I am an military brat, traveler, reader of Russian literature and non-fiction, and most importantly a mom of five young children. I believe mothers need to take our place as the builders of nations and stop apologizing away our significance. Thinking deeply about great ideas and current societal issues can help us develop the proper Philosophy of Motherhoood.
Allyson Flake Matsoso
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.
…If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. . . . In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They ‘cash in.’ It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science. . . . Let us not be deceived by phrases about ‘Man taking charge of his own destiny.’ All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of others. . . . The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be.”
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock
The Devouring Mother comes in many forms. We must be conscious of our own tendency to over-protect and control our children, but we should also look outside the home for other “Devourers” of free-will. These Devourers may be well-meaning and concerned for our safety, but the end result is the same – the stifling of self-determination. There are times which may necessitate such stifling, but as parents we must make choices for our family, not out of fear or control, but based on truth and the quest for goodness. A world filled with free agents is often a dangerous one, but the alternative is bondage.
“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.”
Affection is defined as a gentle feeling of fondness or liking. A home filled with affection is akin to heaven on earth. It is a home where you greet your children with a welcoming hug, a home where you wink and smile at your seven-year-old at the dinner table, where you massage your teenage son’s feet after a long practice. Children feel safe here, they know they are loved, they feel it. Physical affection is particularly powerful. When our feelings of love are expressed physically, it unites the spiritual and physical world with a loving touch.
The Potency of Touch
“To touch is to give life.”
We are all seeking happiness, especially the kind that can hold steady in turbulent times. But the nature of life is turbulent and our moods and circumstances make lasting happiness seem like an illusion. However, the longer I am a wife and mother, the more I realize that if there is something to help us cross the rivers of turmoil – it is the loving touch of someone we trust. When our world falls apart, we need to be grounded – pulled back with physical and concrete love – with an affectionate embrace. We have all seen the movies showing a neurotic and over-emotional person being slapped, bringing them back into reality – this I do not recommend, but a loving embrace can accomplish the same feat. Sometimes when pain is stuck in the body, we need to use the body to release it. The physical reality of love can plant our feet on the bridge Overcoming.
Last summer my husband traveled a lot. I had no break from the noise and chaos of a house full of little children and I usually ended the days with my nerves frayed. One night, after putting them all down and relaxing on the sofa, I heard my 8 year-old girl get out of bed and ask for water. She didn’t realize that my “noise-bucket” had been overflowing for hours and I quite angrily told her to get back in bed. Almost immediately, I felt guilty. I knew I had to apologize. But I was so worn out from noise and the hard day that I really didn’t know how I would approach it without allowing my stress to betray itself again. As I walked into her room, I did not say anything, I just went into her bed and laid beside her and held her. It is incredible how those five minutes of affection renewed my spirit. I thought I was doing it for my daughter but instead I felt my own stress melt away. As I left I said, I love you; she said, Mom I love you too.
I can’t tell you how many times in motherhood I have come into a potentially hostile situation with my children with no idea how to properly resolve it. Perhaps we want to do what’s right but our emotions are getting in our way, or the proper course of action is not clear, or we just don’t have the mental energy to figure it out. When this is the case, I usually opt to arm myself with affection. If I put my arm around my son – our previous animosity will melt away. If I rub my husband’s neck as he drives, it helps him release his work-day stress. We should never use touch to manipulate – but it can help us fill in the gaps of our weakness. It is the mortar that holds the family together. Without physical affection the home becomes sterile and unforgiving.
The Decline of Physical Touch
Unfortunately our world is increasingly becoming just that, sterile and unforgiving. With human interactions at an all time low, is it any wonder we find ourselves less compassionate of others? Touching another person makes them real, they are no longer an image on a computer screen or a voice on the other side of the phone but a living soul, deserving of empathy.
I worry that even when this pandemic passes, we may retain the norm of “social distance”. I hope this is not the case. Physical affection between friends, and even strangers, can tie communities together and prevent strife and misunderstandings. Children, especially, need to be free to express themselves physically and receive affection from friends and teachers.
My children go to wonderful schools and I am grateful for their loving teachers. However, I am increasingly concerned about the “institutional” nature of schools. My daughter was reprimanded in kindergarten for hugging her friend at recess. In many schools teachers are not allowed to touch the students. It is easy to see why such restrictions may be put into place – schools are attempting to reduce their own liability. But there is no doubt that these “institutions” are destined to be cold and unloving places. Combine this with the worry brought on by the COVID epidemic, sending our kids to school may soon feel like admitting them into a sanitized hospital. We mothers need to make adjustments. If we choose to send our children into schools, the increasingly sterile environment must be counteracted by increased affection at home.
The Science of Touch
When a mother is affectionate with her child she is building her child’s social networks, improving their ability to fight infections, and building a bond that will last a lifetime. Premature babies that are touched thrive, while babies who aren’t are much more likely to die. Studies done on Romanian orphanages show the power of human touch in brain and social development. Alternatively, children who are raised without affection are much more likely to be violent and have mental health issues.
Some scientific findings on the power of touch:
-Researchers have found that children touched more frequently by their mothers developed more neuronal networks in their “social brain” – resulting in more empathy. Children touched less are more likely to be aggressive and antisocial.
-Preterm newborns who received just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 days gained 47 percent more weight than premature infants who’d received standard medical treatment.
-You have likely noticed the constant rear slapping and high-fiving between teammates in NBA and NFL games. Turns out they have good reason for this. Studies reveal that NBA basketball teams whose players touch each other more win more games.
–Research found that students who were gently touched on the back by a teacher in a friendly incidental way were twice as likely to volunteer and participate in a class discussion.
