Socialization

Bonding – a Whole Approach to Life

I recently read this beautiful essay on how human connection – not sobriety – is the remedy for addiction. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but if you aren’t going to, I’ll try to snapshot the key points that have sparked my thinking here:

The author, Johann Hari, explains two separate addiction experiments done with rats, the long and short of which is that the rats who were kept in isolated, un-stimulating environments were exceptionally prone to drug addiction, but those who lived in ‘Rat Park,’ a healthy, happy environment for rats, were not. Moreover, once rats who had been conditioned to addiction in the isolated cages were allowed to live in Rat Park (“a lush cage” with “colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends”), they quickly returned to a life free of drug use. He goes on to make comparisons to human examples of Vietnam-war veterans and those prescribed heavily-addictive drugs in hospital settings, which are quite interesting.

But my thought-train here has really nothing to do with addiction per se, or with rats, or with the ethics of animal experimentation. Rather, one of Hari’s passages struck me particularly:

“Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. […] But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet.”

His argument is about addiction as a clinical condition, but I think his assessment of human beings is something we can all reflect on and learn from.

While not in as dire circumstances as many people, there are many of us living what appear on the surface, or from the outside, to be ‘full’ and ‘happy’ lives… or at least what ‘should’ be so. In truth, many of us live in self-constructed cages of isolation. Even if we’re not facing depression or constant physical isolation, we’re often more isolated than we would like to be. Why is that, especially if we are lucky enough to in fact have the means, the people nearby, and the opportunities, to be more connected, more bonded with our village?

Too often it seems we feel we don’t have the time to connect with our people, our friends and family; this is the most common cause I hear. But what are we doing instead? The usual culprits seem to be working, getting chores done, driving around to do errands, with the awful end result that when one does have some ‘free’ time, it needs to be ‘me’ time (read: a chance to collapse from exhaustion, to sleep or zombify in front of a screen).

But I think in these cases we need to question the importance of the things we’re using our time for instead of connecting – because at the end of the day, we are choosing to do so, and only by acknowledging our own agency can we start to either change it or become okay with it.

Do our living spaces really need to be tidy in order to enjoy our home with those we love? Does our time need to be ‘free’ of obligations or to-do lists before we can engage with our people? Or would it be better if we did more things communally – buying food, cooking, folding laundry – embracing that we’re all going through this together, rather than feeling we need to ‘get our shit together’ before we can enjoy one another’s company? Do we really need to ‘unwind’ at the end of a long day by scrolling through a social media feed that only gives us that ‘parody’ of bonding? We could instead be actually connecting with the people and activities that bring us joy, or indulging in that ‘me’ time by having a bath, walking outside, or doing an activity that engages our bodies and minds rather than just collapsing from exhaustion, often in front of a screen?

We have created a culture, as Hari says, “that cuts us off from connection.” The expectation is that we will all live in our own little kingdoms, whatever your particular box of living space looks like, and that our first responsibility is to keep our own kingdom in order. If we are good at keeping this order – bringing in the right amount of money for our lifestyle, tidying and cleaning, having the ‘right’ groceries in our cupboards with our near-future meal plans settled, having at least some plans in the works for how we’ll change our kingdom/life, and maintaining whatever image we’ve created of our lives in our online worlds – then we can occasionally, when it’s a ‘good’ time, invite others into our kingdom to enjoy the space we’ve cultivated, or allow ourselves some time away from our boxes to enjoy someone else’s kingdom… provided they have kept their kingdom in order, of course.

Perhaps we need to start living with each other, instead of alongside one other with the occasional meeting in the same space.

The people we wish we bonded more with might live in the same space as us, our spouses or children; they may live down the street or across town or across the country or the world, and technology may be a necessary tool for allowing us to simulate face-to-face interactions with some of them. We may wish to bond more with ourselves, to connect with our interests, and hobbies, those experiences that allow us to feel more alive, more engaged and joyful.

