Tag Archives: childhood

Context and Motivations Behind Intimate Parenting

Since I published my first post on intimate parenting last week, I’ve had a few opportunities to discuss my perspectives on Facebook. Usually with white, male, non-parents who presented almost universally as angry, offended, confused, or completely dismissive of what I have to say. Given that they are largely the product of a society determined to annihilate their ability to have authentic feelings or experience true intimacy with other humans, I’m not surprised by their upset and and disconnect. Their simmering rage and thinly-veiled hostility.

When I first began looking at gender issues, I believed that violence was a by-product of boyhood socialization. But after listening more closely to men and their families, I have come to believe that violence IS boyhood socialization. The way we “turn boys into men” is through injury: We sever them from their mothers, research tells us, far too early. We pull them away from their own expressiveness, from their feelings, from sensitivity to others. The very phrase “Be a man” means suck it up and keep going. Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity. Disconnection IS masculinity.
–The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks

I’ve heard from angry white males who have no way to go back in time and reclaim what was stolen from them during childhood. Men stuck making the hard choice between looking at, acknowledging, believing, and then healing from their wounds—or maintaining their blind eye and forgetting it ever happened. A choice many people, perhaps even you, are intimately familiar with. The choice to continue believing that brutalizing children in the name of socializing them is a perfectly acceptable way to do business. The choice to continue believing that healthy intimacy with little boys will render them far too pussified for accepted masculine standards.

And so, in this context of choosing to heal from patriarchal-induced wounds and why one would ever want to take on arduous, terrifying work like that, I’m going to talk about some of the motivations and lived experiences that directly affect my choice to parent my son intimately. Because I certainly didn’t start from the premise that parenting was a divine calling, or that each of us possess a resonant field inside our bodies that seeks loving connection with other people, or that small bodies and feelings should be respected with the utmost care.

I am, after all, a child of patriarchy, too.

To love boys rightly we must value their inner lives enough to construct worlds, both private and public, where their right to wholeness can be consistently celebrated and affirmed, where their need to love and be loved can be fulfilled. –The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

I never wanted kids, believing they were a horrid idea for numerous reasons. For starters, I had received wounds from my family of origin and didn’t want to perpetuate their warped worldview by foisting it on another human who had no choice in the matter. I also had many of the same complaints regarding children being uncivilized in public spaces that I’ve heard from the angry white males. Add to that, I worked in a children’s retail store where I daily had to deal with both unruly children and their clueless, checked-out parents. I basically loathed having to interact with them. But it was a small town and the only job I could find given my high school diploma education.

My no-kids stance persisted through the 15 years of my first marriage, where we were far too busy clubbing/partying and experimenting with polyamory to consider them a reasonable or desirable addition. THANK THE GODS. And then my marriage came to an end; I was 34 years old, barely knew who I was as a person, and had no idea what I was going to do with myself. Turns out it was an excellent time to start weekly psychotherapy.

Over many years of therapy, I came to understand that I hated children because I hated their perceived wholeness; that is, I resented the pieces of myself that had been sacrificed on the altar of fitting in, complying, and being a good girl. My abilities to intuitively trust, feel, and love had been disowned as a result of sexual abuse, emotional enmeshment, codependency, and being routinely shamed or manipulated by the adults in my life. Because that’s how we get civilized adults who mind their manners, acquiesce, and wait their turn to speak: we compress and “polish” them, conveniently forgetting how much it hurts to be rubbed that hard. How we eventually abandon parts of ourselves because of it.

It is now clear to me that our society hates children as much if not more than women. They are the most vulnerable among us, and we routinely enact violence upon them in the name of discipline, socialization, or because we are so sunk in our own re-stimulated childhood shame that we can’t protect them from our feelings. There has to be a better way. A way that doesn’t rely on abuse, shame, coercion, and fear. Because it’s crippling every single one of us, but our collective commitment to denial has us acting like we’re walking just fine.

Through my counseling, embodiment, and meditative work both solo with a therapist and in community with peers, I’ve come to understand how important authentic intimacy is to humans. How cultivating the ability to FEEL our feelings realistically and fluidly in the moment might be the most revolutionary, powerful work we take on. How it heals us; has healed me. I now know what it is to be seen, heard, and valued by other people who genuinely care about my well being. I know that this experience has helped me reclaim my identity and intuition.

