Costly mothering: the economics of a fulfilling life.

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Photo Credit: Robyn Lang (c). Used with permission. 

I recently listened to a fascinating podcast on Women in Depth. The host, Lourdes Viado was discussing the phenomena of women who stay in unhappy, even abusive marriages for various reasons, mostly centering on fear of the financial and emotional consequences of leaving.

Whilst the podcast sensitively discussed the experience of many of these women, what was consistently drawn out was the way in which these women were “choosing” to live a life that was not in accordance with “who they really were” for economic reasons and fear of the unknown.

One thing that really struck me about this podcast was the absence of a critical economic perspective. There was a lot of discussion about the economic motivations that prompted these women to stay in unhappy marriages, but very little about the different economic realities of men and women and in particular, the role that the care of children plays in shaping people’s economic choices.

For me, this blunt reality was driven home after the birth of our son. Raised in a thoroughly egalitarian household where I had been cared for by a stay-at-home dad from the age of one to 13, I simply assumed that my husband and I would split care of our new addition 50/50. Whilst theoretically such an arrangement may have been possible, it seemed thoroughly impractical with a newborn. A newborn, I realised, needs to nurse a lot. The arrangements of pumping and bottle-feeding seemed unpleasant and difficult. The stress to father and baby that would come from baby being unable to nurse (and therefore most likely crying) for long periods of time weighed on me. I didn’t want to leave my baby. My husband on the other hand, was less intensely attached and was happy to go out and in fact, wanted to.  I slowly realised that as egalitarian as my views might be, in this particular situation, as a nursing, attachment-minded mother, my choices were just different from those that were available to my husband.

In this particular time and place, it was simply easier for my husband to go earn money. However, this left me completely dependent on my husband’s health, willingness to provide and general good-will in a way that did not seem to recognise in any way the important work that I was doing caring for a tiny newborn life. 

The absence of recognition was driven home so much more strongly because in the year prior to my son being born I had worked as a full-time nanny. I had spent the day with a cute baby and earned a pretty penny. It seemed absurd that doing the exact same thing, but with new night care and milk-production responsibilities, not only had I not gotten a pay-rise, but the promotion earned me literally nothing in a financial sense. My maternity leave ran out at three months (which is considered generous compared to what is provided for many mothers) but my child was absolutely not ready to be away from me for hours at a time. The fact that the government where I live would generously subsidise day care at this age – but not provide me with any of these resources to choose to take care of my own child seemed baffling.

It took all my social capital, intelligence, track record of academic achievement and plain ingenuity to manufacture our current living arrangement where I am able to care for my now one and a half year old son for most of the day and also earn the majority of our family’s income. It is precarious, at times very difficult and most of the time exhausting.

I am however, acutely aware of the millions of women who lack the resources to craft a niche PhD candidate life. It was not easy and I do not think that it is something suitable for everyone. And this is what galled me about the discussion on this podcast about these women who were not being themselves by choosing to stay with a long-term husband who they disliked for health insurance or other economic benefits. Living in accordance with “yourself” and “your values” is – at the end of the day – an economic privilege. The fact that the women discussed in this podcast ended up at the ages of sixty and seventy, financially dependent on abusive and neglectful men after decades of unpaid labour during which they had birthed, fed, educated and cared for infants, toddlers and children seems like not only a personal tragedy but a fundamental injustice.

(Note, even though the tone of this discussion rubbed me the wrong way, women in depth is one of my favourite podcasts and I highly recommend it. Lourdes Viado discusses a wide range of interesting and unusual subjects of relevance to women with a fascinating array of guests. I love the podcast because Lourdes discusses a range of topics that many women experience but we rarely talk about together).

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World – Time – Individual: The Jewish Spiritual Model for Life Planning

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Photo Credit: Robyn Lang (c). Used with permission. 

I recently read an article from Christian writer, Christopher Connors, discussing his method for life planning – or more specifically for creating a five year plan. I enjoyed the article and particularly appreciated the way in which he shared his own plan, which was both a great teaching tool and also demonstrated some serious willingness to be vulnerable and to be held accountable.

He left me considering how long it has been since I took out my own planning tools and reconsidered who I am and how I am going. His article also left me with a desire to share and incredible life “planning” tool that I learned from my Rebbe. I wrote planning in scare quotes here, because the way I experience the use of this technique is less as a means of planning the future (over which, ultimately, I have no control, as has been driven home to me on occasions too numerous to count) but rather as a means of undertaking an in-the-moment experience of life focusing.

