Friday, June 27, 2014

Friendship and Parenthood

Many people find the beginning of parenthood marks the sudden decline of their friendships.

Babies are constantly needy and deprive you of sleep, energy, and coherence.  Toddlers, when awake, need constant monitoring; and even their sleep must be prioritized in your schedule.  Preschoolers are fast and fearless and can disappear in an instant because of a whim.  And for all of them, their constant stream of needs and your constant stream of worries, day and night, can completely shut down your ability to think of any other topic.

But somehow, although all of those things are true about my two kids, that does not describe my experience.  And I'm forever grateful for that, because increasing my already unbearable feelings of isolation just might have killed me.  

Somehow, in the haze of new parenthood, I actually connected to a group of other new moms.  Maybe it was because they were in a similar haze, and we were all in the trenches together.  Crying, worrying, laughing, celebrating together.  Just what I had always wanted, for my whole life, but never experienced even once.

And it didn't stop there.  I also began to feel closer to a few other friends that I had always wanted to connect with more.  And I began to meet even more people, around the neighborhood, in kid classes, through friends, through preschool.  Was it my newly increasing confidence and happiness?  Was it the oxytocin boost of motherhood that made me better able to connect?  

Whatever it was, I wish that myself as a child could have known that a good future was coming, so that the dark nights didn't seem quite as cold.  However, the coldness of the past makes me value even more the warmth of friendship now.  The empty silence of the past, the years of absolutely no conversations with anyone, make me value so much even the broken snippets of conversations that moms have while also monitoring active young children.  The lack of attention and lack of empathy from my parents means that I don't take the attention and empathy of my friends for granted today.  

Thank you friends, if you are reading this, for being you and letting me be me. 

I wish it weren't true, but unfortunately my past does still sometimes reach all the way here to my good life today.  Sometimes I still struggle with depression.  Sometimes another person's choices or mistakes hit me in an area where I am vulnerable, leaving me shaken and crippled with emotion.  Sometimes, when my mind is stretched between sleep deprivation and two active kids, I find I have no bandwidth left to function socially, and then I resent the deficit I have to work with, and the fact that basic social skills and conversational skills that come naturally to many others require so much extra attention for me.  

But now I can better fight my way out of those dark moments.  Instead of trying to "be better" so I'm not a disappointment to God, now I have the positive motivation of wanting to connect with my husband, connect with my kids, and connect with my friends.  Because, now that I know what it feels like to connect with others in a healthy and non-codependent way, there is no way I'm ever letting go of that. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Memories from Bill Gothard's Indianapolis Training Center

In my early 20s, I had my first experience living away from home.

It was a Really Big Deal.  Me--a weak, vulnerable, easily-decieved woman, according to the teachings of my family's pastor Reb Bradley--out on my own, flying to a faraway state.  I was going to spend a few months living and studying music at Bill Gothard's Indianapolis Training Center.

ITC was a tall drab brick building surrounded by a parking lot, not much to look at.  But that didn't matter.  As I soon learned, the people staying there rarely ventured outside.  I personally only went outside about once a month during my few months there.  In order to leave, as a legal adult, I had to sign out, state my purpose for leaving, and verify that I was not leaving alone or with a male peer.  For a walk in a parking lot or a view of a run-down part of town, the hassle wasn't worth it.

Inside the building was where all the excitement and drama played out.  For me, my time at ITC was a huge social challenge. I had almost no experience participating in conversations, eating meals with non-family members, or learning in a class setting. As a result, my stress level was nearly unmanageable from the challenge.  Mealtimes were the worst; I would try to eat when no one at the table was looking at me, and I would have a panic attack if anyone directed a question at me when I was chewing.  I was always the last one at the table, with a plate still full of food, wishing for privacy.