I want my son to experience that from the start, for it to never be absent from his world. As a result, I reject the premise that in order to be accepted in our society a boy child must be circumcised, emotionally abandoned, shamed, and dominated. Because no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it, and detached disembodiment is a real problem. A problem I’m so committed to calling out and eradicating that I will suffer the personal discomfort of being judged and potentially ostracized by people who want to call me names, to laugh at the silly hippie lady, to discredit and minimize the power of love and intimacy.

I will continue to resist and contradict patriarchy’s violent, dogmatic lessons by choosing to parent him this way. Because I’ll be fucking goddamned if I stand by quietly and breed yet another misogynistic, entitled, white person without a second thought as to the sustainability of that choice. I believe our survival depends on our collective awakening to and rejection of violence. I believe that we must breed love and respect to survive; I really don’t see any other way out of this hemorrhaging empire we’ve constructed. I think we’ve hated ourselves long enough.

Mothers who ally themselves with patriarchy cannot love their sons rightly, for there will always come a moment when patriarchy will ask them to sacrifice their sons. –The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

Devoted to Intimate Parenting

Even though sexism has always decreed that boy children have more status than girls, status and even the rewards of privilege are not the same as being loved. –The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks

In·ti·ma·cy (noun):  (1) the state of being intimate. (2) a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group. (3) a close association with or detailed knowledge or deep understanding of a place, subject, period of history, etc. (4) an act or expression serving as a token of familiarity, affection, or the like. (5) sexual intercourse.

Our world, and particularly its children, suffers from a chronic and debilitating lack of intimacy. Now, before you get triggered and label my intentions criminal, I don’t mean intimacy as its usually marketed and understood by western culture; that is, conflated with sexual intercourse. I mean the vulnerable space that exists between two people who are bonded through choice and intention. The example I’m going to use throughout this post is #2 from the above definition: a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group. So, when I use the term intimate parenting, you will come to know what I mean even as you may struggle with your reaction to what I’m describing.

What has been all but impossible to change is widespread cultural patriarchal propaganda. Yet we begin to protect the emotional well-being of boys and of all males when we call this propaganda by its true name, when we acknowledge that patriarchal culture requires that boys deny, suppress, and if all goes well, shut down their emotional awareness and their capacity to feel. –The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

My husband, Brendan, and I parent our 4-1/2-year-old son, Avery, intimately. For us this means we choose to feel into the edgy, energetically-charged moments that occur as a natural course of interacting with a young child, and then model what healthy intimacy looks and feels like. Intimacy that isn’t conditional and doesn’t cross personal boundaries. Intimacy that isn’t filtered through the lens of patriarchy, which equates to disembodiment and disowning his feelings.

I would categorize our approach as a subset of peaceful or gentle parenting, which one source via Google search defines as: regulating our own emotions when dealing with our children and responding to problems with compassion. Based on that, I would define intimate parenting as:

Choosing to regulate my emotions when dealing with my son and responding to problems that arise with compassion instead of fear, shame, or punishment, always remembering that he is a human being worthy of love and respect.

During a late-night discussion with Brendan last week, I asked him what intimate parenting meant to him. His response was so good that I ended up recording the remainder of our conversation, and I’m going to include a condensed version of the portion that’s directly applicable to this topic since it beautifully explains our motivations and the container we seek to create as parents:

Parenting is a calling. Since what you’re called to is greater than you, you’re also called to develop skills you don’t have, to develop ways of being you don’t possess or yet have facility with. The process of becoming a better parent isn’t (or shouldn’t be) goal oriented; it’s context oriented and it’s ongoing. You won’t complete this task in an executive fashion and then stop because the experience goes beyond its immediate object (the child).

As part of our being committed to intimate parenting, we choose to devote our attention and express our calling in a way that recognizes there are parts of Avery that are eternally wise and divine. Those parts we’re speaking to in him can receive the love we’re giving, but they can’t return it in kind because they’re filtered through a 4-year-old’s understanding of the world. In essence, he can’t—without being trained and abused in traditional patriarchal ways—reciprocate our devotion.

By staying aware of our shame triggers and seeking balance, we can offer our love and attention from a position of devotion that recognizes his divinity without compromising his humanity. The devotion we’re offering him is appropriate to its object, which is a critical part of keeping the interaction both psychically clean and physically respectful. For example, fetishism is devotion inappropriate to its object, like making shoes into a god. In our case, Avery himself isn’t the object; it’s his divinity, which is the part we can relate to, can resonate with. That’s the part of him that we are nurturing and stimulating.

