the no-project project

March 31st, 2010

The other week I turned down the invitation to speak to a preschool. Politely, I hope. I said something like “my recent encounters with preschool groups have had unreliable outcomes.” There’s more (and less) to it, but I’ve applied the rule of three: when things don’t go quite the way you expect three times in a row, it’s a good time to turn in another direction.

I’ve suddenly realized I don’t have much to say about how to raise your kids.

You probably aren’t surprised, since I blew my own lid off about this topic a couple of months ago with a rant about the proliferation of cynical parenting advice and so-called scientific breakthroughs. The piece is reprinted in this month’s Get Born magazine, and that’s a good place for it. The rant is over now; my Tea Party moment has passed. My fury birthed a clarifying truth for me: parenting is not a project! At least, my parenting is not a project. Ten years into the blitzkrieg of late-life motherhood, I’ve recognized that kids do a pretty good job of growing up by themselves. Thank goodness, because parents like me can make a mess out of the simplest things.

This is not to say I don’t stand by Momma Zen. It is as sweet and disarming a book of no-parenting advice as any out there, and more popular than ever. I’m happy it turned out okay all by itself.

My daughter is 10. We are likely to be enemies any day now, then wary survivors, before our amity is once again restored. I can attest how wonderful 10-year-olds can be: how purely emotional, brutally honest, sincere, enthusiastic, coy, shrewd, and worldly wise. And I can tell you that my daughter at 10 years is exactly the same girl she showed herself to be at 10 months. She has never been anyone but wholly, recognizably herself, all the while I have been occupying myself with pushing a wooden bead along a circuitous route. (Hey, they said it was educational.)

I feel I have to warn you that my new book is not about parenting. Well, there’s one chapter about parenting, and it goes ike this:

As parents, we think our job is to create an ideal outcome — a happier child, a smarter child, a more successful child. It’s a silly notion, isn’t it? That we are supposed to shape something presidential out of what looks like seven pounds of putty in our palm. The pressure alone makes us feel as though we’re doomed to fail. But this focus on the future outcome blinds us to the marvel that already appears before us. It’s not putty. Babies aren’t blobs. Do we ever notice, and trust, the wonder of life happening continually and miraculously by itself?

When you let yourself off the parenting hook, you might find, as I did, that your purview is far larger. You can get on with the laundry, the kitchen and the yard. You can get on with breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can get on with things as they are, not as you wish, worry or dread. You can get on with your life, as long as you understand my point. As long as you can handle the complete freedom from fear and the release from your own critical judgment. Your life isn’t a project either!

School’s out, and you graduated.

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  1. Whew! What a relief this is. Amen, and amen.

    Comment by Emme — March 31, 2010 @ 2:27 am

  2. Wise words – THANK YOU!

    Comment by kathleen — March 31, 2010 @ 4:39 am

  3. Hey! A school I graduated from without ever starting! Awesome.

    Comment by Marianne — March 31, 2010 @ 5:13 am

  4. I love this. I’ve often found parental belief that we can make our children into X or Y both incredibly stressful and, frankly, arrogant. Your point that focusing in that way also detracts from right now simply sings.
    Thank you.

    Comment by Lindsey — March 31, 2010 @ 10:40 am

  5. I needed to read this today. Thank you!

    Comment by Tracy — March 31, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

  6. Bravo.

    Comment by shelli — March 31, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

  7. Tore that page out of my book!

    Comment by benjhutchison — March 31, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

  8. You’ve sewn a patch over the hole that was torn in my fragile faith this week. For that I am grateful.

    Comment by Joan — March 31, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

  9. How many more days till we can get our hands on this book?!?

    Thank you for posting this excerpt. The Little Dude shows absolutely no interested in the ABCs or 123s. He only wants to fly with dragons and battle zombies as Batman. But I’m standing here chewing the inside of my cheek imagining his future kindergarten teacher politely asking me to send him back to preschool.

