What Cults Taught Me About Parenting

When I was home with my first child, friends inundated me with suggestions of helpful parenting books.  You know how it goes, one person kicks off the mania and then suddenly, everyone is pregnant.  It is like the blind leading the blind.  We’re all confident we won’t make the same mistakes as our parents but then, no one tells you you are going to make a whole bunch of new ones.  This is where parenting books come in.  They promise you solutions tied up with glossy ribbon – they make fear palatable.  I never did read any parenting books, too scared.   I was already manic enough trying to digest the fact the hospital had sent home an infant just hours old with two adults that didn’t even know how to strap him into a carseat.

The weeks and months that followed were a personality overhaul to say the least.  Selfishness out, maternal suffering in.  I will disclose here that in those first six months I took care of a total stranger.  The babbling baby that was my son stared at me with both shock, amusement and distrust.  Distrust was usually followed by horrible wailing because he realized he was in the hands of total idiots.  Looking back, I  feel bad for the kid, what a horror being stuck with newbies for parents.

One day, having finished mutilating a bowl of food, he suspended the dish over the side of his high chair, stared me dead in the eye and dropped it and the remainder of its contents on the floor.  He remained silent, alert, and watching as I stared back.  Aha, I thought, this creature is definitely my son.  That moment was the turning point.  I realized I had a human on my hands, someone with intent.  How was I going to deal with the coming months and years as this cerebral kewpie doll was going to attempt to lay waste my resolution and self respect?

I sputtered along for the next few years, gleaning any useful tidbits of parenting advise from friends or family I deemed useful.  I still couldn’t be bothered to read any parenting books.  By then, all the reading had been done for me and my general impression was that every great parenting book was great for one type of child.  A hundred books probably covered off a hundred personalities and that was just fine, but I didn’t have the time or inclination to figure out which book gave me all the explanations to my son’s maddening quirks.

Then the second child came.  This would require a totally different book.  The other parents had warned me.  Each. One. Is. Unique.  Damn.

As fate would have it, we found what we needed on a family holiday with our 6 year old son and 11 month old daughter.  We stayed in a vacation rental, situated inland from the California coast, snuggled along a country road away from television or satellite reception.  The good people who owned the rental had stocked a variety of DVDs for our viewing pleasure.  Alas, the owners were also retirees so their DVD preferences swayed heavily to Meryl Streep, birding, and movies that had been shot in the local California scenery.  Desperation drove us to choose the most interesting looking cover which turned out to be a gem:  49 Up.

Wikipedia summarizes: “The Up Series is a series of documentary films produced by Granada Television that have followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were seven years old. So far the documentary has had eight episodes spanning 49 years (one episode every seven years)…..”  “The children were selected to represent the range of socio-economic backgrounds in Britain at that time, with the explicit assumption that each child’s social class predetermines their future.”

And it did, mostly.  Two children from the most affluent families, in their interviews as 7 year olds, listed off the prep schools, public schools and universities they were going to attend, echoing verbatim their fathers’ scholarly manifesto.  They each maintained a respectable amount of wealth through their chosen endeavours.  The relative success of the other participants concerning family and career loosely reflected the sliding scale of their socioeconomic backgrounds.   It appeared those born to education and wealth stayed educated and wealthy by unwavering faith in their destiny.  More importantly, parental forces outlined their destiny for them early and then constantly reminded and reinforced.

Watching the documentary, I was struck by the naive confidence of the pre-preparatory school boys.  The boys had adoringly sponged up their fathers’ rhetoric and would blindly follow suite for the entirety of their lives.  From one perspective, naive confidence is the hallmark of many 7 year olds.  My son just turned 8 and he’s pretty confident he knows more than me.   From another perspective, you could argue their blind servitude to family  edict was bordering on cultish.  On that argument, I discovered cults generally follow three precepts:

1)Utter devotion to the group.  Translation:  children are pretty devoted to their families in the early years.  My children think our family is the best.  We have the best food, the funnest activities and they couldn’t imagine living with anyone else.

2)The cult’s inner process usually reveal some aspect of behavioural, thought, emotional or information control.  Translation: I boss my kids around and tell them how to behave.  Under 10 years of age, it usually distills down to being kind and generous and picking up after themselves.  I commonly avoid information I think will be particularily horrific like Jewish death camps or pedophiles.