When we’re close to him, when we are lovingly intimate with him, and we can feel that humming in our chest? That’s resonance between his divinity and ours. As we attune to that, our divinity aligns with and comes into resonance with his divinity. So his becomes stronger, clearer, and develops more depth as we stimulate it in him. If we don’t, and it remains dormant for long enough, it will be disowned. He’ll have to reclaim it and endure the grief and loss process like we’ve both had to do.

What we’re trying to do is contradict the deeply damaging effects of patriarchy, to cultivate an alternative version of masculinity for Avery to embody—one that’s grounded in his body and his intuition. One that nurtures and cares, one that listens and understands, one that believes in its own worth and has a clear sense of identity. One that has no need to dominate or belittle or bully or rape anyone.

One of the tremendous failings of feminist theory and practice has been the lack of a concentrated study of boyhood, one that offers guidelines and strategies for alternative masculinity and ways of thinking about maleness. Indeed, the feminist rhetoric that insisted on identifying males as the enemy often closed down the space where boys could be considered, where they could be deemed as worthy of rescue from patriarchal exploitation and oppression as were their female counterparts. –The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

So, intimacy and the direct modeling of it. Because if Brendan and I don’t model healthy intimacy, how is Avery supposed to know what it feels like when he encounters it in the adult world? If his child’s body is directed to deny its feelings, to suppress its need for love and affection, to react awkwardly and fearfully when someone tries to connect with him, then how can I possibly expect him to choose wisely? How can I entertain the hope that he will respect someone else’s boundaries; will consent to their wishes? How could he know what that looks and feels like if he’s never experienced it for himself?

A Child of Sexual Shame

All my formative sexual lessons were steeped in shame, secrecy, and fear. And it’s precisely for that reason I refuse to engender sexual ignorance and shame in my son.

Daddy taught 5-year-old me that touching naked bodies (mine or anyone else’s) was something secretive, something so shameful that no one else was supposed to know about it. Not even my mother. But if this was something loving (like he said), something that felt good (like my body said), what was there to hide? So, confused, but still trusting the wisdom of adults, I kept the secret until my lack of guile brought the situation to light. At which point there was much yelling and fighting and crying that brought about my father’s eventual banishment from our lives. Because he touched me. How awful I must be to cause such a thing.

Mommy taught 9-year-old me that masturbation was shameful because when she caught me for the first time, exclaiming “WHAT are you DOING?!”, the horror and disgust and fear in her voice were palpable. My heart jumped into my throat, my gut clenched in fear, and a wave of red-hot shame flushed my chest and face. The takeaway I remember from that conversation was essentially “Think how disappointed Jesus would be in you if he caught you masturbating upon his return.” How awful I must be if touching my clitoris would be noticed by the Son of God himself.

Steve, the adult male who called our house one day and captivated 12-year-old me into chatting with him taught me that sexy talk was also a secret. I still don’t know who he was or how he found me, or the exact way the situation came about, but it lasted for weeks. He grooming me, sexy talking me, telling me all sorts of naughty stories while I masturbated under a blanket in the basement, terrified my mother or step-father would find me. Terrified that Jesus could see me. And then it just stopped. I don’t remember why, but I remember the distinct sensation that it was because I wasn’t sexy enough, wasn’t grown up enough to warrant his “attentions” any longer. How awful I must be to not only enjoy the attention, but to hide it from my parents.

Ernie, the short, aggressive, high school senior I met as a freshman taught me about the realities of sexual pressure. I was 6 feet tall, awkward, socially clueless, and not considered dating material among my peers. So when Ernie ran his full-court press, I was initially flattered and then anxious as I began to sense the heavy reality of what he expected from me as his “girlfriend.” I knew about sex from reading (LOL) and I really wanted to be “popular,” so I arrived at his house one afternoon, allegedly prepared to “make out.” It was just dumb luck that he was a terrible kisser, smelled awful, and completely grossed me out. I made hurried excuses and ran home, terrified and ashamed. I know now it was further dumb luck that I wasn’t raped. How awful I must be if these were the kind of boys I attracted.

Darren, the older, white trash, high school dropout with the pockmarked face and the stained sweatpants taught 18-year-old me about rape. Our relationship was basically Ernie 2.0, but with bonus features like alcohol and the illusion of “adult consent” on my part. He disgusted me from the moment I met him, but he showered me with compliments and gave me a lot of attention, so I swallowed my distaste and told myself it was worth it for the experience. I was a virgin. After a few weeks, when he invited his friend to come get some, too, it didn’t occur to me that I could refuse or run away. I had completely bought and accepted the notion that my experience didn’t matter and my body was a commodity. How awful I must be to not stand up for myself.

