Archives for May 2009


Nature or Nurture?

When we parent a child, whether the child is biologically our own, legally our own – or even domiciliary our own, is the child’s outcome a function of who they are inherently, biologically or is the child’s outcome a function of how we have parented?

Yikes, there is the question for every parent who lives in America.  There is no way to answer it yet, science has not quite achieved all of that.

But philosophically, can we answer the question?  Does it matter what the answer is?  I mean will you change your parenting style based on what the answer is to the nurture vs nature question?  Will you parent differently if you know that your child will only ever have an even temperament?  Will you parent differently if you know that your child is incredibly possessive of you and that possessiveness creates jealousy?

If you decide that categorically nurturing is the answer, that all outcomes depend on you as the parent; will you then resist the child’s interest in outside play, because you are an inside person who does not like dirt?  Will you insist that your child’s character fit your own character?  How many characterizations are there to describe and define the phenomena of being human?  Is 1,000 too high a number or too low?  If you decide that nature determines all things within the child, do you then give up and let nature take its course?

Science tells us that if you are a parent who is an addict your child is more likely to be an addict based on the science of genes and DNA.  Does this mean that your child can never have a drink, that your child is in dire danger if s/he experiements with marijuana?  What if, characteristically, your child is hard wired for independence as well as addiction, any resistance you have to any action the child makes then creates a desire in the child to repeat the action.  The genetic characteristic of independence can outweigh the genetic pre-disposition to addiction.

Personally, I always thought role modeling was the single most important determinant in predicting a child’s behavior.  I also though that MY parenting was the most important single factor.  I do not believe either of these things anymore.  If these things were true, MTV would never have been successful with motivating my high schoolers to wear $100.00 tennis shoes; this just would not have happened if my kids were following my role model and my parenting was the most important feature of their own development.  My kids wanted, no insisted, cried and begged and pleaded for $100.00 tennis shoes.  I have one son who is SO committed to $100.00 tennis shoes that now, 16 years after graduating from high school, he insists that I wear them also and will even go through the expense of buying them for me so that I do not embarass him with $9.99 “sneakers”.

So what happened between my good intentions when I cradled that soft infant to my breast and breathed my wishes and desires into him – and now?  What happened?  What happened is what I often describe as the “spider web” theory of development.  Its so complex, you cannot trace a single line and come up with a single answer.  There is nature and that is a fact.  Any parent who has more than one child can attest to the power of nature.  Children are born with a temperament.  Your first child may come howling into the world, while your second peacefully and solemnly makes her way into your arms from the uterus.

What is as interesting, is the conversation that a parent and child have at the other end of child hood.  That is the interpretation that an adult child has of life events of childhood.  The very same event will be recalled completely differently from the same set of siblings.  It’s not just perspective that will make the recall so different.  There is the interpretation of what my parent did during this event.  Based on this interpretation the action of the parent is seen as either good or bad.

This interpretation then pervades the next interaction with the parent.  A child’s internal story gets built from a series of interpretations. 
Where did the interpretation come from?  How does the child decide “my mom is way too protective”, or “my dad over- reacts”?

And so it goes.  I recall with the birth of my first child feeling that I was honored to have this small soul entrusted to me.  I also thought that metaphorically speaking he was a blackboard (blank slate) and that I would write all good things on the black board.  How naive I was!  I was honored yes, yet he brought his own strong will into this world.  He brought his own strength, his own interpretation of the universe with him.

Often, my son and I discuss parenting as he traverses his own parenting path with a daughter and a stepson.  We talk about how we started out parenting by trying to avoid the mistakes of our own parents.  I have admitted to him how I failed at avoiding my mother’s and father’s errors.  I changed their parenting, yes, but while I was looking in their direction some other failure came out of “left field” to whack at us.  Thus, mistakes were repeated, just in a new way.  I also misinterpreted what my child needed, seeing them through my own childhood, my own value system.

Therein lies the third component of human development that cannot be explained by nature vs. nurture.  It is the God component.  For some reason God challenges us by giving us at least one child that is so different from our selves that this little human being forces us to re-examine everything about ourselves and our universe repeatedly.  I am not speaking about the change that comes from being a new parent.  I am speaking about the temperament and personality difference that comes forth from our own offspring that is so different from our own we must look around and say “what happened here”?