The point is not how we connect but whether the connection, the bonding, is a real bond or a parody. Even more so, the point is accepting our own agency (should we be so fortunate as to have some, as there are many in the world who truly don’t), so that when we feel we’re living in a cage, we can look around and determine honestly if the bars are real, or if we’ve given them form and weight with our own perceptions.

“Bonding” in this broader sense doesn’t seem to be something that can be done or felt effectively if only allotted in rare, discrete blocks of time; such a model means there will also be set times of isolation, boredom, or loneliness. It would be idealistic to think all of life will be continuous bonding and connection, but it also seems sad and unnecessary to resign ourselves to a life plan where bonding and connection are rare ‘treats’ if we’ve been ‘good.’ I’m not sure what the solution is, but I think it’s worth some serious consideration, and I hope some of you will leave your thoughtful comments below!

The Professional-Me and the Parent-Me

It can often seem like our professional-selves and our parent-selves are two separate things. When we think about how these two identities intersect, it’s usually in the context of “work-life balance” (that dreadful catchphrase of modern life!), laden with implied meanings about the incompatibility of these two constantly-battling halves, as inevitable as the push between ego and id.

But laying this usual dialogue aside, I’ve been thinking about a different angle on how work-me and mom-me interact: how does who I am and what I do professionally impact my parenting priorities and values?

For some professions, tangible connections are easy to see between work-and-parent identities. My dad, for example, an intensive-care pediatrician, could always be counted on for a valuable (if not always welcome) dose of perspective when one of us was losing our minds about a minor cut or scratch: “Are you bleeding? Do you need surgery? Then no, you don’t need a band-aid; it’ll be fine.” Pretty obvious correlation there.

For some of us, though, the connections might not seem so noticeable, so I’ve been thinking more big-picture, about how what I do in the environment where I spend 40 hours per week impacts my outlook on the world:

  • What beliefs do I have about how the ‘real world’ works?
  • What life skills seem to be most important for everyday success?
  • What principles/attributes are reinforced for me as normal and valuable?
  • What is reasonable/appropriate in interpersonal interactions?

 

blonde-business-woman-in-office-looking-out-window-skyrise

Getty images

The answers to such questions will surely influence how each of us parents our kids as we try to raise them ‘right’ (whatever that means!). And I can’t imagine that the place in/tasks on which we spend so much of our waking hours don’t affect our perspective. So how do we know that we’re parenting thoughtfully and deliberately, rather than just being consumed by our own work ‘bubble’?

A few issues related to my field, university academic counselling, have been popping up in mainstream media lately (and they seem to be simply everywhere in the news streams and blogs I follow professionally): increasing mental-health crises, a lack of coping skills/resilience in young people today, and a rising collective sense of entitlement.

I realized, as I was ranting to my partner last night, that living in this particular work ‘bubble’ for the last three years, and working on some specific projects/problem-solving of late that’s directly related to these issues, has had a huge impact on my thoughts about parenting:

  • I’ve come to believe that in the ‘real world,’ young people are increasingly incapable of dealing with disappointment, frustration, anxiety, or stress of any kind, and that this rings all kinds of alarm bells for a future full of fragile, helpless adults who will not be up to the task of solving big-picture problems of the world if they can’t even deal with the run-of-the-mill stresses of everyday life.
  • Resilience, self-organization, and the ability to form realistic expectations for oneself seem to me to be the most important life skills for my kids to have in order to succeed.
  • Entitlement seems to have been normalized, so self-management, initiative and gratitude are heightened in value.
  • My daily interpersonal interactions consist mainly of people requesting and/or needing things from me, and involve mainly those who are struggling – which results in a bolstered belief that it’s most vital for me to model and encourage self-sufficiency and resourcefulness in my kids through our interactions.

It’s easy to get sucked into my own little bubble, which, when I articulate it in writing, presents a pretty bleak picture of what I expect of my kids and of my priorities as a parent. Thankfully, among the recent avalanche of alarm-ringing, there are a few making cool-headed counterpoints (such as this article here, if you’re interested in the topic).  Finding these alternate perspectives really helps me to emerge from the echo-chamber of my work environment.

