Saturday, March 6, 2010

Honest About Doubt

I have a tendency to be really honest. Sometimes this gets me in trouble. Most of the time though, it's just a thing. A lot of people really appreciate it. They like that I am able to say out loud what so many in my situation feel. They like that I call things what they are and that I'm not afraid to speak up. I started thinking that there is more to it than that though.

Being honest, for me, is about being real. Being honest also entails saying things suck sometimes. It's about calling a spade a spade. Being honest about both the positive and the negative aspects of anything, or even about ambivalence or confusion, means that I am taking the time to sort it out. It means that I'm doing my job to be skeptical and scientific and to ensure that I can trust or to weigh risks and benefits.

Saying it out loud is just how I cope. My method of figuring things out, of processing, is to talk. By writing or by speaking, I need to articulate all the sides that I can see and find the right words to specify and to clarify as much as possible. This is how I can find a way to get comfortable with gray areas, with things that are sometimes one way and sometimes another: I have to say it. For my own sanity, I must figure it out and go through the possibilities or voice clearly that there may be other options I haven't considered. I need to know that something might change. It must be said.

So I must be forthright about my life. I must all the time, at every turn, at every sinking feeling that everything is all wrong to every screaming fit that too many video games or movies are destroying the brains of my children to every pang of guilt that I am lazy and good for nothing - I must stop and try to figure out what is true and what is right.

When everything is good, it is easy to feel that all is right with the world and with our lives. When everyone's getting along, when I have lots of energy, when we get to be outside in the sunshine all the time, when our creative juices are dripping projects all over the house like so much water, when no one's sick, when Papa cooks dinner every night happily, when the house isn't too trashed, when we get lots of time with friends - those are all the times when feeling that what we do is not only right and true but morally just comes easy peasy (of course, what we do is not morally just for everyone, it just feels so good sometimes that it might as well be).

When things are hard though - and they very often are - then it becomes complicated and every nagging doubt surfaces and gets under my skin. Then, if I have a particularly bad day, it can dig way inside and practically break my heart and crush me with the weight of distrust and confusion upon me.

These days, things are very hard. It is late winter here. It is cold. Even with the sun shining gorgeously the last few days, there are still five feet piles of snow on either side of my driveway and a foot still on the lawn. Jon is teaching five days a week. When he's not teaching, he writes lectures and grades papers. When he's not doing that, he sometimes watches basketball, but mainly does weird running around to arrange graduating in May. He also is editing his dissertation to prepare for his defense.

Due to his schedule, this is the first time that I've been solely responsible for the upkeep of the house, the car, the bills, the shopping, the children, plus all meals. That may not seem like much to other mothers, but for us, we've always strived for a more equitable breakdown of household dealings, so I usually never made dinner and he always helped with cleaning. I'm also still doing volunteer work with our Food Co-op. There's a very nasty chance I may be the next board president in a few weeks. My sister is living with us, so there are five of us in 900-some-odd square feet. She works a lot. She does do a lot of the laundry. I still put it away. We've been sick off and on for more than a month.

I could go on and on. There is much more to complain about. When things get hard like this, sometimes I shut down a bit. I get sucked into fruitless activities after not enough sleep from staying up too late to blow off steam. I waste whole days arguing pointlessly with people on the internet, intermittently cleaning, feeding, encouraging children to do something, kissing boo-boos, giving baths, changing shirts, putting in laundry, doing more dishes, making cups of tea, staring into space, paying a bill, returning an email, picking up five hundred blocks from off the floor, getting weird goo off of weird places, answering phones, sitting on hold for doctor's offices, making appointments, forgetting to make appointments until it's too late, and all the mundane details of living and running a life for four people. I don't get dressed until late in the day. Aleks will put on a movie, then build with Lego bricks, then go back to the movie, then switch to a video game, then talk to me while sitting upside down on the couch, then get a drink of water, then play the video game again, then draw five pictures, then ask me in very long sentences while I am in the middle of reading something about something I don't understand and only half listen to for which I then have to stop reading and back up and apologize and listen before explaining that I don't understand and I don't know how some monster evolves into some other monster. Meanwhile, Bastian steals the laptop from Aleks or makes guys and blocks and Magformers fight on the couch while he leaps and somersaults over and around them.

