Some of our behavior is truly innate. That is, we have behaviors that we will exhibit without being taught. They are coded in our DNA and we do them without thinking very hard about them.
One of those innate behaviors in social mammals is empathy. We know that a wide array of animals are not only aware of the suffering of their friends, but they will take actions to help them when they are suffering. This has been seen in mice, rats, dogs, and primates. It also seems to come with a sense of justice and equality. In a study with chimpanzees, researchers found that they were very sensitive to being given differential treatment. And better yet, this often worked both ways.
It went something like this. Chimpanzees were given tokens that they could give back to the researcher in order to get a treat; a chunk of carrot or a grape. Like humans, they preferred the grape to the carrot, but would eat either. Until, they got treats in pairs. They began to refuse carrots when the other chimp in the room got a grape. When the reward for the same task was unfair, the chimps would refuse the lesser treat and often throw a tantrum instead.
Better yet, when a chimp received a grape and his partner got a carrot, this chimp would refuse the grape! The chimp could see that his friend was being cheated and would refuse to play the researcher's game. It was an act of solidarity to refuse the desired treat when the chimp perceived the unfair reward to a friend, and it indicates a full understanding of fairness and equity.
I would go a step further and say this also indicates that these types of social animals (which includes humans) are well aware that our lives are inextricably connected. We are in this life experience together, and what effects one of us effects us both, ultimately. It's a recognition that I could be in your shoes.
First, in a larger context, I'd like to say that I think we ignore this at our peril. This is directly related to the world stage at the moment. I see over and over that when the oppressor dehumanizes the people they are attacking, they can justify horrendous acts. We have lost sight of what humanity means.
To bring it closer to home, there are two things these social behaviors offer us in terms of our family dynamic. One is that humans are born with an innate sense of fairness, of what togetherness means and what we can expect from it. This is foundational in our psyche, and so we know that we can build on it. As parents we can look for this sense of fairness in our children and we can prepare ourselves to respond to it in a way that builds the kind of understanding of the world that we hope to instill in them. But we need to be prepared because the perceived unfairness will show up in small ways in their world every day. What do we want them to know?
Growing up I received a lot of messages that "the world doesn't revolve around you" and "stop crying or I'll give you a reason to cry" or "well, the world isn't fair". And while at face value some of that is true, it taught me that it was ok that things were uneven and unfair. It taught me that my disappointment didn't matter. And I spent a lot of my first few decades on earth thinking it was ok that I was ignored, neglected, and treated badly. I wasn't the center of the world, what I felt didn't matter, and it was all ok because the world wasn't set up to meet my needs and wants.
I'm not saying that will be everyone's experience, or that it's all my parent's fault that I accepted a lot of bad behavior from folks in my early years. But I am saying that I was taught a worldview that was in direct opposition to the innate truth inside me. It was confusing at best, and created a sense of powerlessness that was probably much more damaging.
So again, I come back to the question, what kind of world do we want to tell our children is out there? What nuance do we need, that we do not currently have from our parenting experts, about giving our children a consistent and also true sense of the world they live in? I suspect this requires a little more thought than we usually put into answering such a question.
Switching gears a little, I also want to cover a common behavior in children that I think is releated. When we perceive something as unfair and we don't know how to say so to the people who hold the power, we throw a tantrum. This too is a natural behavior, an innate response to perceiving that something isn't fair. How we respond as caregivers to this situation determines a lot about how our children learn about what to expect out of life and how to navigate unfair situations.
That means that tantrums are a natural outgrowth of not being able to communicate with the person who has control of your environment. They are, in and of themselves, actually a communication of distress. So, what if we could see them as a natural instinct to communicate distress or displeasure, a need for someone to help us address our internal state of dysregulation? How would you behave if this was the lens you saw their tantrum through?
Unfairness. It's literally an everyday occurrence. When do we stand up for others? When do we perceive that we have the power to do so? When do we feel solidarity? With whom? And how do we convey this worldview to our children? How do we want them to behave with their peers, with family, with folks they don't know?
