My mother is a psychotherapist so my childhood was full of psychology and analyzing. She is incredibly gifted in her work and has helped many people make positive change in their lives. Despite her good example of the positive potential of analysis, I have noticed that some friends/family with mental health issues seemed to make little progress in therapy. In the past I have even questioned the usefulness of psychological intervention. Discovering Dr. Jordan Peterson’s work changed my perspective. Jordan Peterson is not interested in ruminating on the past, he focuses on behavior modification and finding purpose in life. He has kindly put hundreds of hours of his University psychology lectures on Youtube to help those who struggle with, or are interested in, mental illness. Watching his Maps of Meaning Lectures and Personality Lectures has helped me get a deeper understanding of my own psychology. I have selected some short clips which have wonderful insight and practical tips. I hope they may whet your appetite for longer-form discussion on these topics.
1. Acceptance of Suffering: I shared this in my last blog post but it is too good to not include. At the base of much of our unhappiness is an incorrect orientation – a view of the world as a place of happiness and peace. Accepting the intrinsic difficulty of life is actually incredibly freeing, and may help relieve some of our anxiety or depression. (4:35)
2. Organizing your life for superior Mental Health: He starts focusing on Depression but gives a lot of practical advice on how to maximize our time and build a successful and fulfilling life. There may be a bit of overlap with the previous video so you might want to cut out the last few minutes if you have heard it before. (10:39)
3. Overcoming Anxiety: He lays out steps to overcome fear and anxiety by voluntarily facing it, in small and simple steps. (5:36)
4. Social Anxiety: There is a little overlap with the previous video but this clip focuses on social anxiety and how to act comfortably with others. (7:38)
5. Complexity and Mental Health: Jordan Peterson explains that sometimes we don’t, in fact, have a mental illness, we have too much complexity. (2:34)
6. Overcoming Nihilism: He talks about accepting suffering and orienting ourselves properly in the world to find meaning. (8:24)
7. Those left behind after suicide: For some reason this was flagged as being inappropriate but go ahead and watch it because it is very powerful. JBP speaks personally about Suicide and his perspective on the idea “we could have done more”. (6:06)
8. Necessity of Negative Emotions: I posted this as well on last week blog but I think it is important to remember that there is a “positive” side of negative emotions and “negative” side of positive emotions. (3:54)
There are a lot of conflicting reports on parenthood and happiness. As I researched this topic, I found studies showing differing correlation, but the data is too complex to show causation. However, it seems the trendy view is that parents are less happy than their childless counterparts. The Young Turks, a left-leaning outlet geared towards young adults, has a video entitled “Proof Parenthood Destroys Your Happiness”. This bold claim is based on short-term evidence from a single study in a first-world nation. However, despite the limitations of the study, one of the commentators said the results were enough to convince her to never have children! So is parenthood really that detrimental to happiness? For the sake of this article lets take the prevailing view and assume it is, at least in the short-term. Does it necessarily follow that the best choice is then to forgo having children? Perhaps we shouldn’t throw out our potential babies with the unhappy bath-water, at least before giving it some careful consideration.
Jordan Peterson gave some great insight on this subject that summarizes the short-sightedness of the “Unhappy Parent” perspective (4:36).
At church on Sunday I noticed a young man standing in the back bouncing his newborn baby girl. He was in his 20s, good-looking, and well-dressed in a white sweater (color choice was a dead giveaway to his rookie status). His new daughter was fussy and he seemed stressed as he tried to calm her down. I had to chuckle as I noticed that his baby had spit-up on his sweater. What a shame. A previously confident young man with his whole life ahead of him – forced to frantically try and calm an inconsolable child. He could be relaxing at home playing Madden Football. With our modern aspirations for a life free of stress and worry, this scene can certainly be seen as a tragedy.
Maturing from Fun to Happiness to Suffering
Kids have their finger on the pulse of happiness – or as they like to call it “fun”. “What are we doing fun today?” “This isn’t fun!” As adults we don’t ask about fun anymore – that is childish. Instead we focus on happiness. “I am just not happy.” “Just do whatever makes you happy.” Are these really that different? Have we really matured beyond our six-year-old self’s demands? The truth is that the constant expectation of happiness, perhaps exasperated by a fun-filled childhood, can create a feeling of discontent.
The transition the young father will go through in the next few years will likely not be the “happiest” time of his life. There is pain as we change from a me-focused mindset to an other-focused perspective. This is called maturing. This is the shift from a life driven by happiness to a life driven by meaning. “Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs.* This young man’s fatherhood is forcing him to find a new path to joy, a less selfish path, and a path sure to include distress. Calming an upset infant is not easy! “God creates us free, free to be selfish, but He adds a mechanism that will penetrate our selfishness and wake us up to the presence of others in this world, and that mechanism is called suffering.” William Nicholson.
Happiness is Selfish
Happiness is simply an emotion; it is dependent on what happens to us, and how satisfied we feel in the moment. “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” researchers on happiness write.*
There is a place for selfishness, and I hope there is a big place for happiness – but orienting our lives to maximize the realization of our selfish desires is a recipe for destruction. As the Stoics understood thousands of years ago, Viktor Frankl exclaimed, “It is the very pursuit of happiness, that thwarts happiness.” Because of the selfish nature of happiness, its pursuit often negatively affects relationships. Ask the new mother whose husband plays video games until 3 am. Or the kids whose mom ran off with the “love of her life” fitness trainer. (Fascinating clip hyperlinked here by C.S. Lewis on the supremacy of Sexual Happiness). Striving for happiness is our natural inclination, but put in a place of prominence it can become pathological. It can obscure your long-term concerns for yourself and any concern for the feelings of others (mania and psychopathy). In the clip below Jordan Peterson explains how positive emotions must be balanced with necessary negative emotions.
Selfishness and a focus on personal-satisfaction can certainly be a motivation to choose a childless life. Kids severely limit your options; they are a constant source of work and stress. However, as Erin explained so well in her post last week – the limiting of our options may in fact open us up for more depth and potential.** I am not saying all childless couples are selfish. People have various, and often justified, reasons for not having children. However, if their justification is solely based on the prospect of unhappiness, I would urge them to reconsider. Opening yourself up to the world of “others” and self-sacrifice can bring profundity and meaning to your life. “If you’re constantly in a state of satisfaction and happiness then nothing is going to affect you deeply enough so that you will become deep, and life without depth is, by definition, shallow and meaningless.” Jordan Peterson.
Happiness is Judgemental
There is a new show on Netflix called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Marie helps people order their lives by throwing out most of their belongings. A few years ago I read her book and threw out ten garbage bags of stuff. It was awesome. One of her recommendations is that you hold everything in front of you and ask “Does this spark joy?.” I asked myself that question 300 times or more as I went through my house. I can certainly see the utility in that. However, I can also see some pathological perfectionism in that statement. It is sterilizing life. When you look in the background after Marie Kondo has done her tydinging magic, the room can look fake and unsettling. Maybe it is the slob in me talking, but is a house swept of imperfection cozy or charming? Does it have character? We can judge our possessions selfishly – our shoes won’t be offended if we dump them at Goodwill. However, do we sometimes have a similar mindset when examining the people and experiences we have in life? Do we sometimes wish we could discard other things/people impeding our joy? Should we “Kondo” our family? How about our duties? Is sparking joy the ultimate measurement of worth?
When I was a 27-year-old mother with 2 little kids, I had a tough time in the transition to maturity. I acted like a spoiled brat sometimes when my husband got home. “I clean the house up and the kids just mess it up. I am a prisoner at home; I can’t do anything between naps and nursing!” I complained because I believed that happiness should be the default of existence therefore something was wrong if I wasn’t happy. I judged whether each moment was in-line with my expectations. Constantly observing my unhappiness only added to it.
The problem with evaluating your life based on “joy-sparking” is it’s not a fair judgement, it is only taking into account one thing – happiness. It doesn’t ask if it is the right thing to do, or the necessary thing to do. If I used this method I would never do laundry again! When people forgo parenthood because they don’t think having children would “spark joy,” they are using happiness as the judge, and who made “happiness” the best judge of life? “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace” Ecclesiastes 3:1-3. Life must be seen for all its complexity and should not be reduced to happy or unhappy.