    But then I remember to breathe. I still can’t solve an algebraic doo-hickey thing but I turned out just fine. Maybe my Little Dude will finally teach me…


    Comment by Mary Castillo — March 31, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

  10. See Mary? You’re right on time. The online stores are selling and shipping it right now.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 31, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

  11. Slowly but surely I’m learning that my decisions about my son are often made in anticipation of something that MIGHT happen some time in the future. I’m learning to let that go and just deal with problems when they arise, rather than trying to avoid them. Because that just doesn’t work. It’s a tough transition–when he was itty bitty, I was anticipating and avoiding disasters (head dive off of the top step, finger in light socket, boiling pot of water on the stove–handle always away from the edge….) But at some point, the potential disasters have morphed into something more subtle and less controllable. His friendships, his passions, his interests, his successes and failures are not mine to control. He isn’t my project or my product. He’s my son. Thanks for all of your reminders of this fact.

    Comment by Meg — March 31, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

  12. Oh I so love this. I need to let myself off the parenting hook more often than I do.

    Comment by Erin — March 31, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

  13. Your poor kid is going to be so screwed up…

    Comment by Cindy — March 31, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

  14. Just what I needed to read right now. Thank you for this real, truthful, healthy post. I am waiting in anxious anticipation for my book to arrive.

    Comment by Christine LaRocque — April 1, 2010 @ 12:42 am

  15. Parenthood was not in the stars for me, but I still appreciate this so much.

    Comment by Swirly — April 1, 2010 @ 3:01 am

  16. Sometimes I see this as a kind of common attitude held by women who are now raising older children and no longer younger ones–a kind of looking back at the younger self or younger mom and thinking their worries were silly–and thinking many of the worries the moms of younger children have are unnecessary. I’m guessing that these views are even good ones to have–realizing that what we did or did not do probably didn’t have as much of an effect as we thought it would. In a way it takes the pressure off. And I LOVE what you said about your daughter being the same person she was when she was a baby.

    At the same time, our worries were our worries–and I actually think my concerns about my child’s raising are fun to involve myself in. I enjoy creating a home, and an upbringing for her. Maybe it’s more a Gita thing–do the work (and the worrying) and give up the attachments to any sort of outcome. I’m not sure I attach myself too much to the outcomes–but I do get into creating a home based on my values–and a place of peace and fun and creativity, and simplicity.

    When my daughter’s older, maybe these things will mean less to me–in fact I’m guessing, based on carefully watching moms of teens, I’m guessing they will. Hopefully, I’ll be able to be compassionate with my younger, less experienced self though. Hopefully, I’ll see everything as a natural part of this parenting journey.

    I still think Mama Zen is a lovely book. I hope I always do.

    Comment by Tara — April 1, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  17. “As long as you can handle the complete freedom from fear and the release from your own critical judgment. Your life isn’t a project either!

    School’s out, and you graduated.”

    Thank you for that… I’m trying to really “get” the idea that I am not a continual self improvement project, but it’s really hard. Don’t know what goal I’m trying to achieve so hard really or what I think will happen if I get there… but I find myself ceaselessly working at it all the time, despite the feeling that I’ll never really be able to achieve the goal.

    Comment by Shauntelle — April 1, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

  18. The same person at 10 years as at 10 months. Oh, that’s true, isn’t it? I’m so in for it!

    Comment by Mama Zen — April 2, 2010 @ 1:26 am

  19. Ahhh. *exhaling* Thank you!

    Comment by 6512 and growing — April 3, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

  20. Karen,

    I love this, I love the freedom from fear and release from the project. And you were very polite, but more importantly, honest. And so gracious… I like the new plan so much better.


    Comment by Katie Murphy — April 4, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

  21. It is so hard to let go and allow things to be as they are. Thank you for the gentle reminder.

    Comment by Melinda — September 8, 2011 @ 9:08 pm

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