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March 25, 2018: “Parenthood as a Natural Disaster”

Monthly Theme: Being Mortal

Personal Reflection Bree Byrd

Recently while in a class where we were viewing and discussing images, I came to an odd realisation about myself. Among the images we were viewing were several images of catastrophe about to strike, including one in particular which showed a tsunami about to strike the coastline of Japan. On one side of the image, utter chaos and destruction, the other, calm and the illusion of safety. In between, you could see people, living their lives. Halcyon described it as the moment between life and death, and someone called it a “gut punch”, an image that cause you to gasp as if you’ve been punched in the gut. I on the other hand, felt familiarity with the idea of the image. It’s where I live.

Not Japan, obviously. That moment, the one in between. Whether it be between life and death, safety and chaos… That moment in between everything being okay and the metaphorical tsunami. Living in poverty, being disabled, and my health, it’s where I feel I have lived my life for some time. In one of my more dramatic moments, I informed my husband I not only live there, I’ve bought real estate, settled in, started a homestead, planted a garden, bonded with the neighbors, and I’m now running the community block watch!

All jokes aside, we all live closer to that neighborhood than we want to admit to ourselves, we’ve all had those moments where we are suddenly so much aware of the roar of that tsunami than we want to be. Some, due to life or health circumstances may live there a little more full time, but we’ve all at least vacationed there. We all experience it. Especially as parents. That moment between the crash/bang/scream, and knowing whether your child is still in one piece… That half an hour late your child is coming home, before they actually walk in the door? Every moment a report comes across the screen about another school shooting or disaster or that moment in the hospital where you are begging whatever divine force you may or may not believe in to get your child’s fever to drop.. The thing about all these moments and their outcomes, is just like that tsunami you can’t do anything to stop them or change their outcomes, all you can do is live through in between moments the best you can, breathe, and try to find the joy and love in them.

Most parents try as best they can to shelter their children from the realities of these moments. My mom didn’t always have that ability, I grew up with a brother with life threatening epilepsy and the realities of that were something i was aware of from a very young age. I knew at any moment, calm could turn into life and death. But in some ways it’s helped me as a mom. Much like my mother, I can’t shelter my children from many of those realities either.

Just under two years ago my husband and i got a phone call and I learned that despite the fact that google maps claims that it is exactly 59 minutes between my front door and the hospital in Elyria, it IS actually possible to defy physics and common sense enough to make that drive in half an hour. I don’t recommend it. We were to learn from doctors and specialists a few days later that time with our daughter will never be a guarantee. No one’s time is guaranteed, but hers is a bit more uncertain than most childrens lives. We were told there is no way to predict a timeline.

And it was a tsunami. A huge whomping tsunami that loomed over me and at first the shadow of that was all i could see. There was this madness I felt in those moments in the hospital and after… Someone around that time pointed out that every time i spoke, i held my hand over my heart like I was trying to protect it. It felt more like i was trying to keep it from simultaneously shattering and escaping my chest. But I realised once I started to breathe, that we had a choice. We could either waste whatever time there is staring down the tsunami and hearing nothing but the sirens, or we could settle in and accept living in the space between. Because of Autumn’s diagnosis, every little moment means more. We could have lost her two years ago, instead we’ve gotten two more birthdays, adventures, high school, arguments over homework, countless I love yous and ridiculously silly moments, eyerolls at bad dad jokes, laughter, and at least three teenage “I hate you’s”. It’s taught us to appreciate things that would have passed us by in a different life. Yes, even the teenage moodswings. I’ve learned to take an obnoxious number of pictures, no matter who it annoys, and to take the time to be find the humor, and laugh a little extra when we can. I’ve had to learn and accept that it’s all out of my control or miss out on everything. (I’m better at it some days than others.)

As much as we try to live day to day life normally, Autumn obviously can’t be sheltered from these realities most of the time. And realistically neither will her little brother. As much as we’d like to wrap them in bubble wrap, it just won’t work. The best that we can do is teach them to do the same thing we are trying to do, find as much joy and life as you can, and appreciate it. Dance, blow bubbles, be silly, learn, experience, and create and leave as much love in the world every day as possible, no matter what. In reality, this neighborhood we’ve settled into has its own beauty.

Reading from “All Joy and No Fun,” by Jennifer Senior Bree Byrd

Today, we work hard to shield children from life’s hardships. But throughout most of our country’s history, we did not. Rather, kids worked. In the earliest days of our nation, they cared for their siblings or spent time in the fields; as the country industrialized, they worked in mines and textile mills, in factories and canneries, in street trades.

Over time, reformers managed to outlaw child labor practices. Yet change was slow. It wasn’t until our soldiers returned from World War II that childhood, as we now know it, began. The family economy was no longer built on a system of reciprocity, with parents sheltering and feeding their children, and children, in return, kicking something back into the family till. The relationship became asymmetrical.

Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard.

Children went from being our employees to our bosses.

The way most historians describe this transformation is to say that the child went from “useful” to “protected.”

Sermon Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
“Parenthood As A Natural Disaster”

Dougal and Lyn Robertson wanted to take their family on the adventure of lifetime, one that would teach them more than any school could, or their life in Meerbrook, England. So Dougal sold the family dairy farm, bought a 43 foot sailboat, a schooner named Lucette.

They set sail from Staffordshire, without any sailing experience, without so much as a practice run around the bay. Whatever they needed to learn, they’d learn crossing the North Atlantic.

It was 1971, in the month of January.

Their four children were 18, 17 and 9. The youngest were twins. Somehow, they figured it all out, and enjoyed life in ports of call around the world. They got good at living with little, working at jobs when they had to.

About 17 months after setting sail, they picked up an inexperienced crew member, a 19 year old named Robin Williams. Not the Robin Williams, a Robin Williams.

They were a few hundred miles from the Galapagos Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when they heard a blood curdling crack and the whole boat flipped to one side. They were in the midst of a school of killer whales that had broken the keel off. Douglas, the oldest son, didn’t know Killer whales aren’t a threat to humans. 
He thought they would all die, but they managed to get into a dinghy with some food and water, which lasted them six days. After that, they caught turtles from, drank the blood, dried and rationed the flesh, and rendered the fat to drink and rub on their skin for protection.

They were in that dinghy for 38 days before being rescued by a Japanese fishing boat. (1)

The foolhardiness of the Robertsons makes me cringe. But at the same time, I love that would take such a risk.

That kind of risk, it seems to me, was a little more common in those days. The world somehow seemed safer for hitch hikers and other travellers. Parenting didn’t seem so scary.

According to Jennifer Senior, a New York Times writer who spent two years studying parenthood by poring through hundreds of scientific studies and interviewing hundreds of parents across the country, three things have altered the parenting experience over the last half century or so:

For millennia, people had children basically because they had to. But now, in North America in the 21st century, most people have children because they want to, for a variety of reason. “Because so many of us are now avid volunteers for a project in which we were all once dutiful conscripts,” she writes, “we have heightened expectations of what children will do for us, regarding them as sources of existential fulfillment rather than as ordinary parts of our lives. It’s the scarcity principle at work: we assign greater value to” the things we work harder for. (2)

The cynical way of looking at that is that parents are more narcissistic, displaying their own self-worth through their kids. Kinder way of looking at that is to see that by postponing parenthood as the majority of North Americans do, they are more aware of what they are giving up.

The second thing that has changed, according to Ms. Senior, is that our work lives have gotten more complicated, as smart phones and text messages make us feel like our clients and supervisors want responses even before we get their messages. 
As women have become the majority in the labor market, and families are not always headed by a man and a woman, domestic life is completely different now. (3) Senior says that in her interviews a tension came through consistently:

people can’t tell whether to be grateful for the help they are getting in parenting, or enraged at all the expectations places upon them, now that they are supposed to be with their children so much, managing every aspect of their lives.

Perhaps the most important change in parenting is what we heard a few minutes ago. After World War 2 children in the workforce phased out, as their father’s jobs became higher-paying and everyone was expected to have at least a high school diploma. Children have little by little stopped working at home as parents have begun working twice as hard.

It sounds harsh, but Ms. Senior says that “the way most historians describe this transformation is to say that the child went from ‘useful’ to ‘protected.'” (4)

But the sociologist Viviana Zelizer came up with a far more pungent phrase. She characterized the modern child as “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”

The paradox of modern parenthood, according to Ms. Senior, is that parents feel like it is their job to keep their children safe and to make them happy, when the reality is that they can do neither. The world isn’t always safe, and nobody can make another person happy. 
As natural as the act of biological reproduction may be, our expectations of parenthood is a recipe for disaster.

The thing that strikes me about all of this is that none of this is within anyone’s control. We can’t change the fact that in most places it’s considered abusive and neglectful to raise free-range children that make themselves busy, or that employers expect us to be on 24/7, or that most people can’t even begin to feel like they can afford children until they are well into their 30’s.

These are societal factors way beyond the dynamics of our own households, because we don’t raise children – or run schools, churches and other community services – in vacuums. Everything affects everything else in this world.

Children arrive, and keep arriving in tides that wax and wane. Right now, we are in a receding tide after a veritable tsunami of children who have grown up to be called Millenials. None of us are prepared for what will come next from this smaller generation beginning to come of age.

Worse, though we get training in everything. We learn about marriage through courting and dating and witnessing our own parents. We learn about our jobs through education and training. But we learn nothing about parenting, or even how to support others who do the work of parenting. We have to just kind of figure it out as we go along.

The way Dougal and Lyn Robertson had to figure out living at sea with four kids. They got an interesting gift though:

When those killer whales wrecked their boat, and they were floating out on that dinghy for 38 days, their mortality was right there in front of them, stripping away all the pressure of parenting, all the expectations to keep their kids safe and happy.

Nobody was safe or happy for those 38 days. Douglas said later, “life had a quality to it, the quality of survival, the reward of seeing another sunset, another sunrise.”

Life was stripped of its superficialities, and that family, for those 38 days, couldn’t deny how much they needed each other. They couldn’t retreat to their private space or shut each other out. Every moment of every day, they were ridiculously aware that their fate was bound up together.

You know, most of us live under the delusion that we can exist on our own, that we are the masters of our own fate, and that whatever help we give or receive is of our own choosing. 
But being on that boat was life in a microcosm: nobody was more or less valuable than anyone else, and they all had a responsibility to each other. Even poor Robin Williams made it through in the same condition as everyone else. The Roberstons never threw him overboard. Or worse.

They also learned that we have whatever we need right in front of us. We’re all students and we are all teachers, and each one of us has something to offer as we find the basics of existence amidst the detritus of daily life.

Even when all they could see was endless sky and water in every direction, each had value in catching turtles, collecting water, figuring out what to do next, and getting the attention of that Japanese fishing boat.

But most importantly, they were all faced with the reality that none of us can control outcomes. Things are going to happen the way they are going to happen, and there isn’t much we can do about it. We can’t retreat into our safe homes and lock the world out.

Jennifer Senior says that parenting is a high cost/high reward undertaking. And when the risks are high the rewards is also high. With great risk and great challenges come great joy. The disaster that the Robertsons experienced changed their lives. All of the kinds went on to be happy and successful…satisfied with life. Because they survived.

And that the thing about surving something like having your boat destroyed by killer whales, or natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and wildfires:

they force us to give up any hope of controlling outcomes, to accept help as it comes, and to learn from the people we are charged with caring for.

You know, natural disasters are also called acts of God. If god is the way I understand god, not an anthropomorphic being controlling our lives on a whim, but rather the force of being, the energy of creation that connects all beings across space and time, then the experience of the Robertson’s was an act of God.

It brought them together in a way that nothing else could have. It made them find their own strength through their vulnerability, their need for one another.

What greater act of god is there, than one that shows us just how much we are connected?

(1) Shipwrecked by Whales: the Robertson family survival story.

(2) Senior, Jennifer. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (Kindle Locations 123-126). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

(3) Senior, Jennifer. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (Kindle Locations 132-136). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

(4) Senior, Jennifer. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood (Kindle Locations 150-159). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.