Just to be fair now, there is no right answer to this. It is just getting at being clear about when we are working with innate behaviors and how we want to build on those with our children. In chimpanzees, it turns out that there is a balance they are striking. They are more likely to boycott treats for friends or someone they experience reciprocity with in other social situations. Also, when resources are scarce, they are less likely to reject any food they are offered, even if it goes against their principles of fairness. I'm just inviting all of us to be clear about this balance.
thinking about parenting and fairness:
What kind of world do I want for my children?
What do I want them to do in the face of injustice?
What perspective do they need in order to do that?
What is the developmental path through childhood that supports this perspective?
If we think of this nuance as a continuum on a line between not empathetic and overly empathetic, is there anything else they need to know about when they're crossing into territory that is leaving someone out? (Remember that kindness includes them. Becoming people pleasers and catering to others is not the goal here. Healthy empathy lies where the needs of all people is being considered.)
When our struggles become overwhelming and push us into corners that we feel we can’t get get free from, then it can be helpful to turn to nature.
People have divorced themselves from nature, we have language that describes nature as unalive, not feeling, simply a resource. And this implies that its value lies in what we can get from it (and particularly, how much money we can make from it). We don’t perceive ourselves as having to operate by the same patterns and principles as nature. But what if we did?
Indigenous people and some lingering practices from inside of extractive cultures remind us that it wasn’t always like this. There are other ways to perceive our relationship with nature. Landscape of Mothers encourages us to explore this new but ancient way of relating to earth and her inhabitants. As we do this it is important that we reconnect with our own ancestral path, and that we do not use someone else’s way. Even if our lineage of nature relationship has been lost, we can claim a new relationship with earth that is mutual through research of our family line, and most importantly, through our own bones and our own experience.
Landscape of Mothers is a framework for having our own experience of nature, that can be mutual, interactive, and contemplative.
But how does this happen?
It happens because we intentionally step into a process with nature that facilitates a deeper relationship. Like any relationship it needs frequency, spaciousness, and reciprocity. So, we create a pattern out of those needs.
We need to visit at a frequency appropriate to the kind of relationship we want to have. That is, if we want to go deep, it helps to visit more often. This is akin to how often we visit or interact with our friends. This is where we establish reliability and stability for all parties involved. It doesn't require perfection or rigidity, but a devotion and the creation of an ongoing conversation.
We also want to intentionally create spaciousness, and by that I mean flexibility to listen, to simply be together, and to allow the meeting to take up space in you. This is a practice of letting the relationship touch you in ways you don't expect, making room for what you can learn from the natural world. Quiet, curiosity, and slowness tend to this part of the relationship.
In the reciprocity of the relationship we can access depth. Not only only are we spending time in nature getting to know it, we are letting it know us. You can see animals respond to your presence in the wild, but do you know that the trees and plants do too? It makes sense, that our life force energy sees, notices, and responds to one another. (See the book The Secret Life of Trees for some spectacular stories about this).
The parallel here is that if we want to change our family culture, we need somewhere new to build relationships that uphold the values and dynamics we wish to become more fluent with. Nature is a powerful place to begin this exploration because trees are non-judgmental as to where you are beginning from, and they release chemicals that interact with your nervous system that are calming. This is why it so often feels like a relief when you step into the forest. Let the blessing wash over you.
By Being Human, I mean that we are able to connect with other people, including (especially?) our children through listening, understanding, and reflecting what we hear and see in a way that is kind and caring. Perfection is most often a comparison to an external rubric that is set by someone else who doesn't necessarily have your values at the center of their process.
Perfection in parenting is trying to do it all "right", Being Human in parenting is learning to connect.
When we operate our family systems by the value systems of others, we often find that there is conflict, demand, pressure to conform, and a requirement to abandon your own wants and needs for the ones upholding the family system. At best this creates disconnection, mistrust, feelings of not being seen or understood, and isolation. From the child's perspective there is no one to help them, and so they learn not to look for help. This is often carried into adulthood and creates a likelihood of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
If this is your family legacy, as it is mine, I'm so sorry. I know what it is to feel alone to solve problems and situations that you may not be able to articulate, much less understand, as a child. If, like me, you don't want this to be your children's experience of childhood, I am here for you.