– (And highly relevant now) -“In one set of studies, touch was shown to boost the immune systems of people who had been exposed to the common cold. For two weeks, researchers monitored a little more than four hundred adults, asking them, not just about their social interactions, but about how many hugs they’d gotten over the course of each day. Then the subjects were quarantined in rooms on an isolated hotel floor, where the researchers proceeded to expose them to a cold virus. The virus was quite effective: seventy-eight percent of subjects were infected, and just over thirty-one percent showed signs of illness. But not everyone was equally susceptible. The people who had experienced more supportive social interactions, battled infection more effectively and exhibited fewer signs of illness—and, when you tease apart the effects of social support and hugging, touch, in itself, accounted for thirty-two percent of the reduction effect.” (The Power of Touch, New Yorker)
“The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives—cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral—from womb into old age. It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways.”
Maria Konnikova (The Power of Touch, New Yorker)
The truth is that often it takes courage to touch. For example, imagine after an argument with your husband it feels like a gulf has opened up between you. Days pass and the chasm grows bigger. You believe that the simple act of reaching over and grabbing your husband’s hand can bridge that chasm – the tension can melt and you will be free to resolve your issue. But that initial touch takes courage, you are reaching into the dark hoping he will take your hand- it will take the full use of your free-will to overcome your pride and fear. But the outcome can be healing and unity.
Touch as a symptom of the relationship
We cannot easily pretend with touch. A good indicator of the strength of relationships is how comfortable we feel with affection. If touch is awkward and uncomfortable then the relationship needs work.
“One mother, after hearing a discussion about how mother’s should supply love to their children, determined that before her fourteen year old son went to school in the morning, she would give him a hug. She wanted to prove to him and to herself that she was a good mother. That next morning, as she tried to hug him, he rejected her. But she was determined to give him a hug, and she chased him around the kitchen table and even out the back door. He ran away from her- down the driveway, down the long sidewalk, and around the corner beyond her sight. She stood abandoned in the driveway, crying. She was so frustrated that she went into the house and called the school counselor and told him the whole story, how her son was mean to her and rejected her when she had tried to love him.
The concerned counselor called the boy privately out of class and tried to talk to him. He asked the boy why he had acted that way towards his mother. The boy looked at him quizzically, then he said, “Mr. Jones, do you know the difference between a hug that gives and a hug that takes?” The counselor, who was not a very sensitive person himself, replied, “No” And the boy said quickly, “That is what I thought.”
This is a perfect example of doing things for the wrong reasons. The counselor did not call the boy in to find out how the boy felt, but rather to scold him for not making his mother feel better. And the mother had not wanted to hug the boy because her heart was filled with love for him, but rather to prove to herself that she was doing her job as a mother according to specifications.”
Excerpt: Sterling Ellsworth, Getting to Know the Real You
We cannot fake physical affection. We have to build a relationship worthy of its display. We have all had the experience of receiving a hug from someone that is cold and distant – done out of obligation. The soul is betrayed in our physical interactions. We must not misuse touch or it can become a dark thing. Men and women who were sexually or physically abused often have difficulty giving and receiving physical affection for this very reason – honest and loving affection was replaced with something ugly and false. We must always strive to ensure our touch is unselfish and done with an attempt to build stronger relationships. When touch does not come naturally; it may be a symptom of an underlying issue within ourselves or the relationship itself. We must attempt to repair the fracture quickly and then we can honestly display affection for one another.
Some of us are not naturally “touchy” people. Our childhood home may have shunned affection. Some cultures are less physical than others. However, we need to ensure there is a place for touch in our homes. When words aren’t enough, or our pain is too complex to communicate, or when a child feels alone or discouraged – they need to know they can feel safe in our arms.
Some children need more touch than others. If touch is your child’s “love language”, they may not know you truly love them unless you show them physical affection. Ever since I was a small child, I have craved physical touch. My mom said I would give her about 100 hugs a day. Even today, I feel love most not from kind words or gifts – but when someone touches me on the shoulder, or pats me on the back. If I lived in a home that lacked physical affection, I would feel unloved and unsafe.
Touch can, unfortunately, be used as a tool of manipulation. Since we all crave touch, this need can be used against us. My toddler even knows this. A few weeks after taking away all her pacifiers, she was sitting on the couch next to me and I said, “Juliet, come cuddle.” She looked at me sternly and said, “No! Not until you let me have my paci again!”
But withholding affection in an attempt to control others will sour our relationship and hurt our own chance for happiness.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Leo F. Buscaglia
When I hugged my daughter in bed that night, she forgot about my harshness and instead saw me as a loving mother. Physical touch can help repair damage caused by our imperfections by showing the genuineness of our love. This love can be shown not just for our families and friends but is the natural outgrowth of the empathy we feel for others. There are millions of lonely and confined people in this world that crave physical contact. Just as babies fail to flourish without touch, the elderly in nursing homes, the homeless, and disabled and mentally ill, need touch to thrive.
A few years ago my sister was visiting my brother’s family in New Delhi, India. While there they went on a humanitarian tour of a nearby train station where there was a large population of street boys. I had attempted to take the same tour a few years before. I was pregnant at the time and despite having relatively mild morning sickness – simply standing near the train tracks and seeing the rats, filth, and experiencing the smells caused me to lose my lunch and nearly faint. Thousands of young boys and some girls in India live in these conditions, attempting to survive off food thrown from passing trains or begging from travelers. They usually have no mother to comfort them, no father to encourage them. Rather they are raised expecting the abuse of strangers, arrest by police, and the scorn of passers-by. The only potential for a kind word comes from the rare soft-hearted stranger, or humanitarians who sometimes bring food. But loving touch – that is something these children do not experience from adults.
