Thursday, 22 November 2012

To the mother I passed on my way into work today

Dear Woman yelling at your daughter on the corner of Wentworth Rd & Banbury Rd today,

I just want you to know how close you came to being shaken and slapped in public in front of your children and everyone on their way to work/school today.

I get that it must have been deeply frustrating when your 5-6 yo daughter froze and threw a wobbly, crying in the street, making you late taking her and your son to school. I'm not sure what she'd forgotten or why she wanted to go home.

But standing in the street, yelling about how she was making you late and how you were going to cancel her playdates and not let her do anything nice this weekend in your OX2 'I went to Roehampton' accent didn't make you sound like a good, strong, in-charge mother.

It made you sound weak. It made you sound like a shrill, abusive c*** who finds her children a burden and who takes all her anger out on them. I'm not sure how close to the truth that was, but what was clear was that you thought answering a child's panic with your anger was the answer. You might have gotten her to move, but she'll never trust you.

Neither should anyone else.

I'm sure you reacted in a way that was familiar: maybe your mother; maybe your father. Maybe it was all you knew. Right now, I don't give a DAMN what YOUR issues are; the ones that make you treat your child like they're an extension of you and supposed to soothe YOUR feelings. YOU ARE THE ADULT. It's YOUR responsibility to BE emotionally aware, to choose how you respond and to contain the emotions that your daughter couldn't.

You've clearly been privileged. It's time you made good use of it and dealt with your shit, so your children don't have to - nor do the rest of the people who will be part of your children's lives, feeling the effects and trying to fix the damage you are unwittingly (one hopes) doing.

Because, quite frankly, it's parenting of the type you displayed this morning that is the core of an unhappy society: today, you taught your daughter that your time was more important than she was - that it was so important, in fact, that you would withdraw your love and her life - playdates, a weekend of fun, the ability to rest in the knowledge that you love her no matter what. 

It's mothers like the one I imagine you are - shrill; vomiting emotionally on everyone around you; seeing your children as an extension of yourself, there to prop up your self-esteem; brittle, taking up all the emotional space, no matter how 'dominant' you appear to be in the family; distant, suffocating or alternating between the two - incapable of allowing healthy separation; self-absorbed; stingy with your love - making your children earn it - that I see reflected in so many faces of my friends and my clients. You're the mother I see dragging her resistant, struggling son by the hand to serve at mass so YOU have bragging rights and can feel like a 'good Catholic mother'. You're the mother I've seen walk to her seat in countless ordinations, setting my teeth on edge and making me think, in just one glance, one interaction with those around you, 'Wow. Well, THAT explains a lot - I understand so very much now,' as my heart breaks for your son. You're the mother I feared I might become.

Am I projecting? You bet your Roehampton-educated ass I am.

I really hope it was a bad morning - that your daughter had been insufferably difficult (still your job to find out why), that it's been a bad week and you were at the end of your tether, that it was just that crap moment we all have. But something in your tone and the particular threats; in the note of hysteria in your daughter's crying; in your son's resigned posture on his bike told me that was probably not the case, though I suspect the truth is somewhere between my projection and the most positive possibility. It usually is.

So here's a thought. Next time, find out why your daughter - or son - is so upset. Spend the few minutes listening - trust me, they'll be fewer than the minutes you spend threatening her with the withdrawal of your love - and either going back to the house without rancour or suggesting an alternative solution. Not only will you be calmer, but your children will learn that you will be there and love them no matter what, and that stressful feelings aren't scary, because they can be resolved.

Next time, be a Mum, not a mother. 

Trust me, the payoff will be greater than you can even begin to imagine.

The therapist who doesn't ever want to see your children in her consulting room

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Reflection on an election, or: Fr Jerome, I'd like to change my answer

My eyes opened into darkness from a dream I couldn't remember.  I could hear the sound of the heating coming on, like miners working far below me.

So it was between 05.45 and 6am.

As I emerged from the depths, I could hear the whispers in my head, and in a half-dream, could see President Obama swiftly walking the halls of the White House, calling to Michelle and the girls, 'Come on, we have to see the concession speech!' Romney and Co. were a blur, but they were clearly outside.

I pulled into total wakefulness and stared into the darkness, paralysed, unsure of what to do, what I wanted to know. T had told me last night that she would most likely email me I took a deep breath and reached for my phone. The 'M', indicating new messages in my inbox, glowed balefully at me. I took a deep breath, pressed the Gmail icon and saw the subject line of my most recent email: "Obama wins". I grinned, lay in the dark for another couple of minutes, then saw another email from T - "Mitt Romney", telling me he'd conceded. I turned on the light and flew down the steps to turn on the telly, only to see Mittens hugging his family, knowing it was over. 

Knowing I'd never get back to sleep, I nipped into the shower, got dressed and headed in for the 07.30 mass.

Back in 2009, a certain clerical friend couldn't resist teasing me: "She gets this smile on her face every time she says, 'Barack Obama'," he said, claiming my smile looked very much like the Reality side of this picture (he might not be wrong; I couldn't possibly comment).

