What of Mother’s Day with less-than-ideal mothers?

Deeper considerations on motherhood.

Picture 123Of course no mother is perfect, but some mothers are far from the kind of mother a child yearns for. Family celebrations, like Mother’s Day, birthdays and Christmas or other religious festivals, can be painful when relationships are rocky, when love is ambiguous, when one feels love but not liking, or no love at all, but we still feel duty-bound to celebrate that day.
How can we then feel authentic in celebrating Mother’s Day? How does one greet one’s mother with true heart-warmth when they have been lacking in understanding or let bad things happen to us or have been thoughtless, even cruel in one’s own childhood? Or when they still try to interfere, control, manipulate, even bully us, even as adults with families? Sadly too, sometimes in old age, (when parents need us more intensively) failing strength, decrepitude and dementia can also make them more self-centred (even narcissistic) and unpredictably tyrannical, especially towards the very daughters who do the most for them.

There is a strategy that can help bring healing and more heart’s ease into this, though it is not easy and is not always successful outwardly. This strategy follows a simple rule: Find gratitude for their gifts and compassion for their weaknesses. It is a strategy we can choose to use when dealing with anyone we have difficulties with, one that keeps understanding and positivity as priorities and helps to keep reactiveness, blame and prejudice at a minimum. It helps too, when we ourselves are the target of our own criticism—when we feel that we ourselves are less than ideal mothers and perhaps undeserving of accepting the love that is offered to us on Mother’s Day. Here too we must also find recognition and acknowledgement of all we do right in caring for our children, and find compassion for ourselves, when we act in ways even we do not like. Life can be hard. We are not perfect. What is important is that we are striving to be better and we are willing to try to heal the hurts we cause in our children. (Apologising is a good start and it is never too late for that.)

Gratitude for their (our) gifts and compassion for their (our) weaknesses.

One further comment is needed before elaborating on this strategy. It is always helpful if you can stand centred and clear about what is unacceptable behaviour in your family and your life—such unacceptable behaviour may be manipulative, bullying, disrespectful, unkind— then you can also be clearer on whether you wish to diplomatically discuss unacceptable behaviour in others or withdraw and avoid it altogether. (This latter can be a wise option where denial, blame, deep neurosis, mental illness or drug use is present in the offending person). Taking your family away at times of family celebrations can sometimes break the patterns of other’s expectations of you. Sometimes the focus has to be on healthy communication within your own family and removing yourself from the negative behaviour of extended family may be necessary in order to do this. After all, children need protection from manipulative behaviour or negative messages from other family members.

Gratitude and invisible mothering

Much of what mothers do is invisible. There is always a huge amount for which to be grateful to mothers. I saw a cartoon once about a mother who went out for the day, leaving her small children with the father. It showed the father and the children meeting the mother at the door when she got back. Behind them was chaos, toys, everything in disarray. The caption said: “You know how you always ask me what I do all day…”

Because the tasks of caring, (but mothering especially), involve preparing the space for good things to happen, organizing, ordering, maintaining, watching over, we often only notice these things when they are NOT done. Caring also involves being awake enough to prevent bad things from happening, being ready to ‘nip things in the bud’; separating siblings when they are too tired to learn constructively from disagreement; observing the grumpy tiredness which can precede illness; making the environment safe for young children to play freely, without constant admonitions; thinking ahead to meet nutritional needs with healthy snacks; putting children down to sleep before they get over-active from tiredness. Nearly all mothers, whatever their faults, try to do this, some more successfully than others, but often at their own expense, working very long hours when they are tired, exhausted, pregnant, working outside home as well, and so on. Worldwide research shows that women work longer hours than men in caring and housework even when they are in full time paid work. We need to acknowledge this in our mothers.

