Friday, November 10, 2006

Children Have Their Own Unique Points of View by Saralee Sky

It was September, 1962, and I was 13 years old. I was at my friend Patty’s house working on some school project. At 9:30 pm, my father picked me up in the car, even though Patty lived just two blocks away. He didn’t want me walking home alone in the dark. We made the quick drive home, I said goodnight to my father, my Uncle Joe (my father’s brother who lived with us) and my step-mother (Naomi), and went upstairs to bed.

As I lay in my bed in the dark before falling into sleep, I wondered who would not be there when I awoke in the morning. This was not a normal thought for me, but it was common for me to review my day and think and feel my own unique thoughts and feelings. When I woke up at 7 am the next day – Friday – my Uncle Joe told me my father had died of a heart attack while watching the 11:00 news. I had missed the sounds of the ambulance coming and taking my father away; of my neighbors coming in to watch me while my uncle and step-mother drove to the hospital. I slept deeply, protected from the turmoil and trauma of my father’s death. But I knew his death – or someone’s - was coming.

This is a dramatic example of a child having her own unique point of view. Growing up I was often aware that my thoughts and feeling were at odds with the grown-ups around me. More importantly, I was rarely asked how I felt or what I thought about events or situations that affected me directly. How did I feel about getting a new mommy? How did I feel about going to Kindergarten? How did I feel when my step-mother rejected every birthday or Mother’s Day or Chanukah gift I gave her with the words “I do not want your gift; all I want is your respect.”?

I learned as I grew up that my thoughts and feelings were not important to the adults responsible for my care. When I became a mother to my own child, Joseph, he let me know he had his own point of view as soon as he could talk. Joseph was often in opposition to my own point of view. “That’s what you think, that’s not what I think,” was a common refrain.

When I returned to college to get my Masters Degree in Psychology, I learned that children who are natural leaders may be forced into a position of opposition when the leadership positions in the family are already taken by one or both parents. Joseph was trying to assert his own need to be a leader in a family with a strong leader (me) and a co-leader (my husband) already firmly entrenched. I tried to set up situations where Joseph could make decisions for the whole family and feel in charge, for example: choosing a family outing, which movie to see, which restaurant to go to. Of course, this did nothing to ease the tension he felt when “we” decided to move from Cazadero to Sebastopol, from California to West Virginia and then to Washington State. He could voice his opposition, but he still had to go along.

This is something we all would do well to remember from time to time. Children have little to no choice in what happens to them. Their parents choose what house they will live in, what school they will go to, whether they will have more brothers and sisters, whether they will move to another house, city or state, whether they will experience divorce. Children are not in charge; their parents are, and sometimes their parents are just as powerless to choose when life or fate intervenes.

We as parents cannot always do whatever our children want us to do. We cannot let them have ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We cannot let them go out to play in the snow without their coat and boots. We cannot let them run into the street or up to a strange dog. We are responsible for their safety and their well being and for helping them grow into caring and competent adults. But we CAN listen to them, ask them how they feel and what they think. Sometime being heard is all they need.

As a mother I would often catch my kids looking thoughtful, as if they were processing an event as it unfolded before them. I was sometimes afraid to ask them what they were thinking or feeling. I didn’t want to know if they were angry at me or unhappy with a decision I had made. We parents try to do the very best for our children, but sometimes the decisions we make for them are painful, even if they are for the best. Are we brave enough to ask them how they feel, what they think, even if they may feel very differently from us?

It can hurt to hear what they have to say. But the reward for listening patiently and without judgment while your child tells you how he feels is that he will feel more at peace for getting his feelings out in the open and for being heard. And he will be able to come to you with more difficult situations as he enters his teenage years, because you have already established the lines of communication.