All day, it seems, we do...not much of anything in particular. One of my big fears creeps in then. Maybe...maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'd be a good, holy mother if I could just get it together to get up at a reasonable hour, not stay up late, get us out of the house and doing...stuff, get us around other kids more, join the homeschooling co-op (that I have zero attraction to), enroll in something (that I can't afford), and get the kids away from those hateful, awful, brain-melting media devices (well, computers - we have no television).

I have read that using electronic media devices pretty much programs your brain, or, well, forms your neural pathways to using electronic media devices. You make your brain do it more. Like a pattern. Or an addiction. This can make it harder to sleep. It can make it harder to make your brain do other...stuff. It occurs to me that maybe we use media devices kind of a lot. Maybe I should prevent that more. Before I get to whether or not we do in fact use media devices kind of a lot, there's two solutions for how to achieve prevention. One, I can somehow get it together to be a good, holy me, despite any and all stress in my life and simply take the responsibility and initiative to make us do other...stuff. Or two, I can send the kids someplace for someone else to have that energy where they can do other...stuff (and possibly gain unintended side-effects of that place and those people that I may hate and have to, like, do something about, which means still energy placed on making other...stuff happen).

Neither of those options sounds particularly appealing. I find it really difficult in general to drastically change one pattern of behavior let alone all of them all at the same time. So maybe I'm jumping to conclusions. Do we overuse electronic media? The honest answer is probably sometimes. I'm not worried about overusing music or books. Those are "enlightened" (read that with an eyeroll) forms of media. Movies and video games are another matter. I have a lot of conflicting information about these though.

I know plenty of men (and a few women) who love video games and have spent hours almost every day since childhood playing them. They are all able to have conversations, complete degrees, hold down jobs, and clean up after themselves, generally. The studies say that video games are damaging to children because they expose them to things that are not age-appropriate, prevent them from healthfully following other pursuits, increase their exposure to advertising, encourage consumerism, and create sedentary behaviors that lead to obesity, heart disease, and early death.

Movies, I love. I would watch a movie every day if I could find the time. I'm certain that my children would too. They probably do. But they watch no television whatsoever and they almost always leave the movie to do other things. They really do self-regulate in large part. They watch movies over and over again so that they don't need to see every minute. Aleks usually has to go draw something that popped into his head in the middle of a film. Lately, he'll listen to Harry Potter, draw, and have a movie on. Sort of how I write on six Firefox tabs, make a cup of tea, sit on hold on the phone, and clean up a mess all sort-of simultaneously.

Thinking about the neural pathway issue, the only real concerns I can see is the sleep issue and addiction to electronic media or the internet- which psychiatrists have not determined to be real just yet, despite the new DSM. Sleep could be a serious issue, especially given that Aleks has never in his life gone to sleep easily. Since we introduced books on tape, actually, it's gotten a lot better. So, hrm... Maybe that neural pathway issue isn't something to really bank on as an inevitability. Especially given that we do lots of things other than consume electronic media.

The next possible concern regarding electronic media usage, would be sedentary patterns of behavior. If I look at myself, I know that I don't lead the strongest example there. We hike and we walk with some frequency during the summer, but during the winter, we become very sedentary. Very indoorsy. Very tired and lazy. Nasty hobbitses. Um... I mean...

It seems I've hit on something. Perhaps the thing to do is not to entirely uproot our existence on the basis of shame and guilt, but maybe to move my body. A family yoga class, regular swimming, a weekly hike, or even a daily dance party would likely help me feel a lot better about almost all of that. At least until the next time I think we're watching too many movies or playing too many video games.

Media is not, of course, my only concern. It is usually the most pressing one given my conflicting feelings about it. The other is something that I had articulated before in the unschooling community to much of nothing: the concern was dismissed and laughed at.

Recently, however, I found (at ChezZoo) this phenomenal, hour-long (I'm warning you now) lecture from Astra Taylor, a grown-up unschooler, who also brings up my concerns. Now I have someone who is far more impressive than me - a mere mom in danger of becoming a co-op board president- to argue my point for me.

