Fantasy Life and Getting Ready for Parenthood
I’ve written before on my longing to have a child, my thoughts on how I would teach my child about love, and probably strewn throughout many other posts are a lot of my thoughts on childhood and motherhood (and Teri as a father). I think about kids a lot, in part because helping families is one of the things I do, but also because I am so thankful to have gotten the gift of really understanding them from Camp Boggy Creek and my dear, if now faraway, friend and mentor, Dorcas Tomasek.
I have, over time, in addition to my scientific and technical knowledge, developed a strongly-held belief system about childhood. It’s something that made all the difference in my notion of children and my notion of parenting. At Camp Boggy Creek and all the Hole in the Wall Camps, Paul Newman, the founder of the system, believed strongly in the mythos of childhood. That mythos includes a pantheon of characters and experiences, for instances, starting at Boggy Creek sessions with Mr. Spivey, the hundred-year-old man who would paddle across the lake in a canoe and teach children the lessons Native Americans had taught him many years ago, on the same space, instilling in them a belief in magic, and by extension, in possibility. Newman, and by extension all of us who became part of this family he made, believed strongly that this mythos, and its pantheon, must belong to each child, must be their own to add to, to modify, to evolve. As they developed the story of the mythos, so too, the story would develop them.
Bruno Bettelheim was very influential in this thinking, as well. I should point out that Bettelheim was famously and tragically wrong in his belief that the autistic brain results from defective mothering – the “refrigerator mother” – something that would be quickly dismissed as foolishness merely by actually getting to know some autistic people and their mothers. This makes what I have to say about Bettelheim somewhat the reverse of what I had to say about Lovaas. In that latter case, he was incredibly influential in setting the bar high for what autistic people could be helped to do and become, but was problematic in his belief that behaviorism could change the fundamental nature of people, particularly applying it to odious conversion therapies. In this former case, Bettelheim’s ideas about autism are arrogant over-extensions of psychodynamic thinking, but he has some important things to say about childhood more broadly. Bettelheim was a complex figure in other ways, accused of internalized anti-semitism, ultimately committing suicide about 25 years ago, and … in any event, I mention him, and I have friends and colleagues who knew him (and I have been to see the Orthogenic school in its current guise, and it is a wondrous place, even if there is darkness in its past), but I am focusing on the kernel which seems to me wisdom.
That kernel is that fantasy, which we all too often call inappropriate, in children especially, but in adults as well, is not only appropriate but crucial. Rather than thinking of fantasy as a limitation in the young child’s brain (“Oh, he doesn’t know it’s not real, yet!”), fantasy should be seen as deeply functional. In simplest terms, it allows us to add exponentially to our experiences and our interactions with others, both deepening and broadening our understand of the world and our place in it. Bettelheim – who was a survivor of Buchenwald* – knew very well the idea that the future, itself, is ultimately entirely fantasy, and thus without fantasy came death, if not physically, then spiritually. This quote is a great example:
The child, so much more insecure than an adult, needs assurance that his need to engage in fantasy, or his inability to stop doing so, is not a deficiency. – Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
I am well known for embracing a rich inner life of fantasy. And I am unapologetic in it. This is a thing** that, at his best, Bettelheim wanted for all children, I believe in the hope that they could likewise become adults whose fantasy was a source of power and a workshop in which to refine their sense of identity. This is sorely needed, for we seem often to live in a sea of people lacking real, substantial identity (a thing certainly not to be much found in whether one’s iPhone is space grey or rose gold). This is evident in their lack of even an idea of role models, and especially the idea of role models or heroes that are not fictitious in nature, or even more often, not only fictitious but visually represented by actors or actresses, or in the form of comic book characters***.
The American Academy of Pediatrics had previously been staunch in their opposition to “screen time” for young children. They are revising this. Sadly, their logic is simply a fatalistic recognition that it is no longer realistic to suggest that young children not use screens and devices. Apropos of iPhones, however, one thing we have been thinking about as a family is that Teri and I spend a lot of our own time glued to devices. We have a deep and spiritual bond. We are at the moment, together at a coffee shop, both writing on our separate MacBooks. And Teri is close to me. I feel him in my blood. But I am increasingly concerned that we must manage our time – particularly on Facebook or other social media – in a different way in preparation for our child, because our child will not understand how to navigate the deep bond we have with each other in the way that Teri and I have learned to do so.