When Joseph was sixteen, we were getting ready to go out to eat and meet his dad and my younger son, Gabriel, at the restaurant. Joseph was taking a very long time getting ready and I finally asked him why it was taking him so long to walk out the door. What followed was a twenty minute tirade of everything I had done wrong for the last sixteen years, starting with not circumcising him to moving off the land to moving to West Virginia to moving to Washington to separating from his father. I sat with my mouth shut for once and cried and cried and just listened. What could I say? I HAD done all those things. From MY point of view they were the best decisions I could make. But from HIS point of view he had to live with the consequences of my decisions and he had no choice but to follow me around the country and watch as my marriage dissolved.

He felt much better after he let me have it and I learned a valuable lesson about points of view. Letting him vent on that night fifteen years ago was key in repairing and maintaining our relationship. Joseph and I are still very close. He has written a few of the articles in this Wisewords column.

Recently I took my grandchildren, Crystal, 5, and Jordan, 3, to Camp Kirby for a special treat. Camp Kirby is a 45 acre summer camp owned by Camp Fire USA Samish Council. I used to be the executive director of Samish Council before I left to create Babynut. Camp Kirby is located on Samish Island and has over a mile of beach front jutting out into Puget Sound. It is my favorite place on Earth. The three of us had the camp to ourselves, and we walked all along the beach picking up shells and pretty stones.

At first we were all very happy to be there, but Crystal began to tire of walking on the beach. As we walked back to where we had left our picnic basket, Jordan said “I want to live here, can this be my house?”

“I feel the same way, Jordan,” I said. “I wish this were my house, too.”

“Well, I don’t want to live here,” Crystal said. “This isn’t my house.”

“Why don’t you like it here?” I asked Crystal. ”It makes me sad that you don’t like Camp Kirby.”

Crystal didn’t respond and I realized I was asking a lot of a five-year-old. She had articulated her displeasure and that was all she was able to do at that point. Later on I took them on a walk through the Kirby woods. We found a sign to “Snow White’s Cabin” and followed it to a small log cabin with wood cut-outs of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Crystal was captivated. She loved the cabin and the wooden statues. I had forgotten all about this little cabin! It was the beach I loved. But Crystal loved the woods and the little cabin with her beloved Disney Princess. It turned out we both loved Camp Kirby, but from different points of view.

We don’t always need to agree with our children, nor they with us. What is important is that we take the time to look at events and situations from their vantage point. We can learn a lot by this shift in awareness and attention.

Read more of Saralee's articles and see her product offerings at her web site:

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Day I Met Ina May by Saralee Sky

In early June, 2004, I was invited to attend the Grand Opening Ceremony of the new birthing center in our town of Bellingham, Washington. The birthing center was designed to be a kind of intermediary between a home birth and a hospital birth, combining a comfortable homey atmosphere with various kinds of birthing options and equipment.

The ceremony was divided into two parts: a keynote talk delivered in a nearby church, and the ribbon (made to look like an umbilical cord!) cutting ceremony followed by tours of the facility and refreshments at the birthing center itself. The talk was given by a visiting luminary in the field of midwifery and home births – Ina May Gaskin.

I had never met Ina May Gaskin before, but I was very aware of her influence in the field of modern midwifery. Back in the mid-70’s and early 80’s when I was giving birth (at home) to my two sons, Ina May’s book Spiritual Midwifery was a delicious must-read chronicle of home birth after home birth at The Farm in Tennessee.

The Farm is an intentional community – commune – that was started in the early 70’s under the spiritual guidance of Ina May’s husband, Stephen Gaskin. I remember these big converted school buses going around the country, picking up followers and hippies. Stephen was a mesmerizing speaker and he offered up his own brand of spirituality and communal living. When I was searching for a way out of the city (I lived in San Francisco) in the early 70’s I considered moving to The Farm.

I ended up buying into a community called Navarro Ranch in northern California, where we each owned our own 40-acre parcel and also co-owned 100+ acres of common land and roads. We had a government and assessed ourselves dues to maintain the common areas, but we did not have a unified spiritual vision as did The Farm.

Ina May and the other midwives at The Farm started doing home births as a matter of course. She is credited with having revived the ‘lost art’ of home birth. Ina May recognized birth as a woman-centered, natural process. She learned how to be a midwife by:
• following the spiritual precepts of her husband, Stephen
• learning from some compassionate local doctors
• learning from the women whose births she attended
• reading medical text books
• listening to her own mother, who taught her that birth was not something to be afraid of.
She says she is still learning.