While my sister was on the tour she saw a group of boys berating a small boy, no more than five. They were mercilessly teasing and hitting him and he was weeping bitterly. The other boys left him in this state of distress. My sister simply could not bear it, she walked over to the small boy and knelt down to sweetly speak to him. He kept weeping and barely acknowledged her presence. She kept trying to comfort him but he would not be calmed. She felt the call of a nurturing mother – to take this poor child into her arms – but also the ambivalence of touching an unknown dirty child. Yet she gently put her arm around his shoulders. He instantly stopped crying and looked into her eyes, astonished. A powerful moment occurred between them. She suddenly knew that this was the first kind embrace this boy could remember. She was astonished by the instant effect her touch had on the boy, it seemed as if God’s love was being poured out to him through her hands. Her touch was speaking to him and hearing him – when words were useless. With anguish she had to leave that beautiful boy there, now calm, in that filthy train station. That experience has had a profound impact on her.
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
Touch is powerful. It can be the mortar to our relationships. It can bring healing when words are useless. It can develop empathy and bring joy and meaning into our lives. We must bravely use the power of touch often and wisely in our homes and in an increasingly affection-less world.
*If you would like to help a very good cause – feeding desperate migrants in India stranded because of COVID, please consider donating. This effort is run by a trusted family friend in India. 100% of donations go to help the poor. Regular updates/photos are shown in the GoFund Me page. The more they raise the more they will feed. Thank you.
“How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No. A mother’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity a mother for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”
G. K. Chesterton
Rather than accepting the common sentiment of the day – that motherhood holds us back from greater things, let’s appreciate and be grateful that we are truly Everything to our young children.
“Deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.”
The last few weeks have brought varying trials for all of us. I feel blessed that my tribulations have been small compared to many. However, as we attempt to sell our house and close on another house, and older home in the country, I have found myself under a lot of stress. The biggest stress occurred last week when a rather severe foundation issue was discovered in the home we are buying. We had a matter of days to figure out the cause and extent of the damage. I was worried that during this “shutdown” I would have difficulty getting any workers out to the house. Thankfully, I discovered these manual laborers are considered “essential”. I have been interacting with more plumbers, foundations experts, and septic guys than I ever thought possible – and each one is more heroic than the last. In a week of difficulty – my burden has been lifted by these men. Essential seems the perfect description.
They come – despite the pandemic looming large; they don’t give excuses, even when justified. For me, their arrival is akin to a knight in shining armour – arriving to slay the dragon Slab Leak. They have all kept their distance, waving instead of shaking my hand, considerate of the time and circumstance. But they get to work quickly and don’t complain that they have to be “out” while everyone else is “in”. I have been so impressed by the respectful and compassionate way they have all treated me – a frantic woman often with her children in tow. They always sufficiently dumb-down the diagnosis while ensuring that I understand the issues at hand.
During COVID-19 we have seen the “essential” rise to the top. Motherhood and Fatherhood has nowhere to hide with our children ever-present. There are Doctors, Nurses, Hospital Staff, Grocery Store Workers, and Farmers, to name a few. Most of these professions are not considered “prestigious”, their contributions rarely praised. However, my recent experiences, particularly with the often male-dominated fields of manual labor, have illuminated the incalculable importance of these men. Plumbers, for example, rarely get much credit. But Jordan Peterson reminded us, “Plumbers have saved more lives than Doctors , through hygiene.” The “essential men” I have interacted with have been quick to help, knowledagle, competent, and hard-working – the very best of men. They don’t demand praise; they do their jobs with pride – realizing its importance and not caring that the rest of us don’t. I think mothers can learn a lot from the quiet confidence they have in their calling.
As we ponder the many lessons we can learn from this pandemic, I hope we can give this one lesson special consideration – increasing our respect for the unassuming and largely disregarded blue collar workers. They keep our society functioning; they are on the frontlines of civilization. In a time when it often seems there is little to be thankful for, stuck inside our homes, let’s discover those things we take for granted. Next time we flush a toilet, or turn on a light, or stay warm and dry despite the rain, or eat fresh produce – let’s mentally thank those that make these not-so-simple conveniences possible, and that humbly save us when they may fail. I am so glad that during this time, we can give them the title they deserve – “Essential”.
Let’s find a way to thank someone “essential” today.
“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” John W. Gardner
COVID-19 is enough to give even the most easy-going among us worry. This is a big deal, life has changed on a dime. It is not my intention to diminish the importance of this time or the tragic nature of it. I hope we are all doing what we can to stem the tide of this disease. However, we mothers need to stop and ask ourselves, “Are we reacting well to this crisis?”
Why is that so important – how could our reaction have any impact on a global pandemic? It is difficult to see how our emotional reactions may ripple beyond our homes, but our primary concern as mothers is for our children.
A Mother’s Eyes
“Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face.”
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. But a Mother’s eyes are the window through which young children first see the world. Ours are the eyes they look to for reference. In them they see either safety or danger. Many of our children’s fears and anxieties can unfortunately be sourced from their parents’ emotional reactions. Dr. Peterson explains in the clip below the psychological concept of “referencing”. When a small child sees a mouse run across the room – – they look to their mother’s eyes, or any other adult in the room, to see what it means. If the mother starts screaming, they know- Mice are scary! These early childhood experiences can set in their minds like concrete – mouse scary – world dangerous.= Phobia. If the mother instead tempers her reaction and handles the situation as calmly as she can, the child does not see a mouse as a horrific threat and feels safe in their environment.
“A mother tells you what the mouse is, and her face doesn’t say Mouse – it says, Safe or Danger.”