Happiness is Not the Standard
Underneath our judgments of life is an underlying belief that life is “supposed to be happy”. A school of philosophers called Existentialists reject this view of the world. Instead they remind us of the intrinsic difficulty of life. Jordan Peterson is an existentialist – like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky before him. Growing up in the military, I traveled the world and saw that poverty and hardship were commonplace. Life seemed so arbitrary and unfair. When I was a teenager I read The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky portrays suffering as intrinsic to the story of human experience. However, he shows that as we accept the fragility of life we can live life more fully. We can take upon ourselves the responsibility of relieving the hardships we see around us. We can accept that pain and disappointment are part of the package, along with joy and happiness. We can be more grateful for happiness when it comes because we know it can be fleeting and must be worked for, rather than expected. Dostoyevsky’s work shaped my worldview. There is much joy and meaning to be found when you let go of expectation of constant happiness. As Mike Rowe once put it, “Happiness is a terrific symptom, it is a terrible goal, because it’s a sucker’s bet.”
The ultimate reality is death. Accepting life as temporary can help us prioritize our lives. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so eloquently said, “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be the unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.” By choosing to accept the tenuousness of happiness and the harsh realities of life, we lose our naive desires and seek a higher purpose.
Life is For Meaning
Researchers studying the effect of meaning in a person’s life, found that the things that makes life meaningful do not necessarily make us happy.* The study showed, “People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment.” When my husband and I decided to have a large family we imagined a future full of loving relationships, adventure, and lots of potential grandchildren. We didn’t really think about how much work or stress five kids would be. I am glad we didn’t. If I had focused on the difficulty of raising a large family I might not have done it (I am pretty selfish). The joy we experience and inexpressible love we have for our children far outweighs the daily difficulty of raising them.
Living a meaningful life is necessary for the kind of happiness I would call joy – a happiness that does not fade. Not the “sparking joy” kind we experience when we wear our favorite shirt – but deep joy stemming from a life well-lived. Meaning comes from making a difference in someone’s life. This is what Dostoyevsky was referring to when he said, “Men are made for happiness, and he who is completely happy has the right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’” This may be why studies show that parents who feel they are doing a good-job have much higher levels of happiness than those who don’t.***
Parenthood as Purpose Throughout Human History
Human life has continued because people have children – because that is just what people do. That is what life is, it is what makes life and continues life. Until recently, children were considered a precious gift. Cultures and society were set up largely for their benefit. The Psalms says, “Children are an heritage to the Lord, Happy is the man who hath his quiver full of them.” So why are so many millenials choosing to remain childless? Is it partly due to our over-emphasis on the “happy life”?
Even today, most people worldwide (especially in developing countries) take having a family as obvious and unquestioned. When I was 18, I went on a University “Field Study” with my Geography Department. Another girl and I were dropped off in a remote village near Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania for four months. Many children in the village had never seen a white person; very few spoke English; there was no running water or electricity. My friend and I stayed in the one brick building in the village – the small home of a Catholic priest (who had many children by the way). With our limited Swahili we quickly became friends with the locals. These friendship have helped define my life. The women in this village were tough. They worked hard all day for their husbands and children. They cooked their meals over a kerosene stove or a fire. They walked to the nearest well for water. If I had asked one of these women, “Did becoming a mom make you more or less happy?”, they would have started at me in bewilderment. What does happy have to do with anything? They did not have the luxury of such emotional questioning. My Tanzanian friends laughed, they cried, they had misfortunes, and they had blessings – as all of us do. They did not stop in front of every scenario and ask if it was sparking joy. They lived life unimpeded by selfishness and judgement of every situation.
Some might say that just because having children has been the norm does not mean it is the best path forward. Why not pave a new normal? There are a lot of problems with that idea – but the one that strikes me most is rejection of humanity and life itself. Is life not worth preserving? Do we not have something to pass on? Is there no value to the role of children in society? Dostoevsky said, “Through children the soul is healed…”
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is,” Viktor Frankl. As we build strong relationships with our children and help them grow into healthy adults, we get to experience not only our own life filled with happiness, pain, and all that life is – but also our children’s’ happiness and pain – that is living life, and living it more abundantly. If we give up on children because it may momentarily impede our pursuit of happiness, we may be denying ourselves the prospect of a life filled with meaning and love.
Joy is Found in Love
“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.” C.S. Lewis
We often sacrifice relationships on the selfish altar of happiness. Children bear the brunt of the selfish choices of their parents. Psychologists’ offices are full of people traumatized in childhood by self-centered adults. These adults put their own happiness above maintaining a loving relationship with their families. Perhaps if our culture shifted and we stopped saying, “Do whatever makes you happy”, fewer children would be traumatized and more people would find meaning.
Harvard recently did an 80-year study detailing the factors influencing the formation of a happy and healthy life.**** The results surprised the researchers, “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships. Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.” Family is where these strong relationships are most easily found, the blood and experience that tie us to our family is not easily replicable. We don’t get to choose our children’s temperament, adapting ourselves to preserve meaningful relationships with them develops our character and resilience. (I do believe people can and have built lives full of meaning and love without children as they focus on others).
A New Perspective on Happiness
When that handsome young man in the spit-up covered sweater was bouncing his precious child, he was at the beginning of a long journey with his daughter. This journey will have “seasons” filled with diverse emotions and experiences. It will be an adventure. He may have to throw out his white sweater. He won’t be as handsome at the end of it. Parenthood might even temporarily lessen his happiness, but if he keeps his mind focused on developing meaning and love, he will be glad he made the choice.
Let’s let go of a naive and selfish view of life as simply the pursuit of happiness. As we embrace the challenges and pain necessary to build a life of meaning and love, we can find the strength to risk unhappiness for lasting joy. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Postscript: Happiness Comes in the Letting-go of It
Dostoyevsky said that “with love one can live even without happiness.” But I don’t want to give up on happiness just yet. We don’t actually have to throw out the unhappy bath-water, we may be able to cleanse it. In order to obtain more happiness we need the foundation of the existential idea that things haven’t necessarily “gone wrong” when it is absent. I plan to write a series of posts in the next few months highlighting the ways we can more happily live in meaningful marriage and family.
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This story is for independent women out there: the ones who think travel and new adventures are the height of fulfillment, that wanderlust is a deep-seated craving that must be fulfilled. You may not picture yourselves in a traditional role, ever—it would be too constrained, too much of a sacrifice, too much boredom and compromise. You are too unique to be confined by such a small, conventional model.
That was exactly my mindset…. and why shouldn’t it have been? The picture of a traditional feminine role is nowhere glorified. Try it yourself—do a Google image search for ‘drudgery’. Even without prompting from other keywords, the most commonly recurring image is a worn out woman, surrounded by housework.
I am from a liberal, progressive-values family and a liberal, progressive-values city. My family was, however, somewhat traditional; parents never divorced, bills got paid, the kids played sports, we all ate dinner together. That was about it for family culture, though. We had no organized religion (that was for people who couldn’t think for themselves), no larger community involvement, no large family tree. We were, well, nuclear.
Both my parents worked full time. To me, this was perfectly normal—but I point it out to mention that I did not have a mother who stayed at home with children. My mother did everything well, or tried damn hard. She had a career, a beautiful home. She was, and is, a creative. Everything she makes—food, art, clothing, floral arrangements–puts Instagram to shame. She was the epitome of the Martha Stewart feminine, where women can and should do everything and do it well. She used to iron the sheets….…yet I also remember that she didn’t want to play. She was tired. Most of the time her craft space was filled with stuff that needed sorting, laundry, bags of junk. She was on hold, while she raised us, worked full time, and made everything appear lovely.
At 17, I left for college and hardly ever returned. I wanted nothing to do with the security of ‘home sweet home’. I exploded into freedom and adventure after adventure. I wanted to try everything and go everywhere, read everything, and never be held back. I worked outdoors for the US Forest Service in the summers, traveled in fall and winter, then enrolled in school just long enough to qualify as a student for rehire the next summer. I backpacked alone, road-tripped to Central America, jumped out of planes, ran a marathon, met a goal and then picked another and tried to reach it.