In the latest edition of Spiritual Midwifery, Ina May writes: “Women today continue to require the knowledge that birth still works and that every woman has her unique way of bringing her baby into the world. One good way to acquire this precious knowledge is to hear or read the birth stories of quite a few women who have given birth. A generation ago when I wrote the first edition of Spiritual Midwifery, I tried to make it the book I wanted when I was pregnant for the first time. My needs were pretty simple. I wanted to know what birth looked like. I wanted to know what it felt like and what would help it proceed the best way it could.” How marvelous! How simple! How revolutionary! And how very necessary!

When my sister gave birth in the 60’s, her OB/GYN put her to sleep with some sort of gas and extracted her baby with forceps. She awoke hours later to be presented with her baby! She did NOT give birth. Her doctor DELIVERED her baby. When I worked for a time in the early 70’s as a medical secretary for 3 OB/GYN doctors, the eldest doctor in the practice used to say to me: “The truly liberated woman is a woman without her uterus!” What incredible hubris and effrontery! No wonder we had to rediscover how to have babies naturally.

To my mind, women do not need to give birth in hospitals for the simple reason that they are NOT sick. Birthing is a natural process. With support and the knowledge of what is going on during labor and delivery, most women can give birth without the need of medical intervention.

Ina May created a school at The Farm for other women to learn to become midwives. Since that first school, midwifery schools have sprung up all over the country. Now midwives can be certified by a national registry and be licensed in their local communities.

The actual night I met Ina May stands out as a highlight in my life and is also a blur of images and feelings. I sat in the church and listened to her talk entitled “The Sphincter Law’. She talked without notes from her vast knowledge and experience. She was small in physical body and huge in luminosity and stature. I cannot actually remember her words! I sat there basking in her presence and in the presence of the 300+ people in attendance – mothers, fathers, babies, children, crones (wise women) like me. There were pregnant women and nursing women and midwives. The energy in the room was brimming over and full of life.

After the talk, I began to walk out of the church with the rest of the audience, slowly making our way to the birthing center for the reception. As I walked out into the vestibule, I found myself next to Ina May! “Hi!” I said and then I told her how much I enjoyed her talk. We began to walk together up the block. We shared some of our earlier experiences. I told her about my new business Womb To Grow aka I told her that I sold her books on Babynut and I even gave her one of my cards! Who knows what she actually did with it! I treasure the essence of the moments we spent in each other’s presence – a comfortable stroll and a meeting of two women with a passion for natural birth and loving support for women, babies and children.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Mommy - Look What Mommy Did to Me! By Saralee Sky

Looking back from the vantage point of 30 years since my oldest child was a baby, I can see that time with the clarity of hindsight. Yet even when I was in the midst of mothering him, Joseph taught me a valuable lesson about how important I was to him and about how much my actions affected him.

It was the winter of 1977. Joseph was two and a half. We lived in an 8 foot by 16 foot cabin that Joseph’s dad, Richard, built for us while he built our real house, a 5-sided post and beam structure. We were “back-to-the-land” hippie folk living in Northern California on 2000-acre Navarro Ranch near the town of Cazadero in Sonoma County.

Winter in Cazadero meant rain, more rain than I had ever experienced before. From the middle of October to the beginning of April, Cazadero and its environs received an average of 85 inches of rain. When the county seat of Santa Rosa got one inch of rain in a winter storm, we got six. Curtains of rain poured out of the sky. And the wind! - enough to blow trees down across our dirt road and cause mud to slide, roofs to blow off and windows to blow in.

It had been raining steadily all day. Richard was away at work. Joseph and I were stuck in the 8 foot by 16 foot cabin with a little kerosene heater for warmth and nothing to do it seemed but listen to the rain pounding on the roof and get on each other’s nerves. As the day wore on, Joseph got increasingly more agitated, running around the small space of the cabin, getting dangerously close to the heater, until finally I snapped and I spanked him. Me, the Hippie Earth Mother, the woman who swore that I would never do him physical harm. I spanked my beloved child.