That is why I describe childhood development as a spider web.  It is complex, yet also planned.  There is a divine presence at work that sees a grand design that I cannot see.  I am responsible for every action that I take with my child, but there is so much more to my child’s human development than me.  There is an entire universe that my child lives in that I cannot control.        I have influence, yet it is not infinite.  I promise you that as a parent, you do not control the outcome of your child’s childhood.  The adult presences herself, and in the end you are happy if she is happy.  Now happiness, that’s a whole other essay…


Regarding Mother Teresa’s “Crisis of Faith” 28 September 2007

Mother Teresa’s letters to her sole confidante are published and subsequently interpreted  as a “Crisis of Faith” that some “scholars” claim give doubt to her role as a Saint.  Not so, her faith is unquestioned, here is my interpretation of those letters:


This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Mother Teresa.  I wrote 10 years ago about the demise of the American mother, and Mother Teresa was essential to that piece.

At the time I was lamenting the politics of mothering and how anything associated with nurturing in our society was politically and economically negative.


Now I find myself 10 years later essentially doing the same thing, defending what a woman creates, against a society who views only male truth as the truth.  You’re asking how could Mother Teresa’s “crisis of faith” be a gender issue?  Mother Teresa is completely misunderstood.  A male interpretation will exist in a reality that is separate from the reality that women function in.  Generalization hardly does justice to a lifetime like Mother Teresa’s.  Certainly the writers who espouse this “crisis of faith” generalize, how else can they take a life’s work and diminish it down to letters of pain and anguish and sorrow?


I make two points in this discussion: one begins with myself and the second has to do with coping.


I have always been a writer, first in copious letters to my mother and various boyfriends and then in limitless diaries.  The truth is, my pain is recorded necessarily, but my joy never made it to paper.  My joy I inhaled like a greedy infant grasping my first bottle.  I did not share my joy with pen and paper.  When life went well, my pages were blank.  My pain and abject misery are perfectly recorded in exquisite agony over many pages in every form of prose. 

To know me is to know that I am mother first and foremost, there is no other activity, love, purpose or idea more important to me.  When it comes down to it, when I have been forced, when I must make a life changing decision, it is always and without fail, to and for my children.  If you had read my crazed writing over the years, you would first read the ravings of a beleaguered step mother whose first child refused to learn how to tie her shoes, who, while sweet, also had a stubborn streak a mile wide.  You might then read about a lost young woman separated from her young sons for weeks at a time trying hard to find a future, a place, a reason.  I do not believe that you would find within those pages a portrait of a dedicated mother.

You might then read a story written when my first daughter was born.  This is a time I remember as the most joyous of my life.  Nothing could compare to the gift of the beautiful female infant who was mine.  But in my writing you will only find the abject fear, pain and anxiety of almost having lost that beautiful baby at birth.  At delivery, her heart wouldn’t beat right and then there might be brain damage?  That is the writing that you will find.  You will not find even one word written about how thankful I was to God, that God had saved my daughter by placing nursing students on that floor on the morning I went into labor.  You will not find one word written about how God had given me those nursing students to precisely save my child’s life, to ensure her intelligence, to secure her safety.  You will not know about how my mother stayed outside of the operating room guarding myself and my child.  How she waited hours for me to awaken, so that she could reassure me.  You will not know these things from the stories that I have written about my life: you will only know the pain, the fear, the hurt.

And now, it’s been 27 years since that child was born.  My new dilemma is my aloneness.  In the cradle of my then-husband and his mother, in the cradle of my mother, I was re-assured and safe and I had all of these children.  First a step-daughter, then two sons, then two daughters, somewhere in the middle I received a foster son and then finally, my youngest, my heart, my twenty one year old adopted son.

This I did in the safety of those loving arms who nurtured me, who assisted me and who did so many of the parenting tasks by my side.

All of those people are dead now.  I am alone and I still have all of these children and indeed, they multiply, they marry, they have children, I fall in love more and more and increase my vulnerability exponentially.  Being in love with 15 people is infinitely more risky than being in love with one.

And I am alone.

If you read my diaries, you would imagine a tortured soul full of anguish and anger.  Anger because so many that I love have abandoned me to take up space in heaven.  How dare they!

You would not know how happy and relieved I am to have so many to love and to have so many love me.  You would not know that I am able to perceive God’s wisdom in taking mama to heaven.  You would not know that I believe in the lessons my children learn as a result of their forced independence.  I believe that my mother and my children’s father look over my children every single day of their lives.  If you read my diaries, you would only read loneliness and despair.   How can a heart so full of anguish and loneliness have such crystal clear faith?  I do not see these things as oppositional; I only see these things as what is.  This is what is in my heart, this is what exists in my soul.

