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Happy New Year! Today, I’m taking a trip down memory lane to when my first child was born, and it’s reminding me about something that helped sustain me during those early days: new friendships that offered mutual support. It’s a side of parenting folks don’t talk about as much as childcare itself, but that definitely merits our attention. (Let’s not let ‘old acquaintance be forgot’!)
In the beginning, my mom friends and I always joked about how crazy it is that no one gives you a manual when you take home a newborn baby. As if a days-old infant is easier to handle than a microwave! On top of all the physical issues that come with giving birth to a newborn, new mothers also deal with a whole range of questions and concerns about how to keep their babies safe, fed, and rested.
And while some things about infant care feel intuitive, most of it is pretty confusing… and all of it is up for debate when you start reading books, magazines, and social media.
And on top of THAT, in our society, new parents and their newborns are often cut off from all they knew before. You have a baby and go on parental leave/stop working—and lose your work community (at least temporarily). You stop going out—and lose your local community (again, for a period). You stop seeing friends who don’t want to be around babies, and lose some of them for good. Your family may live far away, or may visit and then go away again.
So many reasons to feel that you’re isolated and alone with an infant needing round the clock care.
To counteract this isolation and sense of uncertainty, after my first child was born, I joined a moms’ club. And then I quickly joined a second one. (I would have been happy to be part of any parent or caregiver organization, but when my child was born—a child who is a teen now—mothers’ groups were what I could find locally.) In my small living room, I hosted about 10 other mothers and their infants, all spread out in a circle on their tummies on the carpet. We compared notes on how we were surviving with 24/7 care needs, how nursing was going (or not going) and how we were dealing with our own physical recovery.
The group I spent the most time with was Las Madres, a longstanding local moms’ club in my neck of the woods. I recall my first club meeting. I found myself with my infant in a carrier walking into a Las Madres meeting in another parent’s home, and seeing folks cradling their infants in various stages of wakefulness. I walked up to another mom holding a baby that looked about 3 months older than my little one. It turned out hers (a boy) was about 6 months old, and mine (a girl) was about 3 months old. We started to talk, and later formed part of a playgroup for our infants and then toddlers. The babies were too young to interact at first—parallel play or just playing with their own feet was the extent of it. Later on they started sharing toys. But really, the playdates were for the parents. That mom has since become one of my closest friends for the past 17 years.
The bonding among new parents extended to “Moms’ Night Out” evenings organized by club members at local inexpensive eateries or cafes. We’d leave our infants at home with another caregiver, and join the group chatting about anything and everything, but mostly about our babies. I looked around at the people at the table, realizing how unusual it was to be part of a social group with folks I had nothing in common with other than our babies were born around the same time. The group encompassed a cross-section of mothers with questions like my own. The bonding was real—we were in the trenches of new parenthood, and there for each other to talk about sleep patterns, breastfeeding tricks, fighting off infections, coping with returning to work, and more.
Today I look back on those days with nostalgia. I’m thankful for that time. I am not sure if the mothers’ clubs I was part of a number of years back are as vibrant today, now that social media has grown even more prevalent for answering our baby-related questions, and since the pandemic stifled so many social activities for a long period. But I hope they are, and that they encompass any new parent or caregiver who wants mutual support.
All this leads me to say that we owe it to ourselves to form these kinds of friendships if we can. As Stoics, we don’t rely on other people exclusively to get us through tough times—we do that for ourselves. But there is a very important value to making and keeping friends through difficult times. We seek to find those people who inspire us to become even better.
As Epictetus said, we should keep company with those who uplift us, and “whose presence calls forth your best.” The friends I made as a new mother did that, and the handful of folks I’ve kept ties with from that period have been there over the long haul—through medical challenges and house moves and changing jobs and shifting relationships and everything else.
Over the years, the questions about our kids change, and so do our lives as we move past infant care into many other phases. But the desire for this kind of friendship persists, and those who have been with us through the parenting journey occupy a special place.
As Seneca put it:
Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship, but when you have decided to admit her, welcome her with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with her as with yourself… Regard her as loyal, and you will make her loyal.