Everything stopped. Joseph looked at me in shock and started to cry. “Mommy!” he wailed. “Look what Mommy did to me!” And he ran to me for comfort. He came to the one person in the world he knew would be there to love and protect him from the very same person who had just injured him. “MOMMY – LOOK WHAT MOMMY DID TO ME!”

Those words reverberated in my brain then and they still do to this day. Joseph was my greatest teacher, my harshest critic, my clearest mirror. As I hugged my child and cried along with him I promised him that I would never spank him again, and I kept my promise.

We can never underestimate the importance our actions and words have on our babies and toddlers. We are their whole world. They learn by watching and interacting with us how to be human, how to love, how to communicate, how to walk and dress and eat and use the toilet. How to BE. What kinds of messages are we giving our children?

What kind of world are you creating for your baby or toddler? If you meet their needs with love and patience, you will teach them that the world is a place where their needs can be met and they can be successful. If you encourage them to grow and try new things, but are there for them when they run to you for comfort after a fall, you will teach them that you will be their safe harbor when the world at large is too scary. You cannot control all the experiences of their young lives, but you can show your baby and your toddler that your love for them is a constant in a world of change.

Soon enough they will be introduced to preschool and then elementary school and youth groups and sports and dance and gymnastics. Their peers will replace you in importance as they grow up and away from you. This is the way of life. You have only a short time to be their main influence, but that time is so very important. You may resent your lack of freedom and privacy and sleep. But I can tell you from my own experience that this time of parenting babies and toddlers – which indeed can seem endless – is really fleeting.

In the midst of all they need and all you have to do to take care of them and manage the rest of your life, it is easy to overlook how important this time is and simply do your best to get through it. You may be just trying to survive and get them to the point where they don’t need you so much. This is my message to you: instead of trying to get THROUGH this time, allow yourself to sink INTO this time. Revel in it. Enjoy being your baby’s and your toddler’s whole world. Swim in the ecstasy of being this close to another being and watching them grow and thrive.

Instead of being tossed about by whatever crisis-du-jour is clamoring for your attention, you can choose to live your life as a spiritual practice and walk the Earth with awareness and intent. You will feel much more PRESENT and able to respond to your baby, your work, your partner, your life. The time will still fly by, but you will be living and experiencing consciously each fleeting moment rather than trying to avoid some moments and hold on to others.

When you blink your eyes your children will be grown up and out of your house. How will they remember you, think of you? Will you be remembered as a good influence? A positive role model? A loving parent?

Twenty-seven and a half years after the spanking incident, Joseph remembers what I did for him rather than what I did to him. This year for Mother’s Day, he sent me this email: “Happy Mother’s Day. You are the greatest mother in the world. Really and truly. You gave me the ability to think for myself and also limits within which to understand the world. I am so grateful that I had the up-bringing that I did. Full of wonder and travel and freedom. I love you. Happy Mother’s Day. Love, Joe.”

Saralee Sky is thw owner/manager of Babynut - a web site providing natural products and support for mothers and babies.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Caring Adult by Saralee Sky

All children need people outside the circle of their immediate family to care for them and teach them needed life skills. Someone outside the immediate family offers: an outside perspective, a break from family patterns or rivalries, special skills parents may not have, a kind of caring that is offered freely, not just because she is “Daddy’s little girl.” This kind of nurturing does not take the place of parental love. Rather it fills in the cracks and helps to round out a child’s development and character. Children need role models, mentors and support in addition to Mom or Dad.

Since my daughter-in-law became pregnant with my granddaughter, Crystal, five years ago, I have been involved with Crystal’s life. I went through the pregnancy with Jackie and my son, Gabe, going to all the doctor’s appointments at their request. They were very young and inexperienced, and looked to me for support as they made the transition to parenthood.