We have a modern epidemic of anxiety. Where is this coming from? Anxiety, at its root, is about fear- fear of the unknown and lack of confidence in our ability to handle the unknown. If a child continually sees in their mother’s eyes the evidence of fear or uncertainty, they see the world as an unsafe place. This a recipe for an anxious child and teenager. This does not mean that every anxious child or adult is the product of their mother’s reactions. Some people just have highly neurotic personalities; some children have life challenges that are not easily overcome – no matter how stoic their mother may be. But tempering our reactions to difficulties can only help our children.
Outsourcing Emotional Stability
Even as adults, we tend to outsource our emotional responses to others. We simply mimic what others are doing. A few months ago at church, the fire alarm suddenly went off. I noticed that none of the adults in the room moved; instead they just looked at everyone else, trying to gauge what kind of action was appropriate. We were searching for the level of fear in other’s faces. Since no one got up quickly or acted frazzled, we all stayed calmly in our seats. Eventually it was confirmed that a child had pulled the alarm (and, of course, that child was mine!).
Here is another embarrassing confession. I inadvertently became one of those horrible panic buyers. About a month ago, in the very early stages of COVID-19, I went to Costco for my bi-weekly trip. I was surprised to see that everyone was getting multiple packs of toilet paper. I had no idea that this was the thing to do, and to be honest, I thought they were probably silly to do it. But I figured I had better buy some too. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. I’m not going to lie, now that all the stores are TP-less, I’m glad I did. When something unexpected happens, psychologically we don’t know how to react – so we react the way others do. This gives a lot of power to over-reactors. If one person has an inappropriate response – perhaps built-up because of childhood trauma or anxious parents – then they can start the chain-reaction of anxious and worried reactions. (I am not saying that is the case in the COVID crisis but simply a psychological observation).
“Part of what you are doing all the time is imitating other people. It’s mass imitation, and that is really a huge part of social structure, we are constantly imitating each other.”
It is sad to consider that in many childhood traumas, such as medical trauma, accidents, natural disasters, etc…, the reaction of the adults around the child can be more traumatic than the actual incident. Dr. Peter Levine and Maggie Kline, experts on childhood trauma, write,
“The importance of an adult’s calmness cannot be overemphasized. Your calmness is essential! When a child has been hurt or frightened, it is normal for the adult to feel somewhat shocked or scared, too. Because of your own fears and protective instincts, it is not uncommon to respond initially with anger, which can further frighten the child. The goal is to minimize – not compound – feelings of fright, shame, embarrassment, and guilt the child is likely to experience already. The best antidote is to respond to your own reactions first. Allow time for your own body responses to settle rather than scolding or running anxiously towards your child. Experiences with adult clients in therapy confirms that often the most frightening part of an incident experienced as a child was their parents reaction! The younger the child, the more he or she “read” the facial expression of their caregivers as a barometer of how serious the danger or injury is.”
Peter. A. Levine and Maggie Kline, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes
For example, let’s imagine a small child is climbing on some playground equipment and falls. She cries but is not hurt. An over-reactive mother may scoop her up and fuss over her – ensuring she is okay and reprimanding her for doing something dangerous. She keeps her close to her side or leaves the park. This child can learn from this that the world is dangerous and she is not capable of certain things.
Instead, the mother could calmly go to the child and assess if she is badly hurt, give her some physical comfort (immediate physical affection is important in mitigating trauma) and tell her to try again. The mother stays close until the child feels confident in the attempt. When she is successful, the mother praises her and slowly moves farther away. Eventually the child will have mastered the task and will have forgotten the fall. There is wisdom in the old cowboy adage to get back on that horse that bucks you off. At times our culture prioritizes safety as the ultimate virtue – but our civilization wouldn’t have gotten far if men and women had been unwilling to “get back on the horse”.
Mother’s must resist the impulse to “freak out”. This is difficult for those of us with passionate temperaments. I, for one, am quite enthusiastic and excitable. I happen to think it is wonderful to be passionate, it makes life an adventure. “Freaking out” over good things is great. When my husband got a promotion, I was jumping up and down. When my sister told me she was having another baby, I screamed. When I stood in front of Hagia Sophia, I gasped in amazement. This is part of amplifying the good, since we know negative tends to be more potent. But when times are tough, we need to turn down our “freak-out” dial.
A few weeks ago my seven-year old son threw a rock through the back windshield of a car sitting in a parking lot. It completely shattered – he has a strong arm. I was angry because I had just told him not to throw rocks. However, as I looked into his eyes, I saw that he was truly sorry, but unfortunately I saw something else – fear. Fear of his mother, of the harsh scolding he might receive. I really didn’t like seeing that in my sweet son’s eyes. I don’t want him to be afraid of his mother’s reaction. I literally bit my lip and calmly reprimanded him but did not go overboard. (I did not let him get away with disobedience. He is slowly working off his window-debt.)