- Moral Letters, “On True and False Friendship,” adapted by me
Here’s to a new year of old friends—and new ones! Please feel free to share your parenting friendship stories in the comments, and wishing you a happy and healthy 2023!
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Whenever my kids are heading back to school, I have an early warning system: My stomach kicks into action, summersaulting and twisting, and I start popping Tums like there’s no tomorrow.
(The candy-colored coated chewy ones don’t taste sooooo bad. I’ve recently used up a full jar of the stuff and am becoming a connoisseur of orange vs. pink vs. yellow. Beware the less-soft generic brands that threaten your dental work!)
This all started back when my older daughter had her very first week of kindergarten 13 years ago. I can hardly believe that as I type this: 13 years ago!
That was before I turned to modern Stoic thinking, which I’ve now been practicing for the last 6+ years. Stoicism has definitely helped, but not completely solved these nervous feelings, which is why I’m still writing about them today.
She was a young student for kindergarten, only 4 years old. But she was bright and imaginative and bored with her part-time preschool. Plus, she made the public school kindergarten age cutoff back then (now, she wouldn’t), so we figured she would benefit from starting “real” school.
But that first morning, when I heard my daughter’s kindergarten teacher’s voice booming at the small children and watched the door closed behind her, as unsmiling parents standing around turned away from me, uninterested in any kind of mutual support—I felt a distinct churning inside.
Our local public school, it turned out, was mostly stick and just a little carrot for the students. Treatment of kids could be harsh or humiliating. Parents were viewed by administrators as unreliable or even problematic. Communication with families was an afterthought, and conditions weren’t always supportive or even safe. At the back to school night, where “childcare would be provided” so parents could sit through a lecture about the school’s rules and regulations, care consisted of stuffing dozens of kids under the age of 6 into a single sweltering room with one person to watch them, a TV set showing a cartoon drowned out by raucous voices.
I know that the early school experience was tough on my daughters. As young kids, elementary students can't always explain what's going on. They can't always tell us their teachers are not supportive or caring, or that they feel singled out. I wish I could protect my children from everything tough, but I haven't been able to do that with their school experiences. It's hard to hear about their ups and downs (especially hearing about it much later, when there's nothing at all that can be done). But when I take a step back, I hope these tough times have been character building and strengthening for them in some ways.
But why do I feel it so much physically? As my older child starts her senior year of high school and my younger daughter begins high school this month, why do I wake up with twisting intestines? Are other parents experiencing this?
Just the other night, my younger daughter came to my room at nearly midnight. She is generally an early to bed, early to rise person, so I was surprised. She was having trouble sleeping the night before her freshman orientation at high school. Guess what? So was I!
We chatted for a while. Nothing I said helped. But at least we could visit for a few minutes to distract our worrying minds and tense bodies. She borrowed my weighted blanket and went back to her room. In the morning, dressed in her new jeans and ready to go, she said the blanket helped her sleep. And that she felt fine. More than I can say for myself as I went back to sit down and doubled over again.
Sending our kids to school is very stressful. It starts with the page after page after page of paperwork required of families just to start the school year, along with activities and sports, in our district—which I’ve been making my way through.
When classes actually begin, students encounter a lot of challenging stuff. It’s outside our control, setting up a classic case-in-point of how a Stoic should respond: By not wasting time and energy worrying about it. By not overidentifying. By not focusing on all the things outside our control, and staying on top of our character and that of our children. As Epictetus put it in his spitting-truth way, “When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?” (Discourses, 2.13.1)
This is the crux of Stoic parenting—trying to prepare our kids to be the best versions of themselves when coping with unpredictable and chaotic situations, and steeling ourselves to handle whatever the universe throws at us. What we want is learning, growth, enrichment, and positive social connections for our kids at school, but we have to accept that so much else may come instead—or along with it.
So it’s not easy. Most of what I think about is how will they adjust. Will it be something they can effectively handle or something that actually harms them? Also, is it safe? Not just safe from disease (including Covid, which I’m concerned could spike with all the kids in classrooms together) but also from violence? That is not a given at American schools, especially if you watch the news these days. In our system, an added layer of concern is that I am not sure what kinds of support students get at school if things do go wrong.
I recently noticed a book title at my local store called something like “I Don’t Want to Be an Empath Anymore.” It made me chuckle and shake my head. There are days it’s just too much. Often I think I feel more stressed out for them than they feel for themselves!
On some level, maybe I am having subtle flashbacks of my own awkward and anxious back to school days… (Maybe this is why I’ve always disliked fall, and loved spring. Subconscious brain at work?)
When I line up all the unknowables and sources of uncertainty or danger, my Stoic-aspiring brain reels. It makes me consider my options. Would my kids be better off homeschooled? It’s possible, but I got a taste of that during the pandemic lockdowns, and the answer for my family was no. Both my children seem to get their energy from interacting with other humans, not just their parents. They hated being at home in the pandemic. Plus I know I don’t have the ability (or time) to teach Calculus BC (though my husband helps!).
So to school it is.
And now, on top of that, my older daughter has spent some of her summer preparing to apply to colleges. Some of the schools she is aiming for are very far away. She is excited and nervous and scared and stressed. Can you guess how I feel? Another ambivalent mess. I want her to pursue her goals, but also know I’ll have some worries. I will remind myself that we are all just moving through this universe of impermanence, in the best way we can, and that we’ve prepared our kids to the best of our abilities. I turn back to Marcus Aurelius and other ancient writers for wisdom.
Do you have kids in your life going back to school? Please share your thoughts on back to school jitters for you or your kid(s) or the challenges of starting new schools!
There's a weird thing about being a mom: You can forget who you are.
As a parent, you struggle to recall what you wanted for just you, before you had kids. Everything becomes a calculation of how kids will react or respond to what you do, and that calculation often takes precedent over what you want for yourself. You forget how to choose for yourself.
This happens at a really small, granular level—I’ve asked myself, when my kids aren’t around, what foods do I really like (just me, not to share with my children)? What TV shows do I want to watch on my own, if I have the TV to myself all Sunday afternoon? What places do I like to shop, without family in tow? What vacation destination would I pick, if it were just me, or just me and my husband?
But it also happens at a very deep, philosophical level. Have I forgotten how to be myself? What do I want for myself? Who is the person I wanted to be, before I had kids? Who am I now?
I’ve been reading Who You Were Meant to Be: A Guide to Finding or Recovering Your Life’s Purpose by psychologist Lindsay C. Gibson. She helps readers think about what they are really drawn to, what interests them deeply (rather than what others want them to be interested in), what kinds of jobs they want to do, what they want their relationships to look like.
Much of her focus is on her clients who did not make life choices that they’re happy with, many of whom were influenced by controlling parents. They find that later in life, they aren’t doing well emotionally, and want to make big changes.
But what about those of us who are parents ourselves, and who have been shaped for the last umpteen years by our children’s needs, wishes, and personalities? It’s not that my kids are controlling me, it’s that I shifted so many aspects of my life in order to be able to care for them. That’s been true since the moment they were born, and I am not complaining! I chose to do that, making my kids my highest priority.
On one hand, I would never, ever in a million years give up that shaping. It would be a cliché to say it’s kept me young at heart (and a true one). It’s made me more emotionally intelligent and aware in ways I never imagined. As a parent, you need to constantly stay flexible and shift gears on a moment’s notice, putting others’ needs before your own, dealing with crises and challenging questions and many things you wish you could avoid but have no real choice about (currently coping with an onslaught of bureaucratic paperwork for back to school/back to sports is just one tiny example!).
But on the other hand, parenting has also made me prioritize my kids and family over some of my deepest wishes for my own life. Again, I’m not complaining here. Just acknowledging. For example, I recently preferred to spend my week off work helping my daughters get ready for their summer programs, taking them to Target and Walgreens, pulling out their duffel bags, reviewing their packing lists, allaying their concerns, helping them enjoy final moments of freedom at home before heading out to new group settings… I did all this rather than working on my own writing projects. Rather than fulfilling my personal wishes, I decided to help them realize their summer dreams. I had an important motive—I wanted to soak in the little time I had with them during summer, time that feeds my soul as a mom.
And now both of my daughters are gone, one for just a week, and one for 4 weeks. My husband and I suddenly have the run of the house. And while we are busy working or heading out to meetings during the day, it seems normal, but suddenly, as I came home to an empty house this evening, I found myself in shock.
I know this is an early taste of the “empty nest.” I thought it would be quiet and empty. But the odd thing is, more than that, I felt boring and dull and uncertain of what I would do with myself. For all this time I’d been struggling to sneak in a few minutes for my writing, between my full time job and my daughters’ needs and other family members I wanted to spend time with… and suddenly, now that I have hours to choose how to spend, I felt a sudden sense of blankness.
I’ve long known that my children are separate from me. As a Stoic, I hold this knowledge close, remembering that my kids need to make their own choices, and that they have to take some responsibility for what they decide and what they do. I also understand that I have agency over myself, and I can choose to devote more of my time to my interests, especially those that uphold the virtues. However, my role as a mother takes precedence. And I genuinely love to spend time with my daughters. They are cool, interesting, fun, smart, and humorous people, who keep me guessing and laughing. They (and coffee) are my lifeblood!
So I’ll be missing them now, and I’ll miss them even more later. Again, Stoicism reminds us we don’t possess our children or any other humans, and that all is transient. One day we have them, another day we don’t. It’s the way of the world, and holding out for another option is absurd. I will try my best not to hold onto them, but rather to prepare them for the world, and to help them take flight in it.
And I’ll work to be grateful for the time that’s allowed to me with my teens, and try to use to coach them to develop their character, their grit, wisdom, sense of service to others and confidence in themselves, their moderation in all things, and their courage. I will stay mindful of the moments we share together. And I will still always be there (as long as I am alive) to do my mom thing. To chat, to ask, to listen, to do, and to just be present.
But for now, while they are away, I get the TV to myself for the next couple hours, to watch the most dry historical documentary I can find, or maybe the oldest classic movie in black and white. It seems I’ve forgotten how to decide.
One of the best decisions I made as a mom was to become a Girl Scout leader. Now, it is the end of an era… I’m retiring from this volunteer role with 10 years total service to the Girl Scouts (across 2 different troops).
After all these years, our troop finally disbanded after the girls got older, moved, left our school district, etc. We have now officially transferred the remaining girls out of our troop and into another one.
Over the years, I hope I’ve made a difference, even a small one, with this volunteering. It changed me, at least: Working with kids starting from first grade onwards helped me evolve as a mom and a volunteer.
This effort is on my mind now as I write from the perspective of a Stoic parent—largely because of a critique I keep hearing about Stoicism.
Stoics are blamed for not engaging in, or even caring about, the world around us. People say that Stoic life philosophy isn’t a good influence because Stoics just focus on themselves and their own inner peace… that they block themselves off from everything, and are heartless jerks, living without emotion or ties to others. In other words: Stoics are obsessed with their own “inner citadel,” at the expense of problems and issues in the world “out there.” That seems to be the argument of a recent article in Philosophy Now, among others.
To that I say: Wrong! (Perhaps my strong response is not particularly Stoic, but it is honest!)
Another leader and I launched our Girl Scout troop before I adopted a Stoic life philosophy, but this way of thinking has surely helped me as I moved forward in leading of young people.
How? Being a Girl Scout leader—like many forms of teaching and volunteering with younger kids—is about learning how to share control with young people. You need to engage the children you’re working with and provide a framework for girls to grow, while encouraging them to explore things on their own and figure out their way of making it fun or interesting. After all, this program is supposed to be "girl led." As a leader, you are tasked with ensuring that the girls start making decisions as soon as they can.
In the moment, lots of things will go wrong or just be plain messy. That’s OK, in the Stoic worldview. Those moments do not define you as a teacher, volunteer, or person. Just keep on going moment to moment, role modeling the virtues that Stoics promote—fairness, practical wisdom, courage, and self-discipline.
Beginning with first-graders in Girl Scouts meant LOTS of sticky glue projects and bickering over marker colors and antsy kids who didn’t always get along in the early days. There was a less-than-scintillating curriculum about animals that my co-leader and I worked through. There were songs that got endlessly stuck in our heads (even if they were cute at first) and loud carpools and camping trips resulting in sore backs.
In fact, given that there will always be occasional adversity along the way, Stoic thinking actually makes me want to engage more with the world, and reduces my qualms or thoughts of “imposter syndrome” about having something to offer other people as a volunteer.
And now, I can see the payoff. Over the past year, and with the support of both co-founding leaders, the girls in our troop partnered together to complete a Silver Award. They created an online webinar designed for younger kids (2nd to 5th graders) during the pandemic. Their presentations, videos, quizzes, and website focused on health, with units covering Covid-19 safety, bicycle safety, and nutrition—all top-of-mind topics for young kids and their parents during lockdowns.
In addition, a couple years back, a group of three girls in our troop did their Bronze Award project about how to be a good and safe pedestrian—a vital lesson here in California where pedestrians are in danger, even in seemingly quiet suburban neighborhoods.
As a leader, I helped to guide these efforts. Working with the girls in our troop required less and less from the adults, and more and more leadership from the girls, with each passing year (though the amount of paperwork needed never diminished, and I owe a huge debt to the other leader who co-founded the troop for handling that!).
That evolution has been an important way of building the girls’ confidence and skills, as well as their desire to address real-world problems, as they now prepare for high school next year. It's been really remarkable to see them grow from young kids focused on drawing with their favorite color marker to adolescents who care about helping and teaching other people.
To learn more about how Stoic-inspired living can inspire us to improve the world around us, check out the book Being Better by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos. It highlights numerous opportunities to make a positive impact on our societies and communities.
This counter argument against the anti-Stoic nay-sayers is quite clear when you look at famous Stoics from history, most of all Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor of Rome. He clearly could not just withdraw from public life and ignore making important decisions about the external world... nor did he shy away from it. We don’t either.
Every year when my daughters go back to school, I find myself feeling queasy, a nervous pit in my stomach and a pounding in my head.
I’m sure a lot of parents remember the first time they dropped off a child at kindergarten and the trepidation of putting your kid in the hands of an unknown teacher and unfamiliar school. For me, that feeling is now multiplied times two (both my kids) and, really, times twelve (the number of classes and teachers my kids now have as middle and high schoolers).
And on top of all that, the pandemic. Younger kids don't yet have the option of getting vaccinated, and that creates layers of worry. Older kids, even if vaccinated, could bring home breakthrough infections caught at school.
And on top of all THAT, what the students have gone through during these 15 months of closure or semi-closure of schools during lockdowns. It's been a time of massive emotional upheaval for people of all ages, but even more critical for developing minds.
All students have been utterly changed by this experience. Never in modern American history have kids had to spend so much time sitting at home—separated physically from their peers—and ruminating on their experiences, their challenges, their identities. Never have they shown up to school so anxious, from what I’ve seen, and yet so hungry for social interaction and human contact. News story after story document the anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental and emotional challenges that students have been going through, not to mention the educational setbacks caused by a lack of in-person education in many areas across the country.
Research is demonstrating the impact. A study published in September 2020 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that of 195 students surveyed, "71% indicated increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Multiple stressors were identified that contributed to the increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts among students. These included fear and worry about their own health and of their loved ones (91% reported negative impacts of the pandemic), difficulty in concentrating (89%), disruptions to sleeping patterns (86%), decreased social interactions due to physical distancing (86%), and increased concerns on academic performance (82%)."
In the same vein, a Penn State teen anxiety study from late 2020 showed an increase in anxiety severity of 29%, with generalized anxiety up 46% and school anxiety up 143%.
Teachers are feeling it too. I’ve read alarming statistics about the number of teachers who have recently quit or are considering quitting. It’s been a nearly impossible burden for them to manage online learning and in-class hybrid learning and their own lives. Now, with our schools in California back to fully in-person teaching, I hope it will begin to return to something resembling the profession that they chose. But my daughters have reported that even mild-mannered teachers expressed frustration with students and classroom management in the first days back. So this adjustment period is going to take time for both teachers and students.
And it is also a major adjustment and a scary time for parents. For the first time in 15 months, both my kids were at in-person public school for the past few weeks, away from home for long stretches. I miss the feeling of sheltering from the storm together in our home fortress, where we could still find glimmers of fun and mutual support among all the dirty dishes and piles of dirty face masks and orphan socks. Even knowing how bad things have been, and still are, made us feel that we had to be strong together.
Now, it’s back to a new reality that echoes the old school days, but with a difference. We have been receiving frequent notifications of Covid exposures at the local high and middle schools. We’re doing home tests we bought at Walgreens much more often than I thought we would. We’re crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. But I wonder if there is no real “best” in this situation.
During the day while my kids are at school, I picture them fighting the crowds in the halls and passageways of their overcrowded public schools, places built for a fraction of the current enrollment; I picture them encountering classmates who have radically changed their attitude and appearance in a multitude of ways in these past months on their journey through adolescence, older but not always wiser after extended isolation; I picture them trying to get along with teachers and students who are equally shellshocked by the past year and a half’s experience; I picture them at their sports practices, trying to get back skills and teamwork lost in lockdowns; I picture them at mandatory pep rallies, with hundreds of yelling students standing next to them (is this a good idea in a pandemic? They did move the recent rally outdoors after massive student protest at the high school... this move happening “for the first time in 10 years,” according to the student newspaper).
Odd things have indeed been happening on campus: A freshman boy brought a gun my daughter's high school campus last week, and the police descended after it was reported to administrators (luckily no one was hurt). And students have been stealing the soap dispensers and other fixtures from student bathrooms at the middle school, part of a TikTok challenge, just at a time when kids need to practice good hygiene. Teachers are now monitoring and checking in students at bathroom doors.
Despite all this, the parents I talk to are happy that in-person school is back so their kids will have a real learning experience and get to see their peers. (Not to mention so that we can work and go about our adult lives.)
But that doesn't make everything simple and easy and "normal" again. The moms and dads I know have been under tremendous pressure in the time of Covid and it hasn't stopped yet. It's even harder on parents who want to get the kids vaccinated, but they still aren't old enough to qualify.
An article in The Atlantic summed up the emotional situation well. Writer Dan Sinker titles his piece “Parents Are Not Okay.” He writes about the back-to-school he’s facing with his kids, ages 16 and 6: “It’s enough to bring a parent to tears, except that every parent I know ran out a long time ago—I know I did. Ran out of tears, ran out of energy, ran out of patience. Through these grinding 18 months, we’ve managed our kids’ lives as best we could while abandoning our own. It was unsustainable then, it’s unsustainable now, and no matter what fresh hell this school year brings, it’ll still be unsustainable. All this and parents are somehow expected to be okay… Parents aren’t even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken. And yet we’ll go on because that’s what we do: We sweep up all our pieces and put them back together as best we can.”
As a mom, I want to protect my children; I want to fight for them; I want to prevent their suffering and help shape a healthy mindset in them, inspired by Stoic ideas. But now that they are teens living through a pandemic, they need to do all this for themselves. It’s a time for releasing them into the wild, with much higher stakes due to Covid and its impact on students.
I remind myself that they will make the best choices that they can. My husband and I have tried to give our children the tools to cope with this uncertain world. They know about being brave in a rough situation and sticking it out when things are hard. They want to be fair and value other humans. They care about doing the right thing, if they can figure out what that is in the confusing world. I hope the lessons of self-control have sunk in, too; that's not always easy for anyone. Like everything else, all of this is about balancing risks with rewards, dangers with common-sense courage.
It's also a test of all that our children have learned about how to handle an unstable situation with unpredictable humans all around them. I find myself recalling Marcus Aurelius' acknowledgement that other people aren't always aware of what's right/wrong and that their behavior reflects that, yet we still need to work with them. He wrote: "I can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together..." (Meditations 2:1).
As teens, my kids have to make their own choices on how to navigate school. Those choices will be their own, and to a large extent their levels of stress will too. In fact, there’s a very good chance they will handle their feelings better than I will my own, as their mom! That is reassuring. After seeing them off, I popped some Tylenol with a big gulp of water, and turned back to my copy of the Meditations, and to my own work.
If my Stoic practice teaches me anything, it’s that we can all do more to question and reframe our experiences of mental distress, to notice and shape these responses in ways that bring out our courage and wisdom rather than fear and anger. We can continuously work on letting go of the things outside our control that cause us to spiral into worry, and on improving the things we can choose for ourselves. Ultimately, our kids will carve their path using the tools we have given them as a guide… and, fortune willing, they will adapt to find a good flow of life in this chaotic world.
Many decisions in raising our kids feel as if they take place “between a rock and a hard place.” This old saying recalls Odysseus’ journey through the narrow waterways on his ship as he was heading home. In the legend, Odysseus had to pass between Scylla and Charybdis, both sea monsters. The hero chose the “lesser of two evils,” sailing closer to Scylla, where he would lose fewer sailors and not risk his whole ship going down. (Today, we believe that the real-world equivalent of this journey would have been the the Strait of Messina between the island of Sicily and the coast of Calabria in Italy.)
So many moments of being a mom or dad feel like this kind of a choice, though, we hope, with less deadly consequences. As we celebrate Father’s Day, it’s a good time to remember that many dads and moms are facing tough questions every day.
For instance, a toddler acts out at a playground, disrupting other kids. Do you remove her from the situation? Do you distract her? Lecture her? Do you let her learn the hard way that other kids may hit back?
Or a teen says he wants to go to a distant concert with friends you don’t know. Do you let him go? Or do you force him to stay home, knowing that he might just sneak out next time you aren’t looking? Should you trust his friends to drive safely, and to go to safe places? Then again, should you deny your teen contact with his peers and risk social isolation? Learning the hard way here could be risky, but in the long run, so could being perceived as “mean” mom or dad whose decisions are to be evaded or avoided.
Many parents begin their voyage into child-rearing hoping to find “rules” for parenting. That’s why we buy so many books and read so many blogs. These kinds of writing flourish, and yet they cannot provide proscriptive wisdom. There is no rule book, no manual (even though I still have a funny “baby owner’s manual” book that someone gave me when I had infants!) for raising kids.
What you really do need, rather than rules, is a philosophy. And “before you can have a parenting philosophy, you need a life philosophy,” says Stoic author Brittany Polat, who talked about this topic during the Practical Paths to Flourishing Stoicon-X event held earlier this month. She’s right. It’s key to set our own ethical, moral, and psychological house in order, to become the best parents—and best humans—that we can be. By developing our own character, and our virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance, we can set a good example. What is more, we can feel some certainty, some rock to stand on, as we question the crazy world around us when it comes to raising kids from babies to young adults.
That is why I turned to Stoic life philosophy in the first place. Surrounded by the hyper-competitive parents of Silicon Valley, trying to raise two girls with good values, working to create a supportive, healthy home with my husband, every choice seemed loaded with anxiety-producing questions and pressures. Knowing that an age-old ethical philosophy was perfectly in line with my grounded, common-sense approach to being a mother and to fighting the pull towards a superficial vision of status and “success” made it not just tolerable, but meaningful, to guide my kids… and then watch them become independent guides for themselves.
There’s another layer here. Being a mom or dad is about navigating this journey between a rock and a hard place, with your own values and ethics as the lighthouse showing you the way. What complicates things is that it’s not just you guiding your children. It’s much more. In addition to individual decisions parents have to make, you also face larger Scyllas and Charybdises as we pilot your family ship.
Some of these are:
These are all rocks that our ship could founder upon. What’s difficult is that many of these things are outside of our control. These factors require constant shifting and readjusting through narrow, constrained waterways, as new challenges arise. It’s not smooth sailing, no matter how much energy and love you put into it.
For my part, while I say that there are no rules in parenting, I would clarify that by suggesting that there are important rules, or approaches, to teach our kids. Here are some key ones:
May your ship successfully navigate the rough waters and rocky passages of parenthood!
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.