Gabe and I were present during the labor and delivery. Jackie gave birth with grace and strength and Gabe and I provided the support and caring she needed. I was very proud of them both. Since Crystal’s birth, they have grown into loving parents and surpassed my expectations time and again. Whenever they had a problem or question, they would turn to me for help, but they would always make their own decision and I have respected their right to do so.

Jackie returned to work when Crystal was six months old, working part-time for me at the Camp Fire office. She brought little Crystal with her and the rest of the staff would take “baby breaks” and help to care for Crystal while Jackie worked as our Camp Registrar. That job ended when Crystal was almost a year old, and Jackie soon found full-time work. I became the babysitter for Crystal whenever Gabe and Jackie were at work, caring for her both at my home and at my office. I have a great picture of her sitting at my desk at age two. I was lucky enough to be “the boss” and able to make the decision to allow children in the work place.

When Jackie gave birth to Jordan in April of 2003, I decided to leave my job at Camp Fire to work from home and help take care of Crystal and Jordan. Jackie returned to work when Jordan was three months old. She and Gabe both work full-time. They vary their schedules so that they only need childcare two to three days/week. I provide most of that care, with other grandparents chipping in from time to time.

My connection to Crystal and Jordan is very close. I take them special places like the Children’s Museum, different playgrounds and parks, the library. We bake cookies, do art projects, rake leaves, read books, play computer games. I provide the kind of attention and opportunities that a busy parent often does not have the time to provide. On the days I do not see them, I am likely to receive a call from Crystal. What a joy it is to hear, “Hi Nana!” when I answer the phone. Just what does this connection and caring mean to Crystal’s and Jordan’s development?

The Search Institute of Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide leadership, knowledge, and resources to promote healthy children, youth, and communities. At the heart of the institute's work is the framework of 40 Developmental Assets, which are positive experiences and personal qualities that young people need to grow up healthy, caring, and responsible.

The Search Institute's 40 Developmental Assets are concrete, common sense, positive experiences and qualities essential to raising successful young people. These assets have the power during critical adolescent years to influence choices young people make and help them become caring, responsible adults.

The Developmental Asset framework is categorized into two groups of twenty assets. External assets are the positive experiences young people receive from the world around them. These twenty assets are about supporting and empowering young people, about setting boundaries and expectations, and about positive and constructive use of young people's time. External assets identify important roles that families, schools, congregations, neighborhoods, and youth organizations can play in promoting healthy development.

The twenty internal assets identify those characteristics and behaviors that reflect positive internal growth and development of young people. These assets are about positive values and identities, social competencies, and commitment to learning. The internal Developmental Assets will help these young people make thoughtful and positive choices and, in turn, be better prepared for situations in life that challenge their inner strength and confidence.

One of the external Developmental Assets the Search Institute identifies is Other Adult Relationships. This is defined as, “children experience interactions and relationships with non-familial adults, including caregivers, relatives, older people, and community figures. These interactions are characterized by investment, enrichment, consistency, and caring.” I am such an adult in the lives of Crystal and Jordan. The Search Institute has codified what I have always known: children need people outside of their immediate family to be role models, supporters and mentors.

When I was a child I had my Hebrew School teacher, Mr. Palgon, as a role model. I loved the way he lived his deep faith and the way he was devoted to his own children and his wife. I loved being around his family and was sometimes invited to Sabbath dinner on Friday night. I also had my Uncle Sol and his wife, my Aunt Goldie. Uncle Sol was a Talmudic scholar and would often teach me about Jewish law and philosophy while sitting around his kitchen table. Aunt Goldie was a mother-figure for me, taking over that role when my own mother died when I was three.

Always in my life there have been people who materialized at just the right time to show me a way of being in the world, teach me a set of skills, or offer love and support. I am grateful for all of my teachers and mentors. I know that I am the person I have become – and am still becoming – in large part due to their influence and example.

All of my professional life I have worked for and with children. Babynut is my way of offering mentorship and support to young mothers and babies. I wish you all much joy and success as you negotiate the roles of parent and child. It is all about the journey and finding key people to help along the way.