3)Total loyalty and unquestioning obedience to a charismatic leader.  That’s me.

Now that I had acquired the basic tenets of a cult, I realized I was on my way to successful parenting.  Basically, my husband and I were in charge and we could brainwash anything into our children’s impressionable minds. We began in earnest.  Dinner conversations went something like this: “Which university are you attending? Have you come up with a financial plan to pay for tuition?”  Or  “Drugs are stupid.  They will destroy your brain.  You will not be able to have a good life and you will wind up poor and destitute.”  So far, my 8 year old is hell bent on saving money for university and he is terrified of taking aspirin.  My 2 year old demonstrates unfailing devotion as she relentlessly follows me around and laughs at all my jokes.  Times are good in our humble little cult.  Now if only I could get my husband’s unquestioning obedience……





Fake It Till You Make It

Two nights ago I found myself sitting in a cramped room surrounded by new Canadians, a few uncomfortable white people that were likely bullied as children and myself.  What are new Canadians you ask?  Anyone who has a work visa, permanent residency or citizenship but were born in other countries.  Aside from the original native inhabitants, this is everyone’s backstory in Canada, give or take 1 to 5 degrees of generational separation and even then you could argue the original native inhabitants took a land route to get here instead of air or water like everyone else.  I’m pretty sure the moose, bear and beaver think this land mass belongs to them too.  Migration: the ultimate usurper of neighbourhood demographics.

This congregation of the marginalized were gathered to listen to two guest speakers illuminate them on how to tweak one’s personality to become more employable. I was there on a whim, having been pimped to volunteer for an organization that would bolster my network and volunteering creds on LinkedIn.  Except, not knowing what kind of organization I was being pimped to, I opted instead to go to one of their monthly events.

Which is how I found myself seated in a cramped room, holding Tim Hortons coffee and munching on the $10 ‘refreshments’ piece of pizza that was on offer before the speakers began.  They even charged the volunteers $10 for refreshments, which seemed to take away any perks that I could perceive in the whole endeavour.

The first speaker got up,  a white, tall and balding middle aged man who promoted his books on Canadian workplace etiquette and behaviours for new Canadians.  His revelation, heavily recycled from the playbook of Dale Carnegie and rebranded as ’emotional intelligence’, was that one should display empathy by learning to listen more and talk less. Unfortunately, he decided to acronym ’emotional intelligence’ to E.I. throughout his presentation.  I’m not sure how much emotional intelligence was involved in unconscious linking with employment insurance  but it may explain why he got a wine bottle stopper as a speaker’s fee.

The second speaker, a white, middle aged woman, stressed the importance of overcoming major personality pitfalls using personality tests and practiced self awareness. As her hands trembled holding her notes, discomfort evident in every jerky gesture, she kept repeating, “Look at me, you would never know I’m an introvert because I’ve taught myself to behave as an extrovert.  You gotta fake it till you make it.”  This mantra, repeated many, many times, seemed to help remind her she wasn’t painfully introverted and that yes, she could make a living giving inspirational talks.  She also received a wine bottle stopper.

I cringe to think what social mores these events impress upon new Canadians or any of the struggling unemployed.  What if you are an impressionable new graduate or you sit somewhere on the Asperger spectrum?  What if you simply hate people?  Can crib notes on NHL hockey teams, The Walking Dead and the 2016 Oscar nominees  help you make friends around the water cooler?  Are your  water cooler friends going to make you a more happier and fulfilled person or will you come to dread the Academy Awards and the 4 hour telecast you have to sit through just so you can partake in the post Oscar chatter?

I go for lunch on occasion with three ex-colleagues.  One is a Syrian, one is Pakistani and the third is Chinese – all new Canadians.  I am fourth generation Polish-Ukrainian with a dollop of German and Irish thrown in for good measure.  We sit around laughing, immersing ourselves in the amusing quirkiness of our camaraderie.  We are, I believe, the quintessential Canadians:  accepting, humorous, and embracing of the new and interesting.   You don’t need to fake being Canadian.  You are Canadian by virtue of your arrival.  By stepping foot on this northern land, leaving the historical burdens, economic hardships and oppressive regimes of your birth country,  you demonstrate kinship to all the wearied travellers that found their way home to Canada.  It is the diversity and individuality of people in our workplace that should be promoted, not some jingoistic version of The Office.