This life focusing allows us to clarify our orientations and goals. Once these goals are clarified, we can undertake the shifting in of life practices and habits that develop us towards those goals and the shifting out of life practices and habits that do not. Life focusing also allows us to place the more mundane or even unpleasurable aspects of our life into the context of whole life. I find this aspect particularly meaningful as it helps me understand how my short terms goals are not ends in themselves, which could easily be derided as pointless busy-work, but contributions to larger goals, which in turn are contributions to the life that I have committed myself to.

In this blog post I hope to show you how this process works. In order to do this, we will have to step back for a moment and learn some Kabbalah. Yes, you heard me right. Learn some Kabbalah. Okay, here goes.

The Kabbalah is the system of Jewish spirituality that underlies a lot of Jewish law, meditation and prayer practices and operates as a “theosophy” (spiritual philosophy) for understanding – to the extent we are capable – the forces connecting the universe to the Creator and how the universe is driven by these forces. These forces are understood in Kabbalah to be organised into various relationships, whose patterns exist both in the spiritual realms and also in our own day to day lives.

One of relationship patterns which emerges from the Kabbalistic literature is the relationship between Olam, Shana, Nefesh which we can translate as “World – Time – Individual.” Together, these form the pattern that allows the actualisation of our creative process.

Olam/World refers to the “big picture” vision of that which we desire to create.

Shana/Time refers to the process by which we seek to create, broadly defined.

Nefesh/Individual refers to the steps that will be taken along the path to that creation.

A rough example would be: A painter has a vision (olam/world) of an artwork to create. He assembles his paints and materials and begins the process (shana/time) of painting. The individual (nefesh/individual) brush strokes that he makes combine to form the picture that was envisaged.

We can employ this understanding with reference to our own lives and the process of life focusing.

Olam/World is the big picture mission we see ourselves placed in this world to accomplish. It is a description of an ideal state.

Shana/Time is the various roles or categories of experience in which we will be accomplishing that bigger picture mission. It is the how we will be reaching that ideal state.

Nefesh/Individual are the details – the day to day things we do to actualise those goals.

For example, an abridged version of my own life focusing process might look like this:

Olam/World: I am here to bring the light of the Infinite into this world and to be in a deep relationship with my Creator and those around me.

Shana/Time: I do that by educating myself and others to find light in unlikely places where others have not thought to look.

I do that by creating bridges for the sharing of knowledge between worlds.

I do that by creating space for relationship with the Creator and the others around me and revealing ways for others to do the same.

Nefesh/Individual:

I do that as a mindful mother and enlightened wife who actively creates space for her husband and children to find light and develop relationship.

I do that as an scholar in the academic world, working to create and synthesise new knowledges to open new possibilities for enlightenment in the world.

I do that by living in Israel where I am uniquely enabled to benefit from immersion in a Jewish environment with all the opportunities for teaching and learning that that provides.

I do that in my own spiritual practices of prayer and Torah learning that fill me up with the good that I want to share with the world.

I particularly enjoy writing this out by hand on a blank sheet of paper (i.e. no lines).

My Rebbe, Rav Gerzi, also teaches a meditative practice that can accompany this focusing exercise which I find extremely helpful.

It begins by imagining spheres representing Olam/World Shana/Time and Nefesh/The Individual glowing before your inner vision. They are stacked on top of one another, but not in alignment. Watch with your inner vision as you bring the three spheres into alignment, one on top of the other. It can help to make or imagine a sound as this happens, for example I like to left out a gratified sigh as the spheres come into alignment and imagine them flashing.

You can combine this meditation with the focusing process I just outlined by imagining the essence of each of the sections in you life plan represented by each of the spheres as you imagine them coming into alignment. Sometimes this really helps me as I struggle to recognise the importance of tasks – particularly things like grocery shopping or paying bills which I find difficult to enjoy. Realising that they are in alignment with what I want for myself makes these tasks seem easier and more manageable.

I hope this was helpful and interesting.

Disclaimer regarding Kabbalah, This Disclaimer Appears On All Articles Discussing Kabbalistic Sources.

