Tuesday, May 12, 2020

#85 Men, agents of and pathway to cultural metanoia (parenting)


 Although most would consider “education” to be important, if not essential, to a healthy development of children, there are some glaring gaps that could be biting us in the back side.

Training in financial management, budgets, household prioritizing and the processes required to achieve some kind of balance (of accounts, and more importantly of power) continues to be a blind spot in educational curricula in North America. Some financial institutions, and life-skills coaches albeit, are including these complex issues in their mostly remedial work.

Similarly, the highly complex and even more highly relevant subject of parenting is left primarily to one’s own parents/guardians, the parents/guardians of one’s friends and, for those slipping through the cracks, social service agencies.

A camp director of some 300 children reported recently, “I spend much of my time providing the missing parenting that these children did not receive in their own home
In her book Act Natural: A Cultural history of Misadventures in Parenting, Jennifer Traig writes: “The verb (to parent) is only about 45 years old—it came about in the 70’s…Before that, they reared their children but mostly they left that in fact to other people—to staff, to older siblings, to other relatives…A parent’s job was to have the kids, not necessarily to raise them.” Reported on CBC, February 18, 2019, from an interview with the author by The Current’s Anna Marie Tremonti.)

The interview continues with some very provocative, troubling and now dissonant information: Quoting from the CBC report cited above:

In 18th century Europe, it was common to send your infant child to the country. To live with a wet nurse, who would breastfeed and care for the child for money.
The practice was particularly common in France, Traig said, where one year 17,000 of the 21,000 babies in Paris were sent off to wet nurses. Only 700 newborns were nursed by their own mothers that year, she said. It wasn’t just done by the rich, Traig explained, but added that ‘the poorer you were, the farther out in the country your kids went. So wet nurses also sent their kids out to even poorer wet nurses, because a lot of families preferred that just one nurse take care of the child, and not nurse her own children.’
Sometimes, prepubescent girls would pose as wet nurses and feed babies a mix of flour and water, said Traig.
People once believed that babies wouldn’t be able to ‘assume human form’ unless it was forcibly imposed upon them, Traig said. To achieve that in medieval times, ‘children ere swaddled from head to toe like mummies,’ she told Tremonti. ‘The idea was that this would make their limbs grow into human limbs, and their trunk stay a human trunk.’
In ancient Rome, it’s believed that families often abandoned children, Traig explained. ‘It’s just unthinkable to us now, but for them it really functioned as a form of family planning,’ she said. If families couldn’t take care of a baby, they would be left in a ‘designated area,’ where they could be adopted by other families, taken by slave traders—or sometimes eaten by animals. Like the story of Romulus and Remus, ‘a lot of the founding myths of cities, including Rome, are about foundlings who are raised sometimes by animals, sometimes by peasants,’ she said.

Easily accessible by Google are such theoretical and potentially practical schemata that, for example, depict “four parenting styles,” dependent on  degrees of sensitivity/punitiveness, and demanding/no enforced limits…resulting in two “authoritative/authoritarian, and permissive or uninvolved categories.
Some studies conclude that “authoritative parenting is consistently linked to the best outcomes in kids. (From Parenting for Brain website, May 09, 2020)
Like teaching itself, since everyone has been to school, and everyone has been ‘raised’ somehow by someone(s), it appears that different ‘strokes for different folks’ has led, over the centuries to a pendulum swing of immeasureable dimensions.

From ushering children off to wet nurses, or leaving them in a designated area for adoption, to some of the gurus (like Dr. Spock, in generations past), and more recently to the proverbial and often discussed “helicopter parenting” in which parent ‘hover’ over their child’s every move, every thought, every feeling and clearly every troubling experience.

So significant is this development that recent evidence documents an exponential spike in childhood anxiety, depression, suicide and the inevitable public discussion, especially focused as it is now that North America (and other continents) are sequestered in our homes, confined with our children, for undetermined periods, depending on the jurisdiction.

Kate Julian, writing in the most recent edition of The Atlantic, reports from an interview with Lynn Lyons, as therapist and co-author of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents, the childhood mental-health crisis risks becoming self-perpetuating:

“The worse that the numbers get about our kids’ mental health—the more anxiety, depression, and suicide increase—the more fearful parents become. The more fearful parents become, the more they continue to do the things that are inadvertently contributing to these problems.”
Julian continues: This is the essence of our moment. The problem with kids today is also a crisis of parenting today, which is itself growing worse as parental stress rises, for a variety of reasons. And so we have a vicious cycle in which adult stress leads to child stress, which leads to more adult stress, which leads to an epidemic of anxiety at all ages. (The Atlantic, May 2020, page 31)

Where are the men in these pictures? Some have simply walked away perhaps believing that, given the spectre they have that their spouses have taken the reins over about child-rearing. Others have perhaps gone silent, in the belief (perception) that mothers are more important to the raising of children than are fathers, although the evidence suggests precisely the opposite, and not only fathers with sons, but also fathers with daughters. Other men have perhaps become so engrossed in their professional/provider roles that barely any energy and attention is left over for serious pursuit of parenting, except perhaps while on vacation. Others, too, have adopted the helicopter parent style, and in so doing, have wrapped the mantle of over-protection around their child, in keeping with the maternal instincts, aspirations, protections and patterns.

