When my son was younger, he would sometimes complain, "Why do you have to be so Mommy-ful?" Meaning, why did I ruin all the fun by being "The Mommy"? (Or later, The Mom.)
My answer: Because I am The Mom. Mommiful is what I do -- it is my practice.
Sorry, son. Or what I really mean is, Count your lucky stars, my son.
I like to keep up with Karen Maezen Miller's blog, Cheerio Road. Her most recent post was, How to Raise a Buddhist Child. I hope she doesn't mind if I paste in the whole post.
1. Honestly, have no idea.
2. Diligently, make no effort.
3. Faithfully, accept what is.
4. Sincerely, pay attention.
5. Be kind.
6. Otherwise, apologize.
7. Raise a Buddhist parent instead.
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I think this is brilliant: pithy and wise. Like a good poem, it leaves much to read between the lines. Much that the reader must supply for herself. For me, accepting what is (a child who at times displays explosive anger) and paying attention (to what the underlying issue is, beneath all the static) leaves me with a conundrum about what being kind should look like. Last night I was presented with another opportunity to practice with this koan.
It was bedtime, and my son had planned to read before lights-out time, but he had gotten distracted by the ballgame on TV, so once lights-out time came, he hadn't read yet. But he really wanted to. I mean he REALLY wanted to. Dad had said he could, I had said he could, he didn't care about the clock or the fact that, as he has admitted, mornings are horrid when he's tired. It wasn't fair!
I could see that this was one of those times when he was again resisting the nature of the universe, in particular that clocks run in only one direction. And that actions (watching TV instead of reading) can't be undone. He was frustrated with himself, disappointed, tired, and angry, but he channeled all his feelings into that last one, anger, until it became rage.
This is when Mom (and Dad) call on all the bodhisatvas for guidance. One of the bodhisatvas who comes to my rescue is Mark Epstein, the psychologist and Buddhist practitioner who wrote Going On Being and several other insightful books. He refers a lot to the psychologist D. W. Winnicott. This passage from an article in Yoga Journal summarizes well Epstein's (and Winnicott's) teaching:
It is important to respect a child’s aggression. Without it, they will have no fire, no ability to differentiate themselves, and no drive for creative expression. It is also important not to indulge a child’s aggression; obviously they have a need for limits, boundaries, and discipline.
But it is essential, in the words of the famous British child psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, not to retaliate and not to abandon in the face of a child’s anger. A parent’s duty is simply to survive. To accomplish this, we have to be able to deal with our own anger, not by pushing it away but not by indulging it either. Parents have to find a way to make their own anger skillful.
Mark Epstein, M.D. Yoga Journal, July-August 2001
A parent's duty is simply to survive. Exactly. To be more precise, though, what needs to survive is not one's ego, but one's ability to respond skillfully. With my son, when he is raging, the task is to set boundaries and limits to his actions without telling him not to be angry. The task is, largely, to help him contain the anger and to guide him back to those other emotions.
The task last night was more complex, though, because he started shoving. A lot. So part of staying skillful was staying safe. I had to make clear in that very moment that shoving, manhandling, force was NOT OKAY. That meant that I had to be very firm. Okay, I had to yell. But it was kind yelling -- no insults. And I corrected him, loudly and clearly, rather than retreat. I did not retaliate and I did not abandon. I used, I think, the skill of Fierce Compassion, a skill that I am hungry to learn about from teachers and books, but that I seem mostly to learn about through the engaged practice of parenting my son.
After closing himself in the bathroom for awhile, he finally calmed down. I insisted that he apologize. He didn't quite see why he had to. So I explained, firmly but more quietly (since he was now curled up on my lap) how crucial it is that he not use his bodily strength against people. He started to get it. The more he calmed down, the more he got it, the more he remembered that he already got this.
He wanted to end the evening on good terms -- he had looked forward to us both reading on his bed, all comfy -- and so I sat with him and we talked about other things for a little while. Then I left to get ready for bed myself.
It is tiring to have to go through things like this. It is tiring to think about how to teach him to notice his own rage when it is still just a seed, how to talk to his therapist about teaching him. It is tiring to think about having to carry out the consequence (no computer for two days). But I get much less upset about episodes like this than I used to. Partly, I am used to it, and partly, I am much more skilled than I used to be.
That is the Mommiful Practice.
The practice of raising a Buddhist parent.
P.S. In spite of everything, I smile to think that all of this fuss was about wanting to read. Down to the mat for a book! It could be worse.