Please note: One of the greatest difficulties in accessing the Kabbalah is the many people who speak in its name, often saying contradictory things, hurtful things, things that do not resonate with the life experiences of the many, many people that make up this world. There is a great deal of “Kabbalistic” teachings that are spoken without reference to the deep complexity underlying Kabbalistic thought. To this end, I would like to disclaim that anything that was read in this article pertaining to the Kabbalah that you find to be either unreflective of your life or painful to read – may only be one side of the incredibly complex story. I found this out after long periods of agonizing. I encourage you, if you are in fact interested in learning more about Kabbalah to proceed as quickly as possible to the primary sources and a teacher steeped in the tradition. You can email me for more info about how you might find this.

Refusing to be schoolish with my PhD

I have recently been exploring the idea of unschooling as part of my parenting journey. Here in Israel, compulsory education begins at three. To me, that doesn’t seem like it is going to be right for us and my exploration of homeschooling options led me down the windy road to unschooling.

Unschooling is essentially the idea of learning without a curriculum. Unschooling is premised on the idea that the best place for children – and basically anyone – to learn, is as part of a passionate and excited engagement with life. The whole idea is based on the deconstruction of the link between school and learning. School, with its attendant discourse (success, failure, achievement, disability, teaching, learning etc) and material stuff (worksheets, whiteboards, curricula, pencil cases) does not need to be part of the learning experience, unschoolers would argue, which can just as easily take place in the home. It will look very different from school, but it is learning just the same.

Please don’t take my word for it – there are some amazing resources out there if this is something interesting to you. Two of my favourites are:

Pam Laricchia’s “Living Joyfully” – she has a podcast, books and a website.

The classic is Sandra Dodd. It can be a bit intense but this “Rejecting A Pre-Packaged Life” is solid gold.

And the creator of the term “Unschooling” was teacher-turned-home-education-activist John Holt who has a number of books on the topic.

One of the main concepts in the unschooling community is the idea of deschooling. This generally refers to the process, either in parents or in children who have previously been in school, of shedding the assumptions and mindsets of school in order to begin learning more organically.

All the reading and listening I have been doing is not yet entirely relevant to my mothering experience. My son is, after all, only one and a half and most of what I have been listening to is targeted to parents of school aged kids. However, I have been finding the experience to be an intense and striking one for my own development.

How much of my self esteem, I have come to ask myself, rests on the continued production of a stream of school-ish accomplishments? Why is it that I feel on a high for a day or two after receiving positive feedback on my thesis proposal, and yet the positive feelings associated with coping brilliantly with that tough parenting moment or dodging that near-quarrel with my husband fades after a few minutes?

Why do I feel the constant need to write home to family and friends with a list of all the great things I have done – but those things are almost invariably the schoolish things, my new research assistant position, good marks for my coursework, how much work I have done on my thesis, or worse, my son’s “achievements” – reaching this or that milestone, with extra kudos if he did it ahead of “his age-group.”

I was a good achiever in school. My marks were good and by my final years of school I had a slew of extra-curricular achievements under my belt. I mostly enjoyed doing these things and much of my extra-curricular enthusiasm was directed to good causes. However, this became my primary pattern for seeking and receiving love, care and attention. The feeling that I am good enough, regardless of how “well I am doing” at the things in my life, is one that continues to be something I have to actively work on. Even as I write this blog, I am wondering what people will be thinking of this, how it will reflect on me, who might criticise me, who will praise me. The orientation towards external validation, which is an integral part of the school experience has not been a positive force in my life. It has held me back from many undertakings and crushed the joy out of others.

So, all this reading has had some practical consequences. One of them is that I refuse to be schoolish with my PhD. Yes, if I want to finish, there are steps I need to take and I may not enjoy and relish every single one of them. However, the drive to do it must come from feelings of joy and willingness. I believe those feelings are there, I believe that even from my higher self, I do actually have a strong desire to write this thesis and that it is part of what I have been tasked to do by the Creator. There are also many practical considerations, including the ability to support my family in a fairly well paying, flexible job that allows me a lot of time to be with my son and a lot of ability to work in a way that suits me and my family. And yet, the second that I feel that these feelings have dried up, or that this is no longer right for me, I need to be able to stop. If this doesn’t bring me joy, I refuse to keep doing it for external validation, to finally be loveable or to finally be good enough.

I already am good enough. 

So for now, I am focusing on that. I am accepting that when flow happens I will work more. When I am uninspired I will work less. Sometimes the best ideas come when I am gardening, or painting, or at the park, or journalling. Work doesn’t need to look like being chained to a desk. Work can be at the gymboree!

