Sex and the single baby

About two weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times about upscale mothers’ toilet training their babies by about six months of age. The concept seemed a bit odd to me, but they explained that this is done in other countries and that this is very enlightened. Well, I thought, I am by nature rather conservative, so I probably should just owe my negative reaction to my personality rather than the merit of the case.

Last week, I read in the New York Times about upscale mothers teaching their children about sex at age three, reasoning that it is a natural and normal thing and there’s no reason their children shouldn’t be savvy. This one was a bit harder to swallow.

Because toilet training is largely physical, one could argue that it might not change the child’s cognitions or concepts of the world. However, when a child is educated about sexual reproduction at an early age, it is possible that his cognitive universe may be different from one who is not.

Suddenly I had a picture pop into my mind. In college, when I studied the history of music and art, one of the most amusing parts was when our professor showed us slides of paintings that included children. Many of those slides portrayed children as small adults. Their entire bodies were painted in adult proportions, small heads, long arms and legs—they looked like little adults. My professor explained that the art of the time reflected the assumption at the time that children were exactly that: small adults. Children worked long hours just like adults. They were not protected and sheltered from the world; they were part of the world from the time they could stand up and walk.

And then I thought of my own children and their childhoods. Diaper-changing time wasn’t only a physical thing. It was a time for me to interact with the child—to get him or her all clean and fresh and feeling comfortable. I was giving my children the message, “Your needs are important and I am here to provide you with support and love.” My children didn’t learn about human sexuality at three. They learned their bodies were pleasurable by taking baths and being hugged and cuddled. They had their questions answered in an honest and respectful manner. They had a childhood.

Little children are not just small adults. They have fewer cognitive structures and do not assimilate information in the same way as adults. They do not have the ability to think abstractly just as a one month old, no matter how intelligent, cannot walk or talk.

One of the best things about raising children is to watch their natural development—to watch them discover the world, each in their own unique way. Just as they are patient, waving that hand over their face time and again before they finally comprehend that the hand is under their control, we need to have patience to allow them to develop at their own pace.

There are no awards for the first parent on the block who gets their child toilet trained and no awards for having the most-informed-about-sex three year old. Children grow and develop when given love and support and encouragement. There will be plenty of time for achievement and stress when they grow older. For now, let’s let them be children.

Somebody has to be the grownup

Once, many years ago, on another continent, I was working with a couple that was having serious marital difficulties. The wife was certain that her husband was not being honest with her as to where he was in the evenings. He was a military officer and it certainly was possible that he would have to work through dinner and not return home until late, but she didn’t believe him.

She had a couple of friends, wives of other officers, and just as patients in a waiting room end up trading symptoms, well, one after the other decided that her husband also was lying about where he was and what he was doing if he didn’t get home on time.

The women, though, decided to check out their husbands, and so one evening, they followed one of the husbands as he left work. He went to a bar. They got out of their car and peeked into the bar, hiding behind doors and window curtains. They saw him talking to another man, having a couple of beers, talking to another man or two, and then get into his car. The women raced to the car they had come in so that the wife would be home when he got there. However, she had to drop off the other two wives before she could get home and so when she arrived home, her husband was waiting for her and asking where she had been.

I don’t know what she said, but some people never learn, because the next night the three women again followed one of the husbands. This time the man stopped in front of a home in the town near the Army base. They watched as he entered the house. They hid in the bushes with binoculars and one was able to see him sitting on a sofa watching a football game with another man. Finally, they left.

The three women continued their expeditions, trying in vain to trip up their husbands, not realizing that there was a basic lack of trust on both parts that was driving a wedge into all three of the marriages. These evening outings turned into fodder for lies and misrepresentations thus increasing the distrust and distance that were instrumental in bringing these men to go out without telling their wives in the first place. But, in my opinion, the women were making matters worse by carrying on in a rather infantile manner.

After all, the world isn’t like television. This isn’t “I Love Lucy” and it isn’t a soap opera. In the real world, following people and hiding in the bushes and making up stories to cover one’s tracks just doesn’t work. The “First Wives Club” is FICTION. Relationships are built on love and respect and honesty and integrity. Even if we think our spouse is being less than truthful, we need to maintain our own moral standards. We cannot allow someone else’s behavior serve as a justification for ours.

Often when couples are in conflict, one or the other will revert to infantile behavior such as lying, blaming, and sneaking around. I try to encourage the other person to be “the grownup.” As a matter of fact, I have frequently told wronged spouses, “Somebody has to be the grownup.” When one person is out of control, the other has to stay sane. If a calm discussion is impossible, then a third party might be needed to provide a safe atmosphere. Some people have a clergyperson or lay religious leader who can help. Some people see a marital therapist, but in some way, both spouses have to be able to speak honestly about their differences and misunderstandings instead of acting like sitcom or soap opera characters. And somebody has to be the grownup.

I know what you’re thinking

Human relationships are built on trust. Think about it. Can you really have a relationship with someone you don’t trust? After all, it is possible to meet someone and make small talk and get to know the person, but most people don’t share their innermost thoughts, feelings, plans, and dreams with strangers. Most people share them only with the people who they are the closest to. They share them with parents, siblings, spouses, and best friends.

Sometimes people cannot even share important thoughts with the people they are the closest to because it doesn’t feel safe. By safe, I mean that they don’t feel as if the other person will really listen and take them seriously. They don’t believe the other person will really understand.