It didn't help that, even though I was surrounded by hundreds of other fundamentalist homeschoolers like me, I was still the odd one out, because my family was not part of Bill Gothard's homeschooling program, ATI.  Many of the rules of ATI were new to me, and I'd had lots of trouble finding clothing that fit the extreme and very specific modesty standards, even though my own wardrobe was incredibly conservative.  One of the biggest challenges had been finding a long navy skirt and a plain white button-up shirt, Bill Gothard's required "uniform" for special sessions.  At ITC, lost in a sea of people with years of experience dressing to ATI standards, I felt even more hideous than normal.

However, I found that many of the other girls in attendance were incredibly sweet, considerate, and fun people, and I considered many of them friends by the end of our time there.  We bonded over late-night candy binges (smuggled in! candy was against the rules!), hallway races with *gasp!* no nylons or shoes (we weren't allowed to leave our rooms without nylons and close-toed shoes!), and gossip about the "flirtatious" girls who dared to have a conversation with a guy.

We couldn't stay up too late though, because every morning we were woken at dawn by two songs from the speakers near our beds: first a classical instrumental piece, followed by a boisterous march.  That signaled us to get up and get ready for a day of learning.

The music program was, in my opinion, fairly well done.  I learned a lot about music theory and composition, including how to write 4-part harmony!  But there were definitely some strange reoccurring themes that made an impression on me.  We were taught, for instance, that heavy drum beats in music was demonic because it originated in African music, which was demon worship.  Additionally, we heard that syncopated rhythms, which emphasize the offbeat, would affect our brains and cause us to have a strange shuffling gait.  The "scientific" proof of this was drawings of plants gradually wilting and dying next to a radio--killed by prolonged exposure to rock music.  

The emphasis on authority and submission in ITC culture meant that not a single student ever challenged the teachers or expressed doubt at such bizarre, racist, arbitrary, and unsubstantiated teachings.  This attitude affected me too, even though I was an ATI outsider, and I did not spend any time mentally refuting the ideas that were presented.  Gradually, these ideas began to seem "wholesome" to me, associated with the wholesome image that ATI maintains (now, most famously through the Duggar family's TV show and blog).  The clothing standards, the early rising, the music standards, the sea of smiling white faces--it all began to feel normal and right, and I wondered what was wrong with me that I felt deeply unhappy and "unwholesome" most of the time, under my forced smile.  

The authority culture had another dark side as well.  ITC had what it called a "Leaders in Training" program, separate from its music program.  An ITC young adult volunteer would be paired with a juvenile delinquent from the "outside world".  These two were never allowed to be apart, and the volunteer was supposed to model good character while making sure the juvenile delinquent followed the ITC rules.  People pointed out to me the "prayer rooms", with doors monitored by cameras, where "rebellious" juvenile delinquents would be held in solitary confinement until they were repentant.  While I was at ITC, one of them tried to jump off the roof.  It was unsettling, but at the time I couldn't identify the reason.  Now I realize that it must have been incredibly dehumanizing for them to be forced to accept Bill Gothard's version of Christianity, which gave them a painfully rigid exterior of rules and no tools for dealing with their inner turmoil.

When my time at ITC came to an end, re-entering the outside world felt incredibly strange and foreign.  Almost all music felt oppressive and stressful, which is ironic for having just spent a few months studying music.  People wearing typical clothing looked strange and dangerous, after a few months of seeing nothing but a strict "wholesome" dress code.  And there was so little smiling!  It took quite awhile to acclimate to my regular life again, and to begin to question the culture and the teachings from ITC.

Once I let myself question it, one of my first thoughts was, "Why do people think so highly of Bill Gothard??" He visited ITC a few times while I was there, and I found him to be a strange, short little man with a judgemental face, jet black dyed hair, and a creepy vibe.  At no time did I ever wish to meet him or talk to him, which was very unusual for me, since I typically had to resist idolizing spiritual leaders.

Now I just have distant memories of this experience.  It feels like another life and another person, not me.  I wonder what happened to the others girls I studied with.  I wonder what happened to the "leaders in training".  I wonder if ITC is the same now as when I was there 10 years ago.  And I wonder if this extreme experience was actually just what I needed to push me to start questioning all my beliefs...