Couldn't resist stopping by him and whispering in the pre-mass silence, "I STILL smile when I say 'President Barack Obama'," which earned me a trademark look.

After mass, I went to light 2 candles - one in thanksgiving for a peaceful election and one for a first birthday girl, and briefly ran into Fr Jerome setting up for mass in the Lady Chapel. I motioned that I was just lighting candles and whispered that I was very pleased with the election result.

He looked puzzled, asking if there had been an election recently.

I suggested there might have been one somewhere out West, and he nodded in agreement. I added that at least we wouldn't be run by crazy capitalists, then went, 'But wait...'

He responded, 'Does it really make any difference?'

In a moment of cynical defensiveness, I shook my head and said, 'No.'

Fr Jerome, I'd like to change my answer. I know you'll let me because you are as committed to learning, introspection and analysis as my grandfather was - and if through that process, one comes to a different conclusion, then you, like he, would insist that one's answer must change - it's a matter of integrity.

Though maybe in my case, I just hadn't thought yet, because I was afraid to be vulnerable in my hope, to stand up and say, 'Yes, yes it does matter, though I can't put it into words yet.'

So, Padre, I want to say, 'Yes. Yes, it does matter.'

You're right (ask me for that in triplicate and notarised, I don't say it often!) - in certain ways, it doesn't.  In many ways, money runs the show no matter who's at the helm. The parties aren't that different. Neither man would change the system to move it more in line with the Catholic social teaching we hold so dear. No one (at the moment) is going to be able to abolish the death penalty, say 'no more war', implement distributive justice. In that sense, maybe it doesn't seem to matter.

But in another sense, it matters very much indeed. 

See, Padre, I would argue that we don't really vote on policy, we vote a reflection: a reflection of how we see and define ourselves, of who we want to be, of what we believe, of our emotional state.

And that's where it made every difference.

Yes, we voted for a man who can get caught up in his own thoughts and paralyse his decision-making, who allowed himself to hobbled by Republican obstructionism, who didn't decisively bring an end to it, who should have listened more to his own LBJ (Rahm Emmanuel) when it came to working with Congress. 

We voted for a man who makes mistakes - but thinks about them, acknowledges them and can learn from them. We voted for a man who believes in process, in the right of all voices to speak, not in shutting down the voices that disagree with him:

Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty.

That we have elected a leader who is willing - even eager - to allow this room for dissent is a profound change from the fear-based years after 9/11, when civil liberties started disappearing faster than gin & tonic at a Catholic priests' convention held in Oxford.

We voted for a man who pushed through provision for affordable healthcare for all, despite shrill, angry opposition. Was it the version we'd all hoped for? Maybe not, but it was a start. We voted for a man who put his arm around a sobbing woman after a hurricane devastated her home. We voted for a man who loves his family fiercely in every action he takes, not just in every word he says. We voted for a man who listens and thinks before answering. We voted for a man who wrote back to a young girl, reassuring her that her unconventional family was perfect: "In America, no two families look the same. We celebrate this diversity...Our differences unite us. (as well as apologising for not being able to drop in for dinner)" We voted for a man who values education and opportunity for everyone no matter who they are.

We voted for a man who can laugh at himself - the most reliable sign of sanity.

We voted for a man who, as soon as it was over, reached across the divide to his opponent and let the bitterness of the campaign go.

And we voted for a man who holds, at the deepest level, that even as we are many, so are we one - that we are a society, not an aggregate of individuals. The antithesis of the Thatcher-Reagan worldview. 

Why does it matter? Because if you want to understand classroom dynamics, look to the teacher. A religious community, look to the abbot/prior/leader. A business, look to the CEO/founder. A school, to the principal. A country, to its leader. If you want to understand the system, look to the leader, who permeates and drives it with his values through his choices and actions.

The tangible results of the presidency may, in the end, not have been that different, because of the system. But  the atmosphere in which those choices and that discussion will be steeped ensures that the country which emerges will be profoundly different.

Yesterday, we voted for compassion over calculating, Ayn Rand-style selfishness. We voted for freedom of speech over fear. We voted for diversity over conformity, even as we voted for society over individualism. Yesterday, we voted to listen rather than screech. We voted for forgiveness over bitterness and sanity over self-righteousness. We voted for real but imperfect over slick and manufactured.

Yesterday, we peered out from behind years of fear, anger and tightly barricaded hearts and dared to dream:

I'm not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the road blocks that stand in our path. I'm not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.

Yesterday, our stubborn country voted for that stubborn theological virtue: hope. And in that opening, even if it is just the tiniest sliver, to hope, to compassion, to dreaming, we opened the door to that greatest of theological virtues: love.

No matter how we cloaked it - voting against one person; for the lesser of two evils; for this issue or that issue - as a collective, that is what we did. We took a trembling step out from behind our fear with our clenched fists and moved uncertainly towards hope, opening our hands, even if just a little. We moved towards home.

So yes, Fr Jerome, it does matter. It matters very much indeed.