This is invisible mothering which often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. We should really call it parenting, because many dads, especially single dads have to do it too. But this is about Mother’s Day so bear with us, fathers. This invisible organization is a skill which takes time to learn, something perhaps women, often with more skill in multi-tasking, find easier than men. But it is something which needs acknowledgement and appreciation, not just on Mother’s Day but all year through. When we show our appreciation for all these small everyday tasks, visible and invisible, that parents and other family members do, we teach our children about gratitude. We model appreciation and forestall the “entitlement responses” which sadly plague so many children today. Gratitude and the expression of appreciation then becomes part of what we value in the family, of how we live together in community. And of course insults, put-downs, derogatory remarks and constant criticism cannot be part of such a value base, which makes such things unacceptable, always.

Mother’s Day gives us a chance to review how well we are acknowledging and showing appreciation for all that the mothers in our lives do. This may need a little help from us to open the children’s eyes to all their mother does and to think about ways to spoil her on this day and more often. We can encourage them to make the effort to take on some of a mother’s tasks for the day and do them for her instead. Bought gifts especially may need more thought: that the gifts we give are not just another way of making sure mother serves us better! If the household needs a new iron or toaster, then get it for the household, not for mother on Mother’s Day. Find something for her which she otherwise would not get for herself or make her something which can then be filled with our love for her in our effort. Perhaps all this should also remind us to be grateful for, and not take for granted, all the work grandparents do in the care of children too these days.

The not-so-perfect parent in us needs this acknowledgement all the more too. Appreciation makes all but the most narcissistic person do better. For the struggling, overworked parent, gratitude can be food for their soul, in doing what seems an often endless list of tasks each day.

Not-so-perfect mothering and compassion

Mothers are not perfect. Sometimes they may be their ‘best selves’  and then we love them, but sometimes they may succumb to being their ‘worst selves’, perhaps after sleepless nights, during illness, after taking on too much and so on. Looking back, I have to admit that I would be my ‘worst self’ in that time pre-menstrually—it would be then I would feel everything I was doing, while trying to be a good mother to four children, was too much and I would over-react to something trivial which had become ‘the last straw’ on my over-burdened back. Research is showing that due to hormonal changes within the menstrual cycle there are times when woman willingly take on and can cope with many more challenges than they can later cope with at other times. Women need encouragement and support to do less and take care of themselves better at times when their energy is lower. This needs true understanding and support, not jokes or rude comments, if we are to support women’s well-being and educate our girls to know their bodies better and look after themselves with respect.

Sometimes women act chronically as their ‘worst selves’; it may be that they are ill, completely exhausted, suffering abuse or mental illness, or resorting to alcohol or other drugs as a way of coping. Sometimes mothers stand back and allow a father to be his ‘worst self’ regardless of the effect on the children.

For those who as children suffered frequent misunderstandings, neglect, even abuse, it can be painful to reconcile our mixed feelings when Mother’s Day creates inner conflict in us. Perhaps one can say “I love you” but not that “I like you or what you did.” Here we can only try to work with gratitude and compassion. Can we appreciate them anew with more understanding hearts for all they did do, even when we feel disappointment for what they did not do, perhaps could not do? Can we appreciate that they may have done the best they could within their circumstances? Can we value what they gave us even by default, even by negative experiences from which we nevertheless learned? Can we see that they were women of their time, greatly disadvantaged by their gender—sexually, financially, socially, politically, educationally? They did not have the same choices some of us have today, but probably the majority of women in our world still do not have. Can we bring more understanding hearts to review our childhood disappointments and hurts? Can we get to know our mother better by looking at her biography with compassion, at our own childhood with deeper understanding and appreciation so that Mother’s Day can be a fuller expression of our gratitude?  Can we ultimately understand them for what they did or did not do and let go of blame so that our unresolved hurts do not get taken into the next generation?

There is something biographical that works into this. In considering our own mothers, it is also interesting to consider the gifts and problems that come to us through our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. For this we must know something about their biographies, our family history. Are there qualities socially, culturally, genetically which we can identify that we have benefited from in our own lives—quiet courage, compassion, artistic or intellectual giftedness, independence, and so on, that come to us through our mother’s line? There are also tragedies which get passed down from one generation to the next. Can we stop it at ours? Another place for acknowledgement, compassion and gratitude.