The owner of the car, an older woman, was actually sitting in the car when my son threw the rock. She was extremely upset and shocked by the incident. She came out and began crying. I apologized profusely and promised we would pay for it all. It was fixed and paid for within 24 hours. She later called me and apologized for her emotional response. She said she didn’t know why she was so overwhelmed by it. (Perhaps she had an over-reactive mother:)
If children have a mother that is an over-reactor, they have two choices – either to join their mother in her reaction and develop anxiety and fear as a result- or to discount their mother’s reactions and choose not to share anything with her that might “set her off”. Often, we discover our children lie to us out of fear. We find something broken in the house and, upon interrogation, discover all our children are innocent. When they become teenagers, there are worse offenses to be hidden. One of the main motivations to lie is avoiding the reactions of the parents. Does that mean we can’t be upset when our children make bad choices? Of course we will be, and they must realize that their actions have consequences, including emotional reactions. However, we don’t want our over-reactions to keep our children from feeling safe speaking to us about things. One example is the modern plague of pornography. Children at younger and younger ages are being exposed to porn. This can be extremely destructive to young minds. However, when a young boy sees porn for the first time, he may feel shame and hide it from his parents. If his mother, through years of over-reaction, has convinced him that she is not “safe” – if she becomes angry or disappointed in him for small offenses – he is much less likely to share the experience with her. Then his shame and deceit will continue, for fear of what the parents will think of him. This is the road of addiction. (I hope to do a longer post on teaching and preparing kids for the dangers of pornography.)*
Discussing COVID-19 with Kids
It is important that we don’t over-react to the current crisis in front of our children. In extreme cases this could cause the development of phobias or generalized anxiety in them. We don’t need to lie to our children. However, we must consider the age and maturity of our children when discussing difficulties. We also can’t trust that the voices they hear on the news or from friends will be stabilizing messages. Dr. Levine gives some good advice about how to talk to our kids about fearful events:
“Because the media uses graphic fear as a selling point, it is important to minimize children’s TV news exposure – particularly during dinner and before bedtime. Of course, it is best to watch the news after they are asleep. Kids three to five years of age may ask questions about things that they have heard or seen on TV. At these ages, children are beginning to be able to put feelings into words and you can let them know that it is okay to have these feelings….(it may be helpful to tell) stories where the hero/heroine has overcome difficult situations and been made stronger by meeting and mastering an ordeal.
For older children, six to twelve years of age, more direct discussions can be held. It may be important to find out where they got their information and what their specific fears are. Then you can have the family brainstorm ideas for things that they can do to help the people who have been affected…Mobilizing helpful activity, rather than being a spectator, can make a big difference.”
Peter. A. Levine and Maggie Kline, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes
It is our reaction to this crisis that will do the most towards stabilizing our children. We can look for the rays of hope on the horizon – rather than the dark predictions or negative takes. If we feel our children are mature enough to discuss some of the difficult facts of the virus, ask them how they can help make this time easier and more productive. Rather than focusing on death tolls or worries about transmission. Teach them how properly washing hands or wearing face masks can help prevent contraction and spread. Talk to them hopefully about the future – if you find yourself unable to see the hope – seek out positive voices, pray to God for peace, and rely on stress-relievers such as outdoor walks. As they see us facing the crisis with faith and problem-solving, they feel safe. The whole experience can make us all more resilient. Our children can get through this – guided by the hope in their mother’s eyes.
“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”
P.S. I would greatly appreciate any shares/tweets/emails of this article to those who may benefit. Thank you so much for your support and Good Luck out there – or “in” there!
I have been working for some time on this piece – on the danger of a mother’s ‘bad moods’ and the tyranny we can wield through emotional manipulation. It has been a difficult piece for me. I almost threw it out five times (if you can throw out a Google doc)- but it kept calling me back. Now, as this COVID crisis has progressed, I see a reason behind that calling.
During the next few weeks, many of us will have the wonderful opportunity to slow down, to drop all the excess, and to focus on what matters most. We will have a lot of time with our children with many opportunities for bonding, for learning together, and for laughter. But we know that with close proximity often comes conflict. We can find ourselves drifting into bad habits of toxic interaction and foul moods. Rather than allowing relationships to fray, as often happens in times of stress, we can take this “crisis” as a challenge, an invitation to look at things differently – to be different.
In writing this piece I had to do some soul-searching and look directly at my own demons. We all tend to avoid such confrontations with ourselves, but for our children, we must be willing to do it. I hope we will find the courage to ask ourselves how we may be harming our children through emotional means – and how we can overcome these manipulations.
This piece is my attempt to bring awareness to well-meaning mothers of the potential familial-hell brought on by our uncontrolled negativity, sensitivity, and emotional manipulation.
A Bad Mood
I really want to be a good mother. This desire drives me to do many things that I would rather not. It propels me forward to change that diaper, or cook that soup. But despite my motherly ambitions, occasionally, I am just in a bad mood. Unfortunately, my children always notice. Even if I try and hide my agitation, they feel my dark energy. My toddler will come up shyly and give me a hug. My younger son will shadow me and start moping (or even start mopping the floor to make me happy). My eldest daughter will act out emotionally. And I will feel guilty for the gloom I am bringing. I remember well from my own childhood the feeling when one of my parents came home in a bad mood – a black cloud would hang over our house. Our home would feel a little less safe – children a little less free. The emotional energy of the parents determines the atmosphere inside a home.
Perhaps my bad mood is caused by the disappointment of an unmet expectation, the weight of worry, or, as is often the trigger for me, an internal chaos bucket overflowing – full of noise and commotion. Perhaps the cause is deeper – a misplaced sense of worth or jealousy. These negative ruminations inevitably lead to a snippy and impatient mom.
The Building of a Child
Recently, passing near our community river-side park, I witnessed a charming attestation of maternal influence. I stopped the car as I saw five cute little ducklings waddling quickly behind their mother as she safely escorted them across the busy street. I don’t speak Duck, but I didn’t hear the mother quacking loudly at her ducklings, instructing them – she just walked and they followed. Our offspring follow us in a similar manner. Our kids are much more a product of our example than our active teaching, no matter how much quacking we feel we need to do. What is normal in the home, becomes normal for our children. As our children age, they will be drawn towards the re-creation of the “normal” home of their childhood.