And while doing this reflection doesn’t change the fact that I still think teaching resilience, self-management, and coping skills for everyday stressors are still highly important in my role as a parent, it at least helps me to remember not to lose sight of some of the other goals I have as a mother: things like teaching my kids passion, joy, and kindness, which, unfortunately, are not so consistently reinforced through my everyday work.

Now I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this, dear reader! How does your experience of work influence your parenting outlook?

 

With Love & Respect, “Get That Shit Out of My Way,” She Said

This morning a dear friend shared this article by Scary Mommy with me, called “Why I’m Done Asking My Husband To Help Me Out.” As I read it, internal bells ringing Yeah! and Exactly! went off more than a few times. This is something I’ve discussed with my mom, my sister, my husband and I’m pretty sure more than one girlfriend, but Scary Mommy sums it up well, with excellent reasons why specifically not to ask your partner to “help you out” or “do you a favour” when what you’re really looking is for some good-new-fashioned partnership participation. She explains that by taking the asking-a-favour route, a woman a) diminishes her partner’s value, b) puts undue responsibility on herself, c) sets an unwanted example for her kids, and d) diminishes the partnership itself. If you’re like me (female in a hetero relationship), I’d wager there’s a fairly good chance it might resonate with you, too – so give it a read!

equal housework
Should she have needed to ask for ‘help’ to make this happen? (Source: healthland.time.com)

(I should note first that there is a time when I think the asking for ‘help’ approach is apt – namely, when my partner and I have clearly determined that x job is mine or his, and we want help with that particular job. So in our house, if he asks for help with gathering garbage for collection day, or if I ask for help with folding laundry, for example.)

I’m always interested in the “why do we do this?” part of any social question, so naturally, my brain went to, “Why the hell am I still doing this?” I’ve thought about this for years. I often correct myself in the moment when speaking to my husband – “Can you do me a – actually, no, wait, not a favour, can you just do this?” Yet I still find myself phrasing requests for him to do his share as requests for ‘help,’ I think for two main reasons:

1. I’ve internalized the overwhelming fear of being a ‘nag.’ 

Among the things our culture encourages women to stress about in their domestic life, fear of being a ‘nag’ is pretty high on that list. So no wonder we ask for ‘help’ instead of reminding our partner that they didn’t clean up their own coat/socks/papers/plate again. Asking for ‘help’ lets me seem more sweet, feminine, and likable – definitely the opposite of a nag – and increases the likelihood of a positive response, because my partner gets to feel like he’s doing something great and gets a gold star for going above and beyond, so everybody’s happy… right? Except… not. Because I’m still left holding the bag of responsibility for all things domestic, and I never really get to respect myself as a feminist who asserts her desire for equality in household management. I end up catering to fear and shame instead of self-respect, when I really dig down to the heart of it. Which brings me to reason #2:

2. On some level, I’ve internalized the idea that domestic work really is my responsibility as the woman in the partnership.

As much as I try to deny it, I think this nugget is still there. Sure, I’ve attempted to justify and couch it in enlightened, post-feminism rhetoric about how my partner and I simply have different personalities, and I simply care more about cleanliness/organization, so it’s not a sexist thing, it makes sense that I’m inclined to do more, and yadda yadda yadda. And there may be some truth to that – some. But it’s also very likely that we’ve each been, at least to some extent, socialized to have these personalities and tendencies to care more or less about domestic tasks/management. So am I happy to just accept that the socialization has happened and live out my life that way? Not really. Do I want to contribute to socializing my kids according to this status quo? Not if I can help it. These are not glamorous labours, nor ones that society really places a lot of value on, and I think if I was a man, I certainly wouldn’t be motivated to learn to take more initiative on these things. But at the end of the day, clothes need picked up because we each eventually need clean clothes to wear, so whose job should it be to make sure each item of clothing ends up in the laundry bin? Probably the person who was wearing that item of clothing. At the end of the day, dinner needs cleaned up because eventually we’ll need clean dishes to use, and we want to avoid bug infestations or health hazards of rotting food all over house, so whose job should it be to make sure that dishes get picked up and leftover food goes in the garbage or back in the fridge? Probably anyone who ever needs dishes or dislikes bug infestations. Again, asking for ‘help’ with these tasks reinforces a socialization I don’t like, instead of presenting myself as an equal partner in my home.