(Personal anecdote: Once, after receiving a passing swipe on my head from the hand of a four-year-old seated with his parents behind me at a Toronto Blue Jays game, surprised and a little stunned, I uttered, “Hey!” only to hear the child’s mother utter, “Stop picking on my child!” )

While theories abound about the potential risk to children of the prevalence of digital social media, and the bullying that it conveys, resulting in the anxiety and depression that such bullying incurs, (and there is considerable evidence in support), the attitudes, behaviours and perceptions, aspirations and expectations of parents have a significant role in the parenting of children.

Ms Julian’s report includes these statements:

Anxiety disorders are well worth preventing, but anxiety itself is not something to eb warded off. It is a universal and necessary response to stress and uncertainty. I heard repeatedly from therapists and researchers while reporting this piece that anxiety is uncomfortable buy, as with most discomfort, we can learn to tolerate it…Yet we are doing the opposite: Far too often, we insulate our children from distress and discomfort entirely. And children who don’t learn to cope with distress face a rough path to adulthood. A growing number of middle- and high-school students appear to be avoiding school due to anxiety or depression; some have stopped attending entirely. As a symptom of deteriorating mental health, experts say, ‘school refusal’ is the equivalent of a four-alarm fire, both because it signals profound distress and because it can lead to co-called failure to launch—seen in the rising share of young adults who don’t work or attend school and who are dependent on their parents. (Op. Cit. p. 31)

Clearly, while these figures and observations have an American base, the broader issue of men and women attempting together to raise children is both complicated and potentially one of the most rewarding/risky/threatening aspects of family life.
Competition between parents, as individuals, as well as with competing values, is a ubiquitous volcano rumbling most likely silently, under the surface of any conversations about the lives of the kids. Unspoken and denied or avoided competition, too, is frankly even more dangerous. And if and when it surfaces after a decision has been taken by one child and one parent, without the knowledge and participation of the other parent, then all hell erupts, and it should!

However, what were the pre-curser developments to which at least one parent was oblivious? How was power being exercised, shared, discussed, decisions made and potential repercussions anticipated, that resulted in a complete breakdown of family structure, and not merely of family communications.

And this chapter of masculinity, being a father, is so deeply fraught with images of both extreme positivity and negativity, imprinted throughout the childhood of the new father. How his own parents acted, deceived, denied, avoided, protected, punished, rewarded, and even dressed and fed that “boy” is indelibly imprinted in his psyche. Whether there are issues of separating from an over-protective mother, or liberating from an excessively demanding father, or worse, extricating from the pressures of both parents, the new father is likely to be unconscious at worse, or  barely aware at best, of his own issues. These trend lines, doubtless, are much longer than the life of one generation.

Fathers whose work, career, professional status, social circle leave a deep and lasting impression on their young sons and daughters. And, without ever rising to the level of a kitchen table conversation, the relationship between a new father and the mother of his new child, is also not only on display but actually engenders much of the body language that transpires and is picked up by the child. The intuition of the child, not unlike that of a pet dog, is sticky, and absorbent and not easily expunged. One depressed cry of anguish from a parent, for example, will live forever in that child’s memory. And that analogy, whether positive or negative, will leave repeating ripples in the mind of the new parent.

Human life, as we have so shockingly re-discovered, entails much more than stock and employment numbers, tax rates and graduation rates. And, too often, men have been remiss, albeit unconsciously, in permitting family issues to be relegated to the family section of the daily paper, as well as to the last moment of the day, when energy has poured out earlier in “important work and decision-making”. All men know that this pattern is endemic to our lives, and depending on whether or not our spouse has tolerated or merely resigned to our pattern, nevertheless, we know we share some sadness, perhaps shame and guilt, or at least regret, for our emotional absence, if not our actual physical presence.

We are not ascribing blame, either overtly or inadvertently to any single parent, or to either gender of parent for the current state of our children. We are, however, recognizing that in the patterns of child-rearing over the last half to three-quarters of a century, the contribution in emotional, conversational, and time-spent terms by fathers, while not necessarily documented by researchers, has been less than it could have been. And it is not only the children who have been deprived; so too have the fathers short-changed ourselves.

And it is not only in the amount of time or those “one-on-one conversations that men participate. It is also in whether or not a father succumbs to the excessive protection of a child, without offering a legitimate, reasonable, and operational option for situations that he/we likely already experienced, even if we did so regretfully. As fathers, we are given a do-over for many of the mistakes of our lives, dependent as they are on the gaps in our own upbringing. And it is our ‘false modesty’ (at least as one of the contributing factors) and our laser focus on other important matters.

Fathers know that accommodating a child’s fears is detrimental to the child as well as to the family. And what father is himself not aware of his own fears that were left unmentioned, unaddressed and unsupported in his youth? Fathers’ fears, even  and especially in adulthood, just as they would have been in youth, are available and accessible keys to unlocking the intimacies that can only serve, with some tension, to bring all members of the family closer and more honestly supportive.

Men do not have to succumb to our so deeply ingrained stereotype that we cannot have or especially cannot show fear, weakness, insecurity, uncertainty, ambiguity or even profound anxiety. There is some reason to speculate that our withdrawal from self-disclosure, including our tears, our nervous agitations, our ‘time-out’s’ and our worries about ordinary questions to which we might not have answers, not only robs us of the needed support but also robs our families of their opportunity to discern what is an authentic anxiety and what is tolerable.

Just because parenting is more complicated than ‘putting food on the table and a roof over head,’ does not mean that those complications are beyond the scope and capacity of every authentic, and open and receptive and unfinished father.

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