What we teach our children on Mother’s Day is about not just love and gratitude, but also understanding, compassion and forgiveness.

See also the blog Authenticity in Mothers Day for some thoughts on working with our children.

Authenticity in Mother’s Day

One boy said in his card to his mother on her birthday: “I love you and I like you’. So he expressed an appreciation for his mother with some wisdom  about the nature of relationships (conscious or not conscious).

I have heard it said by a mother “I love my son but I don’t like him much.” Or an older daughter or son “I love my mother but wish she had done it differently in my own childhood.” True bonding in the parent-child relationship calls out ‘unconditional love’ in us. ‘Like’ on the other hand often reflects the identification of a particular quality which is liked in the other. It is true that in children these likes can be very pragmatic and egocentric. “I like grandma because she gives us ice creams.” “I like Dad because he takes me to the football.” But when the ‘like’ comes from a true appreciation of some fine quality in ourselves, we begin to feel really seen. When we are given something that involves effort and thoughtfulness on the giver’s part we feel much more appreciated.

That is what I would argue that an authentic Mother’s Day celebration needs— a day with ‘love’ and ‘like’ in it, not a response to the emotional blackmail of commercial advertising, like the one I saw once: “How much is your mother worth? $20? $30? $40……..?”

I met a woman on my walk this morning who shared that in her family, Mother’s Day involved the making of a special card for her by her sons. Just the card hand-made with love. A ‘love gift’. Even a bought present can be love-filled when it is thoughtfully planned or bought with specially saved pocket-money, or money earned to buy the gift.

Make the acknowledgement of our mothers authentic by being at once thoughtful and love-filled. That’s the short version of this post. More ideas can be found on “Lovegifts” at http://www.creativelivingwithchildren.com/nurturing-childrens-growth-2/play/love-gifts/

Maybe more thoughts on celebrating mothers later.

Giving children an understanding about war: some thoughts

BillThe mother of Australian war historian, Charles Bean wrote when he was six years old: “Charlie dear, be truthful, and upright, and morally brave, I should like you to be brave in every way, but I care far more for moral bravery than for any other…”

The 25th April is ANZAC Day in Australia, the day Australia remembers the war dead. It is also now more than 100 years since the unsuccessful assault on Gallipoli in World War I by Allied forces, which resulted in the senseless slaughter of thousands of young Australian and Turkish men. Strangely, this defeat helped to form an Australian legend and a particular view of themselves as Australians. This happened in part due to the work of Australia’s official World War I historian, Charles Bean. This remarkable man changed the way histories of war were recorded world-wide when he insisted that history should include the ordinary soldier’s point of view. He also questioned the then current point of view that the brutality of war could be blamed on the bad ‘blood’ of a particular people, always ‘the other side’, the enemy. Bean was a highly principled man, a searcher for truth and I personally benefited from his moral courage, because this man was the respected mentor of my own father.

Children’s understanding of war begins with your own beliefs and values. How do you explain conflict, war and the nature of the human being? How do you teach children to deal with conflict in their own lives, to take responsibility, to show understanding and compassion but also see where action needs to be taken? How do you explain self-interest, the misuse of power, cruelty, stupidity and the crossing of unacceptable boundaries in ethical behaviour? Can you help them to understand that some ways of responding can be helpful – understanding, compassion, honesty, integrity – others can be less than helpful – blame, power-mongering, self-righteousness and the demonizing of an individual, or whole people rather than trying to understand the motivations of the leaders or the few that act in the name of that people. Our children learn a lot from what they experience in their own lives and in watching others, from seeing and experiencing love and caring or bullying and cruelty. War stories, like those of peace, are full of incidents where people act with compassion towards those who are their enemies, as well as where the tragic necessity is to kill, to survive oneself, or to protect one’s soldier mates or loved ones, despite the emotional pain and trauma associated with killing another human being. History has shown most people have to be taught to kill. All this is also part of understanding our humanity and the story of war.