Of course, there were many more painful sexual lessons to come; lessons about objectification, performance, compliance, appeasement, competition, insecurity, power, STIs, remorse, abortion, and silence. Always the silence.

Oh, there was plenty of talking about the performance of sex: tools and toys, positions and kinks, lingerie and platform heels. You know: how sex looks. All dissociated, all done unconsciously. Because how could I possibly be conscious to the painful and embarrassing reality that was my nonexistent sexual identity?

How could I talk about the dark shameful hole inside me? How could I give attention to a lost and abused little girl who didn’t believe she mattered at all? Who would stand up for her? Be her ally?

My years of therapy have taught me that *I* had to become her ally; I had to stand up for myself and advocate for the health of my sexuality. And so it’s no surprise to me that I feel passionately about ensuring my son grows up without feeling ashamed of his body or his feelings or his desires. I am doing the work to ensure he grows up with sexual allies, and I intend to lead the way.

Part of that comes through participating in the community and discussions that occur on the Facebook page Raising Kids Without Sexual Shame. An extension of the revolutionary work being done by Nekole Shapiro, this community provides a safe place where we can talk about children, their inevitable sexuality, and our guardianship over that without totally freaking out and falling into our shame spirals. Because in our current world, there’s a lot to freak out and be ashamed about. Case in point, the following quote was recently shared on the page:

“The sexiest thing a woman can bring to the bedroom is her sexual desire and a sense of freedom in her own body.” –Pamela Madsen

In that context, one of the group moderators posed the question “How do you feel about your child’s desire to feel sexy?” *CRICKETS* And so, in that silence (and as one of the group editors), I posted the following:

The part of this quote that resonates for me is “a sense of freedom in her/his/their own body”. Because I’ve been programmed too heavily around what it means to be sexy and how children should never be sexy (because PREDATORS) and we’re stuck in this societal hard spot of having no fucking idea how to talk about children and sex in the same breath without totally vaporizing on the spot.

So, backing it back up. Taking sexy allll the way back to how a child experiences it (which doesn’t have the pornographic, predator, vilification aspects and overtones we, as adults, can’t escape from) – takes me to a place where the child is free to explore and experience their body however feels good for them. For my 4-y-o son, that currently manifests in fondling his penis. Sometimes to erection, usually not. He isn’t goal driven; there’s no point to it except exploration.

In those moments when he’s fondling himself and knows it feels good and he smiles, I know that he is feeling ‘sexy’. Or maybe I could say he’s feeling divine or he’s feeling embodied or he’s feeling blissful – all words that are also connected to feeling sexy. 

A place where a child is free to explore and experience his body in whatever way feels good FOR HIM. To me, that (combined with consent, which is an entirely different and equally important conversation) is the nut of the whole argument. It’s about agency, how you want to feel, and who has a right to your body. I want my son to know that NO ONE has a right to his body; not to touch it or kiss it or push it or anything. His word is law when it comes to his skin.

And, conversely, that this applies to other people. My son can claim no right to another person’s body (not even mine). It’s a critical (and rather revolutionary) distinction, this idea that every human has a right to experience freedom inside their own body. A freedom I am just now beginning to wrap myself around, value, and accept as true.

I get that there’s a LOT of societal programming to slog through on this point and it’s not simply a matter of semantics, although that’s a reasonable place to start. For myself, I’m starting with what I stated in my FB comment: I want to focus on my son’s divine right to feel embodied and blissful (as opposed to ‘sexy’)—whether that takes the form of stroking his genitals, playing naked in the back yard, getting tickles and scritchies while cuddling with me, or lying next to his daddy on the couch. Because sexy is an abstract, subjective, adult concept that’s way overloaded and primed for triggers.

The simple fact is, I want him to know he’s free to touch his body wherever he likes, that he can trust his body’s signals, and that to feel blissful inside his skin is his right as a human. To that end, I answer his questions honestly, I don’t hide my naked body or its functions from him, and I strive to touch his body only with consent (not always successfully because UGH little kids like to run into the road). I trust that this approach is working because when I do touch him roughly, he lets me know immediately and loudly that it’s not okay. He’s awesome.

I have vowed to integrate my own sexual shame so that I don’t pass it down inadvertently to my son. This is no small thing; it’s a lifelong commitment and a scary one at that, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him grow up thinking about how awful he is.