One thing that gets in the way of close human relationships is the other person’s assertion that he or she “knows” what the other person is thinking. Now think about it: if someone already thinks that they know what you are thinking, doesn’t it make your telling them kind of trivial? Or worse, maybe what they “know” is not at all what you are thinking. Maybe they are attributing motives, thoughts, beliefs, and ideas to you that are far from what you are actually thinking. In fact, once someone “knows” what you are thinking, they often will tell you that you are wrong. You must be lying to them. They know what you “really” are thinking and what you “really” mean. How close can you get to someone who believes they know your innermost thoughts? I’m not sure that you can ever get very close at all because their “knowledge” stops them from listening.

In fact, the rather than feeling understood, a person whose thoughts are able to be “read” feels uncertain and confused about the relationship.

Normally, in a relationship we worry about our thoughts and feelings and the thoughts and feelings of the other person. In a relationship where someone’s mind is being read, he needs to worry about his thoughts and feelings, the thoughts and feelings of the other person, and the thoughts and feelings that the other person ascribes to him. Often he must defend himself against alleged hostility, anger, lasciviousness, and ulterior motives, none of which may reflect his true thoughts and feelings.

Many people believe that if they are very close to another person, they should be able to know what the other feels and thinks. However, there is a difference between the relationship of two human beings, each of them a complete person and a fusion of two incomplete human beings into a whole. That fusion may feel very good and comfortable for a while, but sooner or later, people begin to feel as if they have lost the essence of themselves.

When people tell me that they can’t understand their spouse, I sometimes ask them if they truly understand themselves. Usually the answer is “no.”

The benefit of allowing the other person his/her own thoughts and feelings without being second-guessed is that in the sharing of these thoughts and feelings in a relationship, there is the opportunity to really listen and to pay attention and to empathize and show caring. A real relationship involves relating as a whole person to another whole person with distinct thoughts and feelings. It involves listening to understand what that person is thinking and feeling and how he or she is experiencing life. In fact, not “knowing” what the other is thinking is the key to really finding out.

Dreams

One of the most amazing things about fulfilling a dream is that once fulfilled, one is again and again reminded of how it looked from far off and once again one can feel the joy of its having been accomplished.

One way in which I experience this is in my feelings for living in Israel. My first consciousness of Eretz Yisrael came when as a child I heard my maternal grandmother at the end of the seder tell the family that it was her intention to take the whole family to Israel next Pesach. I believed then and still believe today that that is what she truly wanted to do and probably would have, had she lived long enough.

In Sunday School and Hebrew School, we talked about Israel, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie Exodus that my longing to visit Israel began. It was only after a broken engagement that I got to see the land for the first time in 1965, and only after twelve years of marriage and five children that I returned in 1978. The real longing to live in Israel started then and intensified when our oldest son left the US to study at Hebrew University in 1984 and finally, after each child had come to live in Israel on his or her own, I joined them. My father-in-law and husband were the last of the family to arrive.

And you would think that after ten years in Israel, seven of them living in our own home, I would just take living here for granted. But you would be wrong.

Every morning waking up to the sweet smells of our garden, I am reminded of the beautiful place that I live. Each trip to Jerusalem makes me love her ancient stones more intensely. Our trip to Sde Boker and Ein Avdat brought me the awe of desert landscapes with colored sands and rich wadis and waterfalls. And last weekend, our shabbat at Karei Deshe allowed me to hear the gentle lapping of the waters of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) at night and to watch the sun shimmering in its waters in the day.

These places are not just places. They are spiritual landmarks, places where I meet God’s works face to face and experience a closeness to Him and a feeling of serenity and completeness.

And I think about what I hoped I would find when I got here, and I am awed that I have found so infinitely more.

The Transformers

It is a truism that artists tend to be people who have pain that drives them to express themselves. Each day when I read “The Writer’s Almanac” I see that literary and political figures invariably have suffered painful childhoods with the loss of a parent or physical or emotional abuse from parents or peers or from debilitating illnesses. Some have lived lives of poverty. Some are the product of homes that didn’t feel safe.

Those people who are able to turn to writing literature or essays or compose great musical works are people who are able to transform the negative into something positive not just for themselves, but for others as well.

But famous people are not the only ones who have this gift for positive transformation. One of the things that moved me when I was working with families of adults with developmental disabilities and mental retardation was what happened to the rest of the family. In general, I found both parents and siblings of these very challenged and challenging people to be exceptional in a number of ways. Most of the parents were devoted to their children, patient and understanding. They were able to give and give and they were also able to derive pleasure from the smallest accomplishment of their disabled child. The siblings were even more impressive because they have not raised this person from childhood and therefore invested nurturing and love in them. They were children whose lives were altered because of their disabled sibling. I am certain they missed parties and events because parents were in the hospital with their sibling who was having seizures or self-abusing or getting over a choking episode. They lived with friends who may have questioned them about their siblings and perhaps made fun of the sibling or of the child him/herself. What did I observe? A very large percentage of these siblings went on to become doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists. They turned their experience into something that would help others. They learned to be caregivers and they extended that caregiving to others.

Most of us are not challenged in such dramatic ways. Most of us have painful experiences that are transient. We can choose to allow them to immobilize ourselves in sadness or anger or grief or, after a reasonable time, we can transform them into directions that enrich ourselves and the people around us.

When people search for the meaning of God’s role in the world, I am often mindful of that specific type of transformation, for in reaching into the chaos of our lives and pulling out something positive and healing, we are joining with God in the work of Creation.