What I have written, in all of those letters and all of those diaries does not reflect even a fraction of who I am.

What exists in my heart would make no sense to the mind of a man.  I have faith and yet I am scared and full of pain.

What I have had to face is so little compared to that which Mother Teresa faced.

So it is that we find Mother Teresa’s anguished prayers and letters after her death.  And so it is…  This does not mean that Mother Teresa suffered a “crisis of faith”, it only means that Mother Teresa was a writer.  She is a woman who needed to write and who filled her journals and letters with the hurt in her heart.  Do we imagine that those who do great deeds do not have fear and despair?  Where does this fear and despair go?  How is it relinquished from the mind?  For some people a confidante is all that is needed, for others, it is journaling and for others it is art.  We cannot question Mother Teresa’s great deeds because she wrote about her fear and despair.  We must honor the way that she coped, we must honor any means that she used to be the saint that she was in life.  For Mother Teresa there were all of those human feelings and there was also the means for releasing them, letters to a confidante.  That is all.


A Quote from Dean Koontz

“Loss is the hardest thing” I said. ” But it’s also the teacher that’s the most difficult to ignore.”

“Grief can destroy you – or focus you.  You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it had to end in death, and you alone.  Or you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of each day, and didn’t allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it.  But when it’s over and you’re alone, you begin to see it wasn’t just a movie and a dinner, together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill.  It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it.  The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sancitity of it, you can’t get off your knees for a long time, you’re driven to your knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratititude for what preceded the loss.  And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life.”


Letting Go: Adult Children

We are not happy, this troupe of four adults driving north to Virginia.  Rhea is leaving us.  Rhea has spent the last two years being side tracked with her family while her life passes by…  We have had “life interrupted”.  That is the only way that I can describe what happens to a family when a parent dies young.  My childrens’ father died when he was 54; he died from his one and only heart attack.  That, my friend, causes “family interrupted”.  At first we groped around in grief and anguish.  Heart wrenching events followed, a miscarriage, a DUI, addiction, you name it, we suffered it.  Somewhere in that time we began to return to us.  We talked constantly, consistently, over and over again.  We began to heal.  We did not “try” to heal, we just proceeded, agonizingly sometimes, joyously sometimes, yet always.  I don’t know how it happened but we became closer and more intimate.  My daughters even seemed enmeshed.  We celebrate life events together, my granddaughter Cadence turned 6 and most of her aunts and uncles were there to escort her into her new beginning: Elementary school.  Such things are not questioned here – of course we celebrate together, of course we are gravely interested in all of the goings on with each other.  Of course we presence ourselves for each other.

I asked Rhea if she wanted her siblings with her for the trip.  There was a choice between a Toyota with a tiny U-Haul or the Yukon.  The Yukon would include her siblings, the Toyota, probably not.  She chose the Yukon.  She wanted her sister with her (8months pregnant) and because of my bad back, Rhea insisted that her baby brother also come, else who would do the heavy lifting?  My oldest son even called and sang songs to me…he couldn’t come.

Rhea is my firstborn daughter, she was born after a 6 year gap, sons and then daughters.  My family adored her, she was the perfect infant.  She was and still is quite beautiful.  Back then, I had so much family, I had four parents, a husband and an extra gramma for my children.  They are all gone, all of my parents have passed away and my children’s father is now gone also.  

Now here is where childless adults begin laughing at me… My youngest child is 22 years old.  Why would I spend so much time and energy on them?  Why would I be driving my daughter to Virginia – why doesn’t she hop on a plane and go to her husband?  Rhea, my first born daughter, is moving to Virginia to be with her husband and so she must leave us.  She must leave her “Sissy Pants” Johanna Jr. who is pregnant.  She must leave her younger brother Travis Jr., the one who is always available to drive her, pick her up and run errands.  She must leave older brothers, nieces and nephews and all of the attendant celebrations.  And these three (Rhea, Jo and Travis) have been together constantly since October.  These three have clung to each other for 2 and 1/2 years now.  These three battle the inebriated widow of their father for their birth right.  My older children have so much more experience with independence and autonomy, they have built lives and pursued careers and education for more than a decade now.  They do not bother with the widow, they do not care.  The thing is my older children support their siblings but have managed to move on.