NOTE: I recommend the website www.recoveringgrace.org for anyone who is trying to get out of the cult mentality of Bill Gothard's programs.  I also recommend Homeschoolers Anonymous for its series of stories from people who grew up in ATI and other Bill Gothard programs, and are now as adults coming to terms with its effects on them.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Learning to Leave My Son with Others

I am a chronic worrier, a bit of a pessimist, an over-preparer, and prone to occasional panic attacks.  And since becoming a mother a few years ago, all of these tendencies are now focused on my son and his soon-to-be baby brother.  

Growing up, I heard so many times, in so many ways, how unsafe the world was.  As an adult, reflection has made me realize how the "safe" isolated homeschooling world my parents confined me in was actually incredibly damaging to me and many of my peers, while my adult experiences in the "dangerous" outside world have been very positive and affirming.  I have been able to overcome my deeply ingrained childhood perceptions for myself, and feel like a functioning and happy member of the big outside world.  

However, I am unexpectedly having to go through the same process again, now that I am in the role of a mother.  All the progress I made for myself, I am having to do again, this time for my son.

Hours, days, weeks, and months of continuously caring for his little infant needs really affected me.  I had never felt so needed and so intensely protective before--my entire life was about him, his happiness, his well-being, and I couldn't spare any attention for myself or my marriage.  After all, no one could take care of my little baby boy as well as my husband me--we knew him better than anyone and loved him more than anyone!  

It didn't help that I had a huge falling-out with my mom and my mother-in-law at around the same time that my son was born.  And it also didn't help that we were living in a relatively new area with no long-term friends around.  No local family, no close established local friendships, plus drama with both of my son's grandmas--that situation made it easy for me to continue for a long time in my hangup without ever acknowledging to myself that I was deathly afraid to leave my baby with another person besides my husband.  

As my son got older, I saw other parents that I respected leave their babies with babysitters, or in daycare, or with family and friends, and I thought nothing of it.  It seemed like the right choice for them, and once they got through the initial adjustment, it seemed like their choice really benefited the whole family.  But when I tried to imagine myself in the same situation, I would be flooded by panic attacks and vivid imaginations of what might go wrong.  My old fears were coming back to haunt me--not for myself but for my son.

With a lot of encouragement from my husband and my friends, and a realization that I was going to either fade from existence or crack under the pressure, I left my son with someone I trust and went out on a quick lunch date with my husband.  I sobbed, I thought about my son constantly, and I was in a rush to get back to him.  It really wasn't much of a date, more of a milestone, because for the first time I saw that my son could be fine without my husband and me--he didn't cry at all when we left or while we were gone!

Since then, I've gotten more and more comfortable leaving my son with a small group of people I know and trust.  And he has helped a lot by never crying when we leave, not even once!  However, I'm now stuck on the next step--finding and using a babysitter.  Once my second little one arrives, it will be a far bigger imposition to ask for babysitting favors, and much harder to return the favors as well.  The time has come to find and learn to trust a babysitter.  The thought absolutely terrifies me.  But I will eventually push through this fear as well, and enjoy the benefits it will offer to me (sanity!), my marriage (better communication and more affection!), and my kids (more social confidence and self-reliance!).

I want to always be there for my little boy and his soon-to-be baby brother; I don't think that will never change.  But I can balance that desire with my other desire, to see my sons learn to navigate the world when I'm not around and gain confidence in themselves.  And I need to give them space, little by little, for that to happen.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Crosspost: A CALL TO ACTION: TOGETHER, WE CAN MAKE HOMESCHOOLING BETTER

Crosspost from Homeschoolers Anonymous, originally posted here:


A CALL TO ACTION: TOGETHER, WE CAN MAKE HOMESCHOOLING BETTER
By HA Community Coordinator R.L. Stollar
Every day on Homeschoolers Anonymous, we are hearing about how appearances can be deceiving — how heartbreaking abuse happens all around us, and can hide even in the families of homeschool leaders. We read Mary’s story, our blood boiling in horror that a respected family could inflict such emotional and physical abuse upon its children. We read about people like Susie, who were left on the side of the road with a few dollars in their hand because their parents were unwilling to love them for who they are. We read with shock that Jennifer‘s family would go so far as to threaten to kill her pets and remove all her belongings just to get her to obey an ideology.
We read these stories with heavy hearts.
Yet we also read with hope and amazement that there are so many of us willing to join together and create a network of love and support for people like this. When we announced that Jennifer needed assistance, there was an overwhelming outpouringof it. When we put out a call for stories on any number of topics, there is no shortage of people willing to speak up, to make their voices heard. There clearly is a need here, and there are many who want to help.
This makes us excited about what 2013-2014 has in store for Homeschoolers Anonymous.
We started Homeschoolers Anonymous on March 16, 2013. It is a cooperative project by former homeschoolers interested in sharing our experiences growing up in the conservative, Christian homeschooling subculture. Our mission is to make homeschooling better for future generations through awareness, community building, and healing.
Today, we are four months old. In four short months, we have accrued over 400,000 views on our blog. We’ve had the privilege of being a part of some amazing things. 
We launched #HSLDAMustAct, lobbying HSLDA to create a public awareness campaign to combat child abuse. We helped Hännah Ettinger at Wine & Marble raise over $10,000 for a young woman rescued from an abusive family environment. Our awareness series have addressed some big issues, including LGBT experiences and struggles with self-injury.
Together, we are making a difference. We are changing lives.
Today I am excited to announce that Homeschoolers Anonymous is expanding to become a non-profit organization called HARO — Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.
HARO: Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.
HARO: Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.
To this end, our goal is to raise $100,000 over the next 60 days. We will be utilizing the crowd-funding platform Indiegogo to move HARO into official 501c(3) status and put into motion several concrete action plans.
What does this mean?
Crowd-funding means that we need you, the members of this community, to help us achieve our fundraising goals.
We need you to donate — once, twice, or however many times you can in the next two months. But whether you donate or not, we need you to share this call for help with your friends and family. We need you to talk it up on Facebook and Twitter and your favorite social media sites.
Creating a 501c(3) means that HARO will be a real, live non-profit. We will have tax exempt status, and (when the IRS approves it), donations to HARO will be tax-deductible. (Note: HARO is not currently a non-profit and donations to this campaign are unfortunately not tax deductible.)
We are proud to unveil some highlights from our future projects:
Homeschoolers Anonymous website
The Homeschoolers Anonymous website will get a professional makeover, greatly improving its internal structure and usability. We also plan to set up a forum with dedicated moderators.
Annual HARO Convention
This wouldn’t be a homeschool-related organization if we didn’t plan a convention, would it? In all seriousness, the internet is a wonderful tool for disseminating information, but in-person community and engagement is important as well. To this end, we will develop an annual HARO convention to begin in 2014.
The Mary Project:
Named in honor of the pseudonymous author of our most popular series, the Mary Project will undertake a public awareness campaign to fight child abuse in homeschooling communities — the campaign that we asked HSLDA to undertake and that HSLDA ignored.
Broken Arrows Initiative: 
The Broken Arrows Initiative will create a tangible and concrete support system for homeschool graduates in need, as well as lifelines for current homeschool students in unhealthy situations. Physical, legal, and financial assistance are all included in this initiative.
R.A.H.A.B.: Research Alliance for Homeschooling Attitudes and Beliefs
Concrete data is important when you’re working with any demographic, and homeschoolers are no exception.  Data helps us determine where we can do the most good and evaluate the effectiveness of our efforts.  R.A.H.A.B. will be the arm of HARO that researches and documents data pertaining to the homeschooling movement.
For more detailed information regarding each of these projects, click here.
What if you don’t hit your fundraising goal within 60 days?
Indiegogo’s “flex-funding” campaign model means that, unlike Kickstarter, it’s not all or nothing.  If we don’t make our goal, we keep what we raised, minus a 9% fee to Indiegogo. However, if we make our goal, that fee goes down to 4%!  While we plan on achieving our goal, we will work with whatever the results are.  We will start with what we have and go from there, focusing on buildling a secure, stable infrastructure, filing paperwork to be legally recognized as a 501(c)(3), and pursuing grants to round out project funding and offering assistance to those in need.
Who are the founding board members of HARO?
The four founding board members of HARO were chosen based on several criteria, not the least of which is that they have the trust and respect of many members of the communities we are building online. HARO board members not only need to have skill sets applicable to founding a non-profit, but also have demonstrated that they are invested in our future and passionate about our vision. A community fundraiser of $100,000 is a serious matter, and the public faces of this organization should be ones that you know will use that money responsibly and wisely, for the good of future homeschool generations.
The board members are:
  • R.L. Stollar
  • Nicholas Ducote
  • Andrew Roblyer
  • Shaney Lee
We will be adding a fifth board member in the next few months.
Isn’t this a bit audacious?
You might think this sounds audacious. If so, we agree with you. But that doesn’t faze us.
Before we launched Homeschoolers Anonymous, we thought that idea was audacious as well. And here we are now, four months later, with hundreds of thousands of views. We’ve been covered byThe Daily BeastNPRMother JonesThe Guardian, and AlterNetWe’re on the brink of creating an organization that can make concrete efforts to improve homeschooling communities for future generations by educating homeschooling families about abuse and self-injury, building financial and emotional support for the next generation, and continuing to share our stories and experiences.
You can make this happen.  Donations of any amount are crucial.  Sharing the link to this page or the Indiegogo page on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc is even more so.  We need you to spread the word.
Will you help us to continue to help others?
Together, we can improve our homeschooling communities.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

