In these early days of January, most of us have made resolutions for the year ahead. Some will last weeks or months, while others have petered out already. But every once in a while, we make a resolution that lasts a lifetime. However, those changes don’t usually start on January 1. Those types of transformations require a clarity and conviction rarely available to us in our post-holiday haze.
More often, it is in moments of crisis (though sometimes just out of the blue) that we have a vision of how things might be different, how we ourselves might be different, and how that difference just might change everything. And suddenly, more than anything, we want that change. We want to be that change. Suddenly, that resolution isn’t something we have to do anymore; it’s something we can’t help but do. We are resolved, no matter how difficult it is, or what the task asks of us. We change our habits and our way of operating in the world. We fail repeatedly, but we don’t give up. The vision of what’s possible holds us fast, because it really is that good.
In the course of my life, only a few resolutions have taken hold of me in this way, but I’m grateful for each and every one of them.
There was the resolve to become a birth mother, 26 years ago this month.
Marrying Tim, 23 years ago.
Becoming a Weight Watcher, 6 years, 2 kids and 20 pounds later.
Joining the YMCA, 10 years ago.
Writing as a spiritual practice and starting this blog, 9 and 5 years ago respectively.
Last month, I had a chance to talk about one of these resolutions (or “course-corrections” as I think of them) on the podcast Contemplify. Paul Swanson, the host, asked me to reflect on a book that had significantly impacted my spiritual journey. I immediately went to my list of “greats” – Merton, Rohr, D’Arcy, Keating, Bell, Bourgeault – the people I have read over and over again. But no one book had inspired the type of metanoia, or complete and total shift that I was looking for. Though they have re-shaped the contours of my heart, their influence has been steady and incremental, more than seismic.
And then I remembered the last big resolution I made and the book that inspired it. In the spring of 2013, I came across The Conscious Parent by Dr. Shefali Tsabary. Keara had just turned sixteen years old and I was so far from the being the mom I wanted (and she needed me) to be. For all my spiritual work, my daily disciplines and practices, I had been blind to how I was failing to truly love the person (and all the little people in my home) who needed my love the most. I was loving them to the best of my ability, which is to say, not nearly enough. In that moment, I resolved to love them better, more fully and consciously.
It is a resolution I am still committed to, though I fail to keep it each and every day. My hope is that my kids see me trying and that the effort itself will inspire the grace and forgiveness we’ll need to grow old together in love.
That’s all I’ll say here about the resolution, because I hope you’ll tune in to the podcast. If you’re a parent, grandparent, or even have a few “parent issues” you’re still working out, I think you’ll find the podcast interesting and maybe even inspire you to check out the book!
You can download the episode on Itunes. It can be found under Contemplify, Epidsode 17.
For the record, feminism by definition is: ‘The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.'”
– Emma Watson in her speech at the UN in September 2014
A couple weeks ago, I read an essay by Courtney Martin, an author, activist and mother to two daughters. It was called “The Limitless Potential of Men to Transform Manhood.” In the essay, she commented that her husband, John, is relieved to be raising daughters. John is definitely male, but not an alpha. He doesn’t identify with the masculine stereotypes of yesteryear, so daughters seem like a more comfortable fit. He knows the message he wants to deliver – Be strong; be yourself; transcend your limitations, etc. John’s lucky; he also married a ringer of a role model– a super intelligent, strong wife, who wears the pants in the family, just like he does.
Sons? John’s not so sure what he would say to them. It’s confusing enough to be a young man in today’s world, much less raise one. (He’s right; it’s way easier to teach someone to step into their power, than to temper it.) Being a journalist, Courtney ran a little informal poll and found lots of men who felt the same way. Whew! I’ve got girls. I know the message I want to convey: empowerment, strength, personal freedom. It’s disappointing they don’t feel like they could give boys those same messages, but I get why. The implication for a boy, based on historical evidence, is that male empowerment, strength and freedom comes at a cost, usually to everyone else. Patriarchy flourished over the past millennia on the backs of the “other,” namely women, the weak and the poor.
Feminism of the sixties and seventies started down the path of trying to beat men at their own game, by being even stronger and more aggressive. (We just have to look at the fashion of the eighties to know it’s true.) But many women of my generation disavowed feminism for that very reason. We got sick of trying to “out alpha” the men, so we quit playing, which really angers some long-time feminists.
But this isn’t a case of young women taking our ball and going home. It’s NOT because we were losing; it’s because we woke up to the fact that the game’s not worth playing! We never got a vote about it in the first place! We didn’t help make the rules; we didn’t get to pick the venue, or the referee. We didn’t get any input on how the points were scored, or what determined the winner. It was handed to us, with men favored at every turn. The second-wave feminists were just so determined to get on the field that they were willing to get their teeth kicked in over and over again, just for the privilege of playing the game. It may have been a necessary step, but a new generation of feminists is calling bullshit on the whole system. They are sick and tired of having to compete, succeed, and perform on every level: personally, professionally, physically, civically, spiritually, organically, etc. and then face criticism if they don’t meet some pre-determined standard.
Young women are ‘leaning in,’ but not to the patriarchal, “winner and take all” game. Even if it means never getting their turn in the big arenas (coincidentally, the ones men built), young feminists, of both genders, are trying to invent a new game – one where everyone can play to their own strengths. Everyone is invited to the conversation, to take leading and supporting roles, to find their niche in a system that honors all of who they are – the masculine and the feminine – the parts of themselves previous generations had to deny when they were locked into the essentialism of their gender at birth. (Essentialism is just a fancy word for the false belief that men are THIS and women are THAT – biologically and entirely, with no exceptions.)
Now, I know that oversimplification might ruffle a lot of feathers in the blogosphere, but in broad strokes, I think there is something to it. We want more parity, but not just according to the old paradigms. (Change happens on the margins, so if you want to see more examples of where this happening, look no further than the young women flocking to the Bernie Sanders movement over Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or the huge emphasis on the T and the Q in the LGBTQ community. Gender non-binaries are where it’s at!)
So what does all this have to do with raising a feminist son?
After I read Courtney’s article, I sent it to Tim, who I thought might understand where her husband was coming from, but in fact, Tim was super disappointed in John’s perspective. In his email back to me (and my mellow brother-in-law, Nathan, who is raising three girls), he wrote:
“I feel the opposite. I’m happy to raise strong women, but I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise a son that isn’t a typical alpha-male. The world needs less of those, so I’m glad I get to play a part in moving things forward rather than backward. But whoever we are raising, I think that we need to raise them with less gender constraints and more humanity.”
Hot damn! Is it any wonder I love that man?
I just wish his perspective was more common among Courtney’s husband and their peers. If any of them have sons, I know they will step up to the plate, but I wish they were more excited about the prospect. We need to change the narrative about parenting. We can’t change our daughters’ futures unless we change our sons’ as well! We can’t leave our sons in the dark, while we lift our daughters into the light. It is going to take the evolution of BOTH genders to bring about real gender equality.
But I know Tim and I aren’t alone on this belief. In our circle of friends, we know a ton of boys who are being raised to see girls as their equal, and to treat them with the respect due a peer, not a princess. Some of these young men are even willing to be vulnerable, to have conversations with each other about their dreams and disappointments. They are intentional about who they are and how they want to be in the world. Finn and his friends give me a lot of hope for the future and so do a couple of other people out there in the wider world.
One of them is Glennon Doyle Melton. She’s on the other side of the country in Florida, but I share a lot of her work on Facebook and sometimes link to her through my blog. About a year ago, she wrote something about her son Chase that she reposted recently. I think it’s a perfect model for how to raise a feminist son. She wrote:
When Chase was eight, a woman approached us at the grocery store and said, “What a handsome boy! What do you plan to be when you grow up, young man?” Chase looked at her and said, “I plan to be kind and brave, ma’am.”
Chase wants to be a human being who is kind and brave and he is already that. He knows that his “success” does not depend upon whether he lands some job or not. He knows he’ll be a success if he continues to practice kindness and courage wherever and with whomever he finds himself. Today he is a kind and brave sixth grader and one day he’ll be a kind a brave high schooler and one day maybe he’ll be a kind and brave teacher or artist or father or carpenter or friend. His roles will change but his character will remain. He is already who he wants to be. So he can just go about being himself forever. Following his curiosity. One Next Right Thing at a time.
Glennon and her husband Craig are not raising their son to play the old-school game, of winners and losers. If you are yourself, if you are a person of character, if you are conscious and compassionate, YOU WIN! This kid is going to be a feminist, but not just because he is growing up in a home with sisters who are his equals, and a strong mom. Perhaps most importantly, he has a strong dad, a man who doesn’t derive his power from dominance, or by diminishing the ideas and gifts of those around him.
The second example is a little closer to home. Here in San Diego, there is a little church called Sojourn Grace Collective. It was founded about two years ago by a couple, who pastor together: Colby Martin and Kate Christensen Martin. We’ve stopped by a few times and we love what the church is about. But what I love especially is that Kate is on fire for feminism and Colby is on fire for Kate (duh, who wouldn’t be?), but for reasons beyond the obvious ones. Like Kate, he is all about changing the rules of the old-school game, even though, as an educated, straight white man, he could have won big time by playing for the patriarchy. He has a book, Unclobber, coming out in the fall about the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the church and society; he writes blog posts about why #BlackLivesMatter and he is just wrapping up a sermon series on Liberation Theology and how it changed everything for him. Kate preached her own liberation sermon Mother’s Day. You can check it out here.
But there is one more thing about Kate and Colby that is pretty special. They have four sons! They get to reverse engineer this whole feminism thing for the next twenty years by lifting up their sons! I want them to write a book about that next! Parents who are wondering how to raise boys in our ever-changing world could probably use it!
So, how do you raise a feminist son?
I think there are a thousand ways and more, but it has to start with wanting to. It has to start with realizing that feminism isn’t just about the empowerment of women and girls to be all they can be. It is about the liberation of men and boys from outdated cultural models that force them to be less than who they fully are. We have to free our children from the belief that masculinity is synonymous with material success and stoicism and that strength and forthrightness are not feminine. We have to honor them for ALL they are and encourage them to “lean in” to that above all else.
But first, we have to wake up ourselves to the fact that this “war” between the sexes is not a zero sum game; we are not actually on different sides. We are winners and losers together. Feminism is the path we need to embrace for now to get on the same team, but true liberation for both genders is about so much more. It is about the fullest expression of who we are as individuals and a collective humanity. It will always be a dance between freedom and responsibility, strength and vulnerability, struggle and victory. It’s about equality for all and we have to be willing to get into the new game ourselves, showing up humbly and authentically, ready to play.
Also, one of my favorite podcasters, Mike McHargue, is a super smart and super spiritual guy, who also proudly claims to be a feminist. Unfortunately in my opinion, he is raising only daughters. Sigh…So is his incredible podcast partner, Michael Gungor. Check them out at The Liturgists sometime. You won’t be disappointed!
Finally, let me be clear as I end this post:
Finn has never claimed the title “feminist” for himself, but when I showed him the definition of feminism above, he looked at me with a “Duh? Who doesn’t believe in that?” kind of look. “I believe in feminism,” he said, “but I wouldn’t call myself one.”
Philomena was the last film I saw over the holiday season. I kept hearing how good it was, but I was hesitant. As a birth mother, I didn’t know how much it would hurt. Some of the movie really hit home with me. Not most of it, just some. What Philomena Lee experienced as a young, unwed mother took place in a different time and under a different set of circumstances all together.
The scene I related to the most came near the end when she was able to watch a collection of home movies of her son growing up, from the day he was taken from her to the day he died. His joys, his accomplishments, his loves played out on the screen before her, while tears filled her eyes.
I know that scene. I lived it out for years, over and over again, equally delighted and devastated. In those moments, captured on screen, or in a 4×6 snapshot, you see everything your child has gained by being lost to you: the adoring mom and dad, a beautiful home, pretty clothes. But most of all, what Philomena and I witnessed were the countless opportunities our children had that we could not provide. It seemed they could be anything they wanted to be, unhampered by us, young women unprepared to be a mother.
I watched most of Sarah’s young life unfold through pictures – her days at the beach and preschool graduation, her 1st day of Catholic school and the pride and joy she felt holding her baby sister. To celebrate her fifth birthday, Tim pulled them all together for me in a movie called “Sarah Smiles.” As Hall and Oates crooned the hit song, I watched my baby girl’s life go by in three-second frames. From start to finish, her blue eyes and huge grin never faded though her chubby cheeks and pale pink skin gave way to wispy white hair and a freckled nose. When our “open” adoption became more open and I met Sarah for the first time just before her 7th birthday, I took a hundred pictures in one afternoon. As the years have gone by and we see each other more regularly, I still have to hold myself back from chasing her around with a camera; I don’t want to forget a single moment.
Author and poet Mark Nepo tells the story of a Hindu monk, frustrated by the constant complaints of his student. One day, he told the young man to throw a handful of salt in a cup and drink it. When asked how it tasted, the student said, “Bitter.” The monk then asked him to throw a handful of salt into the lake and to drink from it. He asked how it tasted and the young man said, “Fresh.”
Our life experiences, especially the difficult ones, are the salt in our hands, but whether we taste life’s bitterness, or sweetness depends on the vessel from which we choose to drink. The cup is so much easier, always on hand and socially acceptable. The lake takes an effort; it’s a walk and we have to get down on our knees and reach out to find the sweetness we desire.
In the movie, Philomena found the sweetness. She had been wronged; her child was stolen from her. She endured a lifetime of punishment for a few moments of pleasure. But despite all the church did to prevent her from finding or reconciling with her son, Philomena forgave them. She rejected the cup of bitterness, telling the nun who kept them apart, “I forgive you, because I don’t want to remain angry.” The journalist telling her story thinks she is a fool for doing so. He is angry, drinking cup after cup from her life and wondering why she won’t join him. But what need did Philomena have for a cup when she had made her life the size of a lake?
I had hoped to watch the filmwith Tim, or my mom, someone who had walked through my adoption with me. Maybe we could relive some old memories and talk about the past, but instead I saw the film with Keara and I am so glad I did. As the credits rolled, I realized we were right where we were supposed to be. It was a profound moment, realizing this movie wasn’t about my past; it was about my present.
I looked over at Kiko and tears filled my eyes. I squeezed her hand and thought about how my time and influence with her are waning. She is almost seventeen years old and I don’t think I truly understood until that moment what a privilege it is to parent my own child.
We think we have a right to it; we know we have a responsibility, but do we ever acknowledge what a gift it is?
In the darkened theater, I leaned over and whispered to her:
It has been my privilege to raise you and I have taken it for granted. I am so filled with gratitude for the opportunity to be your mom, to watch you grow each and every day, to experience life through your eyes and to be changed by your choices. Thank you for loving me and for letting me love you the way I do.
As I tucked Finn and Molly in to bed that night, I told them the same thing – how grateful I was for the opportunity to be their mom. It is a gift to hear their voices, to watch them walk through the front door, to go to sleep each night each night with them safely beneath my roof. I have taken it for granted that I could touch their hair, kiss their cheeks, hold their hands, but it’s all a miracle. Somehow, they are mine to care for. Everything I lost when I let Sarah go, I have experienced three times over, which makes it all the more bearable and yet bittersweet.
Parenting is so much salt in our hands. It challenges us physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually and when things are hard, I choose the cup too often. I can cite convenience, busyness, or stress; I can point out how at least one of them is moody, messy, hungry, entitled, or demanding at any given time. I can always find an excuse, but the truth is I don’t want any bitterness, or even indifference in my life. I want the sweetness that comes with gratitude, grace and Love, the freshness that comes from knowing it is all a miracle. So I will continue to take a walk each day, to get on my knees and reach out my hands to the fresh water. I will drink it all in.