How I Kicked My Perfectionism

the-creative-exchange-682637-unsplash

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a neat person. Once I was out from under my mom’s reminders, I never made my bed, washed my dishes in a reasonable time frame, or kept my room clutter-free.

It didn’t bother me too much at first, but by the time I became a mother, the guilt caught up with me. When company came over, I scrambled to pull a thin facade of cleanliness and discipline over the disaster zones. Something had to give.

I tried excuses: “I’m a new mom; I’m tired.” I tried adjusting my expectations: “Who says a disciplined person needs to have her bed made every day? Mess is a sign of genius, anyway!” I tried psychoanalyzing: “All those years as a stay-at-home daughter guilted me into thinking it’s my duty as a woman to keep the house clean above all else!” I tried prioritizing: “I’d rather spend time with family than keep my house clean.” I tried rationalizing: “The floor’s just going to get dirty again, so why exert too much effort to keep it clean?”

Nothing worked to either alleviate my guilt or motivate me to clean.

Drowning, I turned to Marla Cilley, a.k.a “The Flylady,” who promised to teach inept homemakers like me how to get their house in order once and for all. The very first step was getting my kitchen sink clear and shiny before bed, every day.

I thought that was a stupid and meaningless thing to focus on, but desperate times called for desperate measures. I shined my sink as baby step number one, eventually adding on other routines throughout the month — laying out next day’s clothes, making my bed every morning, and giving the bathroom sink and toilet a quick swish and swipe every morning. I followed her daily missions, decluttering and cleaning different zones in my house.

It’s been two months, and my apartment is in great shape. Not perfect, but I feel in control of the mess and free of guilt. If company drops by, I no longer rush to shove stuff into closets, slam doors to hide messy rooms, or apologize profusely for not having enough time to clean a cruddy toilet. I now can’t imagine not making my bed or folding up the throw blanket after I use it. I get up in the morning and immediately start putting away dishes. I’ve turned into my industrious mother — I, the girl who left a bowl of encrusted macaroni out in her dorm room for months.

What changed?

I figured out the root issue: I wasn’t undisciplined or lazy, per se. I didn’t need a new outlook on the joy of cleaning. I just needed to kick my perfectionism.

In all of her emails and articles, the Flylady constantly hammered perfectionism out of me. I did only a little each day. I couldn’t tidy up my house in one go like Marie Kondo insisted, but I could shine a sink. I religiously prohibited myself from doing any cleaning other than what the Flylady prescribed in the baby steps.

“We do what we can today, and then we do a little more tomorrow,” said the Flylady.

“Progress over perfection!” her emails reminded me.

Something over nothing, I chanted to myself whenever I wanted to throw in the towel.

This simple phrase has revolutionized my life.

Without realizing it, I had expected myself to be able to do the impossible (make your apartment look perfect all the time!), or the possible in an impossible time frame (clean everything even though your baby kept you up all night!). Again and again, I failed those impossible expectations, heaping shame, guilt, and discouragement over me until I was too petrified to do anything productive.

Subconsciously I was thinking, “Why wash the dishes when I don’t have the energy to keep the rest of the house clean?” The Flylady taught me to think, “I don’t have the energy to clean the rest of the house, but I can wash the dishes and be done for the day.” And not only “be done,” but to celebrate that small accomplishment, to focus on what I could do and what I did do instead of everything I couldn’t do or didn’t want to do.

With my perfectionist expectations exploded, I succeeded all the time. The successes gave me more energy and motivation to do a little more the next day, or to bounce back a couple days after that if I didn’t do much the next day, after all.

was disciplined! I wasn’t lazy! I could keep my house clean! And out of that newly-found self, I kept challenging myself without burning out.

“Your house didn’t get messy in one day,” the Flylady said, “and you won’t be able to get in clean in one day, either.”

Words I now live by.

I truly feel like I’ve kicked perfectionism’s hold over my life. And not just in the housecleaning area — I apply the mantra “something over nothing” to developing habits or tackling projects in other areas of my life, like using kinder words to my husband, writing, and working out.

“I don’t want to work out today,” I’ll say to myself. “I’m too tired. But I should work out today. Do I do something I hate, or do I feel guilty for the rest of the day?”

“No,” myself will say back, “it’s not that you don’t want to work out today. You just don’t want to drive to the gym and run on the elliptical for half an hour. What about cycling while watching Netflix? What about yoga at home? What about ten minutes on the elliptical? What’s something you do want to do, instead of doing nothing at all?

The biggest gift I got from learning how to keep my apartment clean wasn’t a clean apartment. It was learning that when I dodged my perfectionism and did something, I could do whatever I set my mind to.

Slowly. Imperfectly. But eventually.

And that’s something, indeed.

Advertisements

A Pragmatic Defense of Civility

nina-strehl-140734-unsplashCivility is a dirty word in social justice circles right now.

I understand why. It’s ridiculous to care more about being polite than about babies being torn away from their mothers. It’s backwards to worry about niceties when human lives and human dignity are at stake. And often “they” interpret passion as incivility, anyway. “They” don’t like how it makes them feel, so “they” call it incivility to no longer feel responsible for their uncomfortable feelings. To “them,” no form of protest, no matter how respectful, peaceful, or carefully thought out, will ever be seen as civil simply because the act of protesting, resisting, and making “them” uncomfortable is uncivil.

But let’s be honest: sometimes, many times, people in social justice circles are uncivil, out of control, and just plain rude. They attack people outside of their circles; they attack people within their circles. Say the wrong word, the wrong opinion, and you’ve unleashed your doom.

I understand that too. I want to scream when I see dismissive memes. I want to shoot back sarcastic and mean-spirited zingers when I hear callous and ill-informed opinions. I want to spew obscenities at the people doing disgusting and dehumanizing things. I often feel that rude people deserve rude responses, that jerks get what’s coming to them, that people who don’t care about others don’t require my care, either. An eye for an eye. Anger with anger. Hate with hate.

I could ramble a lot about my conflicting feelings regarding justice and mercy within the Christian tradition. Regardless of my philosophical and theological beliefs, when it comes to altercations with stupid, rude, and/or callous people, when it comes to trying to change people’s minds, I still cherish civility as a virtue.

People may deserve a good chewing out when they fail to live up to basic human decency. Maybe a good, loud, simplistic, angry rant fulfills some sort of cosmic justice. Maybe I shouldn’t have to police my tone due to all the unfair things I’ve put up with; maybe I should get to be as angry as I want and speak out of that anger as much as I want.

I mean this sincerely: maybe that truly is justice. It doesn’t seem fair to me that people who have already put up with so much hatred and discrimination, sometimes against their very personhood, should even have to think about their tone in voicing legitimate complaints. I support understanding where people are coming from and letting them speak unfiltered, hearing what they say even if the way they say it is offensive.

But my defense of civility is almost purely pragmatic. Basic human biology prevents anger, hate, rudeness, and anything of that nature from being an effective tool of persuasion. That’s not to say that love, kindness, and civility will change any minds either (see the second paragraph), but hate, rudeness, and incivility definitely won’t — or they’ll at least make it more difficult.

When we say whatever we want to say however we want to say it, we trigger fight or flight responses. It is nearly impossible for someone in a fight or flight state to meaningfully absorb information, much less change their mind and make necessary changes. Some particularly gracious, patient, or obtuse people can struggle against the fight or flight state to engage with and process what you’re yelling at them. But that’s a difficult thing to do.

It’s inevitable that saying uncomfortable things will make people feel uncomfortable. Showing emotion of any kind, even if not directed toward another person, may trigger offense or anxiety. Even saying uncomfortable things civilly may trigger fight or flight responses, especially if that person has had those uncomfortable things screamed at them before.

That’s not on you. That’s on them.

And honestly, you might need a space or a moment to just speak your unfiltered mind, civility be damned. You might need catharsis. That’s fine too.

But if you want the best shot at having the other person hear you, understand you, and change her mind, then it is on you to speak the truth in a way that circumvents that fight or flight response as much as possible. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. For this purpose, I defend civility as a virtue.

 

Setting Boundaries with Children

kiana-bosman-569434-unsplash

“Do no harm, take no sh*t.” — my new parenting philosophy, via Kay Bruner

I get stressed over hearing my baby cry or seeing a student upset after I enforce a limit. Am I being cruel and unresponsive, I fret, or am I being the calm, confident leader children need to feel secure?

One way I’ve been processing that question is by thinking in terms of boundaries. In an interview on Parenting Forward with Cindy Wang Brandt, Kay Bruner describes boundaries as “what’s me and what’s not me.”

I personally struggle with taking responsibility for children’s emotions. If my baby cries, I feel guilty. I feel like a failure. I feel like I need to stop his crying since, somehow, I caused the crying. I feel like I need to make the crying stop at any cost, including my sanity. Parenting success means my baby is tear-free as much as possible.

This is an impossible parenting goal. It’s impossible precisely because I am not responsible for my baby’s emotions. 

It’s important that we meet our children’s needs and hear their desires. Not hearing desires or not meeting needs disrespects children. But meeting every desire leads to child-centric homes and frazzled parents. In order to avoid any of those parenting pitfalls, we must distinguish between needs and desires, and even further, identify their specific need.

Take the age-old situation of moms being unable to use the bathroom alone.

When your two-year-old is pounding on the bathroom door screaming for you to let her in, you might determine that her real need has nothing to do with you in the first place; she may be hungry, tired, bored, or upset from you telling her she couldn’t eat pennies.

But maybe she really does need time with Mommy. Nevertheless, her legitimate need for quality time with Mom does not mean you need to fulfill her desire to be with Mom right then in the bathroom in violation of your legitimate desire for privacy.

In this situation, nobody’s desire is “wrong.” It’s okay for you to want to go to the bathroom by yourself. It’s okay for her to want to be in the bathroom with you right then. It’s okay for her to express extreme frustration that she’s not getting what she wants. It’s okay for you to feel annoyed at her for feeling that way.

“What’s me”: holding the limit of using the bathroom by yourself, expressing your emotions in a healthy way, acknowledging and legitimizing her needs and desires, and meeting the correctly identified need once you’re done in the restroom.

“What’s not me”: preventing her from feeling upset, preventing her from expressing that upset, or being responsible for stopping her emotions.

“I’m not letting you come into the bathroom with me. I want privacy,” you tell her through the locked door. “I hear that that makes you upset. It makes you feel like crying and yelling. It’s okay to feel upset. I will come be with you when I am done using the bathroom.”

Maybe she stops crying and tearfully says, “Okay.” Great! Maybe you find her sitting quietly outside the door waiting for you. Awesome.

Or maybe she continues to scream. Maybe she even starts kicking the door in response to your calmly set limit. That’s okay too. All outcomes are parenting successes, because you set the boundary and held to it. You did what you were supposed to do. You were never responsible for making her emotions stop in the first place. 

Janet Lansbury reiterates that our responsibility is usually just listening, accepting, and acknowledging our children’s emotions without fixing them:

Instead of feeling responsible for preventing or fixing crying, we first accept it so that we can understand and accurately address what is being communicated.

Instead of perceiving feelings as a call to action, we work on staying calm and listening so our child can share and feel truly heard. …

Instead of acting out of fear, we lead with trust in our child’s basic competency.

This is why it’s important to set boundaries with our children: without boundaries, we disrespect their basic competency to navigate respectful relationships.

Without boundaries, we model an anxious, exhausting, unsustainable relationship.

Without boundaries, we teach them that it’s other people’s job to prevent their emotions and solve their problems, a textbook lesson in co-dependency.

Without boundaries, we imply that having emotions is undesirable, that a good life involves no tears, no inconveniences, and no disappointments.

It’s not about being a “tough” parent. It’s not even about putting on your own proverbial oxygen mask in order to help your child strap on his. It’s about supporting your child through the hard and necessary process of developing healthy relationships with others and with his own emotions.

In order to teach him respect for others, he needs to respect your needs and desires. In order to teach him respect for himself, he needs to see you respecting your needs and desires.

Of course, relationships are give and take, even parent/child relationships. Sometimes you say, “I’m not reading the Peppa Pig book again tonight because if I read it one more time, I will literally go insane.” And sometimes you read that Peppa Pig book again even though you will literally go insane.

Obviously, children require our support, especially the younger they are. They are more immature and less self-regulated, easily overwhelmed by their needs, desires, and the emotions accompanying them. If we ignore their bids for attention and support, we cripple them emotionally. But children are not helpless, and they rarely need our help in the form of fixing or eliminating their problems.

Yesterday, a student was building a spinner exclusively out of black Brain Flakes. He needed just a few more to complete his spinner, but another friend had the last three black Brain Flakes. She declined to part with them.

“Ugh, I want the black ones!” he cried.

“You could use different colors,” another friend suggested.

“No, I wanted it all black!” He looked to me, hoping I’d use my Magical Teacher Powers to force his friend into sharing the black ones.

I really wanted to. I knew how frustrating and disappointing it was to spend so much time creating something only to have it fall through. I could easily demand that his friend hand over the pieces, getting rid of the problem and his negative emotions in one fell swoop. It might spare me the annoyance of defusing a tantrum, too. But it’s important to me that children share willingly (another type of boundary) and that students not use my authority to coerce their friends into giving them what they want.

Trying to support him through this problem, I said, “That’s too bad that she won’t share with you. You could either use different colors like your friend suggested, or if you want your spinner to be all one color, you could start over with a new color.”

He sighed, visibly upset. Then he perked up and said, “I’m going to make an orange spinner!”

And he did.

Spanking Didn’t Traumatize Me, and I Still Won’t Do It

spank-kid

I’m just going to say it: spanking goes against everything I believe as a parent, educator, and human being. Even as a kid, I felt in my gut that spanking is unethical, harmful, and a violation of children’s rights.

Oh, great. One of those special snowflakes claiming that spanking traumatizes children. Look, what’s wrong with kids today is that they need a good whipping. None of this time out, trying to reason with them stuff. You can’t reason with kids. The only thing they listen to is a swat on the hiney. My parents spanked me when I was growing up, I spanked my kids, and you know what? None of us were traumatized. In fact, we all grew up to be respectful, well-behaved people. I’m glad I was spanked.  

This is many people’s experience: spanking is either neutral or positive. It didn’t harm them, it didn’t harm their kids, and they credit spanking with their development as decent human beings. Even though the American Psychological Association claims there’s a strong case against any benefits to spanking, these pro-spanking anecdata are compelling enough for many spanked children to grow up and spank their own kids.

And I’ll be frank: I don’t consider myself traumatized from spanking. I view it as unnecessary, ineffective, and deeply hurtful, but not traumatic. I don’t credit spanking with making me who I am today, but I don’t credit spanking for making my adult life problematic.

The thing is, spanking doesn’t need to be traumatic in order for it to be wrong.

The idea of purposefully hitting a child with a hand or an object, the idea of intentionally causing pain, goes against my ethical beliefs. “Do no harm” is a mantra of mine that of course extends to the vulnerable children under my care. Yes, (emotional) pain happens during discipline of any sort, but I believe it is never appropriate to intentionally cause pain, whether emotional or physical, or to leverage pain as punishment.

It’s such a slippery slope. When does spanking become hitting, beating, violence, or abuse? When it leaves a mark? What if you meant well and it leaves a mark accidentally? When it causes too much pain? Why is too much pain bad if pain is the thing that turns your child into a good human? And how do you determine too much pain? When your child cries or begs you to stop? Isn’t the whole point to cause them enough pain to get a strong emotional response so that they never do wrong again?

Spanking advocates often point to the emotional state of the parent as the thing that draws the fine line between appropriate and inappropriate corporal punishment. Never spank in anger is the rule.

Personally, I find it downright chilling that any loving parent could calmly and quietly spank their children, especially if the child is crying out in pain. I find it less disturbing that a parent would strike their child out of anger and frustration, then realize with horror what they did. Instead, with this model, parents make a calculated decision to inflict physical pain upon their children, with no remorse whatsoever.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t loving parents spanking their children. Of course there are. The overwhelming majority of parents spanking their children do so out love and fear for their child’s future, not because they enjoy seeing their child suffer. But that makes it all the worse: their love and empathy, their strong parental instinct to protect their child from harm, gets turned off and replaced with a conviction that physically harming their child is the most loving thing to do. This is one instance where that niggling mom guilt is right on the money.

On a personal note, I am not perfect enough as a mother to have spanking in my discipline arsenal without risking a harmful outburst. I am not always patient, kind, or self-controlled. This is why I cannot have corporal punishment of any kind as an option, even as a last resort. I can’t risk spanking my child in anger, accidentally hitting too hard, or unknowingly harming the innocent party if I misinterpret a negative interaction. Instead of allowing myself the possibility of spanking, I actively work on safer, gentler approaches.

Lauding physical harm as an ethical method of discipline is an anachronism in today’s world. We decry excessive police violence. We are appalled at anyone in a position of authority using their position to physically correct a subordinate. We expect children not to hit their siblings and friends. We don’t beat even convicted criminals.

Yet it’s tolerated and encouraged for parents to hit, thrash, beat, whoop, smack, pinch, whack, swat, or slap their children, their babies, the smallest, most defenseless, most powerless people.

Even if the line between spanking and abuse weren’t so thin, even if the danger of physically or emotionally bruising children weren’t so present, I still wouldn’t spank my children.

There’s another way.

It irks me, actually, when parents say things like, “Spanking is the only way to get them to listen.”

As a teacher, I can’t tap into the instantaneous submission that spanking brings. I must work to gain respect and authority through other, gentler means. It’s tough, but it works.

And I didn’t work with angels all the time. I worked with difficult children. You bet I sometimes stood shaking in frustration, thanking God through gritted teeth that spanking wasn’t allowed or else that kid would be hurting right now. I am not an angel myself.

But if teachers can keep a large class of students in some semblance of order without spanking, parents can handle their handful of children too without resorting to physical harm.

If spanking really were the only way to get to the hardest, most defiant kid to listen, I can understand the parenting philosophy of using spanking as a last resort punishment. But I know from experience that spanking is not the only way, and that it is the very opposite of more effective ways of disciplining.

And if there’s another way, why wouldn’t I choose an option that didn’t involve physically harming my children — even if spanking didn’t cause trauma?

A Definition of Egalitarian Parenting

In interpreting Ephesians 5:21-6:9, egalitarians argue that the gospel erases hierarchical lines between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. All are equal before Christ. All mutually submit to one another. And this makes sense — what qualitative difference do Jews have over Gentiles to make them spiritually superior? What do men have over women, or one adult over another?

But in the middle of all these adult equals, Paul addresses the parent/child relationship: “Children, obey your parents. Fathers, do not exasperate your children.”

Does the gospel change the nature of the parent/child relationship? Does it, in fact, elevate children to the level of equals, tearing down the authoritative hierarchy between parent and child?

I’ve thought about this. It makes no sense that the gospel would leave the parent/child relationship unaffected and untransformed, but children as equals to their parents? The parent/child relationship is the only relationship out of the three that Paul addresses here where there is a qualitative difference between the two parties.

Adults possess more wisdom and experience, and are explicitly charged with guiding their children. Children eat Tide pods, leave their chores undone, and get caught up in peer pressure. Due to their immaturity, children cannot stand alone as equals in the way a slave or a wife can. How could the gospel break down the hierarchy of parent over child in a way that still allows a parent to fully guide, care, and take responsibility for their children?

After thinking about this, I would argue that egalitarian parenting ought to treat the parent/child relationship how complementarians explain their marriages: equals with different roles, with the parents laying down their lives in service to their children and children receiving the instruction and guidance of their parents, all under the higher guidance of God.

Let me provide a contrasting example first.

A Non-Egalitarian Approach: Authoritarian Parenting

In many so-called “Biblical” parenting paradigms, the point of parenting is maintaining a strict hierarchy — even without using those exact words. Parents are unquestioningly at the top, dispensing their views and desires. Children are unquestioningly at the bottom, obeying their parents’ every word as law and meeting their parents’ every desire.

In this paradigm, the key virtues of childhood are instant, cheerful, unquestioning obedience, and respect and honor toward parents. “Because I said so” is a valid and often-repeated justification for whatever the parent requests. There is no recourse for the child beyond that — no appeal to reason, emotion, or another authority. Parents are further encouraged to make their word law and be consistent, even if their initial demand was unreasonable. After all, the point is maintaining an appearance of control at all costs.

Parents train children to come on command. Defiance or disrespect are the worst of all offenses, punishable by painful and humiliating strikes across the buttocks or other shaming tactics. Parents are encouraged to hit the defiant child until her will breaks. “Talking back,” whining, even trying to explain one’s point of view — any emotion or communication that doesn’t show cheerful compliance — is not allowed, and also qualifies a child for any sort of painful, embarrassing, or harsh punishment the parent deems necessary.

According to this parenting model, children owe parents respect and honor simply because their parents are their parents. No matter how unreasonable, unkind, or even unlawful their parents’ actions may be, children are required to respond with superhuman respect. Natural feelings of frustration, injustice, fear, or hurt are interpreted as disrespect and a threat to the parents’ authority. Maintaining the hierarchical system is what’s important here — the system of parental authority and a child’s compliance is what produces happy, well-regulated, respectful adults, regardless of the way that system is implemented or maintained.

Since the desired outcome of this parenting style is the maintenance and adherence to a strict hierarchical system, parents view their children’s actions as a direct commentary on their parenting. Since controlling another human being is impossible without utterly breaking her spirit, this inspires a constant, fearful insecurity in one’s parenting that shames parents. It also justifies even stronger reactions to their child’s misbehavior, since parents are told that their child’s behavior is something well within a parents’ control.

If their children are for the most part obedient and respectful, they feel that they have succeeded in parenting and take the credit for raising well-behaved kids. If their children struggle with emotional outbursts, defiance, or rebellion (whether real or perceived), parents feel like failures. With their own reputation at stake, parents often find amusement and vindication in seeing their child as embarrassed, disrespected, or hurt as they feel.

Even if parents feel inclined to give themselves or their kids a more generous pass, critics will blame and shame parents when their children throw tantrums in the grocery store or can’t sit still in church. And parents dare not justify these breaches of obedience with reasons like, “She was tired and hungry.” It’s expected that parents keep their children reined in and respectful at all times, no exceptions, no excuses.

It’s no wonder that many children under these hierarchical rules experience abuse of all kinds and sometimes even death. And many parents feel frustrated, defeated, and inadequate due to the impossible demands of breaking the spirit of individual little humans who have their own reasons, opinions, and feelings.

I would argue that this hierarchical structure of parenting is the most predominant understanding of the parent/child relationship today. It might take the more extreme forms of come-when-I-whistle servitude, but it most often appears as “common sense” parenting that interprets most misbehavior as disrespect, which only a strong parental hand (that is, shame, punishment, and spanking) can break.

If you take a look at some of these images, you’ll see what I mean:

This isn’t to say that respect isn’t a virtue or that children shouldn’t listen to their parents. But just as complementarians zero in on “wives, submit to your husbands” and interpret “husbands, love your wives” as authority over their wives, this hierarchical view of parenting is all “children, obey your parents” and no “fathers, do not exasperate your children.”

If we look at child development, we’ll see that many of the underlying assumptions about and responses to children and their (mis)behavior often exasperate children. I’ve used my research into child development and the theology of relationships to craft a new, egalitarian paradigm of parenting.

Toward an Egalitarian Understanding of Parenting

In egalitarian parenting, children are fundamentally human and thus entitled to the same respect, understanding, and influence adults accord to other adults. This is the key difference between authoritarian parenting and respectful parenting: while respectful parents do guide with authority, they do so not to maintain a hierarchy but to help children regulate their emotions and actions in accordance with their own beliefs and interests.

Instead of demanding unquestioning obedience, egalitarian parents foster self-regulation. This is the ultimate virtue of egalitarian parenting: self-regulation. This allows space for children’s questions, explanations, and differing opinions. This allows for parents to be wrong and children to be right about their own experiences and emotions. In short, the pursuit of self-regulation allows children to be independent of their parents rather than reflections or servants of their parents.

Since children intrinsically deserve the same sort of respect that adults do, egalitarian parenting requires the parent to follow every command in Scripture about interacting with other humans: doing unto others as we would have them do to us, responding to anger with gentle words, outdoing one another in showing honor, living with understanding, being patient with the weaker ones among us, responding with blessing when we are wronged instead of revenge.

Egalitarian parenting decriminalizes children’s — and parents’! — misbehavior. The parent/child relationship is a relationship dependent on mutual respect, not on an authoritative system to obey. This means that if a child loses her temper and shouts, “I hate you!” at her mother, the damage is relational and requires a relational — not a punitive — response.

What do we do when an adult loses her cool and says something you know she doesn’t mean? We maintain our cool. We deescalate the situation. We calmly and firmly express our hurt and/or walk away from the situation if we’re getting upset ourselves. We model the kind of behavior we want the other person to emulate, and eventually, ashamed, the other person calms down, apologizes, and the conversation often gets at the heart of what’s really going on. 

And if we do respond back in anger and shout something equally rude? Well, in egalitarian parenting, we’re not trying to maintain an impossible facade of rigid authority. Our authority is maintained by mutual, organic respect, not imposed obedience, which means we can apologize or change our minds if we said something unkind or issued a consequence that isn’t fair, and not worry that our children will lose respect for us.

This relieves a huge burden from the parents’ shoulders: they are not responsible for controlling their children, an impossible task. They are merely responsible for controlling their own behavior and maintaining their own end of the relationship — a powerful, magnetic force that draws wayward children into better ways of behaving. 

Egalitarian parenting isn’t passive parenting, however. In a relationship of equals, personal boundaries are key. Parents are allowed to be human and to set their own boundaries when they’re tired, annoyed, hurt, or inconvenienced. If a toddler continues to hit his mother, the mother is fully within her right to set the toddler down and walk away until he can use gentler hands. If a teenager refuses to be responsible with her tasks, her father is fully within his right to not save her from the consequences — unwashed clothes, a messy room, missed deadlines. But the consequences are natural, not punitive, and not meant to reestablish a parent’s hierarchical authority over their child or shame their child into compliance. 

Again, this is the key difference between authoritarian parenting and egalitarian parenting: any consequence or parental response is meant to aid the child in regulating herself and restoring their relationship, not reminding the child who’s boss and wrestling them into begrudging compliance. In egalitarian parenting, parents are not maintaining a hierarchical system. They are maintaining a mutually respectful relationship where parents seek to serve and build up the child into mature independence. 

In another post, I will break down some typical examples of authoritarian parenting and suggest more egalitarian, respectful ways to firmly and compassionately handle children’s undesirable behavior.

Is Feminism to Blame for Men’s Bad Behavior?

tim-foster-665923-unsplash

This culture’s feminism is actually empowering men to be the worst versions of themselves. They get the sex without the commitment. They get the pregnancy without the baby. They get the date without picking up the check. They get the relationship without being a gentlemen.

No opening doors, no pulling out chairs, no providing, no protecting, and no male responsibility. Because hey… everything is equal. In other words, modern feminism is the perfect recipe for men to side-step God’s call for how to treat a woman. But a Godly man knows better. A Godly man knows he’s equal in value but different in role.

He knows that he can be a protector, a provider, and a lover without being “toxic” or “dangerous.” Men, it’s easy to support a movement that allows us to get lazy—it’s why so many men have already jumped on board. But don’t do what most men do. Do what Godly men do. Cherish women. Value women. Listen to women. But don’t ever escape your role in the process. // Dale Partridge

source

I see variations of this anti-feminist sentiment all the time. Feminism is to blame for men’s bad behavior. Equality erodes male responsibility.

To the first claim, that feminism is at fault for men’s bad behavior: I actually agree that certain aspects of today’s liberal feminism encourage and sanctify men’s bad behavior.

For many liberal women, the litmus test for what’s feminist and empowering is anything a woman freely chooses to do. This may include porn, sex work, and other ways of sexually objectifying oneself. Sometimes this trivializes feminism: I wear high heels as a feminist statement that women can be whatever they want to be, including traditionally feminine! Sometimes this undermines feminism altogether: I’m going to objectify myself in the name of empowerment!

Feminism should not be just about celebrating each woman’s individual choice to do whatever she wants to do. It’s great that women have freedom and options. But at its core, feminism is about identifying and breaking down patriarchal values that even we as feminist women have internalized.

When we try to sanctify patriarchal values with feminism (like freely treating oneself as a sexual object or pursuing sex without commitment), we do give license to men to continue disempowering women, now with our consent and blessing. We do put ourselves in positions where men can easily harm, objectify, or disrespect us and other women, particularly women at risk of trafficking and abuse.

(I’m making a very important but tricky distinction here between a woman encouraging a man to view her as a sexual object and inviting unwanted sexual advances. I would argue that sex workers, for instance, encourage men to treat them and other women as sex objects, not only in the context of their work but elsewhere. Nonetheless, just because a woman gives consent to be objectified in a certain way doesn’t mean she gives consent to or desires other kinds of sexual attention or the same kind of sexual attention in a different context. A woman’s clothing, occupation, or behavior, however intentionally or unintentionally sexual, are not excuses for men to harass or assault her.)

There’s nothing feminist about women’s choices that harm and disrespect themselves and other women.

If we’re simply talking about that kind of free-for-all feminism, I completely agree that today’s feminism is bringing out the worst in men.

But if we’re talking about feminism at its most simplest definition — equality for women in all areas of life — this anti-feminist critique makes no sense. Equality cannot erode male responsibility.

Many anti-feminists erroneously think that feminism isn’t really about equality; it’s about ridding the world of men, doing everything without them, and replacing everything male with everything female.

While I’m sure you can find “feminist” sentiment of that nature, just as you can find anything online nowadays, that is not what equality means. Equality doesn’t mean men must stop being providers, protectors, and responsible human beings. It means that it’s not just men who can or must be providers, protectors, and responsible human beings as the situation arises. And it also means that men should be free to be nurturers and nurtured themselves.

Anti-feminists think of the world in terms of strictly gendered roles. There are limited Protector Roles, Provider Roles, and Responsible Human Beings Roles, and those roles encompass the whole purpose of a man’s life at all times, in every situation. It is impossible for a man to take on a Protected or Provided For role in any situation without ceasing to be a man.

According to this narrative, anti-feminists interpret women’s desire to be equal as women desiring to take those limited, all-encompassing, non-nuanced roles. Each time a woman takes a Provider, Protector, or Responsible Human Being role, she must bump a man into a Provided For or a Protected role, thus stripping him of all manly traits and responsibilities.

That’s not how the world works.

There are no all-encompassing roles in life, where one is only in every situation that particular role. The Bible and everyday life are full of godly men submitting to and seeking protection and provision from godly women, and vice versa.

In the same token, there is not a limited number of exclusive Responsible Human Being roles. There need not be a Door Holding Role limited to only one gender: “Oh, dear, that woman is holding the door open for me; therefore, I can never hold open a door for anybody else ever again.” Men can continue to hold open doors for women, and women can now hold open doors for men. Men are still free, able, and encouraged to be respectful and responsible in all areas of life now that women are free, recognized as, and encouraged to be respectful and responsible in all areas of life.

In getting rid of a one unilateral way men must treat women, feminism puts the onus of treating others respectfully onto the part of us that’s human. Men can hold doors, pay for the date, fight off the bad guy, and whatever else the Male Role requires because it’s the right thing to do as a human. It is a beautiful, good, human thing to do others a good turn, to show deference, to be generous, and to protect those weaker than oneself. It’s not about fulfilling a predetermine Male Role. It’s about being a moral human being.

When feminists want to hold open doors, pay for dates, and fight off the bad guy, they are not saying, “I want to be a man. I want to get rid of any opportunity for a man to do these things.” They are saying, “I want to be fully human too. I want to do others a good turn, show deference, be generous, and protect those weaker than oneself any time the situation arises, because these are human traits, human responsibilities.”

What happens when we shatter these restrictive, predetermined, exclusive roles? Now we have two people willing to fight off the bad guys. Now we have two people committed to putting others first. Now we have two people making sure the bills get paid. Now we have two people “outdoing one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10) — all expectations required of both sexes in the Christian tradition.

Equality doesn’t destroy men’s moral responsibility. Equality strengthens it.

It is not good that man should be alone. I shall make an ezer kenegdoa savior, a rescuer, a strong helper suitable for him.

Quick Party Idea for When You Forget Your Husband’s Birthday

img_20180603_154451587
Grandpa Emmerich supervises the birthday shenanigans.

It’s been a crazy past few weeks. In the midst of multiple weddings and weekends spent apart, Erich turned twenty-four in another state while I was driving home from my sister’s graduation. Guys get a bad rep for forgetting important dates, but I’m not far behind — I only got a happy birthday in with an hour to spare.

When I got home, I realized that I’d never purchased the gift that I’d spent weeks thinking about; that I was too tired and inept to make an ice cream cake; and that Emmerich could not put off his nap long enough for us to run to Walgreens for some streamers and balloons.

Epic wife fail.

But epic wife fails are the mother of invention, and I came up with the perfect quick party idea.

Not far from where we live is a cute touristy town we’d been wanting to walk through ever since we moved here. On some hot pink sticky notes, I wrote down a few addresses and clues: “May you always stay young at heart!” (for a toy store); “I wouldn’t trade you for anything” (for a trading post); “You life is a masterpiece” (for an art museum); and “I’m sweet on you!” (for a candy and ice cream shop).

As soon as Erich walked through the door from a long trip, I handed him the stack of clues, hustled him back into the car, and we were off!

All the addresses were in walking distance from each other, so we parked way too far away and strolled through town. We snapped some photos and ate some birthday treats, then caught tadpoles on our way back to the car.

Besides being a last minute birthday party, this is a fun, simple, potentially free date night idea, and a great way to explore a new area without getting burnt out!

img_20180603_153438283
Apparently, there’s a small (free!) art museum lodged in a historic home between all the shops. We caught the tail end of their Wisconsin Modernists exhibit. Definitely the most enjoyable and non-overwhelming way to look at art! Here Emmerich color coordinates with “Confidence.”
img_20180603_154438878
Emmerich tried to sneak a bit of Daddy’s Pirate’s Booty ice cream!

Some Pro-Life Considerations on Hormonal Birth Control, For and Against

edward-cisneros-667919-unsplash

There is so much misinformation and so many half-truths circulating about hormonal birth control. Many pro-life women I know refuse to use hormonal birth control because of its alleged abortifacient effects. I’m pro-life too, but natural family planning and barrier methods weren’t working for me for various personal reasons. I took a good hard look into the science and ethics of using hormonal birth control. Here are some facts and thoughts that shaped my final decision.

Note: My research primarily involved oral contraceptives. I have not extensively researched the exact mechanisms of other contraceptives like implants, patches, or IUDs. Further, much of the secondary literature I’m seeing conflates the effects of emergency contraceptives with the effects of daily birth control, even though they may differ. Please keep these limitations in mind as you read.

The main pro-life argument against hormonal birth control is that it affects (or could affect) the implantation of an embryo in its blastocyst stage. All forms of hormonal birth control thin the endometrium, the lining of the uterus in which the blastocyst must implant. According to many who believe life begins at conception, birth control prevents implantation by depriving the blastocyst of a thick, receptive endometrium, and is thus an abortifacient.

This is actually a big if. Despite pro-life arguments and even current pill literature, there is no conclusive evidence that hormonal birth control affects the endometrium in a way that prevents implantation. It could, but it’s unlikely to. That’s where current research stands, but that’s not the final word on whether pro-life women should use hormonal birth control.

How Hormonal Birth Control Works

At the beginning of the menstrual cycle, the endometrium starts out quite thin. During the follicular phase, follicles begin putting out increasing levels of estrogen that thicken and enrich the uterine lining (or endometrium). High levels of estrogen trigger luteinizing hormones (LH) to release an egg from the follicle — the process known as ovulation. The follicle then continues to produce the hormone progesterone, which also thickens and enriches the endometrium. This is the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. If implantation fails, the lining is shed, and menstruation begins.

Birth control’s primary contraceptive mechanism is preventing ovulation in the first place, not preventing implantation. When a woman is on hormonal birth control, the amount of artificial progestin and estrogen mimic the elevated hormonal levels during pregnancy, tricking the pituitary gland into preventing ovulation.

How does this potentially affect implantation? Because ovulation is suppressed, the endometrium does not thicken very much, which is why women on birth control have lighter or nonexistent periods.

Occasionally, breakthrough ovulation will occur in women taking contraceptives (particularly if they fail to take them regularly). If ovulation occurs, the endometrium will begin thickening again. This is why it’s possible for women to get pregnant on contraceptives if breakthrough ovulation occurs.

The question is whether the endometrium can thicken enough to give the blastocyst a fighting chance at implantation. Many pro-lifers say absolutely not, pointing out the obvious that the endometrium affected by birth control is observably thinner. This is the “hostile endometrium” theory. Studies show that a thicker, more nutrient-rich endometrium increases the likelihood of blastocysts implanting during in vitro fertilization, bolstering the argument that thinning the endometrium would undoubtedly have a negative effect on implantation.

That makes sense, but here’s where it gets tricky. Naturally, many embryos (even up to two-thirds, some experts surmise) will not implant in even a receptive lining, or will spontaneously abort. And naturally, some blastocysts will implant in what we might think of as a “hostile” endometrium. Were a blastocyst to fail to implant, it would be impossible to name birth control as the culprit — or even claim the nature of the endometrium as a major factor, as new studies show that the quality of the embryo itself plays a role in its implantation.

Even pro-life voices are questioning the very idea of a “hostile endometrium.” According to a 1998 statement by pro-life OBGYNs, blastocysts are by nature invasive. They will implant even in areas more unfriendly than a thin endometrium, like the fallopian tube. They reiterate that current research does not show that birth control affects implantation.

Again, others point out that just because a blastocyst can implant in a thin endometrium or even a fallopian tube does not mean that the quality of the endometrium has no effect on implantation.

So it’s absolutely true that birth control affects the thickness of the endometrium. Many pro-life women are under the impression that only some kinds of birth control affect the endometrium, but this is incorrect. All birth control that hormonally suppresses ovulation affect the thickness of the endometrium (including breastfeeding). The contraceptive mechanism — preventing ovulation — is the same in all hormonal birth control, even in the morning after pills like Ella and Plan B.

(It’s important to note that the morning after pills employ a different contraceptive mechanism than the abortion pill known as RU-486 or mifepristone. The abortion pill blocks the hormones needed to sustain a pregnancy and is not approved for use as emergency contraception to prevent ovulation. The morning after pills do not interfere with an established pregnancy; the abortion pill obviously does. Further, emergency conception may be even less likely to affect implantation than everyday birth control, as there may not be enough time for an emergency dose to alter the endometrium.)

The true debate, then, is not “which kinds” of hormonal contraceptives are abortifacient. The debate is whether hormonal contraceptives prevent implantation, thus causing an abortion.

According to the most recent research, there is no evidence that hormonal contraceptives prevent implantation.

Confusingly, much of pill literature today still lists preventing implantation as a contraceptive mechanism in hormonal birth control. When birth control first came onto the scene, its contraceptive mechanisms were unknown. Many in the medical community thought that preventing implantation was a primary contraceptive mechanism, but as already stated, later research is debunking that theory. (Note: While secondary resources cite this as relevant to daily hormonal birth control, I’m only finding primary sources about the FDA mislabeling emergency contraceptives.)

Even with this research, however, it’s impossible at this time to conduct an ethical experiment to determine the exact effects of birth control on implantation. It is unlikely and unproven that birth control affects implantation, but it’s impossible to prove a negative. For many pro-lifers, this isn’t strong enough research to support hormonal contraceptives.

In light of this research and counter-research, it seems fair to both sides to say that there is at least a risk of hormonal birth control preventing implantation.

Our Ethical Responsibility

How ethically responsible is a woman for making her endometrium as hospitable as possible?

In other words, is it ever justifiable to put a life at risk?

It’s a kind of question we face every day as mothers in a world full of risk, from deciding to drive our child to the library at the risk of a car crash to eating deli meat while pregnant at the risk of contracting listeriosis. Just as driving and eating deli meat don’t cause a child’s death, taking hormonal birth control is not demonstrated to cause failed implantation, but just like driving and deli meat during pregnancy, it at least opens the possibility of that risk.

For many women, it’s quite simple: they refuse to take the risk of impairing implantation, and use natural family planning, barrier methods, or no prevention at all. They feel it is unethical to do anything that would potentially impair implantation or would at the very least not aid in implantation. Why would a mother do anything to risk her child’s life?

But for many women, the issue isn’t so straightforward. In life, we are often forced to take avoidable risks in order to fulfill another or a greater moral obligation or good. Why do we take risks? Because there are numerous good things that are harder or impossible to get without taking a risk. These goods outweigh the small chance of risk to our children.

To many, birth control obtains a good which outweighs the small risk of affecting implantation. The “good” of birth control varies from woman to woman: some take it for medical reasons; some for sexual enhancement in marriage; some for an even stronger protection against pregnancy; some as part of responsible sexuality; most for a combination of reasons. Each circumstance and each need varies so greatly from woman to woman, which is why it is important to have accurate contraceptive information so that couples can weigh the risks and benefits according to their unique circumstances.

Regardless of our particular stance on birth control, we women make decisions all the time that potentially affect new life. How far does our ethical responsibility go? A tongue-in-cheek article proposes that we campaign against breastfeeding, refuse to give caffeine to women of child-bearing age, and discourage women from exercising due to the increased risk of early miscarriage that breastfeeding, caffeine, and exercise pose.

“Well, that’s silly!” some would argue. “Unlike birth control, breastfeeding, coffee, and exercise aren’t intended to prevent implantation.”

Neither is birth control. Besides, the risk of breastfeeding, coffee, and exercise still exist regardless of our intentions.

How much do our intentions matter in taking this risk, anyway? Birth control is designed to prevent ovulation and fertilization. If a woman takes birth control for those reasons alone, not to cause an abortion, do her good intentions justify taking the risk birth control might pose to an embryo? Is breastfeeding okay, despite its risk of negatively altering the endometrium, as long as a woman isn’t consciously using it as a birth control method? If we’re ultimately responsible for ensuring the very best endometrium for an embryo, should we not abstain from sex until our baby is weaned? Surely the life of an embryo outweighs our newborn’s need for breastmilk, much less our desire for coffee and exercise!

This might seem like splitting hairs, but my point is that when it comes to taking risks in an area as personal and opaque as this, there are numerous moral factors at play, and many inconsistencies and contingencies in our beliefs.

When it comes to birth control, many pro-life Christians want to pretend that this is an area entirely separate from the complexities of life, that it is a black-and-white issue unaffected by any other ethical considerations. On the other hand, many pro-life women are not factoring in all of the risks birth control can have on an embryo.

This is why I support the dissemination of nuanced, factual information regarding birth control from medical, philosophical, and theological perspectives, and agree with the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists that we are free and obligated to follow our consciences in this area.

But How Do You Make Decisions?!

ErichAndBaileysEngagement-56.jpg
Real-life footage of how we often argue

Complementarians incredulously ask egalitarians, “If someone doesn’t get the final say, how do you make decisions as a couple?”

This question amuses me, because I can’t imagine how else to make decisions than by discussing our opinions on equal footing and coming up with a decision on which we both agree.

It’s not always easy, of course. Sometimes I’ve wished decision-making were as simple as having the husband step in and call the shots. But there’s intimacy and oneness in making a tough decision together, with both spouses equally influencing and fully supporting the outcome. There’s wisdom, too, as two brains are better than one alone.

How do we egalitarians do this magical thing of making decisions together? It’s very similar to how most complementarians make decisions: we discuss, we listen, we look at things from all angles, we try to come to acceptable compromises or alternatives.

The only difference is that when egalitarians reach gridlock, the husband doesn’t say, “Well, looks like we can’t agree. I’m taking it from here.” The only difference between a complementarian couple making a decision and an egalitarian couple making a decision is that egalitarians keep going.

In my experience, and the experience of other egalitarian couples more seasoned in marriage than I, the perfect solution lies just beyond that huge bump in the road where you’re convinced you will never, ever agree.

Okay, but what does it really look like?

It kind of looks like an extended discussion that can span anywhere from a whole day to years, along with much personal reflection that seeks to understand one’s spouse’s position, as well as one’s own, with as much respect, charity, and open-mindedness as possible. 

Joint Decisions

When it comes to joint decisions — decisions that significantly impact both spouses — we generally yield to the person least comfortable with the decision. This isn’t something we decided on in writing; it’s just something we do, and it’s worked for us so far.

Right now, my husband is excited about buying a house. I am not. He would be happy moving this year. I would not be. Our mutual submission to each other looks something like this:

On my part, I listen respectfully when Erich tells me about a new house. I try to show genuine interest and understanding about where he is coming from. I go to showings of houses. I try to remain open-minded. I try to make sure that my objections to moving are reasonable and fair, not about being contrary or getting my own way.

On my husband’s part, he hears me and tries to understand my perspective. He does not drop the discussion or hide his enthusiasm, but he doesn’t push the issue too far so that it comes between us or gets disrespectful. He knows that since I am not comfortable with buying a house right now, we will not be buying a house until I am comfortable. He also knows that I am happy to entertain his thoughts and opinions.

For other joint decisions, sometimes we yield to the person most passionate and/or opinionated on a subject. One of our first arguments was (of course) about Erich leaving the toilet seat up. Unused to sharing bathrooms with boys, I’d tumbled into the toilet bowl a couple of times. It obviously wasn’t fair that I had to put down the toilet seat whenever I wanted to go to the bathroom. The toilet seat must stay down at all times! Then Erich shot back that it wasn’t fair that he had to put the toilet seat up every time, either.

An impasse.

I was so stunned with this excellent point that I’ve been putting down the toilet seat ever since.

Now that I think about it, Erich is much more opinionated about smaller household decisions — which brand to use, what foods to eat or not eat, how to fold socks — and since I don’t care, or don’t care as much, I shrug and do it his way. Why not?

For joint decisions that require more expertise, we generally delegate to the person more capable, interested, and/or available.

For instance, Erich handles long-term financial issues (retirement savings, the budget, investments, etc.), and I handle issues surrounding childcare and education. We do research, we come up with plans, and we present those options to the other spouse. The final decision still lies in both of our hands, but the mental load of sifting through the millions of different options rests on only one person’s shoulders. The more expert party might ask the other spouse to research a particular point or familiarize themselves with basic principles in order to make a more informed decision, but only one spouse does the mental heavy-lifting.

It’s kind of like the Congressional/Presidential relationship: one spouse is Congress, debating the options and presenting the final legislation; the other is the President, who gets veto power and can send the legislation back to Congress for further review.

That’s for joint decisions.

Personal Decisions

When it comes to personal decisions, we strive for “transparent independence.”

It’s difficult to have a truly “personal” decision in a marriage; our personal lives directly and indirectly affect the other spouse. But Erich and I agree that while it’s important to run personal choices past the other spouse, the responsibility for making some decisions lies with the person it most affects. 

We firmly believe it’s important to maintain individual autonomy in these matters. We need opportunities to fail, succeed, change, and respond to our own personal needs and desires within a supportive relationship. Exercising authority over the spouse, no matter how benevolent (as in complementarianism) or informal (as in constantly nitpicking and henpecking), is disrespectful and unnecessary in a relationship between two adults.

Further, we need opportunities to see, understand, and respect that other people can do things differently than we do. It’s not necessary to be uniform in order to be united! [1]

Issues about how we spend our free time, how we spend smaller amounts of money, how we parent, how we practice our faith, how and when we perform our household duties, what job we get, etc., all fall under “personal decisions” to us.

We’ve always run everything past each other, even if it’s not technically the other spouse’s decision or doesn’t affect them that much. “Do you mind if I spend the evening playing games with my friends?” “Would you care if I bought some snacks during the grocery run?” “I’m spending over a hundred dollars on this particular thing. Is that okay with you?”

This isn’t about permission. It’s about transparency and accountability, and an acknowledgement that our personal decisions do affect the other spouse. Normally I’m happy for Erich to play games with his friends, but maybe that particular day I’m worn out from being a stay-at-home mom and want him to watch Emmerich while I nap. Normally Erich doesn’t care about what I buy at the store, but maybe he wants to point out that I’ve been eating too much junk food or am constantly going over-budget. Of course, we trust each other’s judgment on larger purchases, but maybe we feel the money would be better spent or saved in another way.

Even with big personal decisions that hugely affect the family, we try to give each other as much autonomy as possible.

With parenting, for instance, we split along traditional mom/dad divides: I am more nurturing and cautious, Erich plays rougher and rowdier. I don’t always like how Erich parents (and vice versa!), but after saying my piece, I give him space to be the dad he thinks Emmerich should have. (And normally Emmerich giggles over whatever crazy game his daddy comes up with — even the ones that give Mommy a heart attack!)

An Important Reminder

This is what works for our particular relationship. None of this is formula for all marriages.

We’ve been egalitarian from the start, so we don’t have to deal with any latent authoritative male headship issues that might require a wife to be more assertive. We’ve never dealt with infidelity, substance abuse, or addiction, which might require one spouse to set boundaries stricter than appropriate in a healthier marriage.

