear, “you should”s, and shame-based beliefs that have held them there.

A Short Note on Dancing with Life

 

 

dancing
Moody Fotografi
“The sacred sense of beyond, of timelessness, of a world which had an eternal value and the substance of which was divine had been given back to me today by this friend of mine who taught me dancing.”
― Hermann Hesse

 

I woke up in the middle of the night last night with a serious panic attack. I was thinking I can’t make it and everything I’ve worked so hard for over the last year and a half is going to crumble. It’s tough co-parenting with an ex, and scheduling school and work is an exercise in trying every permutation possible with a limited number of hours and days available to me.  Will my money hold out? Am I making good decisions? And I sure hope I still like nursing at the end of all of this.

Of course, my panic attack might have been precipitated by having a little too much Fireball when I was already tired and stressed.  Anyway…

After my hyperventilation and near-crying episode, I fell back into a dream where I was ballroom dancing on a stage with a man I’d never met.  We were performing before an audience that I couldn’t see because of the bright stage lights, and while dancing I was thinking to myself…what the hell am I doing here?  I don’t know how to dance!  But somehow I trusted his lead, and we danced and twirled and dipped. The dancing in my dream wasn’t imagined. I vividly recall a full five minutes of being part of an actual dance. I was charmed and laughing and allowed myself to be spun around the floor with little concern for what the audience thought. My partner was laughing as well, and whispering throughout the dance about how great we were doing. I don’t remember getting tired or feeling uncertain. It was kind of magical, as dreams can often be. The guy in my dream also resembled Rob Thomas wearing trendy glasses, so that imagery didn’t hurt either.

I woke up this morning thinking about that dream, and wondering if it was a metaphor about life. Maybe my subconscious was reaching out to me with encouragement?  Maybe it was the Fireball? Either way, I thought about the possible meaning of this sleep experience all day. If I had fought against the partner in my dream, insisting that I didn’t know what I was doing and was going to make a fool of myself, the dance would have been ruined. But instead, I moved into his arms and let him guide me where we needed to go, and the result was effortless and  pure joy.

Life is hard as shit sometimes, there’s no doubt about it and it doesn’t always feel like elegant, graceful choreography.  There are so many things I wish I didn’t have to go through, and so many times when I fight and scream and absolutely make a fool of myself trying to avoid pain and hard things.  But if I’m honest with myself, life has been good to me. I have changed so dramatically over the last ten years in ways that I once thought were impossible. I’m braver, more authentic, and have a greater capacity for love, even if I’m still learning what that really means. So, I will keep trusting and trying to lean into this partner of mine that is life, who is patiently teaching me the steps to an enchanted dance.