| by Peggy O’Mara, Editor and Publisher
This is the talk I gave at the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association (ICPA) Family Wellness conference on October 21, 2010.
When I attended the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) conference here in 2009, I was struck by the vitality of many of the attendees, and I began to realize that among the most vital were the chiropractors.
Vitality is a very personal expression, but I do think we all know what it looks like and feels like. When ICPA’s Jeanne Ohm asked me to speak at the conference, I thought I would talk about vitality in the context of family wellness; like all parents, I want to protect and enhance the vitality of my family.
Vitality has to do not only with demeanor, though it is reflected there, but also with our innate ability to grow, to thrive, and to heal ourselves. Having confidence in this innate ability in our children, and trusting ourselves as parents to make decisions that enhance that vitality, are perhaps our biggest challenges as new parents.
Society tells us to dominate our child’s body, to suppress its symptoms with drugs, and to artificially augment its immune system. Those of us who believe in the capacity of the body to repair itself must resist this model of domination, which does not enhance family wellness. In fact, domination of any kind cannot be the norm in a healthy family.
This is a conference about family wellness in the context of conscious choice. Conscious choice implies that we have both the right and the responsibility to decide what is appropriate for our own families, and that doing so leads us down the path of an authentic life. Becoming an authentic, original parent means basing our decisions on observations of our own, unique child and on our personal vision of our family, rather than on the current fashion or what other parents are doing. This vision becomes our ethic of parenting.
Here are some questions you might want to ask to foster the development of your own ethic of parenting:
- What do you believe about children in general, and about your own child in particular?
- Do you believe that your child has a legitimate reason for his or her behavior, even when you don’t understand or agree with it?
- What do you believe about yourself as a parent?
- Do you think that you are the expert, or are the experts outside of you?
- What does leading an authentic life mean to you?
When we examine our actions, we sometimes find that they are incongruous with our beliefs. Our words and actions may reflect unconscious cultural or personal beliefs that we want to bring into awareness. At first, we may act automatically and parent as we ourselves were parented, only to find, upon reflection and through experience, that there are other ways. Gradually, we become ourselves. As Rollo May said, “The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.”
Conformity does not serve children. They are not conformists. They are idiosyncratic, original. We must dive deeply into ourselves for them and actively examine our beliefs—even be willing to change our mind.
Who is the child? What do you believe about the nature of the child? Do you believe that your child is inherently good, inherently bad, or a blank slate? Do you believe that your child is the product of heredity or of environment? Does your child feel as you do? Does your child understand things as you do?
What do you believe about the world? Do you believe that we live in a benign universe? Do you trust others? Do you trust yourself? Are you tolerant of your child’s innate timetable and legitimate biological needs?
Once you’ve asked yourself these and other questions, challenged your beliefs, and possibly changed your mind, you will have to find the courage to act on your new beliefs. Finding the courage to act on these beliefs, especially if they are controversial, can be more difficult than discovering what you believe in the first place. You must remain steadfast with yourself. You must not abandon yourself to please others. This may mean straining relationships with family. It may mean finding new friends. It may even cause differences of opinion between you and your partner.
This is healthy. This is normal. Everyone has a right to her or his opinion, but only you can choose for your own family. It is the job of each new generation to finish the unfinished business of the past, and often that means doing things differently. Only you have the authority for your family.
Fortunately, courage is self-generating. The more you face difficult situations, the braver you become. Here are some things that will help you to sustain your courage:
Practice self-appreciation. This is helpful every day, and essential when making difficult decisions. Be gentle on yourself. Don’t turn against yourself in tough times. Don’t listen to negative self-talk. Mentally rehearse difficult future situations and imagine yourself as being successful in them. Expect things to work out.
Learn to navigate tough times. In tough times, contemplation, meditation, and just sitting and staring off into space can all help. Allow fun and pleasure into your life, regardless of what you face emotionally. Build a social network of like-minded friends. To keep perspective during tough times, ask yourself two key questions:
- What am I looking forward to?
- What am I grateful for?
Understand how change happens. Change is a process. If you decide that you’d like to find more time for family meals, or want to stop yelling at your kids, or are interested in learning about homebirth, just give yourself some time. Only about 20 percent of people are prepared to change their habits; just by contemplating change, you are already a nonconformist, already courageous. What people often don’t realize about personal change is that it doesn’t happen overnight, but in stages. First, we have to contemplate the problem. Then we must imagine what changing the situation will require. Next, we mentally prepare ourselves to take the new action. Finally, we act.
Then, if the change is to be lasting, we must maintain the new behavior. And with any new behavior, there will be lapses into old behavior. While you’re learning how to live more naturally, for example, you may buy fast food, then severely reprimand yourself. This is a mistake. It’s how you talk to yourself about lapses, not the lapses themselves, that can lead you back to old habits. Don’t blame yourself as if it were a catastrophe. Just pick up where you left off and start over, keeping the big picture in mind. And remember to reward yourself for your successes. For example, reward yourself for laying off junk food for a month by taking time to relax, getting a new book, or having a healthy lunch with a friend. Congratulate yourself on having met your own goals.
In addition to self-care, it is also important to find friends you are compatible with and whose values you share, and to avoid people who model the behavior you want to avoid, or who offer you depression, despair, or disrespect.
Einstein once said, “The field is the sole governing agency of the particle.” What this means is that we are logically and irrevocably influenced by the field we are in. If we are around people who use a certain kind of slang, we will use that kind of slang. If we see women with big purses, we will want a big purse. If we have ice cream in the freezer, we will eat it. If, on the other hand, we are at a retreat where everyone eats healthy food, we will eat that. We are animals, and we mimic what we see others doing.
Community is so important that some people have formed intentional communities; others live in cohousing developments where families live in close proximity to one another, share meals, and have group social events. A friend told me that her house had recently been sold to two families, who would share the house.
One of the most popular articles ever to appear in Mothering is “Finding Your Tribe,” by Teresa Pitman, published in the September–October 2000 issue. It’s the story of a young mom who spends days with her friend. They cook together, clean together, help each other with their children. On the Mothering.com discussion forums, we have very popular Finding Your Tribe threads of forum members who regularly get together in real time.
We come to conferences like this to see each other, to be inspired and energized by a community of like-minded people. It’s important to look for community, but we don’t really have to worry about finding it. It finds us. We attract it. We find it where we are. We go deeper with people we already know: neighbors, coworkers, the parents of our children’s friends.
We need community. Visualize what it feels like to feel part of a community. Describe it to yourself. What is one community you want to know more about? What is one step you could take toward that community? Break it down into small steps, then take just that first step.
We live in an age in which the individual has seemed to be more important than the collective. Our current economic challenges underline precisely the opposite, but these times are just a reminder of what has always been true: Regardless of what era we live in, we need community. There is nothing wrong with us if we can’t go it alone. We’re not supposed to.
Community is important because we are profoundly influenced by those around us. We are influenced by their dress, their language, their moods. Positive thoughts, positive intentions, and positive words all contribute to our vitality and to the vitality of others. We certainly can’t believe in our own inherent vitality or that of our child if we are in a bad mood. It seems, then, that optimism is a job requirement, both for parents and for anyone who wants to maintain vitality.
As you enjoy the conference over the next few days, don’t look for a dogma. Notice your experience. Observe what excites you, what inspires you, what makes your pulse quicken and your blood boil. Follow those things. Trust your impulses. Remember that vitality is ultimately about the unfolding of your own uniqueness. It is about the fact that you are an original.
I will leave you with a quote from the legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham:
“There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And, if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”