Monthly Archives: July 2011

What is a ‘good’ parent?

Is it just me, or does anyone else spend a lot of time worrying about how bad they are as a parent? There are those brief and rare respites of about five minutes every three months when everybody in the house seems content and peaceful, and you feel like you’re getting somewhere as a parent, but then the rest of the time is punctuated with disagreements, sulks, arguments, fights or simply undercurrents of tension. I suppose the more children you have, the more opportunities there are available to you to realise how much you actually do fail at being caring and calm and firm and loving and consistent.

So what standards do we set for ourselves to live up to? How do we decide what it is that makes a parent good? Of course, it might only be me, but I have a slight suspicion that I’m not alone in this. Perhaps it’s something to do with conflict, how much of it there is within the family, and how it is fed by external pressures on the parents and the children. Let’s face it, home is the only place where you can completely relax, where all the tension you’ve carried during the day drains away or gets passed on to someone else.

I know that when I haven’t managed conflict with the children well (which I must confess is most of the time) my confidence in my parenting ability plummets off the scale and deep down into the murky depths. But I also spend time doubting whether I’m offering them the right amount of independent activity and of time I spend with them; whether they’re physically active enough; whether they’re watching too much television; whether they feel able to tell me if anything’s upsetting them; whether the way I discipline them (when I actually am to some extent feeling calm and in control) is appropriate to their personalities…oh the list is endless. Slightly disconcerting is the fact that the more time I spend worrying about how I am with the children, the more my anxiety will affect my relationships with them!

I wonder where these ideas come from about what it takes to be a good parent. I would hazard a guess that how I was parented, the media, and conversations with other parents could be the main influences, and as I look at the list in the previous paragraph they all seem very worthy aspects of parenthood to be concerned about. But why worry about them? Perhaps the loss of confidence through badly managed conflict is the catalyst for these things beginning to feel like a burden. But it doesn’t make sense to try and avoid conflict, because that means shoving our anxieties and stresses in a suitcase and hiding it in the attic. Eventually the suitcase is going to explode and make an awful mess. Perhaps it’s possible that conflict could be transformed from something negative to something positive, a way for me to become closer to the children. It could be a case of recognising the fights before they’ve even begun. Not in order to head them off at the pass, but to start working through them before stress or tension has escalated beyond the point of peaceful resolution. Easy as pie!

I have a feeling this is one of those unanswerable questions. Apart from anything else, every generation has different expectations of its parents, so the criteria for being a ‘good’ parent changes fairly rapidly. The ability to discern whether each criterion is of real value is hard-won, yet I suspect having confidence in what you are working towards is strong currency for anyone trying to be the best parent they can for their children. Perhaps there is the starting point for carrying parental confidence over and through the times of conflict that are a natural part of family life.

Anyone else got any ideas?

Is individuality enough for a Christian?

It’s interesting how a few chance conversational snippets can cause a train a thought that leads to such a deep question. I realised quite recently that within my own experience, my overwhelming sense is that the Christian faith is between God and the individual. The idea that faith can and should be experienced as part of a wider group of people – even beyond the circle of those with whom we directly connect – seems to be either a thing of the past, or perhaps never existed in the first place. I don’t mean in the sense of people attending church services together, because there is clear evidence of truly deep and moving experiences of communal worship in churches all over the world, but rather I think I mean that there is little sense in which for each of us, our faith belongs to others in the Christian family as much as to God. While many Christians do regularly gather together, and feel a sense of belonging to particular Christian communities, it feels as though there is a sense in which we isolate ourselves either because we are unable or unwilling to reveal too much. I think if there is any evidence of this sense of individuality, it is in, for example, a person’s desire to pursue their own ministry within their church without reference to the needs of whole community, or the Anglican churches who choose not to pay their parish share, or even the lack of interest in Christians from other denominations.

There is a strong sense of group faith in the Old Testament as the story of the Israelite community unfolds and it eventually becomes a great nation which (at least some of the time) worships Yahweh together; their religion is central to their national identity. A reading of the New Testament I suppose could indicate that the need for one’s faith to belong to other people as well as to God is no longer an issue. However I recently read a passage in Matthew (verses 20 to 24 of chapter 11) which suggest that Jesus is holding entire Jewish cities to account for their lack of repentance. The New Testament reports that Jesus’ message was spreading in each of the cities mentioned, so they weren’t lacking in individuals who believed. I tentatively wonder whether Jesus was referring to dishonesty and corruption running deep through the strata of public governance, which could have referred to the Roman occupiers but also the Jewish community leaders such as the teachers of the law. I can’t at the moment come up with any other ideas about what he could have meant, but I do know that Jesus was never vague – his words always had very precise meaning, even if those listening weren’t always able to grasp it! This particular passage is very brief, but does suggest that Jesus feels there certainly is a corporate dimension to what it means to follow him.

I do think it is important to recognise that a full experience of the Christian faith cannot be had simply by relying on other Christians to get you where you want to go. Hiding from God behind other people is unhelpful, if not damaging. Anyone desiring to follow Jesus hopefully recognises that we are called as individuals and therefore can experience an individual relationship with him. However I begin to wonder about how much more enriched our individual faith could be if we were to open ourselves more honestly and more lovingly within our church communities – be they formal or informal – and allow ourselves to be transformed not just by God working directly in us through his Spirit, but by the needs and gifts and hurts and difficult times and joys of the Christians with whom we fellowship and worship. There is a cost to integrating ourselves so deeply within a community,  perhaps a sacrifice of independence or pride or privacy, but cost is part of a genuine faith, and if we’re willing to pay, the rewards of growth and maturity and wisdom – and above all, a greater capacity to love others – are there waiting for us.

Where have all the gardens gone?

I recently had a conversation with someone who is trying to buy a house locally and has viewed probably around twenty houses by now. What really struck me was her comment that the more recently-built houses more often than not have very small gardens.

The reason this comment particularly aroused my interest is that since we moved into our new house I have begun to find the time for and interest in gardening that I have previously lacked, presumably due to the fact that the children are growing older and make slightly less constant demands on me these days. I have found immense pleasure in encouraging and nurturing growth, as well as viewing and tasting the results of my work. I have become eager to spend time in the garden, to watch the progress of the growing things and to keep a protective eye on them so that they might grow to their fullest potential. And it feels as though I have come to understand with far greater immediacy my own dependence on what is produced by the soil because I am so strongly reminded of the process required to produce the food products I buy from the supermarket.

Although it can’t be argued that there was ever a time in history when every family depended on their own garden and growing skills to feed themselves, it is true that in developed countries industrialisation has led us to the point of greater disconnection from the source of our food than, say, four hundred years ago – unless we work in the food production industry, perhaps. And so I have wondered whether the fact that new houses are built with limited garden space could be a symptom of this sense of disconnection, not just from the source of our food but also in a wider sense our dependence on the Earth and all its rich abundance. Obviously following that train of thought there are wider ecological implications, particularly the consideration that as a race, our apparent lack of concern for the damage we cause to the environment we depend upon could in part be fuelled by this growing disconnection. But my immediate response is a much more personal one, because now I find the act of gardening to be such a sustaining and fulfilling work that I feel it draws me closer to a sense of the divine presence, and the sense that all of this eager impulse to life and growth in the soil, as well as the care and dedication it takes to nurture that life, is fully and completely a divine gift.

I’m sure that if any of these musings have truth in them they are only part of the much bigger question of how we relate to our environment physically and, potentially, spiritually. Yet who’s to say that if we all had gardens and worked in them it would encourage a better sense of communal responsibility for our wider environment, or a taste of the divine presence? There is some indication that interest in gardening is growing, particularly given that gardening equipment is becoming more readily available in supermarkets. But not everyone has the impulse or inclination to be a gardener, just as not everyone has the desire to be a midwife or an engineer. And I could not begin to guess whether everyone who gardens considers it to be a spiritual activity. I do wonder though whether in the time before industrialisation, when more people depended on their own growing skills, there was greater understanding of our role as caretakers of the Earth and all it provides. And what might we achieve if as a society we continue to encourage one another to nurture the produce of the soil and provide more green spaces for each other to enjoy?

Horror story

Is it possible to reject the inheritance of abuse?

Today I read the news story about Yvonne Freaney, who recently admitted to the manslaughter of her eleven-year-old autistic son Glen: he was severely disabled and needed high levels of care which she provided herself. In March last year she left her husband and took Glen with her, staying in hotels for weeks as she was unable to find permanent accommodation. Becoming increasingly afraid that the authorities would take Glen away from her and that he wouldn’t be cared for properly, she killed him and attempted to kill herself.

According to the news reports, Mrs Freaney has experienced a lifetime of neglect and abuse. She suffered from severe neglect as a child, was a recipient of regular physical and verbal abuse from her husband, and according to the consultant psychiatrist who testified in court, suffers from a personality disorder. Dr Williams indicated that the only value she had for herself was as a mother to her four children (who each suffer from varying levels of disability).  The judge agreed with the defending barrister that sentencing Mrs Freaney to an immediate prison term was a pointless exercise, and the judge agreed, concluding that she had been ‘punished enough’.

My question in response to this case is not to do with the verdict passed by the court, however,  but is more to do with how we inherit mistreatment and abuse, and whether it is possible to break the chain of that inheritance and create a new reality for ourselves.  Yvonne Freaney inherited all the mistreatment and abuse from her parents and husband and somehow turned it all in upon herself, causing damage to her own soul.

None of the professionals who dealt with Mrs Freaney were aware of the load she was carrying up to the point of her son’s death, as it seems she tried to hold it all within herself. So to make practical suggestions about how to break the chain of abuse and family dysfunction feels irresponsible at the very least, addressing the symptoms rather than the cause. All the changes that could be made in policy and practice within social and health services would be inadequate to enable someone in Mrs Freaney’s position to feel secure enough to talk about her pain. In a society where individualism is rife, it feels as though it is our natural instinct to close off, even to those closest to us, as though somehow our pain is our own responsibility and does not belong to anyone else. Perhaps this stems from fear, or pride, yet the more we try to contain within ourselves, the more pressure we put ourselves under – and consequently, the greater damage we cause to ourselves. And so it passes on. I don’t propose that we suddenly begin spilling our innermost secrets to every stranger on the street, but I dream of a society in which there is always a safe place to go for those bearing a burden they feel unable to carry. A place to learn that it is possible to entrust others with what we’ve tried to hard to protect or avoid within ourselves, and where the process of transformation can begin. Whether such dreams could ever become reality I do not presume to have an answer for, but I can’t help believing that the potential to change and to help others change is within us all.