De-conversion Doesn't Have a "Moment"

Sometimes it hard to admit to yourself that you don't identify with your identity anymore.  

For as long as I've had an identity, it has been wrapped up in the word "Christian", specifically the fundamentalist variety.  I wanted my relationship with Jesus to completely consume me and leave me with no other identity and no errant belief.  My entire life would be spent in gratitude to God for saving me from the hell I deserved.  It was my responsibility to try to love others the way God loved me: by hoping for them to start to follow Jesus too, so that God and I could accept them into our spiritual family.

Then slowly, one by one, my fundamentalist beliefs started shifting, starting first with my beliefs about evolution, then my beliefs about homosexuality, then my beliefs about the inspiration of the Bible, then my beliefs about sexual purity, then my beliefs about salvation only through Christ, then my beliefs about hell.  For about five years, my identity became "liberal Christian".   I embraced my own human limitations and uncertainty, and found beauty in the variety of shades of gray that replaced the black and white of fundamentalism. 

To my surprise, however, my personal journey didn't stop in liberal Christianity.  I don't know exactly when it happened, but one day, less than a year ago, I decided to face the fact that my label had to change.  Even the very broad label "liberal Christian" didn't fit anymore.  I found conversations about Christianity to be extremely interesting, but conversations within Christianity were completely meaningless and empty to me.  I had no desire to pray anymore, and I found the idea of sin and blood sacrifice to be very outdated and arbitrary.  The idea of love in Christianity seemed more like abuse and manipulation to me.  The Bible was not worth my time anymore, and church was nothing but depressing.  I finally admitted to myself that I didn't think Christianity was any different from any other religions, and that I seriously doubted that god even existed, much less that he was actively involved in the affairs of the world.

That is how I arrived at my new label: agnostic.  It was a very uncomfortable label to put on, mostly due to residual fundamentalist emotions that bounce around in my head on occasion.  Some of the discomfort also came from immediately being seen as a tragedy or a project by the few Christian friends and family in my life.   However, I was lucky enough to miss out on the greatest discomfort because my husband has taken a very similar journey as me, at nearly the same time.  Overall, the small discomfort I experienced was short-lived, and the label now feels like a natural part of me; I'm quite happy with the fit, and with the colorful view from here.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Teaching My Son the Lessons I Didn't Learn

Much to my surprise, I'm finding motherhood to be incredibly therapeutic.