I was concerned with ideas too—traveling showed me a very different world than I had been raised in and I became interested in inequality, environmental problems, governmental corruption, and global politics. I was busy having fun, but I wasn’t a hedonist. I wanted the world to be better and I was willing to work at it.
However, I really struggled to curb my enthusiasm for all things and pick one. I was worried that I would have to leave things I loved behind and that I would lose out on new or better opportunities. Jordan Peterson has a brief clip on what that feels like—the process of moving from pure potential into a being that is disciplined. He equates it with moving from childhood to adulthood, where, after a period of ‘narrowing’, the sky opens again and your transformed being can accomplish much more than it could as an unformed entity. You become ‘somebody’ rather than potentially ‘anybody’.
When I was 21 I was married for the first time—rather impulsively. I fell in love, and believed that was the key to a successful relationship. I dropped out of school and moved to follow my husband’s career. I was isolated though, and quickly unhappy—we lived on the far edge of an island in the middle of the Pacific. He worked sometimes 16-hour days and had our car all day. I paced the apartment, then the bit of beach nearby and the tiny strip mall. I had no job, no friends, no purpose.
I found out I was pregnant and when I told my husband, he just said—no, we can’t. Years later I still don’t quite know how to understand that, but I relented and scheduled the procedure. (It may sound I am glossing over the fact that I had an abortion- it’s a point in my life I have tried very hard to forget, or maybe to not see, so I apologize if I sound distanced. It is not because I don’t care, it’s that I haven’t wanted to let myself for so long.
That marriage ended rather quickly in divorce. I was treated more as a roommate and not as a wife. There was no priority it seemed to make a life together, only to have fun. He did not want children yet, and so I returned to college. I realized that my intellectual needs were not met, and that it was already as good as it was going to get. There was not room for growth. I thought I could do better, and at 24 I certainly had time to look around. And it seemed to me that before I was married, before I tried to rely on someone, I had done more, had been more of a real person. I felt invisible after a few years of marriage
I initiated the divorce by having an affair with a close friend of his. Because I was a rather modern lady, and relativistic in my thinking, I thought that breaking social conventions wasn’t that big of a deal. I was very wrong. I can’t begin to tell you the amount of suffering I caused, not only to others but to myself. Peterson has been ripped in the press for discussing an idea called ‘enforced monogamy’ and he takes pains to clarify that he means ‘socially enforced monogamy’, not legally enforced monogamy. It is the idea that we reinforce the social codes through our reactions to others when they break them. I can tell you firsthand that this is a real thing, and if you break social conventions, at least one of the big ones (think Ten Commandments), you are going to pay.
It was the first time I saw that the code of social norms was a real thing, that I couldn’t simply make up the rules and ignore the ones I didn’t like. Once you’ve transgressed in a big way—you can’t just shrug it off. You inhabit a different mental space than other people, and your encounters with the social world are colored by that transgression as well—you are handled differently, even by those who love you. There were only two people who treated me the same despite my behavior, and knowing that someone thought I was redeemable absolutely carried me through that time. It was the first time I ever considered the notion of redemption, or that I might need to be forgiven to be able to clear my own head and heart and move forward.
Not only did I feel myself separate from the social fabric, I had somehow also proven to myself that the conventions I had followed weren’t useful– love doesn’t conquer all, marriage is a trap where your soul dies, and if you try to escape and manage it badly, you will suffer all the more. I couldn’t see a way to move back into anything like a traditional lifestyle–it didn’t make sense to try and make something work that just, didn’t work. I would try to live outside the norms instead.
I reasoned that I would be better off if I stayed unattached romantically. I spent the next five years being ‘free’: traveling, moving, seeking, studying, saving nothing, planning never farther ahead than the next few months, and living in a sort of amoral wilderness of my own making. Marriage had proven unreliable, so maybe ALL the conventions of dating and loving another person were up for examination, Maybe they could be discarded. I dated serially but never wanted to commit to anyone. It just didn’t seem safe. I might lose myself again.
I moved around a lot, to different apartments, different towns. I drove up and down the coast and studied at different libraries just to escape. I finished another degree. I studied literature, but what I recall most were heaping doses of critical theory, postmodernism, deconstructionist thinkers, etc. I mention the imposed philosophical leanings of my time at university because I believe they entrenched my sense of being lost even further. I was steeped in the idea that no version of a text, or a life, was better or more valid than another–and that truth claims were just patriarchal voices drowning out those they had colonized.
It was an elaborate study in nihilism and the unraveling of western culture’s belief in itself. For someone already existing on shaky ground, this was not a good footing. Literature had seemed a place to find an historical exploration of big ideas, of truth. But then, under postmodernism’s gaze, nothing was objectively true. I couldn’t claim that I found anything true or good at all: my job was to dismantle the text, to criticize the writers for their withered attempts and point out the obvious class divisions, the sexism, racism, etc. After I finished my master’s I walked away. I didn’t read another novel for six years.
I lived in different states and two different countries, traveled here and there, and just could not find a way to rest my head or be found. I loved cities, I loved the country, I loved people, I had a great time. But I was lost. I was using the serial shift in spaces and in relationships to cover the fact that I was not okay. Yet I don’t think that I ever gave the impression of being unhappy in a deep way. I appeared to others as a free-spirited wanderer, a lifestyle highly prized by modern cultural standards. I don’t think anyone looked at me, ever, with pity. Most of my oldest friends would comment that I had all the fun, while they worked, stayed in one place, lived more conventional lives.
My ‘last hurrah’’ was still rather interesting– I was living in New York City, in the middle of endless options for fun. I was working multiple part-time jobs, having crazy adventures, and I even had a plan. I had taken the LSAT and applied to law school. My application essay was on my goal to be an immigration lawyer and offer clinics and services in the US and Southern Mexico, so that families who had loved ones trapped in the legal system in the US could make sense of what their options were and how to navigate the immigration process. I had many close friends from Mexico who struggled with immigration issues and was truly passionate about my plan.
I was offered an interview for a chance at a full ride scholarship and I got it. And when I received the offer letter, I was thrilled. But then something just felt wrong. I did a quick bit of mental math that had honestly never occurred to me before. I was 29. If I started law school in the fall I would be finished at age 32. I would need to prove myself at a firm or establish my own, find capital for my project, dedicate myself to it for at least 3-5 years just to get going. That put me at 35-38. I realized I would probably never have a family. Was that what I wanted? If I became a successful lawyer, would it matter to me that I never had a family? I sent a thank you email and declined the offer.
In this short clip, Peterson discusses the shifting priorities of women who DO find success as lawyers and professionals. Once they become mothers, they focus on parenting rather than climbing a ladder. Even highly competitive, career-minded women who choose to become mothers prioritize that role.
A few months later I packed up a rental car, quit everything and moved home to my parent’s basement. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I just wanted to start from a sense of the known. I still was having trouble ending my wandering patterns and didn’t have a way of orienting myself. Often I felt like a worldly, educated failure.
I went online and wrote a dating post and kept it simple and honest. I am looking for a partner- not just fun, not serial dating. I want children, I want goats, I want acreage. That was about it. The first person I went on a date with was my husband of now going on 7 years. We have three children, 60 acres, goats, sheep, and projects from here to eternity.
I have to say, I wonder at the absolute miracle of finding the kind of partner I did from a single dating post. I was looking for a man who was not only responsible enough to have children, but successful enough to be able to support them and me, educated enough to keep me interested, serious about rural living AND capable at it, conscientious yet also open to new things, empathic but also masculine enough to attract me…. and who was ready to have kids RIGHT NOW. Not everyone on a dating site would fit that list. When I met my husband for the first time I liked him, but the impression I most remember is: ‘this is an adult’. I wasn’t even one by my own standards— but that was coming.
Here is a clip of Peterson describing what women at 29 who want families are up against:
Switching over to being a wife and a mother was very difficult for me, because of my own attitudes toward those roles. I was still highly suspicious of conventional life– for years. I refused to get married until our second child was on the way. I was adamant that I would keep my independence, so when I had our first and second child I didn’t quit my job, in fact I ‘leaned in’. I wanted to feel competent and to keep up with my husband’s schedule. I saw the measurement scale of worthiness as one of productivity. I never valued the work I was doing in our home.