Ms. Taylor brings up a couple of points that are clear (if you ask me) issues with or downsides to unschooling. First, there is the matter of unschooling requiring a parent at home. The problem with this is that it's always the mom. Now, in my own circumstance, there are a lot of reasons why I'm the at-home parent. I'm certain that that's true for most unschooling families. All of the unschooling moms I know were practicing some style of attachment parenting when their children were babies and stayed home with them to maintain breastfeeding and to foster a strong bond and sense of trust with their child. When it came time for schooling decisions, it made sense to continue with the already established routine. This of course makes logical sense.

The problem is that unschooled children are going to see a stay-at-home-mother as the familial norm if this is what they're exposed to again and again. This means that by being limited in our options for families, we're limiting the choices of future generations. If all they know is moms-at-home in order to achieve unschooling, then pursuing a career and unschooling for a mother looks highly improbable. In fact, unschooling without an at-home mother then looks likely impossible. It sets up an unnecessary (or undesirable) dichotomy: unschool with an at-home mother or don't unschool at all (i.e. send your children to school).

The second major issue with/downside to unschooling is that it's largely something that fairly well-educated people of some means (middle class, generally) are able to do. This means too that most of us are white. It begins to mean that unschooling is something for the elite. It is not a choice that people of lesser means (who cannot afford or arrange a parent at home) can make.

This is somewhat unavoidable. Unschooling is certainly not a mainstream concept, so not many people have ever even heard of it, let alone considered it. If folks did start unschooling without a parent or other care provider at home, they'd be accused (perhaps rightly so, depending) of neglect. Given that our society has a vested interest in the well-being of children, this makes sense. No one wants ill to befall children due to a desire to keep them out of school. On the other hand, again, without diversity in the unschooling community we start to see a white-washing of this sliver of culture.

It is true that unschooling parents are likely to have more opportunity to expose their children to diverse groups of people compared to schooling families -particularly in age-range, I find - but when they convene with other homeschooling or unschooling families, the options are clear again and again: white, middle class, educated folks, different in details, surely, but largely very similar in cultural identity.

I cannot see what there is to be done about either of these issues, but as a feminist, and as someone who is anti-racist and seeks, always, to widen possibilities for my children, I find these trends unsettling nonetheless. I suppose the thing to do is to just keep talking it out. With them, with each other, with this blank field of html...


Erin said...

I really appreciate how open and honest you are. Please don't ever change. I wish more people would be that way. We all have doubts in the back of out minds. Your children seem so intelligent, happy, and most importantly... loved. :)

Linda H. said...

Depending on the perspective, hobbits can be pretty awesome creatures. I've given up fighting and judging my own natural inclinations. I'm now declaring myself a "hibernator". For me, it really is all about external expectations. If I let go of the desire to satisfy those, it's amazing how many things are no longer problems. Sometimes it turns out the "problem behavior" was actually no more than a reaction to expectations, and when I reject those, it goes away.

I'm conflicted about the electronic media too. I don't think I don't have a responsibility to protect my kids from dangers that aren't obvious to them. But in this case, the dangers aren't obvious to me either, they're only suspected, and I'm not at all confident that that isn't really just about my own snobbery and social conditioning. And I married an electronic-media-loving guy, and I have perhaps even great fears about the effects of control on people and relationships, so the experiment was on. The result so far is that my 13-year-old, who's been experimented on the longest, has turned out to be a fantastic person. He's thoughtful, smart, content, and it's enjoyable for me to spend time with him. My suspicion now is that love and connectedness, and opportunities to be engaged in the world around us, are what largely determine what a person becomes. Visual games and stories, even if they take up a lot of a person's private time, are incidental.

Julie said...