Part of it is certainly that I have felt far more socially connected since my son's birth than at any other time in my life.  Ironic, I know, but true.  I feel incredibly supported by my friendships with other parents, accepted for who I am, and inspired to grow.  Finally experiencing the social connection that I desperately craved for my entire childhood has increased my self-esteem and has decreased my issues with depression, which in turn helps me feel like a better mother.

But more specifically, as a mother, I feel like all the kindness and love that I pour into my son's life is somehow healing my own childhood wounds.  I see him learning the lessons that I wish I had learned myself as a child, and I feel at peace.

He is learning, right from the start, that his feelings are important.  As a toddler, he has so many feelings, which often appear suddenly and catch both of us off guard.  My job as a parent is to help him learn to recognize his feelings, to validate his feelings, and to direct him toward an appropriate action to manage his feelings.  For us, that means when he's expressing an emotion, I get down at his level and say things like, "Sweetie, are you feeling sad/upset/angry because _______? Awww!" And then I suggest an appropriate comforting/distracting/calming activity.  The most amazing thing to me is that, even as a toddler, he usually quiets down in order to listen to me name his emotion,  and seems incredibly relieved just to be understood.

He is also learning that his opinions and desires are are worth expressing, even though at this age they sound like nothing more than him shouting, "No! No! No!"  It's up to me to help him phrase his opinions and wishes more clearly, because his "no" could mean anything from, "Don't do that!" to "I don't want to do that!" to "I want to do what you are doing" to "I want to have what you have."  Once we understand each other, we can decide how to proceed.  But most importantly, I always try to praise him by saying something like, "Good job asking!" even when I have to delay or deny his wish.

Finally, he is also learning, along with me, about the importance of social connection and the joy that others can bring into our lives.  He is not yet in pre-school, so as a stay-at-home mom I have to make a conscious effort to teach him this.  We leave the house at least once every day, either for a playdate, coffee date, mommy & me class, park, children's museum, library, or errand.  For myself, I know that I need to be around other people daily to avoid emotional flashbacks to the isolation of my youth.  For my son, I know that he needs to have a lot of early positive experiences with others and have a lot of opportunities to observe social interaction so that he can build his confidence for later social success.  Watching my naturally shy little boy become comfortable and have fun with other people is incredibly satisfying.  It gives me hope that my personal social weaknesses will not greatly limit him.  

Seeing my son learn these three lessons has made my motherhood experience wonderful so far.  I only hope, as Baby Boy #2 joins that family this fall, and as my boys get older and start school, that we will be able to continue building strong family relationships on this basic foundation.

Happy Mother's Day!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Partnering with "Homeschoolers Anonymous"

Perhaps at one point, the homeschooling movement was so fragile that it couldn't deal with any scrutiny, but that is no longer the case.  It has now become a thriving educational option with a lot to offer.  And, as one of many educational options--like public school, Christian school, Catholic school, Montessori school, etc--it is time to allow a balanced approach to the discussion that shows the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Along with the great success stories of homeschooling, there are many other stories of pain, neglect, and abuse that were enabled or exacerbated by homeschooling.

That is why I'm so excited to partner with a new website called Homeschoolers Anonymous.  Although it's not even a month old, already so many former homeschoolers have found their way there to share their stories.  As many of those former homeschoolers know, it is difficult to decide to share these stories.  Within fundamentalist Christian homeschooling, we were trained to see ourselves as representatives of a movement with a fragile reputation, and we were taught that every personal failure and struggle was nothing more than our own spiritual weakness, unconnected to our homeschooling experience.  But now, in sharing our stories and hearing others, we are finding healing and strength, most of all from knowing that we are not alone, not crazy.

Please listen to our stories with empathy, even if your homeschooling experience was positive.  Instead of immediately and only jumping to defend homeschooling, please ask yourself what can be done to reduce the potential for harm within homeschooling.   Instead of merely pointing out that harm also happens within other educational options, let's actually try to address these problems.  It's difficult to share our stories, and we don't want our stories to be wasted.