The real failure of the model of ‘strong women can be anything a man can be’ is that it reduces the true value of what women as caregivers bring to the table, to zero. Women then internalize that model. People often try to ask if you do something besides parent, or are you ‘just a mom’? I’m not offended by this–I just think it’s time to move on from this standard of measure.
It’s ridiculous to assume that since there is no monetary value there is no actual value to home and child-focused labor. Is there any greater spiritual task than supporting lives with your own? Seriously– no yoga teacher, no trip to Bali or India, will get you to the level of self-awareness that having children can. There is no way not to see yourself clearly- all your faults and limitations- when your child reflects it back to you, or pushes you to your limits, day after day.
My notions of independence crumbled when I left my job to stay home with our kids—once there were three of them. I had been clinging to my identity as a ‘modern female’ through work outside the home. I did not really relate to moms who loved being home all day with their children. It didn’t ‘fit’ me. I liked my kids, I loved them. But I did not love monotonous days of food prep, clean up, poop, bathing, laundry, etc. It felt, often, like I was suffocating, like I was dying a bit today, and a bit the next, and that every day was going to be like that.
I felt powerless and started to act strangely—lashing out and starting fights with my husband for seemingly minor issues. He would bring home groceries on his way home from work to help me out and I would loudly criticize the brand of lunch meat he’d purchased (So sorry honey). To him it was just ham, to me I had lost control over every part of my life. All of a sudden the food I put into my body became a war for the last thing I had any control over.
It sounds Cray-zy. I know. I did seek counseling soon after. Then we went to counseling together, and then we worked out a basic schedule that went like this: Tuesday night was date night, Wednesday was mom’s night out, Thursday was dad’s night out. We both started to get some freedom back, and our kids still had a set schedule they could rely on.
I know now that the dying a little every day was true. It was the formation of someone else coming into being. I was narrowed, limited, feeling that old self losing out to someone who was more patient, less willing to run from difficulty. I could stand to do something day after day for a longer term payoff, for another person’s well being. My former self just couldn’t exist side by side with the person I needed to become. I hear other moms talk about ‘getting their groove back’ and I’m happy for them. But that’s not how I feel. That lady died. And now I’m here. I don’t miss her life, and she never would have been able to handle mine.
I discovered Peterson’s lectures in 2015, after hearing his first Joe Rogan podcast. When I listened to them, I felt like I had already lived through so many of the psychological realms he explores. Archetypal stories often sound archaic to the modern sensibility–do they even function?? But anyone who has lived through a day with toddlers knows that ‘beating back the chaos’ is very real. Anyone who has watched themselves lose their temper with a tiny person who can’t possibly defend themselves can understand the need to integrate the shadow, and learn to manage their own inner monster.
There was a lot I already sensed, the magnitude of the shift for example, yet he could articulate it in a way I hadn’t been able to. I found the lectures on suffering, the lectures on mythology. The Maps of Meaning series totally changed how I see the function of religion. It helped me move from a period of intense re-formation to a point where I could begin to see a bigger arc in my own life, and to talk about it.
A few years ago we sold our farm and moved across the country to live nearer to my husband’s family. We found a small church we love. We reorganized our priorities. The sense of life as drudgery has lifted as the kids have become a bit older and I can see the enormous potential of what we can make of our lives, and the self respect that comes from shouldering a heavy load.
We bought another farm and are now shepherds, homeschoolers, and run a small plant nursery. We have taken on the animals and the nursery because that fits in with our goals of supporting our community through sustainable farming, and for me of being a (mostly) full-time mom to our children. The nursery is open two months of the year and that two months is electric for me. I get enough adult interaction to counteract that lingering sense of being ‘just a mom’.
I am a creative type and a homemaker like my mother, but it takes last priority after family, farm, and exploring faith. I still struggle with limiting myself to a few tasks, and I often have to re-calibrate and push some things off the table. Long trips, long books, backpacking and brunch still don’t get on the schedule very often. I try not to get so overbooked that I can’t do the first things well.
At the same time we were leaving our other farm, my family went through a particularly difficult time. We lost my nephew just before he was born, and my sister in law was very ill. The gift my nephew gave me was a realization that I was able to carry others through hardship. I found that I was a lot stronger because of the work I had done- the caring for others, the limiting of my own impulsivity and personal desires for a longer term plan. It was incredibly helpful to have heard Peterson’s lectures on the nature of suffering. There is a point, maybe the most important one from that time, where he says something like this: that who you might want to aim to be is the most together person at a funeral. Here is a bit of that lecture:
That time completely changed the landscape and the way I view myself in regards to others. I saw that I could simply do more now, that I had come through fire, that I was tougher. I am no longer outside the social fabric- I create it and uphold it when others need it. Becoming a mom did that–not having a classroom, or a job outside the home. I already had confidence from my earlier life experiences. I had sought my own capabilities but I never found their limits elsewhere. I have never felt more fully capable, or less limited, which is testament to that strange paradox of the narrowing of your potential selves into an actual future self.
Peterson has said that we are at a point where the feminine archetype needs to be re-articulated, where the woman who is not ‘simply a caregiver’, so to speak, must be accounted for. I also think he is sensing it should come from women speaking about it themselves, and has hesitated to attempt it himself. I appreciate having that space to move into. Many women end their thoughts on the feminine at the idea that it has been historically oppressed and requires reclaiming, but then they reclaim it in reactionary ways– hating masculinity, disrespecting women who embrace traditional roles, or justifying their own hedonism in the name of a grand cause; aka chocolate, wine, and shopping as an identity.
There is something else, something deeper than consumerism and a ‘you deserve to have it all’ lifestyle. I’ve offered here a look at what that original transformative process of the feminine might still hold for modern, independent women. It is still valuable to let yourself be narrowed and re-formed, even if you end up at your wit’s end arguing over lunch meat. It is still a valid pathway for women to find challenge, meaning and purpose, and a career is not necessarily an equal substitute. (And how on earth could it be?)
A second look at motherhood, as invaluable for the mother, is necessary before we can modify that archetype. Modern feminism is not helping, proposing models that undermine the traditionally feminine and women who make life choices on that spectrum. It does very little to ‘revivify’ the culture, as Peterson often says, and more often tears at the social fabric in ways I find unsettling.
Thank you so much for reading. I want to thank Ally for inviting me to share some of myself here. After some correspondence we found that, although we agreed on many things, we were coming from two very different backgrounds— I was not planning a traditional family or marriage and ended up with both. I could not have arrived at where I am without the love, trials, and inner searching that was becoming a mother and a wife, even with–and perhaps especially because of– the drudgery of staying at home when I pictured myself as ‘so much more’.
Dr. Jordan Peterson’s political views are often misunderstood. He is often taken out-of-context and misquoted. He is, in fact, quite moderate, independent-thinking, and fact-based. He can get rather animated and passionate during his lectures/interviews; however, if you listen to the content you will see his positions are well researched and thought-out. I have listened to hundreds of hours of Jordan Peterson, there are no secret videos with extremist content, it is all freely available on the internet. I have never heard him say anything discriminatory in any way. Generally his message is reserved for each imperfect individual, himself included, in their quest for improvement. I have collected clips of some of the more controversial subjects he discusses and you can judge for yourself. Please share this with anyone who may have a faulty view of Dr. Jordan Peterson, or anyone who wants to learn more about his actual beliefs. I will post the short clip of each subject as well as some longer-form discussions on the same topic in hyperlink.
1. Gender Pronoun controversy: JP rose to fame due to his refusal to use government-mandated speech – in the form of gender pronouns. Some accused him of being trans-phobic, however he maintains his resistance was due to the forcible manipulation of language by those with ideological agendas. (3:49)
5. Gender Pay Gap and Gender Equality: There is some overlap with the above but he explains his position on gender pay differences and how men and women view career. (13:34)
Long form: Spanish interviewer on variety of subject but @ around minute 52:40 it focuses on gender issues. One of my favorite interviews with JP.
6. Enforced monogamy: Jordan Peterson got into some hot-water over a misinterpretation of the term “enforced monogamy”. He explains his stance here. (3:08)
7. White privilege, safe spaces and transgenderism. (6:12)
8. Postmodernism and the new culture of entitlement. (13:19)
Long form: Full Harvard talk – excellent on social issues and our role in changing society.