Charles Bean’s biographer Peter Rees writes:

In a diary she kept, [Charles’] mother, Lucy, recorded her hopes for her eldest son when he was just six, concerned that he had a ‘besetting fault of selfishness’ that he needed to fight:

Charlie dear, be truthful, and upright, and morally brave, I should like you to be brave in every way, but I care far more for moral bravery than for any other…

I do not want to see you a rich man, or a man holding a leading position, as much as to see you a good, charitable man. You may be all, and I shall be happy to see you all, but the riches and position come after…you can be happy without them, but you cannot be happy unless you are good.

Be kind and unselfish. You Charlie my eldest, know the little talks we have had together about this.

(p.xv in Bearing witness. The remarkable life of Charles Bean, Australia’s greatest war correspondent. By Peter Rees (2015, Allen & Unwin)

Charles Bean did indeed become a man of moral and physical courage as he followed soldiers into the trenches of Gallipoli and the Western Front, willing to help those he accompanied, even as he observed, as historian, the dreadful tragedies that unfolded. He fought to get their stories told, with honesty, compassion and respect, not through glorification. His strength and direction came from his mother’s words repeated as he grew up: “Be truthful, upright and morally brave…you cannot be happy unless you are good.”

Our values lie beneath everything we say to children about the tragedy of war, whether it teaches them to have compassion and understanding, or to blame and de-personalize the enemy. To identify brutality, gratuitous violence and suffering is a necessary part of coming to know the reality of the world as we grow up. But it is a tragedy if we are not taught to understand the complexity of war and the ethical dilemmas of the individuals caught up in conflict, and taught to find the positive human qualities which reveal themselves in the struggle. As in everything we do with our children, we need mindfulness of our children’s ages in how we speak to children of war and conflict, those of the past, and those in the present.

In our multicultural world, we sometimes find that family members in the past fought on different sides. This can be a potent lesson in understanding war for our children. So my children’s grandfather would spend time in a British prisoner-of-war camp in Egypt where his captors, in exchange for him reading Dante to them in Italian, would teach him the English he would later use to immigrate to Australia. My children would learn a new language from a beloved Japanese woman, whose nation was implicated in the death, by starvation, of our greatly loved great uncle (pictured above) as a prisoner of war on the Burma railway. Sadly today my children also hear their own government being condemned for their treatment of asylum seekers and their children.

We have to find new ways to tell the tragic stories of war and its consequences, including about the refugees it creates. We have to find the appropriate times to share with our children, when they have the maturity to cope with tragedy. In the meantime we need to strive for the good ourselves, to show the moral courage Charles Bean’s mother urged in her son, and to recognise where it exists in others. To practice it in our conflicts at home so that when our children do meet the stories of tragedy and war they have also experienced that the world can be good.

Other resources

Helping children learn about dealing with conflict in family relationships helps them to understand better conflict in the world. Helping children deal with death in their own world, helps them understand the effect of death in the greater world:

What babies need—warmth & protection—The traditional South Sea Islander way!

girl 2I was recently in Fiji where I spoke to a woman from one of the islands west of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, in the South Pacific. I asked her about the care of babies in her own village. On her island they still do not have electricity, except where a family member, like her, who works for money elsewhere, brings back small solar panels which provide a little light and a recharge socket for mobile/cell phones for communication.

She described how traditionally in her village from the day the baby is born, the child is kept in the house or the room for several months. Certainly on the day the child is born, friends come to celebrate the birth with kava, and on the eighth day, the community celebrates with the family in a bigger way and the child is given their name, but the baby remains within the house. She said if babies are taken out at all in those early months it is only for a walk early in the day when the air is fresh and pure, and they are kept well covered.

What surprised me most was her emphasis on the importance of the baby being kept warm and well covered at all times.

This is in hot tropical Fiji, where one might imagine new babies would be left naked! While these birth traditions have more recently been disrupted by the requirement for the mother to go to the main island for the birth, they still have their own island midwives who use massage to get the baby into the right position for birth.