And even in our own marriage, individual situations require a slightly different approach or end up with a slightly different outcome. Sometimes one of us changes our mind, sometimes we reach a compromise, and sometimes we hit upon a completely different third way. We just never know until we get there!

I firmly believe that there is no one way to reach a united outcome. It’s not about a wife yielding to her husband all the time, or a husband yielding to his wife all the time, or a wife asserting herself all the time, or a husband asserting himself all the time. It’s a dance of submission and assertion, of staying silent and speaking up, of changing one’s own mind and challenging the other’s. 

But the common denominator in of all of these variables is that we never close the discussion or make a decision unless both of us are happy with the outcome. While some decisions seem more impossible than others at the time, we’ve always found a satisfactory conclusion to our disagreements.

And let me say again: this way of decision-making is not always easy. Whether from selfishness or simply difference, becoming a united front is daunting. The decision-making process surrounding family faith and parenting, for instance, started at the beginning of our dating relationship and only reached an acceptable compromise sometime during our first year of marriage. That’s around four years of debate, frustration, discomfort, tears, and despair.

But as hellish as that time was, the outcome has been amazing. There is no resentment, no feeling that we weren’t heard or understood, no frustration about having to do things the other person’s way — only unity and understanding we never thought possible at the time.

[1] Dr. John Gottman, a prominent researcher on marital health, says that even in happy marriages, the majority of disagreements remain unsolvable. It’s important to pick your battles and give lots of grace and understanding!

Listening to the Mom Guilt

alvaro-reyes-492359-unsplash

Children need kind, consistent, well-informed parents. Whatever parenting beliefs a mom holds, if they’re backed up in fact (good advice, careful observation, and thoughtful research) and implemented kindly and consistently, children will turn out okay.

All of this requires confidence. I find that when I’m feeling worried, guilty, or unsure, I don’t apply my beliefs or approaches consistently or kindly. I get frustrated, and that frustration can come out on my child. I waffle back and forth on how to do things, confusing my child who needs consistency to navigate his world.

Have you ever noticed that the most volatile of parents are also the most easily swayed? A lack of confidence in one’s discipline methods, for instance, can turn a kid whining for candy in the checkout line into the end of the world for the parent, too. Flustered and at her wit’s end, the mom starts yelling at her child to stop whining. When the whining inevitably escalates into all-out tantrumming, the mom will scream, “Fine! Have the candy!”

Without confidence, our worry, guilt, and uncertainty makes us lose our cool and our parenting approaches that made much more sense when we read that article a few days ago.

Unfortunately for moms, this uncertainty crops up everywhere, sometimes even right after we’ve gained certainty. I’ll study out an issue and come to a satisfying conclusion, only to hit a roadblock with my baby (or a well-meaning online comment) that sends me reeling back to the drawing board. More often than not, this uncertainty feels like guilt — mom guilt.

Since we carry around mom guilt about the smallest, craziest of things, we think that the guilt is something to get rid of. It’s inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s certainly something moms shouldn’t listen to.

But maybe it isn’t.

Whenever I feel mom guilt, I’ve found leaning into that feeling to be productive and insightful. Even though the feeling manifests as guilt and often begins in response to a less-than-gracious question or rant, it’s drawing on many of those other underlying mom emotions. I don’t feel mom guilt about the things I confidently believe and have seen successfully implemented. It never feels good to hear another philosophy or parent questioning your style, but I put that in a different category than mom guilt.

I feel mom guilt about the new things, the uncertain things, the things I’m not quite sure I understand or am doing correctly, the things that I think I should do according to the parenting philosophy I follow but that don’t feel right.

When I lean into the mom guilt, I hear what my gut is truly saying: I’m not sure this is working for my baby. I’m not sure this is working for me. I still have questions and concerns that bother me more than I want to admit. 

This is a matter of confidence. The mom guilt clues me in that I am not confident about some aspect of my parenting and that I should start troubleshooting the issue.

Sometimes I just need reassurance, either from a mom friend who’s been there and done that, or from my husband who’s ready to back me up when I chicken out, or from my own experience seeing a parenting decision work out well for our family. Being a mom is hard. It’s easy to lose perspective amidst the sea of options and potential disasters stemming from those options. Feeling confused turns into feeling inadequate — and that’s when good husbands, sisters, friends, mentors, and my own mother step in to remind me that I am a good mom and I will get through this.

Sometimes I need more research or thought. I’m analytical and systematic in my approach to parenting; I need to understand things conceptually in order to implement them practically, or I’m lost. Plus, there’s so much I don’t know! I thought babies would be more straightforward, but ever since the first moment when I held Emmerich and hoped to goodness I didn’t drop him, I’ve been Googling the most basic of things. Mom advice is indispensable in sorting through all the expert opinions and data, but the expert opinions and data still need to be sorted — including the personal data of observing my own baby more closely.

What I try not to do is stuff the mom guilt away. It’s right that we empower moms to listen to their motherly intuition, and that’s why it’s important to listen to the mom guilt: mom guilt is part of that motherly intuition. It’s not the comforting side where mom knows best. It’s the side that reminds you that you don’t always know best, especially in the particular situation making you uneasy.

Moms, like any humans, get caught up in their lofty parenting goals or limited perspectives or sleep deprivation or stress and fail to see their children clearly. We don’t know all the answers off the top of our head. We haven’t done all the research possible. Mom guilt reminds us of our humanity. While we need to respond to mom guilt with so much grace, we need to listen to the mom guilt when it shows us where we might have gone wrong — whether it’s as benign as losing confidence or not understanding our children or the issue or it’s as serious as potentially wronging our children.

All of us can think of loving, devoted mothers doing something from less-than-ideal information or ideology, even some truly horrible things like hitting children with plumbers’ pipe for punishment or yelling at their children, not apologizing, and then blaming their loss of temper on the children’s bad behavior. I would venture to guess that the majority of parents who hit their children or yell feel guilty about their actions, but instead of leaning into the guilt, they stuff it away with excuses and beliefs that led them to believe hitting or yelling is okay in the first place. How many broken parent/child relationships could have been saved if parents were encouraged to listen to the guilt they felt after inflicting overly harsh punishment or insensitively communicating?

A mom who doesn’t listen to her mom guilt can build up problems in her relationship with her children. As I said above, a lack of confidence often leads to a loss of the firm, kind, consistent parental leadership children need. Some parents let that lack of confidence and uncertainty fester into a feeling of inadequacy, lashing out at others — their children, their nosy relatives, the random people of the internet. Some parents overcompensate for their lack of confidence by putting on a show and justifying their behavior without true introspection.

It’s difficult to allow ourselves the possibility of being wrong as we interact with and care for the people we love most. Leaning in to the mom guilt requires (ironically) a level of confidence in our self-worth, and that’s hard to come by, especially for moms in a parenting culture of shame and way too much information.

But the grace we need is that it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to try something else. It’s okay to feel guilty, or uncertain, or clueless. We need to believe that for ourselves and for other moms so much that we’re empowered to admit when we’re wrong or unsure, and make the necessary change.

Kids don’t need perfect moms to turn out well. They need kind, consistent, well-informed moms — and all of us are capable of being that if we listen to our mom guilt and try again.