All parents know the experience of hearing our own words echoed by our children, or seeing our mannerisms or outlook on life mirrored in our offspring. After years of chore charting, my kids seem unable to adopt tidy habits. Why? Because I live in a state of “hygienic chaos”. When I look at the state of my own bedroom – with laundry piled here, and books stacked there – I see that there is no amount of teaching that will help my children overcome my own example. My tidy friends have tidy kids – no matter how few chore charts they’ve engineered. Kids become tidy because they are accustomed to tidiness. (Sometimes this tidiness only kicks in after they have moved out of the house and are forced to re-create “normal” for themselves). Now some children will buck the trend, or build up a home that is a reaction to their parents. Kids can learn important lessons from our bad examples as well as our good. But generally, our children will become what we are, so we need to become a model worth emulating.*
What does this realization mean? Do we not even bother teaching our children? Yes. Children must contribute to the family and learn responsibility – even if they fail to incorporate good habits. Teaching children is never a waste. But since we want our children to become better than we are, our best bet is learning as we teach. We admit that we are also learning with them and ask forgiveness when we fall short. Instead of demanding they do a chore chart, while laundry piles high on our bedroom floor, we include ourselves in that chart and train ourselves as well. As we become introspective and self-aware, our children will see that genuineness and learn compassion and resilience. It is much better to be raised by a self-aware, yet imperfect mother, striving to improve, than a woman with a hypocritical facade who sees others faults but never her own.
“Having the attitude that you can learn throughout your life enables you to approach parenting with an open mind, as a journey of discovery.”
“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”
Teaching and modeling skills is important, but raising emotionally healthy children is absolutely critical. As mothers we have to accept that, because of our own limitations, we cannot be all things to them – and that is okay. However, we must be safe. We must guard against using our negative emotions to control and manipulate. When we are in a bad mood – which is the state of letting our negative emotions run rampant – we need to notice them, endeavor to see the cause, and redirect our thinking or behavior to work through them before we may manipulate our children or spouse.
“Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause? Did we pretend to be “hurt” in our sensitive and tender feelings…when envy, ungratified vanity, or thwarted self-will was our real trouble? Such tactics often succeed. The other parties give in. They give in not because they don’t know what is really wrong with us but because they have long known it only too well…It needs surgery which they know we will never face. And so we win; by cheating. But the unfairness is very deeply felt. Indeed what is commonly called “sensitiveness” is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny, sometimes a lifelong tyranny.”
C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms Compiled in A Mind Awake
The Many Manifestations of Sensitivity
What exactly is this “sensitiveness” spoken of in this blunt yet true quote? When I initially read this quote, I breathed a sigh of relief – no one can accuse me of being sensitive, insensitive maybe, but never sensitive. I pushed out judgement to those I saw as “sensitive” – quick to tears and offense. But the truth is “sensitivity” manifests differently in different people. “Sensitiveness”, in this context, is an inability to cope with stress or offense.
Sensitivity can be a wonderful thing if it is channeled into spiritual gifts such as creativity and empathy. But for some people it means we must walk on egg-shells for fear of offending them. Kids learn quickly that they must pretend to love dinner, or accept unquestioningly Mom’s idea for a vacation – for fear they will hurt mom’s feelings. If they do cause offense, the result may be days of friction or the silent treatment before they allow their mother’s guilt-trip to sway them and they grovel before her. Their mom is always just one misplaced comment away from tears or the silent treatment. But why? Why would a woman act this way? As Lewis says: envy, vanity, and unresolved worth issues are often at the root of such behavior. Without digging deep into the roots of emotional manipulation, suffice to say- many women use “sensitivity” as a means of control. They get their way because everyone is trying to please them and help them suffer less.
But sensitivity does not always manifest as an offended mother – but also an irritable one. “How many times have I told you to take your shoes off!?” This is my method of sensitive manipulation – irritation. In times of stress, I am incredibly sensitive to disobedience and noise. I don’t dwell in self-pity as some women – I snap into snappiness. As we are currently trying to sell our house, my “sensitiveness’ has been in full force. Trying to keep the house perfectly tidy has been difficult – like living contrary to my nature. It has been stressful and has pushed me to my ‘good mother’ limits. It is quite ironic that my current prominent source of irritation is my children’s messy nature – something they learned from me. Yes, I must teach them to be responsible for their messes, but my tone does not help.
I don’t go out seeking to manipulate them with my negative emotions, but when my yelling is rewarded with them quickly putting their shoes away, it looks like it is working. This is a dangerous cycle – one that is destructive to our home’s atmosphere, our relationships, and to their inner voice.
Sometimes we are blind to how much our bad moods affect our children. There is a saying that every mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child. I would add that every child will likely only become as happy as their mother’s default mood. Our emotional well-being matters to our children’s present and future happiness.
If our children become accustomed to a home full of tension, they may recreate that home for their own children. If a mother makes her children believe they are a burden or a disappointment, they will have to overcome feelings of low worth when they get older. The dysfunctional home that was built up around them will house them until they can hack their way out of it. Returning to our quote by C.S. Lewis,
….”Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause?”….
What is the cause? When we have an inordinate response to a child’s action, it is often because of built up stress or anger stemming from a different source. But then we allow our moods to get away from us and our anger, irritation, or self-pity become our state of being – like a bad habit. If we don’t watch this habit, the wonderful mother we dreamt of being may disappear into a quicksand of ire.
“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ”
Echo Through the Generations
I come from a line of wonderful mothers – but we have a maternal family history of Irritation in times of stress. I remember being a bit scared of my Grandmother because she often seemed irritated when we visited. We usually lived overseas so I rarely saw her. I now realize that having a noisy family of nine stay in her tiny house was likely not easy – but she got annoyed at the children a lot. Once I remember her yelling at me for throwing apricot pits at her goats. She didn’t explain why, and since I assumed it was just another bad mood, I kept doing it (naughty girl that I was). I felt horrible later when I learned her favorite goat had died, from choking on an apricot pit.