The lessons for us

There are lessons to be learnt here from their traditional wisdom. Babies need both warmth and protection, especially in those early months, as their bodies adjust to the world outside the womb, with all its variation and intensity of stimuli. Yet, in our own society, head coverings for young babies seem to have gone out of fashion and we often take them out into the world soon after birth. Our lives, of course, are very different—older children need to be taken to school, shopping needs to be done and so on, but it may be we could protect them far more and for much longer than we do.

We need mindfulness in this, to watch our babies carefully and respond to their need for quiet, for sleep, for protection against over-stimulation, against jarring, against rapid change, so that they can move more gently, more dreamily and more assuredly into this stimulating world of ours, which, as ‘well hardened’ adults, we take in our stride. Our babies need their world to be nourishing for them, rather than over-stimulating, and it is up to us, as their protectors to make sure it is so.

In doing all this, it should be said, we also take better care of the post-partum mother, supporting the establishment of breast feeding, good bonding and recovery after the birth, all of which also reduce the risk of post-natal depression. We can all facilitate this, as family, friends and neighbours. When a new baby comes, we can do the shopping, bring nourishing food, take care of older children, desist from initiating social invitations to new parents and do our helpful tasks but get out of the way promptly to leave them in peace. This needs our mindfulness too.

Other articles of interest


Easter is coming!

Would you like a more meaningful family Easter celebration for your children?
89 Easter v2For those with religious inclinations of course Easter will already be a significant time, but, for many, Easter has become a secular celebration and, in some countries, an opportunity to get away for a few days.  Yet it also offers an opportunity to build a meaningful celebration around the universal values it contains.

Easter this year also coincides with Pesach, (the Jewish Passover), Theravadin New Year, (a Buddhist festival), Hanuman Jayanti, (a Hindu festival) and with Mahavir Jayanti, (a Jain festival.) A holy week indeed.

Finding the universal human values to celebrate in the Easter traditions.

The original significance of the Easter story and many of the Easter symbols has been lost in the commercialization of Easter. Easter in the broadest, most universal sense, is the celebration of new life, of resurrection, of the archetypal loving deed done on behalf of others. It is about seeking for the best part of ourselves, our spirit. For children ideally it is about the joy of Easter Sunday, of the risen Christ in the Easter event, not the darkness of the crucifixion of Easter Friday; for sensitive young children can understand simple death, and burial, but not torment, torture and agony.

The date of each Easter is set at the first Sunday after the first full moon, after the spring equinox, a powerful time for the forces of growth in the earth in the northern hemisphere. This year, the full moon occurs on Easter Saturday, as early in the year as Easter can happen. Many of the symbols of Easter – in the egg, the chicken and the hare, (which has transformed into the rabbit)— are ancient symbols of spring, of the coming of new life after the hard winter. These are northern hemisphere traditions.

In the southern hemisphere, it is of course autumn at Easter, a very different time when the hens may even stop laying eggs! Nevertheless, in the temperate zones in the south, we can also observe a renewal of life in nature. For with the first autumn rains, the earth really sings, the plants and the insect world come alive again. The plants and the microbial activity in the soil, which have withdrawn from the scorching heat of summer, open up, to grow in the gentler autumn sun again before the cold of winter takes hold; the grasses begin to shoot; the autumn wheat is planted, along with the bulbs and seedlings which will flower later in the southern spring.

In the tropics, the rhythms are different again. Perhaps April at Easter time creates a breathing space between the tropical cyclones and storms in the south and those in the north. We need to observe what is happening with nature in each place. What is flowering or fruiting? What are the clouds, the rain and the winds doing? What is changing? Can we find the symbols of Easter, the cross, the egg form, in the flowers, fruits and seeds or in signs of new life and of resurrection here too?

Creating meaningful Easter celebrations

Much can be done to make a meaningful beautiful Easter within the sacred religious traditions of course. But we can also bring more meaning to what has become secular, the eggs, the chicks, rabbits, Easter hunt and hot cross buns. You may want to research the origins of these symbols on the web for ideas—wikipedia articles have more depth, than a general search. You can work with the concepts of new life, service to others, and the seeking in the Easter egg hunt.