I want to act out of love and respect for the equal partnership my beloved and I have been building for fourteen years. So if love and respect means creating an environment where it’s sometimes okay to say, to borrow Scary Mommy’s words, “Get your shit out of my way,” well then, I guess that’s what we’ll do.

 

Teaching Our Boys About Sex, Consent, and Respect

I seem to see a LOT in the media these days about sex and consent – specifically, about teaching boys about consent as a way to reduce/prevent instances of sexual assault and rape. I work in a university, and there’s a LOT of news in our field about various institutions constantly upgrading and re-visioning their approaches to sexual assault – everything from peer education programs and helplines to better processes for reporting assaults and supporting survivors.

More attention to sexual assault and efforts to prevent it are GOOD. There’s no doubt about it. And as a mom with a son (even though he doesn’t understand such topics yet), I’m grateful that this push is happening.

At the same time, I can’t ever escape the feeling that no matter how many articles are published about the importance of teaching boys consent, no matter how many clever cartoons or YouTube videos go viral for explaining why the issue of consent should be a no-brainer, no matter how many universities, school boards, and public health organizations ramp up their efforts to address this issue… we still have a rampant rate of sexual assault and rape in our society. And that’s just CANADA. NORTH AMERICA. Places that are (supposedly) ‘advanced’ and ‘civilized,’ with ‘equal rights’ for men and women, where the work of feminism has already brought us to ‘the good life.’

Unfortunately, I don’t think all of these efforts are tackling the real root of the problem. Because the real root of the problem is not that many men think they are entitled to women’s bodies. The real root of the problem is not that women have been shamed for centuries anytime we express sexuality outside of a very narrow (yet precarious and shifting) set of boundaries that we are always in danger of transgressing. The real root of the problem is that our culture as a whole has never really been willing to address or challenge the core belief that ‘men are better than women‘. That masculinity is superior to femininity. That the traits commonly associated with men – rationality, physical strength, self-assertion, and self-preservation – are somehow inherently more valuable than those assumed to be their opposites (and therefore associated with women) – emotionality, physical nurturing, cooperation, and vulnerability. And worst of all, that this value system actually does mean, even to people who don’t want to admit it, that those who possess the former have more ‘right’ than those who possess the latter. (Sure, there’s a lot of talk around increasing the value of typically feminine traits, but I feel this is usually framed with an attitude that feminine traits are a nice, politically-correct side dish to the main course of masculinity, which just needs a little tweaking, rather than a full overhaul.)

So we need to address this problem, at its root. As a mother, this means teaching my son that cooperation is just as valuable as self-assertion – and that a balance is the best route to leadership. Teaching him that emotional understanding is just as valuable as rational thought – and that a balance will allow him to make sense of his experiences in a fulfilling way. Teaching him that vulnerability is just as valuable as self-preservation – and that a balance is necessary for successful relationships.

In a more tangible sense, it means never reinforcing for him (even indirectly) that it’s reasonable to write women’s feelings or perspectives off as ‘crazy.’ Never modeling for him that it’s ‘funny’ (even by remaining silent) to demean a male by calling him a female. Always encouraging him to see the value in other people’s perspectives – especially those that tend toward the feminine (after all, he’s going to get reinforcement of the value of masculinity from everywhere else). I will also have to talk to him about consent, sexual assault, and feminism. But those talks will make a lot more sense to him if he doesn’t have the subconscious belief that really, he is better than his female peers (for all the reasons above).

Only when we actually don’t believe in this binary hierarchy of values anymore – deep down in our collective, human, subconscious, most secret don’t-want-to-admit-it heart-of-hearts – will we be able to make a meaningful impact on issues like sexual violence, consent, and respect.

%d bloggers like this: