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The Greek goddess Athena’s companion is a little owl that perches on her shoulder. The owl’s natural night vision peers into her owner’s darkness, illuminating the hidden side of her psyche. Because Athena is able, with the owl’s help, to see the whole truth about herself, she is able to act wisely …and that is why she is the goddess of wisdom.
What if there is a dark side to our natural/holistic parenting efforts—meaning, a side we are unaware of and could use a little light? What if the lens through which we perceive the world shifted enough, even for a moment, to expose and illuminate this dark side? What would we find?
A little more than a decade ago, awash in the glow of baby-smitten motherhood, a nagging suspicion formed at the periphery of my awareness: was I missing something crucial in all of my considerable efforts to be a “good mom”? I would review my mental checklist carefully, and then talk with other parents about it. As my son grew, so did the checklist, until one day I found myself feeling like a knight-errant—except that I was a new mother on a wellness quest with a hefty mental yardstick to tell me if I was “doing it right.” As a new set of issues appeared with every new phase of my son’s growth, the hash marks on the yardstick increased, until it grew into an unwieldy weapon that, unwittingly, I would take out to evaluate and judge myself on my motherhood “performance.” Breastfeeding, check; organic food, check; no TV, check; attachment parenting, check; yoga/meditation practice, check…you get the idea.
As a professional journalist, I had in- vestigated motherhood options and decided I wanted to be a “natural” moth- er and a “cultural creative”—a term Paul H. Ray, Ph.D., and Sherry Ruth Anderson, Ph.D., coined in their 2000 book of the same name. I knew my lifestyle choices ran against the grain of mainstream cul- ture. I also knew I desperately needed my parenting community to talk about is- sues like “What the heck is high-fructose corn syrup and why is it in everything?” The parents who joined me on my quest were the best companions in the world. Bursting with love for our children, our hearts easily found the courage to ques- tion the status quo. Natural parenting came naturally…at first.
After a few years of floating on the pink cloud of early motherhood, it began to dawn on me just how endless the issues were, and how complicated. The initially comforting mental yardstick, with its ability to give me a sense of accomplishment, now stretched into the abyss as I became angrier and angrier pondering questions like “Who the hell thought growing spermicide in genetically engineered corn was a good idea? Who are these people, and what gave them the right to wreck the planet without our knowledge or consent?” With no warning, an overwhelming sense of helplessness crushed me flat. I squeaked out a defeated admission: “It’s not one thing that I need to question and change, it’s everything, and I can’t possibly make a difference.” In hindsight, I understand this version of reality was the Tale of the World According to the Yardstick.
When my son turned 4, my family packed up our suburban belongings and moved to a small farm on the outskirts of our county. I spent the next few years playing in the dirt, growing food, witnessing the cycles of life, and becoming immersed in a new awareness. I wrote about this experience in 2007 in an essay entitled “Spiritual Composting.” On the other side of this shift in my perception, I found my former yardstick mentality transformed to the Tale of the World According to the Earth.
Instead of “It’s not one thing, it’s everything and I don’t matter and can’t make a difference,” the Tale According to the Earth was “Everything is one thing, and as a part of this wholeness, I always make a difference.” The revelation was not an intellectual thought. I experienced this awareness in a way that left certainty in my bones and clarity in my vision. I knew that my smallest efforts—even my thoughts— were connected to a conscious universe and therefore, inevitably, mattered.
By sitting compassionately with myself and peering into my own habits of thought for clues to their origins, I noticed how, from the beginning of my parenting path, I brought a lifetime of achievement ideals to motherhood. My unexamined, unconscious programming of performance, evaluation and production was a value system straight from my formal education and work world—which was now the dominant, unsustainable industrial paradigm I sought to undermine with my “natural” parenting efforts. Yikes! Echoes of Einstein’s famous quote rang out this new thought like tolling bells: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Oh. Right.
With gratitude for its teaching, the yardstick was ceremoniously tossed into the compost heap and all self-loving gestures (like naps!) were rolled out with glee. Hmm, I thought…what kind of impact would a group of well-rested parents have on the world? (Maybe we would find the energy to carry the Non-GMO Shopping Guide with us to the grocery store? See “What’s in Your Basket?” page 22.)
In my natural parenting workshops, I struggled to find the words for the insight experience. Many parents intuited my attempts and shared their own moments of perceiving a vaster context for our lives. Knowing the story so well myself, I could now spot parents who were chanting their version of the Tale of the World According to the Yardstick. Witnessing this phenomenon through a new lens, I realized with sadness the beatings we gave ourselves with those disconnected, industrial values were brutal—not to mention the insidious moments of blindly brandishing our yardsticks on one another: “Is that a Happy Meal toy?”
I shuddered when the thought appeared from the blind side of my own psyche: What if, even with the best of intentions, deciding to become a “cultural creative” or earth-saving “natural” parent while unaware of our industrially programmed lenses meant creating the cruelest yardstick imaginable for ourselves? On the days I gave up on reaching the high ground of natural parenting, I wondered, did all of the energy bound up in this blind spot ever serve me, or did it just drain me? Were these mechanical values capable of serving humans, much less the caregivers of small children?