Why LinkedIn Makes Me Depressed

I finally joined LinkedIn.  This was something of a hurdle for me because I have cyberagoraphobia.   This is my best approximation of the fear of having a public profile in cyberspace.  Wikipedia says agoraphobia is, “characterized by anxiety in situations where the sufferer perceives the environment to be dangerous, uncomfortable, or unsafe” and this can include “uncontrollable social situations.”  Bingo.  This is ironic for someone who is admittedly a social butterfly.  More like a bonobo actually, minus the promiscuous sexual behaviour. Bonobos tend to be more peace loving than their chimpanzee cousins because females in particular use sex as a form of greeting, reconciliation and resolution.  I’m not sure about Ibiza but in Calgary, monogamy and the traditional duality of marriage frowns on orgies as a means to get along.   My go to social lubricant is good conversation with sincere praise thrown in for good measure; if that fails, a beer and feigned interest in the Montreal Canadiens’ home game.

I don’t have a Facebook account for the same reason.  I had nightmares about declining friend requests, afraid of the perceived slights that I would inflict on the second cousin of the girl I met at my friend’s party.  Or  conversely, the people who might quietly ignore my request for friendship.  What do you mean the guy at the 7-Eleven, who knows my favourite slurpee flavour, doesn’t want to be my friend?  The whole system seemed fraught  with the fragile anticipations built into every ‘connect’ and ‘thumbs up’.   We are like stocks on a grand social exchange, the numbers of subscribers to your follies and thoughts a direct collate to your value.

Which brings me to the ultimate depressed state – LinkedIn subscription.  Unlike your friends and family, who watch your links to TED talks and chuckle at your smarmy selfie taken in new black thick rimmed glasses (thanks Elvis Costello), the connections in LinkedIn are considered your lifelines to employment.  This is supposedly your ticket to the ultimate AlphaPhiCappa club, a secret fraternity of the elite and connected that will grace you with a window into their network.  Except, really, it isn’t.  It is an exceptionally easy tool for recruiters to find unemployed professionals and to make money pimping them to companies.  Yeah, sure, you connect with old colleagues, agree to go for coffee to commiserate or just to practice the one-upmanship of comparing the status of your kids.  But, really, you are hoping for a pimp to show up and give you some hope that you’re resume is attractive enough to justify the fee.  Unless, it’s not and you’re the dirty whore that will do you-know-what (Walmart greeter anyone?) for an embarrassingly low salary.  Welcome to the land of the down and out.

My sister sent me an email a few weeks ago notifying me that our parents had joined LinkedIn.  This was before I had joined.  My mother had described herself as, “poet, reviewer, dramatist, short story writer–“, while my father summed up his in a single word, “cogitator”.   They are lovely people and I suspect a lot more interesting than myself but as a cruel footnote to my emerging cyber alter ego, I pray to God they never attempt to connect to me.  It would be the equivalent of having your Mom or Dad hold your hand as they walk you to work.  The whole point is who you know and anyone scrolling through my network will wonder why I’m connected to a cogitator and a dramatist.  Already, my transformation has begun as I scramble to raise my online value.  As I expose my underbelly to the cyber web, I pray that it does not devour me.

Networking Hell

Last night we went to the theatre to watch “The Big Lebowski.” Jeff Bridges plays Jeff Lebowski, a.k.a. The Dude, a pot smoking underachiever who undergoes a series of misadventures with no discernible gain at the conclusion except for the simple refrain “The Dude abides.”  What does that mean?  It the land of narcissists, sociopaths, whores and overachievers (set in Los Angeles 1998), the Dude is content to float along with the ebb and flow of the universe.

It was a sold out show, with White Russians for sale in the lobby, a throng of bathrobe attired underachievers closeted in a city full of type A overachievers.  I live in Calgary, Alberta – the hub of the oil & gas industry in Canada.   I am a laid off geologist, an admittedly ‘hippy’ profession in an industry heavily laden with engineers and sons of CEOs with MBAs tacked onto their credentials as common as polyester in the 70s. Brent oil pricing decided to dive bomb below $30 which means I’m not going to be working as a geologist anytime soon.

Which brings us back to the Dude and the dichotomy of Calgary’s unemployed.  There are the overachievers and the underachievers.  The overachievers are the networkers.  They co-chair galas and volunteer for organizations with a ‘P’ somewhere in the acronym to signify the ubiquitous ‘petroleum’ which roots the Alberta economy.   They join the Rotary Club to hobnob with the wealthy and connected.  They list all these ‘achievements’ on their resumes or LinkedIn profiles.  They name drop other networkers like Craig or Bob, or Suzanne.  Craig is often an unemployed oil and gas marketer embarking on a career as a life coach and Suzanne is exploring business opportunities in renewables.

I am a closeted underachiever.  I dress my toddler in the next day’s clothes for bedtime.  That way I don’t need to bother getting her dressed in the morning.  If my underarm odour has not permeated my clothes, I wear them another day because I reason I’m saving water and energy washing less clothes.   My idea of networking is going for beer and talking shit about people whom still have jobs but don’t deserve them as much as we do.  I suspect truly successful people are having beer with other successful people.  And not the cheap Pilsner kind of beer.  They’re drinking craft microbrewery beer with undertones of chocolate or apricot.  So, forget networking hell, raise a glass to the Dude, let the winds of change take you wherever they may and don’t be afraid to embark on another misadventure.  Chances are the company you keep will be a lot more interesting.


Why I started a blog

My sister lives in Perth, Australia with her husband and 10 year old son.  I live in Canada.  Due to the time difference, the only feasible time to chat is Friday or Saturday night in Canada, which is Saturday or Sunday morning in Perth.   If you have some semblance of a life, which I hope I do, it means we are in the basement for Friday evening movie night involving a G rated children’s animation or a PG rated documentary.  The last great family movies were “Princess Bride”, “Goonies”, the “Dark Crystal” and “The Never Ending Story.”  With the 80s gone, the modern movie magic is rendered bland for mass consumption and so, unable to sit through another franchised Marvelade of epic battles and much to my 8 year old’s disappointment, we often choose documentaries.  Last Friday it was “unBranded” about 4 chums on a horseback riding trek from the Mexico/Arizona border to the U.S./Canada border traversing on U.S. public lands on adopted mustangs.  My husband and I smugly pride ourselves that we are giving our children brain nutrition but these documentaries can backfire on occasion.  Shortly after watching a documentary on overfishing and decimation of wildlife stocks in oceans and referencing the aggressive fishing tactics of Chinese trawlers in international or disputed waters, my son, the reason forgotten now, piped up at a dinner party that Chinese people were stealing all the ocean’s fish.  This was at a dinner party at which one of the guests was of Chinese descent.  He was 6 at the time but it made me appreciate that children (and adults) will walk away from a movie or a documentary having clung onto some ‘truth’, however misinformed or skewed it might be.

That leaves Saturday night and really, being 37 and my husband, 43, we secretly harbour narcissistic hopes that we might be hipsters and prone to evenings out embracing cool, liberal musings during 20 seat theatre performances about an Aspergers spectrum adult or midnight screenings of the “Big Lebowski”.   Which means, we’re not home during these optimal chat times with our Australian family.

So, upon my sister’s request that I start a blog, I made one today.  To give my WordPress standard formatting some personality, I wrote  a random phrase I had read scribbled large on an underpass cement wall.  It was written in chalk by a group of young christians that were out for what I assume was a boisterous good time: “Cheese is Good, but Jesus is Better.”  I’m not a christian, I’m not even religious, but I love this phrase.  It means that some 19 year old, back in 2011, still had a sense of humour, and really liked cheese.

I’m not sure  exactly why my sister thought a blog was a great communication tool.  Maybe if I ramble online, it means I’ll listen better when we finally Skype.  I tend to dominate a conversation.  Just ask my husband.  Anyhoo, there you have it.  I’ve used a fake name because I really don’t want any of my friends or workmates figuring out how truly eccentric my inner world is.  I don’t even have a Facebook account.  This blog is for my family.  If you chance upon it, enjoy, but I add the disclaimer that none of the content can be trusted.  I have a selective memory and I’m prone to outlandish claims.


Aubrey Nounours