I have suffered through many endings and several deaths.  By far the most difficult deaths, being my mother and the father of my children.  There are no words for this kind of grief, it just is.  I recognize that endings must come.  I recognize that death is part of life and must be borne.  I recognize these things and yet the suffering continues.  Now I must suffer a good ending, a positive ending a good bye to a daughter, who because her father passed away had “life interrupted” and stayed with her family to take care of them for too long.  I am aware that I must say good-bye to her, but I do not wish to.  There is a terrible anxiety in my heart that if I do not watch over her something could happen to her.  If something happens to her how will I get to Virginia within an hour so that I can be with her?  How can I?


And what, what do you do, what do you say, when your child’s grief equals your own?  How do you manage all of that?

We had to go home, Johanna Jr. is uncomfortable, she is so heavy with child.  (We did have a Dr.’s note.)  It was difficult to leave so we did not until 1:30 in the afternoon.  Our drive to Virginia was a record breaking (for slowness) 17 hours.  I asked Jo and Travis if we could stop at a hotel.  Of course I was driving there and back…Why?

In one of those symbolic events that tell all, about the future, my two youngest kids, Johanna Jr. and Travis Jr. firmly told me no, we are not stopping at a motel.  So at 11:00pm when I definitely could not function any more, they put me in the back seat with a pillow and said “Mom, we’ll take it from here.”  I had to relinquish control, I had to give up driving, I just couldn’t take it anymore.  They are setting me free, one by one, the kids are setting me free.  They are telling me to quit doing everything, quit worrying, quit fussing.  They have a life to live and I am definitely moving from center stage to supporting cast.  There are many, many sweet good-byes on this road to freedom and certainly the trip is worth taking…but it all must end, how else would we get a new beginning?  Speaking of new beginnings, when is Jaxsun going to be here, Johanna Jr. is ready to burst?  That baby needs to come…


My Daughters are Separating…

As beautiful as they are, it isn’t pretty.  Rhea married a Navy man and Johanna is 7 months pregnant.  Rhea and Jo were born 26 months apart.  They have filled each other’s lives with intense emotion.  At ages 28 and 26 they have spent very little time apart.  These last several months they have lived together, as deeply involved with each other as only siblings can be.  When Jo’s boy friend moved in with them, I gave him one piece of advice: “if they are arguing, duck for cover or RUN, never, ever take sides or get involved.”    Luckily for him and because he is wise, he has taken this advice seriously.  They are typical sisters in that they can call each other names, but if anyone else does the same, they WILL hurt the person.

Rhea must depart soon, marriage is like that: husbands want their wives close by.  Rhea and I sat on her bed yesterday and she said the most amazing thing as tears poured out of her eyes and tracked down her cheeks “Mom, thank you so much for giving me a little sister, no I mean it, she is so beautiful and I have gotten so much from her by being with her.”  “Johanna is my soul mate, I don’t know what I am going to do without her.”  And so it begins, the grief of their separation, the loss of daily hugs, the absence of the touch of each other – a touch that they have had all of their lives.  As they matured into women, I recall that if I have not heard from one of them, I could call the other and each of them would reassure me “Mom, don’t worry, I talk to her every day.”  They are both kind to me about my anxiety for them.  They have never failed each other, or me, in communication.  They are both adept at electronic communication and both are on myspace and facebook.  However, nothing will or even could replace those hugs, that touch and that reassurance that comes from actually seeing the one you love.  And so, we grieve…

And here is where I take umbrage with one aspect of our culture – the rugged individualism that is undeniably American.  Why do children have to go away when they grow up?  What is wrong with the extended families of Europe?  What is the problem with grandmothers getting to spend time with and raise grandchildren?  I don’t think it is proper and right to have a nuclear family – particularly now – when it is so difficult and dangerous for children.  We need an entire tribe to protect our children.  We need that crazy uncle who likes to throw the football and hang out on the back porch.  We need our brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers and grandparents.  We need the support of those we love and whom love us.

What I have found, is that this need does not go away… my sister and I are enduring menopause together.  Without her, some days would send me to my knees (not that I don’t go there occasionally anyway).   We have lost our parents, but find comfort in each other, with each other.  We need each other.  Though we live 50 miles apart, our phones are connected and when necessary we make the drive.  Sometimes, we just must see each other.  My faith is that my daughters will find the way to keep their love strong and willing regardless of distance and geography and drive time.  

For the next few weeks, while they grieve for each other, I grieve for them.  This separation will cause many tears.  I hope that Rhea’s husband will have patience and understanding and above all, I hope he is nurturing.  I hope that Johanna does not become too lonely.  As for me, all I have to do is call one of them and I will know what both are doing…