Setting up an environment that does not repeat these childhood experiences requires a change to the family culture. If we want to change our family legacy of harm we must learn to inhabit a different perspective than the one that supports behaviors of harm.
Changing our own behavior without changing the underlying narrative isn’t enough.
If we don’t change the narrative that supported harm it is inevitable that the harm will continue to happen. That we enable others in the family to continue their poor behavior and even we will respond from those old perspectives and narratives when we are tired, overwhelmed, or stressed.
In my family my parents' primary mode of communication was yelling. So, when my kids were little and I was frustrated, overwhelmed, and exhausted, I would yell at them. And every time I felt so awful, knowing, even as I was doing it, that I didn't want to repeat this old family pattern.
Changing my behavior looked like "just don't yell", but it wasn't that easy. It wasn't about willpower, it was about learning new techniques for expressing my disappointment, or for taking care of myself when (and before) I was beyond exhausted. It required a change in my narrative about how to meet everyone's needs, and who I was to my children.
A change in family culture is the only way to stop the behaviors from being transmitted from one generation to the next.
It looks so simple. Four short words, I understand them all, and yet, it feels so familiar to be uncertain in the face of this question.
To want is powerful. So it behooves us to know what we want.
Wants are impulses. They can be momentary, frivolous, wants can morph into longing, and they can be a compass to our life purpose. They can also be driven by the teachings of our society, parents, religion, and education, such that what others want us to do overrides our connection with what we want.
Impulses are signals from the nervous system and can originate from one of three places: the internal guidance system (also known as our intuition, following our hearts, or body wisdom), instinct (a somatic response to a stimulus), or learned patterns of avoidance (moving away from something we’ve been taught is dangerous - also known as internalized systems).
Internal guidance system impulses are the ones we are often looking to follow when we are searching for our own way. They are the pull to do the thing from our congruence, and from befriending our will. They are the things that are “correct” for us, even if they’re difficult or require us to travel through the unknown.
Instincts are a somatic response to a stimulus. They bypass the conscious brain and create an impulse to pick up our foot when we step on legos, or to swerve when the car in front of us suddenly stops.
Learned patterns of avoidance are internalized responses to stimuli based on “how the world works.” This can be wildly different for different folks, but gets at our internalized (but learned) rules about what we are “allowed” to be like. This is where we can say “I followed my heart” but really mean “I operated according to the rules that said I shouldn’t disappoint someone else.” The bottom line is that learned patterns of avoidance are not always wrong, but they can be.
The learned patterns of avoidance that are incorrect undermine our ability to trust our internal guidance system because the impulses it creates can often feel similar. One of our tasks in deepening our self-understanding and finding our congruence is to learn to tell one from the other.
This is an experiential task. One that we do through paying attention, through befriending ourselves, through learning how to recognize our congruence (or lack thereof). It is something we spend our whole lives doing.
The Mothers that help me when I'm looking for my congruence, to know what I want, are Wind Mother, Island Mother, and Mountain Mother. The three of them provide the skills and hold me in the tasks of unhooking from those learned responses, noticing what is arising in me, and befriending my own will. They are available to you too, should you want to call on them.
Over the last year I apprenticed myself to the land burned in the CZU fires with the intention of learning how to navigate catastrophe. This year, other land in the US west is burning. May the land teach us how to witness and how to respond, not just to these fires, but to all of the catastrophes unfolding before us.
On August 16th, 2020 fires were ignited by lightning in the mountains north of Santa Cruz, California. My first visit to the burned area was on September 10th.
I stepped onto the land and immediately noticed that the ground was different. It was otherworldly, made of fine ash that puffed around my boots and stuck to my pant legs. The foundation of everything had been changed, the good nourishing duff of the forest floor was gone.