You bring up a lot of good points in regards to unschooling. I myself have been in a rather stressful/anxiety producing state as of late. My husband's work has really slowed down since the first of December. He literally has worked 5 days in the last 3 weeks. I have recently started a part time job assisting a local photographer, only it's not regular hours, so no set income. I've worked 2 jobs the last 2 weeks. We are brainstorming on what to do with ourselves. Ideally i would love for us to start a business that we both can do from home that allows both of us to be with the children equally. Not sure this will happen, but we're going to give it a go. Why not? He also has jobs in the works with some friends who own a sustainable architecture firm and some other friends who install solar panels. That would be good money wise if that works out, but I fear that it will once again take him away from home for many hours. We are struggling to pay bills right now, but I love having him home and so do the kids. Seriously, we are selling anything and everything we don't use to pay our mortgage this month, but we're happy.

In regards to unschooling & electronic media. I've worried in the past about too much media, although I haven't read about the research concerning neural pathways, and I really don't want to as I could see myself getting uptight and I'm choosing not to live in fear. Seriously, all I have to do is look at my children and and it calms me down. They are nothing like what the "experts" say happen to children when they are exposed to too much media.

Suffice it to say that I feel less than perfect and sometimes like a failure just as you do in regards to my life & children on certain days. When I take a step back, stop reading what other people are doing, and focus on our family and our family alone I see beautiful stuff happening:) For me personally, the more I'm on the internet reading what other people are doing (which proves what we're NOT doing), the more anxious I feel and the more the word "failure" starts to creep into my brain. Just like I don't/can't compare my children to children that go to school, because it's like comparing apples to oranges, I can't compare the way we are living and doing things with even another unschooler, because in the end we are all unique and have different interests & passions and different goals in life. We are all on different paths, so there's no way to compare.

Thanks for this post, you've made me think about a lot of things in regards to unschooling. Sorry about my rambling:)

anna kiss said...

Linda - the hobbits bit was mostly due to the phrasing preceding it. It was intended as playful. But yes, I hibernate a bit too. I think that the level of stress here right now makes it hard to do a lot of the indoor projects we were doing at this time a year ago, though. So in some ways, I'm comparing myself to myself.

I think that while the outside expectations are unnecessarily over-influencing and troublesome, the actual needs of my children also become overwhelming sometimes. Aleks craves more time with other kids than he's getting. I'm not sure if I can entirely help it with everything else going on. It may be too that I'm just moody due to stupid external forces.

If I really think about it though, we're getting Aleks ready for an art show in New York City and we're going to Chicago on Tuesday to see Rachel, Max and Otto from Almost Always Hungry. We are doing stuff. We are doing amazing stuff. My husband is finishing his PhD after 8 years in graduate school. Stuff is incredible. But, I guess it's also just really really hard! Getting there is work! And I freak out because when there's lots of work, everything I'm not accomplishing becomes super duper obvious.

That's part of right now, but it is about external judgments that I've internalized about what makes a good life and what anyone is supposed to be doing. I should be able to outgrow this. What's that about?

And everyone of you is right - if I would look at my kids instead of at philosophy or scientific studies, I'd be able to see that they are thriving. Ideas about what is a good and productive use of one's time should be about what we believe is useful - especially if we're able to basically support ourselves. I love to sit around and eat cookies and watch bad girl movies. I do. I also like to read books and debate and make things and change the world. Everything I'm doing in my life, I am choosing to do. I forget that.

Thank you all for your input. I'm sorry I sound so crazy!

Chrissy Johnson said...

This is articulate and impassioned. My word of advice for you to induce a bit of calm and confidence?"mom".blogs. Seriously. Either you'll feel guilty you don't wrap them in soft knit all day (like soule mama or something) or you'll be flame-wared the hell out of there if you introduce a different perspective. Or rather, still GO to those sites (I get tons of artsy craftsy and recipe ideas from a lot of those sites) but don't comment. Don't even READ the comments. I'm speaking from personal understanding and a boycott I've placed on myself from doing just that. And then again, some of them can be supportive environments, but usually I don't allow myself to get sucked in. Variants of Oprah worship, a lot of them seem to me (with the blogger as Oprah). But then again (again) I really don't know what I'm talking about.

anna kiss said...

LOL - Chrissy, you're right. And actually, I don't usually at all. I happened upon the Classy Chaos: Radical Parenting show nonsense due to a local friend posting it in her Facebook. It was a fluke, but it demonstrated how likely I am to get sucked into that crap. I need to remember not to do that!

Rachel said...

Oh, Anna, I totally get it. A series of gray gloomy days will almost always leave me in a place of doubt, feeling overwhelmed with something or other, whether it's that our construction job is taking far too long and costing way too much, or that my house is a gigantic crazy mess, that we have too much stuff, that we are not getting out enough, that we are consuming too much electronic media, that the kids are eating a diet almost solely consisting of sugar products, that they are fighting more than usual, that no one is getting enough sleep, that my husband works too long of hours, that I am not doing enough to bring interesting projects into the house, that I have been on the computer too much, whatever might leap to the front of my mind that moment. And it's so easy to start doubting what we are doing.

But I really have to remember that these feelings come to me periodically, often, like I said, on gray gloomy days, often in the long winter months when I feel that we haven't been out seizing the days. And they leave in the same way. Just like you say. It usually only takes one day of going out and a little bit of sunshine to take away those doubts, and so what I usually try to do when these thoughts really nag me is not to dwell in them because I am unhappy about them, but to dwell in them, as though they are cherished few (even if they are many, hee hee), these cold winter days that offer me a good excuse to hibernate. (And even your "hibernate" days include jumping around on a trampoline, right? Something I keep thinking is a MUST for an unschooler. When we have our enlarged new space, I am totally getting one of these!) So, anyway, we'll decide that it's a good day to watch movies all day and make hot chocolate and cookies, or whatever. I try to remember that warmer days will soon be here, that we will be out and about more soon, that there will be more energy to undertake projects, etc.

I know you do this too, so you don't really need a pep talk from me, and I so appreciate that you share your most nagging, worrisome thoughts here, because I understand your process, and that I have a similar process but am just too lazy to write it down. But yes, talking through it all, either to someone or just to myself, is helpful.

Rachel said...

or what it is worth, when I read your blog, I am always amazed by how much you are doing! I'm often inspired to take on some craft or project or remind myself that I must look up the insects we find when we are out and about, like you do. I can feel like I am not doing enough, compared to what you are doing. This is what reading other people's blogs sometimes makes you feel, because they can show you the best moments. And that's what's so cool about your blog, you are not afraid to sometimes share the worst moments.

I know you know that you are very hard on yourself, that you have a lot of expectations for yourself, so I won't tell you that to try to ease your mind. I think questioning everything is a good philosophy, and a perfect match for an unschooler, so of course, questioning yourself and what you are doing on a regular basis is not a bad idea.

I have been very interested to read your thoughts on positive thinking lately, and I do fall into the "positive thinking" category in many ways, but I have always considered my philosophy more like: "it could be worse," ha ha and only recently realized I'm sort of a positive thinker, too. But I do believe that thoughts become things, or at least they can sometimes become things, not that I can think of myself having a boatload of money and it will appear, or that I can will myself to be healthy by only positive thought, but that I do think you can see what you are looking for, whether it is something good or something bad. It's like that idea that when you are thinking about buying a red car, you suddenly start seeing them everywhere. It happens with us in so many areas of life, in a positive way, we become interested in something and then realize we run into it in so many ways. I don't think that we have attracted it to us in some magical way, but that our minds are open to it, are focused on it, so we notice it. And the same thing can happen with negative thoughts, if I want to focus on all the stuff that my husband is not doing that I wish he were, I tend to notice even more stuff he is not doing, or the same with my kids' behavior. But if I want to focus on the good stuff, I'll notice more of that. So I guess for me, it's more of where I want to spend my energy, on the stuff I don't like, or the stuff I do. If it's trying to change some social injustice in the world, then putting your energy there is a good thing, but if it's worrying that your kids are playing too many video games, then I think your energy can be better spent somewhere else. ;)

Rachel said...

Hey, I'm excited we get to talk about all this stuff in person in just a few days! We booked the hotel for Wednesday. We decided it was the best plan, since Otto might otherwise decide he didn't like going out in the night. So we need to figure out what we'll do on Wed afternoon, Thursday morning, etc. Yay!

(And if it's not obvious, my reply was so damn long, blogger wouldn't let me post it, so I had to break it into three parts. I'm just too completely long-winded.)

anna kiss said...

It's so funny that you see us as doing a lot - I do that neat trick other folks do by only showcasing the moments where we're doing "something productive." Partly, it's because this is an unschooling blog and I'm demonstrating what unschooling can look like for those who don't know. I also use the blog as our yearly portfolio for our review, which is required by our state laws. It's sort of a cheating mechanism in that way.

So really, I do the same thing that the other unschooling bloggers do - make life look really grand all the time. I just tend to say it with a little bit of bite and loudly lament that this is the first time we've left the house in weeks, it seems or whathaveyou. That's just my personality.

Part of this post too is to work out how I really feel about all of it. I think that's important. I mean, as an unschooler, I'm putting a big challenge to conventional thinking all the time and every time I run across a study or an article or a blog that runs counter to or in someway confuses what I believe (which I never go looking for, for the record), then I have this really insecure part of me that has to sit down with that and figure out why and how to go forth. I am particularly prone to this in the winter months when I want to hibernate and spend inordinate amounts of time online accidentally coming across this crap in people's forum posts and Facebook feeds.

Regarding Positive Thinking, sometimes I just don't find encouragement to manifest joy as a particularly helpful response to real problems. Which is not to say that feeling bad doesn't actually lead to more feeling bad or vice versa - I get the viral effect of happiness and have definitely felt the spiraling of despair - but that I can't always fake it til I make it. Also, it's important to me to root out the cause of ill-feeling, if possible, rather than just stay on top of it or ignore it. Other times though, I realize it's just an irrational feeling that's coming from someplace obvious and I should just move on with life.

I've just been having those moments lately wherein I feel really irrationally upset and have to figure it out. So I did so out loud, all for you. ;)

Rachel said...

As I said, I'm so glad you are doing this thinking "out loud," as it is helpful for me to, for my own process, for my own doubts, etc. And I agree that "fake it till you make it" is not a good choice, it does not feel authentic. Max would definitely agree with you—sometimes when he and Otto are mad at each other, Max will say, "sometimes it just feels GOOD to be SO MAD!" :) So if I am trying to help them resolve a problem, I realize that the best thing is that they need to feel that madness or unhappiness or whatever it is, right down to their very bones, to get really really mad or upset about something, Otto sometimes feels so mad that he will take a hammer and bang on the wall until he feels better (we have given over a wall to the kids for this purpose: drawing on it, banging on it, whatever). Somehow, making some dents in the wall is destructive enough, but not too destructive for his little spirit. And I don't try to rush them away from that, because that's something that, as a kid, I was forced to do, never to dwell in something negative, lest it make me more negative overall (and my mom certainly thought I was far too negative as it was, already, hee hee). So if that's how my previous post sounded, then I want to clarify, because, I totally agree that we shouldn't try to gloss over the bad stuff, as if it is not there, etc.

I guess what I am trying to say is that feeling those feelings of doubt is okay with me (even though it also sucks!), that I try more to notice that I feel that way, and I say, "Oh yeah, there's that old doubt creeping in, I remember this doubt feeling, and I remember that it will go away again, so in the meantime, I will try to be a bit more gentle on myself, instead of running crazy in the opposite direction (and sometimes I do run crazy in the opposite direction, and that's okay too). :) But yes, if I can do something actively to make something better (and not just spend valuable energy worrying when in the end, I won't really do anything different anyway), if I can think about a problem or issue and think of ways that I might be able to do something differently that might make a difference, then I do want to do it. Does that make any sense at all?

anna kiss said...

You do make sense. That's what I do mostly, until it's totally sinking in all the time and I'm all, "what the hell is wrong with me?" In which case, I have to figure it out!

Mar said...

Hi Anna, i loved this post. It's always so good to read other people's honesty--it makes it easier for me to be open myself, and makes me feel like I'm not the only one feeling like that.

Also, wanted to let you know that if you give me your email addy I will invite you to my blog--I made it private a little while ago...I think I was just feeling very sensitive to the idea that a lot of people I know IRL could be reading it and I didn't even know. Anyway, I'm blogging again, but in private at least for now. If you wanna read let me know!

anna kiss said...

Mar, you can email me at annakissmm at gmail dot com