Traditions like finding a hill to watch the sun go down on Easter Friday in a quiet contemplative mood, and come up on Easter Sunday, with the experience of the renewal of life in all the joy of increasing light and life and bird song, can provide special moments in the festival. Planting something for the future in the earth on Easter Friday can be a wonderful thing to do with children— bulbs for later flowering, trees for the good of the earth, flowering plants for the native birds to feed in. Such activities can bring a continuity of awareness from Easter to Easter as the children watch their gifts to the earth grow. In such activities children can experience the joy of the traditional Easter event, of renewal, of unconditional love, of the re-enlivening of the earth and humanity. Easter can be a festival of life and hope in a world which can be depressing at times as we listen daily to stories of violence, poverty, war and environmental degradation.

Can the love of the beautiful form of the egg, with its endless possibilities of decoration, display and discovery, bring a different sort of joy and richer memories than just being given cheap eggs from the supermarket (often of poor quality chocolate at that). Home-made, blown decorated eggs can be hung from a branch to make an Easter Tree or placed in a bowl of freshly sprouted wheat. Eggs, and nests for little eggs, can be made from healthier ‘treats’ like roasted nuts and seeds, shredded coconut and dried fruit mixed with melted carob or chocolate. You could even make jellied rabbits in colourful salad gardens. You can find food from your multicultural traditions, like we had in our family in our own Nonna’s Pizza Chiena, sometimes called Italian Easter pie, a bread made with cheese and salted meats at its centre.

Family traditions can be made in your own Easter egg hunt. We have an Easter story in my family of when my mother was a small child in the early 1920s. Her family got together with another family to hide eggs in the garden for everyone, adults included. One year my grandfather’s egg was hidden at the top of a pine tree. When everyone had found their eggs but him, they stood around the tree looking up until he scaled the tree to find his egg. He was in fact a church minister, with considerable athletic ability and a very good sense of humour. In my own family here, we would hide a nest of eggs for each person in the garden late at night, until one night a fox made off with one of the nests before we had our hunt. Such stories become part of our family traditions, memories of which can sustain us through our lives.

The delight in the seeking of eggs in the garden in an Easter egg hunt, is best if the motivation is as much in the seeking, like the enthusiasm for the living of life, seeking for meaning, for inner riches—rather than just in the finding and accumulation of prizes. A collection basket, where all the found eggs are placed for sharing out more equally later, makes it less competitive.

The possibilities are endless for you to create your own Easter festival, into which you can bring your values, love and appreciation— making it meaningful and relevant for your own family. Ideally here we make our primary motivation to bring meaning and human values to what we do, not just adding more ‘decorations’ or ‘activities’ to our festival. For more ideas on creating meaningful family festivals in general see the photo link below:

A few further links

For understanding the symbols of Easter try these and follow further links from there.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_egg and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Bunny

How to blow an egg see http://www.kidspot.com.au/Easter-Crafts-How-to-blow-an-egg-to-make-Easter-eggs+4784+162+article.htm

Decorating eggs using onion skins http://www.instructables.com/id/Easter-Eggs-Dyed-With-Onion-Skins-1/

Trust in your children’s goodness. 

E 16 months

Our trust shines the light on our children’s best selves. Being given trust builds strength and trustworthiness in them.

Children also trust you to meet their needs well. When you do this, they can meet the world with more confidence and unnecessary troubles are avoided.

Each age, stage and individual child needs different understanding from us, but all children have basic needs that need to be met. It helps for adults to become more conscious of all these needs and perhaps to use a check list for when things are going awry.

It is easy for adults to presume children have adult motivations, but children think, feel and act differently from adults. They need our respect for that. Understanding of a child’s point of view is what they need from us for them to trust us fully. Trust in your children’s essential goodness and their best selves helps to optimize that mutual trust.

You will find help to do this in the following resources: