I woke up this morning to find an article on Brain Pickings that seemed to crystalise at once my many strands of recent reflections and ah-hahs. There was so much that resonated in that article so I’ll give a taster, but I sincerely hope you read the rest because it places a finger right where it’s most tender and sore in the world we live in.
(A)lthough kindness is the foundation of all spiritual traditions and was even a central credo for the father of modern economics, at some point in recent history, kindness became little more than an abstract aspiration, its concrete practical applications a hazardous and vulnerable-making behavior to be avoided…
The most paradoxical part of the story is that for most of our civilizational history, we’ve seen ourselves as fundamentally kind and held kindness as a high ideal of personhood. Only in recent times… did the ideal of independence and self-reliance become the benchmark of spiritual success.
Today it is only between parents and children that kindness is expected, sanctioned, and indeed obligatory… Kindness — that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself — has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality)… All compassion is self-pity, D. H. Lawrence remarked, and this usefully formulates the widespread modern suspicion of kindness: that it is either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are only kind because they haven’t got the guts to be anything else).
Eddie Legg, during his recent visit in Canberra with his lovely family, had mentioned how he had done a dipstick survey one Sunday morning during a sermon. I wasn’t there in Perth, of course, but this is my best understanding of what happened: when asked if they seek help from others, a fraction of the congregation had put up hands. All of those who did had been of foreign extraction – they were neither born nor bred in Australia.
That’s right. None of the Australians had raised their hands.
It’s unfair to generalise of course, but even in my short 12-year experience here, I have found the same. Australians are kind, by and large. Big hearts, big hands that help. But many are very reluctant to accept help rendered in kindness. The Galatians admonition to “bear your own load” is one that Australians take seriously, whether they’re Christian or not. And the concept of rugged individualism (as opposed to collectivism) is something that runs deep and strong in Western ethos and pathos, whether or not they’re Liberal/Republican or Labor/Democrat.
We find our own way, we make our own way. “Can you bear it? Can you take it?” “I got it, I got it, I got it!”
I say “we” because in this regard, I’ve always identified more strongly with “Western” ideals than “Eastern” ones. In fact, most Singaporeans do. Singapore is a society that largely believes that hard work pays off, and if you’re not successful in this world it’s because you couldn’t hack it. (Subsets of our society can also be very eager to dispense advice without taking it. I’m talking about the I-don’t-know-you-but-I-need-to-tell-you-you’re-fat Aunty culture that I simultaneously love and loathe.)
But the Singapore fabric is still largely cut out of close family ties and the reliance on relations and domestic helpers for assistance. The village is still alive and kicking, intrusive and kind. And above all, allowed in.
It is with all this in mind that I’ve come to assess how I parent.
In the last week and a half, I’ve had three friends tell me (in mostly admiring and incredulous tones) that they couldn’t believe I’m mothering two young children on my own. This is to say, no maids, no family, just us. Between Tony and I, we cook, we clean, we parent. We juggle a house sale while building another. In telling you this, it sounds like the humble brag, and maybe it is a little. I am proud of our little family and our resilience. Personally, I’m almost relieved that I’m holding up; my house is mostly clean, the kids are still alive and healthy, the husband is fed, the nitty-gritty of selling, packing for, and building houses dealt with in between school drop-offs and play dates.
I know we can do this by the grace of God because we are allowed to have good health and a stable income (for now). And because He knows what an obstinate cow I can be, my inner rebel has been given the most benign outlet: that of co-managing my own household without maid or kin.
Thing is, what I do isn’t extraordinary by Australian standards, not really. Because of its huge land mass, many nuclear families are separated from their relations. For us, the medium-term plan had always been for my mother to live in Canberra while I go back to work. Tony’s parents are ensconced in Queensland with his other two siblings, although we love their frequent visits. Domestic live-in helpers are not affordable, and contracted house cleaners are a luxury. Childcare fees in Canberra easily surpass $100 a day. In fact, childcare fees are a crazy balancing act; earn too little, and it’s not worth going back to work.
It is against this backdrop that Tony and I are flying solo. That said, we have an excellent community of church and mother’s group. But like other Australian families around us, we feel that we need to “bear our own load” without counting too much on others. Even though I’m pretty sure others would jump at the chance to help us.
There is a cost for this self-reliance, this stoic resilience. There always is. There is the physical toll – Tony and I don’t exercise much, if at all. I haven’t slept for more than 7 hours in consecutive days in years – until recently, I’d been operating on a daily average of 5 hours’ sleep. There are spiritual ramifications; all this self-reliance has made me more insular, introverted, and distant from God.
And then there’s my capacity for compassion.
In the last little while, ever since Atticus’s birth, I’ve been growing uneasy about my relationship with Arddun. And yes, I know she’s turned 4. She’s developed a more independent will as she tests the walls of her boundaries. She dreams more, negotiates more, rebels more. All that.
But I haven’t been kind.
With the birth of Atticus, all the stereotypes seem to be rushing to the fore because suddenly, Arddun is the Big Girl. She is the older, the elder, and suddenly much is expected of her. I find myself less tolerant of her childish foibles. I want, need her to pick up some of the slack. In parenting circles (and especially in Christian ones), we talk about teaching responsibility and other-centredness. And it sounds good on paper, and maybe that’s true of the intention.
But oh, there are days when my reserves are low. When I can feel myself running on empty. And it can be a culmination of things – housework undone, packing undone, decluttering unaccomplished, husband not doing what you think in your mind he ought to be doing in the sequence your OCD brain has determined without actually communicating the same to him. Because, you know, we are one flesh. Why shouldn’t he read my mind and know better? All that.
But the trigger point ends up being something Arddun does. Like picking at her dinner for 90 minutes. And then before I can even reason some perspective within myself, my tongue lashes and she bears the brunt of a day’s frustration.
And oh the regret after.
I seldom see myself as a kind person. Kindness doesn’t come naturally to me, because I am a selfish person. I really have to make an effort, almost plan to be kind to others. I have to sit there are diarise it.
But until I had kids, I had never realised how Unkind I can be.
In flying solo, I wonder if I’ve willfully bitten off more than I should chew. All things are allowable, but not all things are profitable. Just because I can, doesn’t mean I should. I don’t know what I can change, but I know I need to change some things. Carving out time to sit and distill through writing and praying is one way to start.
My dearest girl, today I resolve to do better by you. xx
19 July 2015 at 2:00 pm
Love the honesty in this. With a thirteen year old and a nine year old on my own, being kind to my boys is a constant struggle. What you wrote is a stoic reminder for me to change some things, just like how you resolved, to do better by our kids.
19 July 2015 at 3:41 pm
Oh wow, has it been 13 years?! And I didn’t realise you’re doing this on your own. You are A-Ma-Zing.
19 July 2015 at 11:45 pm
Love this, Velle, so many thought provoking threads I hardly know where to start… but I enjoyed it all. So fascinating to see both sides of the cultures you juggle. I had a giggle at the idea of it being so amazing to parent without maids or nannies! Hmmm, a maid sounds pretty darn good right about now, i gotta admit ;) You are right, us aussies are so determined to look after ourselves, while piling on the parenting pressure more and more. I know it has its own complexities but there is something just so beautiful about the more ‘village like’ approach in eastern/european/pretty much all the other cultures?! Everyone taking their turn to both support and be supported. We aussies could learn a lot from that.
Also appreciate your words about kindness. A reminder I need also… it is just way too easy to let our daily stresses boil over onto our little people :(
Beautiful writing and heart xx