I am refusing to beat myself up about how much or little I am working. I will only count meaningful goals and not hours.I will use my meetings with and feedback from my supervisor to assess whether I am making enough progress, not my internal barometer, which suffers from interference based on my mood, how long ago I ate or whether the sun is shining. I will experience this PhD process as fulfilling, joyful, creative and (most of the time) fun – or I will go and do something else! I can start an attachment-focused small-group daycare. I can go teach English in…. Nepal. I can open a restaurant serving Burmese Kosher food. I can sell baby wraps for a living. Goodness only knows.

If I am going to do this PhD it’s because right now, it’s my choice. I don’t need it to feel good about myself. In fact, I don’t need a PhD for anything. But if the project is going to actualise – it sure needs me!

Now that we’ve got that straight I am going to go enjoy the spring sunshine with my son.

On the misuse of mindfulness and the power of feeling fully.

In 2015, I read Ekhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now in a single day. That day happened to be the day before I birthed my first child.

I remember the first months after the birth being shaped by the experience of that book. Tolle’s insistence that anything, anything can be tolerated in the moment that it is happening was absolutely invaluable in those first few busy, tiring months of nursing, loving and welcoming a new baby. Unlike many mothers who have shared their experiences with me, those first months passed as an ecstasy. I had never felt more alive, more deeply connected to my world, my deepest self and my Creator. It was pretty intense and I really feel grateful to Tolle for providing me with the tools to leap into this experience.

Over time, imperceptibly at first and then with a growing vigour, this experience of intense mindfulness faded. Life with a baby became familiar. Our family was rocked by the waves of a particular crisis. I found my grip on the tools Tolle had taught me floundering.

Throughout this period, I found myself scolding myself with increasing insistence to return to my previous positive state. I found myself insisting that I elevate myself to the place of no-mind, that I concentrate on the gratitude that had come flowing so naturally in my previous state. I found myself becoming more and more cranky with myself, feeling betrayed and angry at my low mood, my outbursts of anger, my lack of perfect attentiveness with my growing child. Guilt pooled inside me. I am capable of so much more.

I knew I was in toxic mind-noise, but I couldn’t silence it. Reading The Power of Now became akin to scolding myself. The words that had chimed so sweetly in the past now clashed and barked orders. Focus on the present!

As the waves of crisis receded, I emerged into a place where I thought mindfulness should come more easily. And yet, it still didn’t come. I began to despair. Perhaps, I thought, I have fallen to a very low place, or perhaps I was never in such a great place before. And the ferris wheel of negative thoughts went around, and around.

At a certain point I stumbled into Pete Walker’s The Tao of Fully FeelingIn this spectacular book, Walker makes the case for the value of the complete range of human feelings. He says that by not acknowledging and fully feeling our negative states, we cut off huge swarths of our emotional range, creating frustrated energies a narrowed experience of life.

By acknowledging our range of feelings and the obvious yet innovate fact that our feelings change over a given period of time, we can open ourselves up to welcome negative feelings as well as positive ones. Negative feelings, fully felt, Walker argues, generally resolve themselves with time. Positive feelings, even when fully felt, fade with time and by clutching on to them past their expiry date, we only create more pain and psychic tension for ourselves when they inevitably fade. Rather, Walker argues for the full integration of our whole emotional experience and the development of healthy channels for the expression of all our emotions and feelings which are truly the joy of human life.

In many ways, I do not believe there is a contradiction between Tolle and Walker. In fact, acknowledging our present states and accepting them is a significant part of the work described by Tolle. However, the mindfulness ogre created in my find was not an accurate reflection of Tolle, but rather a denizen of the positive-thinking cult that pervades current thinking on personal growth.

What I needed was not to be told to focus on gratitude or scolded to get above my worries and fears, but to fully experience the deep pain and sadness I felt in these difficult months. I needed the chance to cry, to be angry and to express these feelings in healthy, protected, non-harmful ways so that they wouldn’t sneak, uninvited into my interactions with family and friends.

I highly recommend Pete Walker’s The Tao of Fully Feeling to anyone but especially those coping with the experience of difficult and painful parental relationships.

I hope you enjoyed the first blog post. I hope to post at a minimum, weekly, with each post being uploaded by Friday morning, Israel time.

Have a wonderful week.