If there are any other topics you would like me to include please contact me. I plan to do our next clip collection on topics relating to mental health. Please share this with your friends/family and check out our other blog posts for more in-depth discussion of Jordan Peterson relating to femininity and motherhood. Follow on Facebook or this website for updates.
I would like to start with a little unsolicited advice to all the new or future moms out there. Never buy assorted donuts. It never ends well. You think you know each kids’ favorite, but trust me, you will get it wrong and it will all end in tears. Our family has had a hard couple weeks due to the death of a family pet. Please allow that to explain the behavior of my daughter in the following story. I believe this incident perfectly illustrates the road from envy to bitterness.
Because of our rough week, I thought the kids could use a little pick-me-up. After school, I presented them with a box of 12 assorted donuts. For one brief shining moment I was a hero in their eyes. Then, I told them they each got one after they finished their chores. My oldest son finished first and grabbed his standard maple. My eight-year-old daughter finished her chore next and went to claim hers, when disaster struck – apparently she had also wanted the maple one! (I always took her for a sprinkles-girl). She found her older brother and completely unloaded on him. “You know I wanted that! I told you I wanted it!” she cried. To which he responded he had not heard her say that. After her brother collected eyewitness testimony proving she had not said anything, she actually admitted she had not verbally claimed it, but… “You saw me looking at it – you knew I wanted it!!!” He responded that he thought she liked sprinkles. “You do stuff like this to me all the time. You know what I want and you take it from me!” She become so upset she ran into his bedroom and tore his basketball poster off his wall. (Again I promise this is not typical behavior for my normally kind-hearted daughter; she had a lot of built-up frustration). She then stormed into her room slamming the door while yelling, “You all just hate me!”. She was completely irrational. I let her calm down for awhile and then went in to speak to her about the incident and deconstruct it a bit. As we walked through her thoughts and reactions, I realized it was the all too common pattern that starts with covetousness and ends in irrational bitterness.
Envy as a Mirror
Envy is unique in its ability to hide and decay our lives internally. We may not even realize we are consumed by it. It keeps women apart with distrust and its competitive nature. It encourages us to hide our failures and strengths from other women for fear we will not measure up. Let’s be honest, we all have women we envy. The mom of five who looks like Gisele, or the woman who runs a NGO while producing concert-pianist children. We can benefit from evaluating our envy, as it can rapidly descend into other vices of resentment, anger, and self-justified malevolence. Women who are consumed by resentment have difficulty seeing the world as it really is, as well as putting their best-self forward for the good of their children.
From the very foundation of mankind, Envy began its destructive work. Dr. Jordan Peterson speaks of the rapid descent from jealousy to Hell which Cain pioneered for us all – ending in the killing of his brother, Abel, who was the “ideal”. JP says, “If you destroy your own ideal – which you do with jealousy and resentment and the desire to pull down the people who you would like to be, let’s say, then you end up in a situation which is indistinguishable from hell.” So let’s break down this descent, the same one that sent my daughter storming into her bedroom with the belief that “everyone hates me”. Let’s see if we can stop it in ourselves before it becomes a monster.
An Abundance of Scarcity
A lot of women’s resentment may stem from a deeply-held belief that there is inherent scarcity in the world. Jealousy is different from envy in that envy covets what others have, while jealousy is the fear that what you have, or may have, will be taken away. We view the world as a place where we must fight to get what limited resources there are before they are gone. But is this really accurate? As the population grows, resources should become more scarce. However, the fact is that people are being pulled out of poverty at a faster rate than ever before in history. Knowledge and innovation grow as more people have access to them. Mothers with multiple children know their capacity to love grows with each additional baby – and siblings’ lives benefit from the addition as well. My daughter knew there was only one maple donut – but there is not a limited amount of wealth, happiness, or love to be spread among the masses.
Rachel, the rightful first-wife and true-love of her husband, was long-barren while Leah produced six sons. Genesis 30:1, “When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” I can only imagine the anguish she experienced at the arrival of each of her sister’s sons- guilt for not being happy for Leah as well as a vivid reminder of her own want.
We all have had the experience of the guilt of being envious when something good happens to someone else. Is this partially because we believe we are now less likely to receive such a blessing? JP recently answered a question from a reader who honestly admitted to being consumed by intense envy, but who wanted to “turn this around”. JP advised:, “Figure out how you would like to feel about the world, Let’s assume that you would rather be pleased about other people’s success’ and not envious. Think about why you might be happy about other people’s happiness. It’s not like Happiness is a zero-sum game. Lots of people can be happy at the same time. Do you really want to live a world where other people are less happy? In what possible manner would that be useful and good for you? It might make you feel grudgingly satisfied in a dark way, temporarily, but it is not a good long-term strategy.” 2 minute clip
The 7th Deadly Sin of Covetousness
Os Guinness said, “Traditionally envy was regarded as the second worst and second most prevalent of the seven deadly sins. Like pride, it is a sin of the spirit, not of the flesh. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the one vice that its perpetrators never enjoy and rarely confess.”
The last of the 10 Commandments, “Do not covet”, is a commandment about our “internal life” and how we frame our own consciousness. It seems comparably simple to control our “sins of the flesh” by avoiding temptation, but to keep ourselves from covetous thoughts seems almost impossible. However, as JP says, it is important to look at our envyings and see where they originate. If we honestly recognize the things we covet and those conditions which light the fire of jealousy in us – we find what we most desire.
I have often proudly thought of myself as not “being the envious-type”. When women are prettier or richer or more popular than me it doesn’t really bother me. For years I have fooled myself into thinking I am not burdened by covetousness. However, I now know I congratulated myself too soon. The truth is, I am not bothered by some of the common causes of envy afflicting women – but that is no virtue – those are not the things I value most; they are not my “ideal”. Years ago, I remember having to shut down Facebook anytime someone would post photos of their international adventures. I resented the fact that I, who love traveling, was stuck in a freezing Notre Dame basement apartment watching babies while my husband got the graduate degree I always wanted. I hid my envy from myself but I see now it expressed itself in my inability to glory in others experiences or achievements. As I started to realize the meaning of motherhood, I found my ability to be happy for others increase.
Author Tim Challies says, “One of the most horrifying aspects of envy is that we are most likely to feel envious of those who are similarly called, equipped and gifted. Those people with whom we share the most, from whom we stand to learn most, are those we most resent. Guinness reminds his readers ‘we are always most vulnerable to envying those closest to our own gifts and callings.’”
For me, the key is to label envy when I feel it, and stop it before it reaches the next stage of progression. If envy begins to consume me then I know I need to look at trying to make progress in the areas in which I am exhibiting envy. Jordan Peterson has helped me see that where my interests direct me, I can make a great contribution to the world. I need not shut those avenues down because of the demands of motherhood. Sometimes I need to take a trip with my husband, or read a challenging book. I try to temper my need for self-fulfillment with patience and a recognition of the preeminence of my current responsibilities as a mom. When I am out of the “little-kid” phase I will have even more time for travel and reading.
The Actualities of Envy
As we acknowledge the things we envy, we can also recognize that those we envy are likely not in reality living the lives of perfection we imagine. I had a bite of the maple donut and it was nothing to write home about. Everyone’s life has tragedy. The perfectly-put-together mother might in fact have depression; the world-traveler may contract cancer in four years. As JP often reminds us, “Life is often suffering” and if we get respite from that we should enjoy it because “the flood is coming.” Perhaps, if we saw the full reality of people’s lives we would not begrudge them those bouts of happiness and success when they come.
Envy is rooted in the other “internal sin”, pride. A focus on self will always lead to comparison – the fuel for pride and envy. C.S. Lewis said, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.” Pride is feeling superior for having more than others and envy is disdain for those who have more than you. Envy is competitive. Women can find competition threatening, we would rather cooperate. Women need unity; we need to feel we are working together for a common goal.
Assuming the Worst in our Fellow-woman
As we progress from covetousness to envy, we reach the point where we can really start misconstruing reality – we start resenting others. My daughter went so far as to imagine her brother knew her internal thoughts. “He saw me looking at it, he KNEW I wanted it!”. Now I don’t believe the average woman lets her envy run to the point of intense resentment toward an innocent mom trying her best. However, envy can have an ugly descent. It can bring bitterness and anger into our lives as we start reshaping reality after its own design. This is where current “Social Justice” causes can turn ugly, as they single out entire races or genders as “oppressors”. Consumed by resentment, we assume the worst intentions in others and believe all their gains were ill-gotten.
One of our biggest mistakes is assuming people are thinking about us at all. As the saying goes, “You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do. ” My son was not thinking of how he could upset my daughter; he was thinking “Yum, donut.” It is rarely the case that someone is intent on your destruction. They are too busy trying to navigate away from their own.
My husband is South African, so my children are biracial. People ask me if we have had any incidents of racism. The fact is in our 12 years of marriage, living in 6 states, we have not had any such experiences. Now, I am not saying people haven’t had racist thoughts towards us or even that we haven’t been treated differently than other couples, however, we have not noticed or remembered it. You will generally find that which you are looking for, and we have no desire to look for racism. If we took the time to analyze every new acquaintance for signs of bias, or compare my children’s treatment to that of other children, perhaps we could dig up some evidence. But why would we go to that trouble? Why not live our lives unburdened from such inquiry?
Victimhood – Perhaps Justified but Not Advisable
The truth is we are all victims, as a powerful clip from JP below shows*. We all have reasons to blame Being (Life) itself. However, instead of doing this, JP advises, “Look to yourself first, before you criticize Being”. If I teach my kids that they will be treated unfairly because of their race, they will have every excuse to see the bad in others. Why would I want to burden my children with such perceptions? I am not denying that there is great injustice in the world. Some racism is so blatant it is difficult to ignore. Some people’s lives are full of so much malevolence, how can they possibly rise above it? Those are deep questions and not something to go into now. However, there is great power in trying to elevate yourself above the level of victimhood. I love the movie ‘Life is Beautiful’. The movie depicts a Jewish man during WWII taken to a concentration camp with his son. Wanting to shield his child from the horrific injustice and malevolence of their situation, he pretends it is all just an orderly game. Even as he is marched to his death, for the sake of his son, he pretends it is just part of the funny contest. Now, of course, this is an extreme and fictional example, but as mothers, we could ask ourselves in those moments of seemingly understandable resentment and envy – if I let this go, will my children and I be better off?
If we decide to allow our envy and resentment to run our lives, we can descend into a “justified” revenge against the perpetrators of our injustice. My daughter felt justified in destroying her brother’s poster. That same “righteous indignation” amplified exponentially resulted in the killing of millions of successful farmers in the Ukraine – perceived to be selfishly profiting off the labor of the poor. We also should remember JP’s Rule Six, “Set your House in Order Before you Criticize the World”. Where do we fall in terms of being a perpetrator of our own misery? Is our resentment really directed towards the proper perpetrator or are we shifting the blame away from ourselves? In our own lives as wives and mothers, resentment may exhibit itself as the endlessly snippy communication we exhibit with our spouse, or our unwillingness to invite our mother-nemesis to book club. If we keep going on this path, we will be plagued with guilt. Deep-down we know we haven’t done all we can to make our situation better. We know we may be misrepresenting the part others have played in our misery. And even if we are fairly judging others, we know that holding onto resentment is self-destructive.
As I sat down with my daughter, we walked through the experience. She said she felt bad for how she misrepresented her brother and for tearing his poster. She admitted that she acted irrationally and she asked her brother’s forgiveness and he freely forgave her. As she hugged him, I saw her bitterness melt away and she went about her day a new girl. I think her episode was simply a result of pent-up emotion and tiredness, but I believe the solution to her envy is the same as it has to be for us.
We need to look honestly at our envy and our resentments.* We need to admit that some of our perceptions may be faulty – perhaps the object of our envy does not have the life we think, perhaps the world is not out to get us, and perhaps we are not justified in our bitterness. But just as we would deal with a bad habit, we should not attempt to stop it with our own will-power, but to replace it with something more powerful. If we fill our lives with meaning and an attempt to elevate ourselves and our family, we need not ruminate on the lives of others. Also, if we find ourselves jealous of another’s accomplishments, perhaps we could make a concerted effort to gain compassion for that person. Pray for them, get to know their struggles, begin to see them as a fellow Child of God with unique talents as well as weaknesses. Instead of an idol for worship or disdain – allow them to become a real person, and one deserving of love.
Starting this blog has been a wonderful experience for me as many extremely accomplished and intelligent women have contacted me with impressions and suggestions. I am not threatened by these women because I believe we share a common goal of spreading the message of “meaningful motherhood”. As we take the competition out of femininity, we open up the door to friendship and cooperation. We can now glory in the successes of others because we realize their success is a net-benefit for the world.
But above all, the cure for envy is dropping the comparisons and instead looking to the true Ideal: Christ (post 2). As we attempt to live our lives oriented towards attaining that ideal, we will be filled with love for others. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” 1 Corinthians 13:4. Let us recognize that we are all daughters of a Heavenly Father, and as such are deeply loved. He has an individualized plan for each of us and will aide us in accomplishing our missions. As long as we keep our eyes fixed on Him, we will feel no need to look at others for a reference. Freed from envy, we can glory in the victories and successes of others.
* This clip (5 minutes) describes how to prevent the ruinous envy of Cain
*Thank you so much for reading and please share, comment, or complain:) I am starting to hyperlink relevant videos into the text to try and keep the posts more concise. If you see a highlighted word you can click it for the reference or applicable video. I am currently working on a short clip collection of JP’s political ideas that can be shared with people hearing mixed messages about his beliefs. Should be up next Thursday. Thanks again.
The First Mourning, Bouguereau, 1888
Leah and Rachel, Jean Francios Portaels, 1862
The Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, Carl Heinrich Bloch
Recently a Hollywood director, Duncan Jones, tweeted out a rather depressing, and all too prevalent, view of parenting. “I have two kids, 2.5 and 9 months; the are exhausting, frustrating, and life-destabilizing. They are rarely fun. Sure, smiles are great, hugs are lovely, but its HARD and not obviously a good choice in life. This is where people feel compelled to say, ‘I wouldn’t change it for the world!’ But you know, of course I would reconsider! Its exhausting! It banal!…What it is, is that it is. And they are mine. Hopefully they will turn out okay.”
Now as frightening as this tweet is, especially considering it was applauded as courageous by many, it is an honest representation of the now-mainstream view of parenthood. I really enjoyed Ben Shaprio’s breakdown posted below.*
Due to the material ease of life in modern times, we have the luxury of selfishness. Producing an heir used to be important enough to tear down religions and nations. As life becomes easier, our priorities shift, our own importance grows, often at the expense of children. Our choices are now focused on our own perceived happiness rather than creating a posterity. Today children are a choice, and one that often disappoints. But why? Isn’t motherhood supposed to be ultimately fulfilling? Why are so many mothers fed up and so many children unprepared for adulthood?
The Burden of Ease
This weekend I discovered the root cause of our current plague of joyless parents and unprepared children: modern dentistry. I had a horrific toothache. The pain was excruciating, especially when my pain meds wore off. Luckily, I have an Endodontist friend who did a root-canal Monday morning. I am now recovered, only slightly traumatized from the experience. Now, I want you to picture yourself as a new mother in the Middle Ages. After a painful birth, you are handed your precious newborn. You gaze upon her sweet innocence and it dawns on you that multiple times in this child’s life she will have an agonizing toothache and – with no pain relief – have her teeth torn out of her jaw. Now, do you think you would worry about your kids school-master being too strict? Do you think you would escort your 10-year-old son to fetch water? You have much bigger worries than that. Hopefully you are more concerned with strengthening your kids against the agonies of life. Our female progenitors knew full well there was no protecting their children.
Because of our lives of relative comfort, we mothers naively think maybe we can protect our kids. So instead of, as JP says, “facing the challenge of life forthrightly”, we worry about them hurting themselves cutting the lawn, or we allow them to waste hours in front of video games – subverting their preparation. As JP says, “You can’t protect your children, you can only make them strong, and then they can protect themselves.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to go back to the Dark Ages. No one appreciates Novocaine more than I do. I don’t think it was good to send 15-year-olds off to war and I doubt most Dark Age mothers were model parents. But I do think the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Rather than raising hardened toothache-ready children, we are raising children unequipped for the intrinsic difficulties of life. Evidence suggests that incoming college students today experience greater levels of stress and psychopathology than at any time in the nation’s history. They might not have to fight in the Crusades but they do need to succeed in life, develop relationships, and confront threatening ideas and people. Our children encounter trials our ancestors never faced – such as attempting to maintain integrity and virtue in the face of Twitter and internet porn.
In our modern times, kids have become sovereign. Since the introduction of birth control, we are having fewer children and later in life – and that increases their value and our ability to hover. In the past, there was no rearranging your life for kids; they had to contribute and fall in line. This does not fit in with our modern view of the “compassionate mother”. A good mother protects and selflessly serves her children, right? As my previous post (#1) stated, I do believe a mother should sacrifice for her children. I believe how and why we sacrifice can mean the difference between enjoying motherhood and regretting it.
When motherhood feels like a burden it may be our own doing. The other day I was at my son’s soccer game. One of the boys was put in as goalie and his mother spent the next 30 minutes on the edge of her seat screaming instructions at her son – “Get the ball out of there! Stand in the middle of the goal!” It was truly exhausting to watch. She was completely frantic. After that kind of effort, I have no doubt she went home and took a nap. Why? What good was done?
Mothers as Artists or Gardeners?
When we are handed our precious newborn, we see in them limitless potential. We may think of them as a blank canvas – the life and experiences we create for them working together to produce a masterpiece. However, this perspective can put undue pressure on parents to be artists; one wrong strokeand the masterpiece is ruined. This also assumes that children come into the world as a blank canvas – but their nature comes with them. We parents can have a remarkable influence on our children but their personality and interests are their own.
A more appropriate metaphor and mindset might be to view our child as a seed – of unknown variety. We are the gardeners, responsible for nourishing our young sapling. We take extra care as it puts down roots. As the plant grows, we consistently watch for weeds and add nourishment. However, as it matures, if we continue to shield our tree from the wind and rain, it will actually prevent the development of strong roots. Strong roots are made in adversity. Our seed may grow into a orange tree or a palm tree but the strength of the tree is dependent on our nurturing as well as its own experience persevering in the storms of life.
The Ying/Yang of the Devouring Mother
Jordan Peterson calls pathological version of motherhood the “Devouring Mother”. This mother devours her children’s potential along with her own fulfillment. JP focuses a lot on the danger of the overprotective mother, protecting her children out of their own competence. However, I would like to add another, and seemingly opposite, proclivity of the Devouring Mother that JP rarely mentions: neglect. Neglect is equally destructive to children and does, in fact, result in the same ill-prepared and unhealthy young adults. The Neglectful Mother abdicates her responsibility of clearing the weeds from impeding the growth of her young seedling. Her children are left mentally unprepared for the challenges of life. Overprotective and neglectful devouring mothers live in each of us. They are the ying/yang of motherhood.
What’s interesting is that as bad as over-protection and neglect seem, they are necessary as well. There is a place for protection and there is a place for neglect in proper parenting. A 6 month old desperately needs to feel safe in the arms of her mother. A 10-year-old boy needs to be “neglected” so in his boredom he can think deep thoughts or construct forts in the woods. However, used improperly, protection and neglect can make motherhood unbearable. One may, in fact, lead to the other. Push too hard one way and there will be recoil. Overbearing Mom quickly burns out from a hard day of unproductive micromanaging and control. Guess who’s there to give her a break? Neglectful Mom. All this imbalance and misplaced priorities lead to the sentiment of the Hollywood director, “Of course I would reconsider having kids.”
Devouring the Roots – Over-protection
Our culture needs to rethink our concept of a “good mother”. Often we see the ideal mother as a kind-hearted woman endlessly concerned for and serving her children. However, this mother often ends up producing shiftless little monsters with no respect for her. This is the bad side of women’s “agreeable” nature. This is compassion turned to vice.
Jordan Peterson often speaks of this Oedipal Mother complex. Freud described the danger a smothering mother can do to her children (clip 6 minutes).
In an interview with Former Australian PM, John Anderson, he said, “Look, you have to understand that you are a danger to your children no matter what. You can let them go out in the world and be hurt, or you can overprotect them and hurt them that way. Here’s your choice, you can make your children competent and courageous or you can make them safe. But you can’t make them safe because life isn’t safe. So if you sacrifice their courage and competence on the altar of safety then you disarm them completely and all they can do is pray to be protected.”
The problem is that we mothers HATE to see our children suffer. It is our biological urge to protect them. Sometimes women take their role as protector of infants too far and make motherhood much harder than it needs to be. When mothers extend the timeline of compassion beyond its necessary borders it impedes competence-building time. We don’t want to make infants out of our children.
Modern moms unnecessarily complicate life. Babies can be an incredible burden if we make them that. We can let them sleep in our bed and disrupt our romantic life. We can buy every contraption possible for their clueless benefit, draining our resources. We can give-in to our toddler’s every irrational demand to avoid a tantrum, creating an unlikable child. These “compassions” result in a child who drains our good-will. When my husband and I lived in Hawaii as poor college students, we had a tiny apartment on the North Shore. When we had our first child his possessions included: one laundry-basket crib, 5 pair of PJs, and a pacifier. He was the chunkiest, happiest baby I have ever seen – and easily fit into our meager budget and lifestyle. In my experience, babies need very little other than loving and unselfish parents. If we give them much more than that, we are creating our own burden.
There is also another kind of overbearing mother though – and if we are honest we are all guilty of it – controlling. A lot of controlling behavior is passed off as a virtue. “Let me make that sandwich for you sweety”, says the mother looking to maintain her spotless kitchen. Your child’s development is more important than your clean house. Jordan Peterson says you should never do anything for your child that they can do for themselves, even if it means waiting 10 minutes for your toddler to get her pants on. You sacrifice time and expectations but the reward is that the child actually matures. My 6-year-old still puts his shoes on the wrong feet literally 75% of the time. Did I think at this point he would have mastered it? Yes. But doing things for our kids actually keeps them from learning. Jordan Peterson said in a recent video, “For knowledge to be your own you have to integrate it with your own experience. You have to see how that applies to your own case and then have a story to tell about it. “ We must find the answers within ourselves for them to belong to us. If we shield our children from potentially difficult lessons, we are keeping them from integrating this knowledge into their own character.
Children love making their own way and resent mothers who hover. My 4-year-old daughter gives me a death stare if I attempt to buckle her seat belt. My physically-capable son wants to climb the tree unhindered by my warnings. Kids know they are better off doing it themselves.
The Encouraging Mother – Producing Resilience
In our day of “Snowflake” young adults, retreating to their safe spaces and coloring books at even the hint of tribulation, we need to get serious about building resilience in our children. “A resilient person is capable of standing up to things in the face of fear and moving forward voluntarily, convinced of their own competence and ability to prevail,” JP. The idea of “building” anything in our children sounds like a lot of work. However, the unexpected surprise of motherhood is that less is often more, particularly in teaching our kids resilience.
Jordan Peterson’s Rule 11 is, “Don’t bother children when they are skateboarding”. For me that translates to: don’t interfere with the fight breaking out in the front-yard football game over pass interference. JP says parents must have a certain dimension of “detached harshness”, allowing for the development of independence and unchecked mistake-making. Creativity and learning only happen when kids make mistakes and resolve them independently. Having mom around greatly reduces the chances of that. Sometimes it is difficult to know when our presence is needed. The question I try and ask myself is, “Is my involvement helping or impeding my child from learning a lesson.” I am surprised by how often the honest answer is that the child is better left alone. This is a step in the right direction towards more joyful mothering; managing the trifles of a child’s life makes mothers want to just disengage entirely.
Although our modern children have vastly different worries than those our ancestors, and are missing fewer teeth, there are still a multitude of fears and hurdlesin front of them. Fortunately, when we overcome one trial, we gain the courage to face others. As JP says, When you face a fear forthrightly “you don’t become less frightened, you get more courageous, which is way better than being less frightened because there are lots of things to be frightened of, so if you are more courageous that does the trick.” The tribulations faced by the children of the Dark Ages likely strengthened them for the responsibilities of adulthood. Today, we should allow our children to face and even seek-out challenges, teaching them to return to us for encouragement.
Devoured by Weeds – Neglect
I do have sympathy for parents like this Hollywood director; his kids are so young and little kids are hard. It’s more difficult to find fulfillment in the early duty-filled days raising young kids. As JP said, “If mothers didn’t fall insanely in love with their babies they would throw them out the window.” However, if we are patient in the early years and attempt to build a strong relationship with our children, the blossoming of our little trees is truly glorious to behold.
If we let selfishness drive us to neglect our responsibility, weeds of vice and addiction will quickly build up around our children and choke their potential. These weeds are become increasingly prevalent as modern society degenerates. Everyone else is letting their boys play hours of Fortnite and their girls waste life on Instagram; can it really be that bad? Yes. I won’t site the studies here, but I believe we need to be rebels against a culture that is intent on producing the narcissistic and addicted. But some may say, “Isn’t that overprotective of you? – you can’t protect your children from our culture, you must socialize them into it.” I believe that it is parents’ responsibility to shield our young children from the “weeds” that could damage their soul and lead to bad habits and possible addiction. As my children get older, if I have passed values on to them, I am confident they will use their reason and courage – built through personal experience – to be rebels against the destructive elements of our modern age.
The Encouraging Mother – Building a Pristine Relationship
Selfishness is the common lot of man. However, having a child is God’s way of pushing us out of our natural state. Suddenly, with our God-given love, we push our selfish desires aside and re-prioritize our lives. This can be a painful process. It is more difficult for some that others (as the Hollywood director demonstrates). Some people can take things too far and make their children supreme, inadvertently turning them into narcissists. The balance is found when we shift our priorities and make the sacrifices needed to produce competent and virtuous children. This “reorienting” process will not be as painful as one required to produce a “masterpiece” child of our own creating.
If you are not enjoying spending time with your kids, you are doing something wrong. JP says, “You need to keep your relationships with your kids pristine.” This stuck with me. I have found applying it makes motherhood easier. This may seem counter-intuitive since keeping something pristine is difficult. But because of the sovereignty of the relationship, I know I need to let everything else go. It is impossible to maintain a “pristine” relationship while simultaneously criticizing children’s every imperfection, or while micromanaging the dream of getting them into Harvard. My focus is the relationship above all else. This does notmean I give my children their way for the sake of the relationship, quite the opposite. Children who don’t have boundaries don’t respect you, and that is no relationship at all. But I do accept them for the “variety” they are, orange tree or palm, and replace previously-held expectations in exchange for appreciation of their unique traits.
The truth is, it doesn’t take much. JP weeps when he explains how little encouragement people actually need, but often don’t get. I don’t need to be involved in the daily minutiae of my children’s lives. The key is to keep our limited interactions optimal and meaningful. As we do this, our children will grow in character and moral fortitude. As we parents attempt to improve ourselves, we can let our example do much of the teaching for us.
Check Our Motivations
Why did we decide to be mothers, considering that we now have the luxury of that decision? Do we want our children to leave as capable young adults, or subconsciously want to keep them near us always? Do we want to be gardeners, tending a growing tree for the greater good of mankind? Or are we attempting to selfishly paint a masterpiece for our own glory? If our attitude is the later, we will very shortly become frustrated with parenting. If we attempt to make our child’s life a work of art, it would be folly to include suffering in the landscape. When the underlying desire for children is selfish, we quickly get disenchanted with the often-selfless reality of the undertaking.
As a woman of faith, I firmly believe that my children were sent to me for a reason. I believe God choose me as their mother to help them fulfill their unique propose. I have many failings and there is much my children will have to learn from other sources. However, I have unique talents and sharing them with my children brings me so much joy. My son and I watch WWII documentaries together; my daughter and I plan adventures. As I attempt to use my God-given talents and interests to raise my children, I notice something miraculous start to happen. As my children grow, I see myself less as their gardener and more as a fellow tree, growing beside them and experiencing the peace and storms of life together.
Motherhood as Joy
We need to defeat the Devouring Mother in us all. Let’s stop attempting to shield our children from the difficulties of life. Let’s stop retreating into selfishness in the face of self-imposed expectations of motherhood. Let’s allow the trials of life to be the teacher of competence. Let’s have our love, talents, and “pristine” relationships do the work in developing our children’s character. Let’s let-go of the rest. And then, when it comes time for our children to face the toothaches and pains life, their mother will have prepared them well.
Inspirational clip from Jordan Peterson on parenting and potential.
*I appreciate hearing any impressions or criticism you have of this article. I genuinely want to produce something that is helpful to parents and your input is helpful in that production. Please follow The Philosophy of Motherhood on Facebook or this blog and share with your friends if you think they would benefit. Thank you.
Dr. Jordan Peterson has a remarkable breadth of knowledge as well as an ability to distill his scholarship into practical advice. I believe his insights could be useful and potentially transformative for anyone willing to listen. The problem is, when you combine that much wisdom into one person – it takes awhile for him to impart it to the rest of us. Therefore, I am attempting an index, of sorts. This is my first of a series of posts for people who are intrigued by Jordan Peterson’s ideas but can’t (or don’t want to) sort through the hundreds of hours of videos online to find the content that interests them. I am focusing on short clips, most under 8 minutes. Due to the wide-range of his ideas and expertise, I will do several posts in the coming weeks, each focusing on a particular theme or topic. If you are already a Peterson “fan” this may be a good resource for you to share with those you think would benefit from JP’s ideas.
We will start with six short videos I believe would be extremely helpful for all wives and mothers. At first glance, some of these videos may not seem to directly relate to motherhood/marriage, so I briefly break down why I think these ideas are important for us to hear.
Perfectionism as a hindrance to development. (5 minutes) We mothers need to admit our fragility and weakness, and that of our children and spouses. Accepting fragility means recognizing and appreciating our differences and unique roles to play. I see many mothers who hold on to the idea of perfection and, as JP demonstrates, become bitter and envious. When we fall into this trap, we are unable to progress as a person and help the world at-large.
2. Destructiveness of Overbearing Mother (6 minutes). In another clip JP explains that if we have to choose between safety and competence for our children, the correct choice is always competence. This is going against our very nature so we must be conscious of our proclivity to shelter and protect children and choose to strive for the greater goal of instilling independence. “You can’t protect people, you can only make them strong.” (This is the topic of my next blog post.)
3. Mary as model for Ideal Mother. (12 minutes) Rather than fall into the trap of over-protection, Mary knew full well the reality of the suffering her Son would face, yet she faced it voluntarily. We need to face the reality of suffering and rather than protect our children from it, prepare them for that eventuality.
4. Lie of Career and Family as a Supreme Goal. (12 minutes) “Young women in today’s society are not told the truth about what their lives are likely to be like.” We need to change our society’s outlook on the optimal life-path of young women. Life is long, there is time for career but there is a short window in which to have a family. Let’s start being honest about what will really give women’s life meaning and purpose.
5. Raising children: “Do not do allow your children to do anything that makes you dislike them.” (8 minutes) This sounds harsh but there is truth in this statement. I do believe this is a complex topic that I hope to break apart in future posts. I think it is important to be honest about this issue. We need to be aware of how we react to our kids misbehavior and how others react to them. “We have the proclivity for tyranny.”
6. Changing behavior in children and spouses through positive encouragement (4 minutes). Lasting behavior modification in children comes from looking for the positive in their behavior and reinforcing it. This requires parents to be extremely cognizant of when our children make good choices and reward them appropriately. “You have to keep your relationship with your kids pristine.”
*If you are interested in more videos on these topics, there are many. Jordan Peterson’s interviews with Dr. Oz, Joe Rogan (beware of profanity), and Dave Rubin all cover a breadth of issues. His university lectures on his YouTube channel can give detailed information on a particular topic. There are thousands of videos online compiled by fans of his work. However, if you need help finding specific content please contact me and I may be able to help. Also, please follow The Philosophy of Motherhood on Facebook or this blog if you would like to be notified of posts.
**I highly suggest this article written by one of our readers, Nikita Coulombe. The amount of research that went into this is truly staggering. It systematically dismantles the idea of the modern-day feminist “utopia” free from the burdens of family life.