I am not blaming my vexed ancestors for my current behavior, but annoyance can become a conditioned response to stress. We need to recognize it for what it is – a bad habit – and a voice we are anchoring in our children’s psyches. Just as our children often become as we are – we are often largely a product of our parents’ example. But as we educate ourselves and introspect; we can drop our ancestral baggage. (Just as we hope our children will be able to do).
“Contrary to what many people believe, your early experiences do not have to determine your fate. If you had a difficult childhood but have come to make sense of those experiences, you are not bound to re-create the same negative interactions with your own children. Without such self-understanding, however, science has shown that history will likely repeat itself as negative patterns of family interactions are passed down through the generations.”
Daniel J. Siegel
If we allow our bad moods to become a form of domestic tyranny, our irritation will be the off-key background music our children grow accustomed to. They will become numb to our constant irritation. Like I imagined that “grandma is just mad yet again”, they will no longer hear any significance in our words – and that is when goats die.
Arresting a Dark Day
Last weekend I woke up on Saturday and knelt by my bed – I prayed that it would be a good day and I would be a patient mother. However, after several incidents of child-like messines, I could see myself going down the road of irritation. I saw a bad-mood day before me; I was uncontrollably spiraling. My daughter had tracked dirt in and I started to react. Suddenly, I remembered my prayer from that morning. I stopped. I swallowed my pride and irritation, and gave my daughter a tight hug. I said, “ I am sorry I have been so frustrated lately. Selling this house is stressing me out and it is not right to take it out on you. Please forgive me”.
I could feel the tension release in her body. She smiled up at me and said, “It’s okay mom. You aren’t that bad. I am going to really try and be better.” The cloud that had been hovering over our home that morning – breathed out by me – dissipated as sunlight broke though as a beam of understanding and perspective. I was able to see my daughter for the precious child she was, and the mess for its insignificance. I was able to save her, and myself from a day of dark clouds. What a difference stopping, noticing, and engaging our free will can do!
The Hope is in Recognize our Tyranny
No one is perfect, and as long as we continually admit our errors and attempt to remedy them, we are on the path upward. We have to stop and say – Am I being unfair? Am I creating a hostile environment for my innocent children? I have found when I am honest enough to say that – the path out of the mood becomes clear. However, if we refuse to introspect and live instead in pretense – we can create “domestic tyranny”. One bad mood can run into another until our “default” is hell.
The more I learn, ponder, and write about motherhood, the more convinced I have become of one wonderful and horrible truth – Mothers shape the emotional health of their children. Who we are, what we do, how we communicate will have a ripple down effect on our children for years to come. This knowledge can be burdensome, but it is a burden we must pick up and carry. We may want to run away into justification or denial. We may seek out voices that tell us “we are doing the best we can.” We may retreat into self-pity. Some days I turn to a bag of chocolate chips for solace.
We can not let “sensitiveness” cause our loved ones to feel stifled and controlled and destroy our relationships. We cannot leave our irritated voices as our children’s inheritance. We cannot get in the way of our children’s potential. The path to victory is not paved with avoidance, self-congratulation, or despondency, and certainly not with chocolate chips. The path is paved with consistent effort, with humility, repentance, and thankfully with forgiveness. Sometimes our “sensitiveness” has a deep source, a trauma left unhealed, for which we may need to seek help to find solutions. Thankfully children are quick to forgive and adapt. If Mom is learning and growing, they will remember our genuine efforts to change. The path is one of hope. Things will get better if we do better.
All the changed diapers and delicious soups are ultimately insignificant compared to the voice of a loving mother rooted in their minds. The home we build up for our children does not need to be spotless, but it must be emotionally safe, full of love and understanding and guidance. How grateful I am for the maternal love which motivates me to overcome my many weaknesses for the sake of my children, and to one day be worthy of the title “good mother.”
*It is important to remember that it is not only Mothers that can emotionally manipulate. Father are also at-risk of attempting to control others emotionally. A father that is quick-to-anger, slow to forgive, or who holds back praise – can be just as destructive a force as a mother with similar qualities. I focus on mothers because that is what I am – and the perspective I write from. (A great movie depicting a emotionally manipulative father and an incredibly powerful mother is The Price Winner of Defiance Ohio.)
I want to share a short podcast clip which I found both disturbing and heartening. I truly appreciated Martyn Iles’ response to some harsh, and very public criticism received by an Australian mother. It is always a shame when women tear each other down. Throughout this podcast I couldn’t help thinking back to many of my own pieces written on these subjects (will link in piece).
It is a tragedy that some women believe that the love and nurture given to children and spouse is menial, yet the time and labor they give in a sterile workplace is empowering. Women need to be honest about where happiness and meaning originate and stop worrying about the perception of “the world”. Why are women letting go of the power of their feminine influence, the harnessing of our unique talents and gifts – and trading them in for a paycheck or prestige? Women can do good wherever they are! Downplaying the glory of motherhood will not amplify the meaningfulness of the workplace.
I was saddened to hear the mockery this mother received, especially considering she sounds like a truly selfless woman. It’s one thing to be judgmental of vice, but condemning someone for their virtue is truly vicious.
I am reminded of a short scene in the movie The Mission, a film depicting the history of the Catholic missions in South America and the horrific devastation of the natives. Two men, somber as they are pondering the harshness of the world, attempt to come to grips with the reality of the situation. Senor Hontar, stoically resigned to the state of the things says, “We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.“ The other, Altamirano, refusing to find solace in resignation, says “No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world… thus have I made it.”
We live in a world where acts of love and service are met with disdain. The world is thus, but will we resign ourselves to it? Will we help make it thus? I am heartened that there are many willing to stand up against the culture and defend the power and love found in motherhood. I believe truth is more powerful than facade. These voices of defense must reach for the next generation. Young women must hear the counter-argument to the materialist view of life – defenders of motherhood. They need to see women that powerfully wield their femininity to influence the world with love and compassion. Our children need mothers that love and cherish their role and turn their faces away from a culture of scorn. Thank you Martyn for standing up for this young mother!
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey (evil). What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of (evil). The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination.
What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”
“If you think of this world as a place simply intended for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place for training and correction and it’s not so bad.”
In his book, A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley describes a new and “progressive” civilization, where all things are adapted and conditioned in citizens to allow for perpetual happiness and stability. Every physical impulse is immediately gratified so passion cannot develop, every obstacle to comfort is removed. Even old age is eradicated. Negative emotions are dulled by “Soma” – a drug to numb the senses. The spirit is never allowed to interrupt the distractions of the body – and so God “manifests Himself as an absence” rather than a presence. The Chief Controller of this “Brave New World” declared, “God isn’t compatible with universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery, and medicine, and happiness.”
Why isn’t God, or Objective truth, compatible with universal happiness? Isn’t that the point of a loving God? Isn’t the truth meant to set us free? The difficulty is found in our earth-bound timeline. We see happiness as a day to to day process – one day here, the next day gone. But this perspective is short-sided and limited.
For most of my engagement, my future-husband and I lived in different continents. It was a hellish experience for us. We were both working full-time in our respective countries, trying to save enough money for school and to start our lives together. We missed each other and were uncertain we would even be able to manage the logistics of marrying, living 10,000 miles apart. I remember as I was living through this time I felt cheated. “I am supposed to be enjoying my life with my soulmate! Instead I am in a constant state of stress and worry.” I would cry at night and be angry with God. Now, five kids later, with a happy and successful marriage, I see those times as more humorous than painful. I wouldn’t change it – those struggles proved our commitment. But the Ally of 13 years ago only wanted ease and happiness, I am glad she didn’t get her way. I would have been settling.
Which Ally is living in reality? The younger stressed-out Ally simply desiring peace and happiness, or the current Ally looking back knowing how it all turned out? If we separate ourselves from the present moment – if we hover above and beyond this time – we get a clue to God’s perspective. That is the reality we want to live in, that reality brings ultimate peace and joy. There we are enabled to thrive amdist sufferings or uncertainty. But I keep slipping out of that reality. How can we dwell there when we are bounded by our material existence? I believe the first step is to attempt to engage with our non-material lives, our “intuitive” or spiritual lives.
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Albert Einstein
Why are we so driven by “happiness” or pleasure? And why don’t I ever learn that I shouldn’t be controlled by their demands? My husband and I are trying to sell our house right now and again I want ease and happiness! I don’t want to have to try and keep a house spotless with five messy children. Is it even possible to not allow this to stress me out? I admit I have not quite figured out how to have a long-term view when stress and worry are screaming so loudly. But I do find that when I stop and engage my spiritual mind (usually in my quiet closet) – and seek out the peace and faith found through the spirit – the proper perspective can return. At least until the puppy has an accident on the carpet.
One reason we keep slipping out of “reality” may be that our bodies have a loud and persistent voice. We want that piece of cake, we yearn to be in the arms of our love, we don’t want stress and negative emotions. These desires are not bad – but they are also not the only good. Particularly in youth, in our naivety and lack of responsibility, our bodily impulses demand satisfaction. We cannot hear the calls of conscience or morality if we allow our impulses’ screams to drown out their soft promptings.
There is no balancing the intuitive (spiritual) mind and rational (material) mind in A Brave New World. There was no counter-point to the demands of the body. The only respite from stress and meaninglessness that a physical life inevitably produces is instant gratification and the drug Soma. Rather than seeking peace through prayer in a closet, Huxley’s citizens become numb to all suffering and all purpose. The citizens become servants to their own desires – they lose all ability to see beyond the material, beyond the immediate. They are easily controlled, listless puppets to a great Evil.
But we can discover a True New World and leave behind the Brave New World of meaningless pleasure. Huxley explains that the natural process of age can facilitate this discovering of a True New World. However, even in youth, the adoption of responsibility and practice of self-control can lead us to this world.
“They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion as they advance in years. But my own experience has given me the conviction that, quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind a cloud; our soul feels, sees, turns towards the source of all light; turns naturally and inevitably; for now that all that gave to the world of sensations its life and charms has begun to leak away from us, now that phenomenal existence is no more bolstered up by impressions from within or from without, we feel the need to lean on something that abides, something that will never play us false–a reality, an absolute and everlasting truth. Yes, we inevitably turn to God; for this religious sentiment is of its nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses.”
-Aldous Huxley, A Brave New World
As we see our world follow the precedent set in A Brave New World, and happiness and stability are exalted to the place of Supreme Good, we must seek out a True New World. To discover the true reality of our existence we must “not walk according to the flesh but according the the Spirit,” Romans 8:4. We have to choose to see the Reality of truth and progress as more important than momentary self-satisfaction. If we accept the difficulties of life, rather than only seek to prevent them, our eyes become open to the Ultimate source of joy and fulfillment. This choice will lead to a life less stable and contented than that of the citizens of Huxley’s civilization, but one with access to truth, beauty, and progress not found in satisfied ease. The reality we discover may reveal that the very “act of striving for truth and beauty is where happiness resides.” C.S. Lewis
*Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis died the same day, November 22, 1963. Despite their prominence as great thinkers and authors, their passing was relatively unnoticed, as this was also the date of JFK’s assassination.