That is one reason I do not want the mother’s milk of my nurturance to be measured in dots per inch or achievements unlocked. The far greater one, in my belief system of childhood, is that my child will not be great if I do not support them in learning to imagine. My child will not outsource their imagination to Hollywood nor to Cupertino. I simply will not have it. My child will read books, yes, for they are richer in their nurturance of imagination by far than film. But more than read or retell stories, my child will create stories. I want this to be instilled in the curriculum not of their graduate life but beginning in their preschool life. And thus I want them (and Teri and me) to scarcely have time to devote to these screens, so busy should we be creating together.
Through fantasy, like me, my child will live not one but many lives. I hope that, like me, my child will be a multipotentialite (I didn’t know this word until recently, but I know the experience of it very, very well).
But whether my child is multipotentialite or not, through fantasy, my child will live many lives, at once and over time, and each of these lives they live, each of these worlds they create, each of these stories they hone, will teach them things of value about who they are, about who they were, about who they will be, about how they will change the world, and how and when they will allow themselves to be changed by the world. In this way, teaching them fantasy will be the most important thing Teri and I will do for them.
It will be, in fact, the way we give them their future.
* This is a kind of surreal thing. Bettelheim was released from Buchenwald in essence, as a sort of birthday present to Adolf Hitler from Adolf Hitler. One can hardly express or imagine the profound irony of such a thing.
** I wrote, initially, a think – which would be an equally good choice. Our notions of childhood have another think coming.
*** I feel there is much to say, as well, about this in isolation – why do so few young people, today, have role models? To me, this cannot be written off purely as postmodernism. Yes, we live in a more complex, dynamic, and pluralistic society. But, rather than erasing access to role models, to me, this amplifies it – in a world that were less complex, less dynamic, less pluralistic, would Malala be a role model or inspiration for me, for example? And though I seek to be no other person who has come before me, I draw identity from the common values and aspirations I share with my own pantheon of inspiratory figures.
What I Will Teach My Child About Love
Because it aches me today, to be still far from knowing my child, to not yet have seen their face or hold them in my arms:
I will teach my child about love. I am not afraid to teach my child about love, though it makes others uneasy. You may wonder what I will teach my child about love, so let me tell you.
I will teach my child first about life, because love derives from the joy of life. Although I do not understand everything about life, or its meaning, I will teach my child that this world has a deep structure, that this life means something.
I will teach my child that the root of love for others is love for self. I will teach my child self love. I will teach my child always to find themselves, to learn and discover who they are and what, and that when they find the path to their own self, they will find love pour into their lives. I will teach them that this is a confusing path, and who they will be may at times be hard to see, or even change, but I will teach them always to search, and to not fear what they find inside themselves. I will teach my child that this will be the most important thing they ever do.
I do not know whether my child will be boy child or girl child, both or neither. Even when I meet them I may still not know. But I will teach them that their truth is flickering inside them already. I will teach my child to always celebrate the pursuit of who they are, and if they lose their way, I will love them for the dream that flickers still inside them, and I will coax that flame to roar again. I do not know whether my child will be girl child or boy child, neither or both, but I know their voice will be proud, and their love will be proud.
I will teach my child that their body is theirs. I will teach them to care for that body and safeguard it, and I will teach them to be willing to risk that body only of their own choosing. If I guard their right to make decisions over their body, as a mother, for a time, I will teach them that I do so only for a time, and that I guard a right that has always been and can only be theirs. I will teach my child that no other body can ever belong to them. I will teach my child that the giving or receiving of the gift of another’s body is sacred, to be feared because it is powerful but not because it is wrong.
I shall teach my child so that my child will grow from a young age to know what true love is, through my true love for them. Though I shall always give thanks to the mother that birthed my child, and I will always celebrate her sacrifice, I shall teach my child knowing the truth of my own motherhood was never in doubt, and the truth of my love for my child that derives from that truth. I shall teach my child that true love was how I came to find them, searching for them and fearing for them lost without me, and I shall teach them that my anchor in my wandering search was my own true love for their father, who found me when I needed him most, for whom I had always been looking.
I will teach my child that the bond between me and their father prince is more powerful than any of us can understand, and that no one could separate me from him, but I will teach my child that our love prince for princess and princess for prince, grows not weaker but stronger because of our love for our child. I shall teach my child that they will never have to vie for my love, or earn it, and that they cannot be separated from it, for my love runs truer and deeper than my body or my life, and though I do not know everything that comes after death, I will teach them that it can never separate my child from my love. I will teach my child to know safety by knowing love
I will teach my child that magic is exceeding rare in this world, but that it does exist, and because it exists, although they are very rare, true love and love at first sight are real. I will teach my child that, like precious stones, because they are uncommon does not make them unreal. I will teach my child this from personal experience, and although I do not know if my child will be lucky enough to have such experience, they will know to recognize it if they should ever have that chance.
I will teach my child that, while most of the time, princes look for the princess of their dreams, and princesses brave adventures to find their prince, like I braved and I found mine, that this is not always what happens, that some princes find princes to share their castles, and some princesses find princesses, and their fairy tales do not take away from each other, but strengthen each other. I will teach my child they may love one or many, for years or days, and I will teach my child to rejoice in every love they have, and to build their lovers up and expect to be built up by those who love them.
I shall teach my child, too, that whether they celebrate their scars in private or openly, they must celebrate their scars, for each scar makes their love more precious, each one refines and strengthens its power and magic.
I will teach my child that, though they are a child of magic, that I bestow on them that rare candle that burns so infrequently in our world, and that they carry that candle and pass it on to others, love that comes from magic need have no fear of the ordinary rules of the world, which do not choose according to love but logic. I shall teach them to learn and know all those rules, too, and this too will make my child’s love stronger.
All of this and more, will I teach my child about love, because my child will know about love.
On Wanting Family
One of the things with which I really struggle, mostly quietly, is wanting desperately to have a baby. I mean, to bear a child. I love this life. I am so thankful daily to have been given all the opportunities and to have been able to see all the wonders I have seen so far, and each day adds new wonders to my hope chest. I find myself easily not bitter about most things. The one thing I find hard to embrace is never being able to bear a child. Of course, I want so desperately to be able to have that one thing I cannot have. And each day, I find ways to make it okay.
There isn’t much I wouldn’t do for these kids…they get me through a lot. So I find strength in all of them. All my families – the ones I was born into and the ones I found. I find strength in Teri’s arms*. I cradle Iago (those moments, at night, tucked in-between my two boys**, are so wonderful). Sometimes, I cry about it. More than just once in a while.
I also got used to the idea that it isn’t something people are going to understand. So many people – and I mean people who really, really love me – instantly, dismissively, remind me that I can adopt, that adopting is just the same. But it isn’t, really. Or worse, they tell me, of course, that isn’t possible***. Or worse yet, they tell me that I’m better off without kids. Maybe. I’m happy that there are people who find meaning in all kinds of things. And I’ve found so much meaning in so much. But I also feel that I am meant, amongst many other things, to be a mother. If being without a child is some kind of affluence, surely, I am meant to be poor.
A friend, who is a trans man, recently commented that he is sometimes accused of being selfish, because he bore a child before he transitioned. He responds, simply, that he wanted children, and he could do it, so he did. Childless women, and childless couples in general, are a political hot-button topic, too. People too easily make all kinds of incorrect inferences. So let’s just be clear. So many people who choose not to have children give back to society in so many ways. And some people who do choose to have children give little back to society, or sometimes even to their own kids. And not everyone (myself in particular) who is childless is childless by choice. I did not have the option that my friend did. To me, although I want desperately to have a child, I could not stand the thought of being a father to one – it is simply not a role I am meant to play. So, for me, the only real route to a child of my own blood was not something I wanted to pursue, and I don’t regret it, because I don’t think it was what was meant to be.
Then, one night, swathed in blankets and in the gentle sleeping noises Teri and Iago make****, I was up at night, crying. I do this, sometimes. Not a lot, but sometimes. Teri awoke, held me, comforted me, and wiped away my tears, asking me what was wrong. But this time, they weren’t very sad tears. I started to learn to see my plight in a different way. I have felt for some time – ever since I met him – that Teri is my Prince Charming. That our spirits were always looking for each other. They (we) knew each other instantly, after so much yearning, so much searching, and so much wandering in all the years we were apart. I am in turns very Christian in my sentimentality, and in turns very spiritual in a more general sense, but I believe unwaveringly that there is a deep structure to the universe, in which we are embedded, and that our lives have more meaning, more purpose, and more importance than just the interactions we have with the atoms in which we bathe. I guess I don’t really know if it’s true, but like Pi Patel in the Life of Pi, it colors the way I see the world, and to me, the world is far richer seen this way. So, to me, Teri’s spirit and mine were always meant to be together. We didn’t really have or need love at first sight, because our spirits loved each other long before we met – they were always made for loving each other. Loving Teri is not something I choose, but something I am. Teri was what I had always been looking for, even if I wouldn’t have known how to describe it, or known fully how to prepare myself to be ready for him, when he finally came.
I also recognized that I had little part in that moment when our spirits finally came together. Our meeting happened by chance. This is the story that’s in our StoryCorps recording, in my PFLAG speech, etc., etc., I guess, I can’t stop telling that story, and I probably never will. It was all chance strung from chance hanging from chance. I was always looking for Teri, but the most I can really claim for myself is that I was ready to jump into his arms when I finally found him.
What if this…is…the same? I had been grieving, all this time, and still struggle with, even now, my barrenness. But I found that Teri’s spirit was out there, and although it required years of faith and waiting, our spirits were always meant to be together, and now we are. What if the child I am supposed to mother is out there, too, in spirit? Maybe a spirit that hasn’t even been born yet. Or, maybe a spirit that is lost and alone, out there, desperately trying to find a way even now to us. It breaks my heart to think the spirit of my child is out there, struggling without us. That I cannot now comfort that pain or kiss away those tears. But a spirit that belongs with us, out there, seeking us out…. I know that my child is strong, and brave, born of the same courage from which Teri and I came. Like me, I don’t think my child is fearless, because I have been – am – so scared, so many times, but I know that my child has a spirit that perseveres, that is not stopped . Most of all, I know my child sees life as a gift, like we do, and that someday, when that moment comes, when our spirits can be together, just like I knew to leap to Teri with all my might, our child will know. And we’ll know, too.
And then, we’ll be together. And, much as I remember all the years before I found Teri, but they didn’t make sense – really make sense – until I met him, and he put them in context, I will understand why my path to motherhood has been so long and treacherous, and I will recognize that it was the perfect path, and the only path I am meant to follow.
* Teri supports me through this wonderfully. Recently, he’s talked more than once about wanting children, but I think we both recognize the depth of pain about this is something I really go through alone, inside myself.
** I’m crying, writing this blog. Teri made Iago move so he could hold me, but Iago went around Teri, got back up on the other couch, and climbed into my lap, so I have one arm typing from above him now, the other below.
*** Yes, I am quite cognizant of that fact, thank you.
**** Okay, they both snore sometimes, but at that moment, they were gentle.
I had the opportunity last week to speak briefly, on television, about inclusion of LGBTQ students, particularly focusing on transgender students. This comes in the context of a draft guidance from our state Board of Education, and I want to share more detailed thoughts on that topic.
Thank you so much to WOOD TV 8 for having me out to discuss the need for schools that are safe and empowering for all Michigan kids
Below is the text of my public comment on the Michigan Board of Education’s Draft Statement and Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Students (you can read the guidance here). Public comments are being accepted through May 11, 2016, and if you have something to say, I strongly encourage you to speak. You can make your comment and read comments here.