It is like this, isn’t it, when a catastrophe happens? That the very ground seems to shift under our feet. Everything feels off kilter, unbalanced, even surreal. And finding our bearings can feel impossible. It requires more attention, more care, to walk across this now unfamiliar terrain.
I would not know for weeks or even months what had lived and what had died in the fire. Trees that looked like they survived would still die and fall. It took time for the catastrophe to fully play itself out, for the losses to be known and the true extent to be revealed. I had long thought of catastrophe in nature and in my life as momentary, confined to a single place in time. But they are not, or not always.
There was a deep quiet in the forest as the effects of the fire continued to unfold. Animals had fled, including humans. What could not leave was destroyed, like the snail shells that turned to dust when I touched them, and bones that fell apart when I tried to pick them up.
While it was clear that things had changed drastically, it was unclear how it would continue to unfold, what would be left, what would be revealed, what would be truly lost. This is a liminal space, the in-between, where the unknown is palpable.
The land left me with a strong need for presence, for being with what had happened, for witnessing the continued unfolding of the event. The request I felt from the land was for dedication, to keep returning, to follow and notice. So often I have rushed over the uncomfortable and devastating parts of life, trying to hurry on to a place I was more at ease. But here, nature was going at its own pace, so much slower than mine. And the request was for me to slow down and be with the forest.
What does life look like when we go through something difficult? What happens in me when uncertainty is the only thing in front of me? What do I do in the in-between time?
A key piece of Landscape of Mothers is that we want to remember to give ourselves credit for what we're doing. Remember that we're in a world that devalues caring for others, whether that's children, the elderly, or the disabled. Needing care is often seen as a characteristic of weakness.
But the world needs true caregivers. We need one another as a fundamental part of our humanity. And so it's helpful when we're in caregiving situations that we make sure that we celebrate and honor our own work.
This is downright countercultural in a time where we are all familiar with the term Mommy Wars. We can go about this differently. Landscape of Mothers gives us a map to do this differently. But, I digress.
When we are willing to celebrate, when we honor our caregiving work, we can be simultaneously building from the shore of "this-doesn't-work-I-want-it-to-be-better" and from "woohoo-I-know-what-does-work". And building on what works is so much easier than trying to create an entirely new foundation for something we can only hope will be better than what we've got goin' on!
And... my invitation to you is to write what you are celebrating below. No celebration is too small! A shower without an audience, one meal that felt nourishing, something begun that feels like it's going somewhere good... it's all part of honoring what we're in. Once you have your celebration, notice the reaction in your body. Notice and name the sensation.
Archetypes can help us get unstuck when we feel like we are out of options through giving us perspectives or lenses that we might not otherwise entertain. This removes us from the habitual neural patterns that have us stuck in a loop that doesn't feel good. Patterns in which we have to lose or let go of something that feels important.
Archetypes can also help us choose a path when we feel overwhelmed. By looking to an archetype that has a particular perspective and personality, we have perspectives available to us that we don't have to create. That is, we don't have to know what we want the situation to look like, we can just know that we don't want what's happening. We step into the perspective of an archetype and try it on. What works for us? What is possible? Does this feel better? What can we do with this understanding?
It's important because when we are parenting we are so often sure of what we don't want, and not as sure of what's possible. If we also have to create that whole dream world of what we do want and how to get there... it can just be overwhelming. And limited. Working with archetypes invites us to step back a bit, give more room to the situation, and to slow down. From there we are able to locate the context of what we're doing. We can see more clearly, we have more options, and we have choice about what we can do. We see different facets of what's important to us, where we're stuck, where we're having success (oh... never forget that last bit... notice and appreciate your successes! Don't gloss over them... they are the strengths that you build with!).
Archetypes are particularly helpful where we are in situations that feel hopelessly tangled, messy, and every question is met with more questions. By stepping into the perspective of a particular archetype we get a finite perspective that has particular possibilities and we are able to manage some understanding or insight from it. The perspective of the archetype has an inherent understanding and knowledge there to build on. When we personify the archetype we can relate to their perspective easily and we can often find guidance in the perspective. We are not obligated to act on that guidance, but the simplicity of having an offering of a way to proceed can open the power of the brain to locate other possibilities. This was not available to us when we were feeling stuck or overwhelmed.
I explore this further in a YouTube Video if you'd like more of my thoughts on archetype as parenting help. You can also sign up for my newsletter if you'd like to hear more.
In ecology we characterize how things work through the concepts of structure and function. Structure is the stuff we see when we ask ourselves WHAT or HOW. Structure is the behavior, the context, the goal, and our intent. It is how we approach a situation, what we bring when we come, and how we use our voice and our body to engage.
Function is about the process, it is the flow and relating we hope to do when we come to a situation. It may overlap some with structure around our intent. WHY and WHEN are the questions that help us explore function.
Sometimes these questions lead us back to our childhood pain. So, tread lightly here. The intention of asking these questions is not to retreat old painful pathways. Instead, what we want to do is skim off the surface of the facts. For me, I was alone a lot as a child. This was both because I grew up in the 1970's and 1980's when that was common... and because I suffered some big traumas during those years for which I did not receive help. Therefore, I have deep values for presence, connection, and being helpful (with consent).
To ask HOW and WHAT we are investigating the structures, environment, and context of our parenting choices. When we ask WHY and WHEN we are locating our values, motivations, and assessing our capacity to show up fully for what's in front of us. The remaining questions of WHO and WHERE are relevant questions, that I'll answer when my next book comes out! Teaser: it has to do with where the relationships are (as in, is it a family relationship, community, or with yourself) and who else might be involved (a dependent, peers, or individuals in an hierarchy).
This post is part of a video that I posted (LOM on YouTube) in a series on Landscape of Mothers Foundations. The topic is Structure and Function... and this post and the video are specifically about Structure. What we do and how we do it in our parenting relationship.
When we enter a place in our parenting where we want to do things differently than what we have known, we are entering the unknown. It helps if we take a look at the places that we have done well in the past, or felt good about how we handled a situation, and we can apply what we know about what works to the new situation before us. I find it helpful to look at where things have gone well and ask myself a couple of questions about it.
There are two parts to what we're investigating, the structure and the function. That is, we conjure a time in our minds in which we walked away feeling proud of how we handled some parenting moment... and we want to investigate the structure, or what was in place, what are the facts, and how it played out. We also want to understand that function, or why we did what we did, and what the context was.
This video (LOM on YouTube) talks about the structure part of our inquiry. We're going to use the "Who, what, where, when, why, and how" questions... and the two particularly related to structure are WHAT and HOW.
For me, I find that an approach that contains curiosity and questions is helpful (and so getting myself to that place before I approach my kids is crucial... and I really need to tie a string around my finger so I can remember it). As always, this requires some discernment. It requires that not only do I come with questions, but that I bring the presence of openness with them. Kids can tell when the question falls more along the lines of "what the hell are you thinking?" rather than, "hey, wanting to check in and ask about what happened yesterday. How do you feel?"
When we come to a situation where we're not sure what to do, or we have an urge to do it the way our parents would have (that wouldn't have felt good to us), we can take a pause and ask ourselves what we have done in times where the kids have responded well. If we already have answers because we've thought about it, we can respond better when a situation takes us by surprise.
The waves came in consistent and strong. Clearing and cleansing. Usually the rock doesn't rise that high above the sand. The waves take the sand away during the winter storms, and deposit it back in the seasons of gentler waves. I watched as the ocean took sand away, subtracted, removed. Erosion.
The ocean comes to clear the beach when it's time. The Ocean Mother contains the Death Mother... the one who says goodbye, the one who grieves. And the quote above is what she left me with.
Author: Jill clifton
Hi, I'm Jill, creator of Landscape of Mothers. I'm here to talk about breaking family patterns of harm so that we can parent our children in ways that support them becoming fully themselves. I'm happy to have you here!