In Context VI by: Melinda Tsapatsaris

A parable:

Once upon a time in a private school in Los Angeles, probably one that starts with a “W,” there was a mom who opposed generic hand sanitizer. She was like the Erin Brockovich of the anti-hand sanitizer movement. She met with administrators. She emailed links to studies and research. She implored that the leaders and facilities personnel please dispose the campus of all Purell and the like. She was relentless in her drive and communications. She sent samples of alternatives. She checked in often on the school’s progress and process. After independent research, the school concluded that, yes, using a more nontoxic alternative was viable, doable, and healthier for all. The Purell was promptly tossed. The school soon smelled of lavender. Weeks later, the aforementioned parent’s classroom was holding a breakfast potluck. The room parents reminded all parents—multiple times—to please bring breakfast foods containing little to no sugar. The hand sanitizer mom hustled into the morning affair a tad late, holding a baker’s dozen box of donuts, her son beaming. These donuts were no ordinary donuts. Some had M&M’s piled on top. Some, bacon and chocolate! Some had gummy worms appearing to be digging into a soil façade made of crushed Oreos. These were boutique donuts like no other. Four parents involved in the school’s fledgling anti-sugar movement stood askance. One parent let out an audible gasp.

I was just talking to a new dad at my church as he held his 4 month old. I asked, kind of smiling, kind of not, “How’s it going?” He knew I meant how was it really going and answered, “It’s rough.” Yep, I replied, thinking about a hilarious Tina Fey piece I once read on having an infant, “It’s fun and boring and joyful and hard and beautiful and not so beautiful.” (I probably wasn’t that articulate.) Later I reflected on our conversation and considered the fact that I was only referencing the baby part of parenting. What’s surprised me about parenting has been navigating the other parents who are also going about this raising children thing. In the world of babies I experienced many differences among fellow parents—from stances on breastfeeding to sleep training to diaper brand to cloth versus disposable to jar food to making your own to so on. And as children age year to year, the layers of differences become more complicated. They amass.

We as parents have different values, different hopes, different concerns, different blind spots, and different histories. I have been told by many parents at Westland, that they chose Westland, “this school on the hill” as one added, because of a sense commonality they felt they shared with the other Westland parents—a sharing of values that serves as a comfort to them and to a certain extent, protection for their children.

There’s a significant part of me that really digs this notion. I can see the obvious appeal of being around people whose values largely match one’s own. There’s an ease to it. There’s this lovely “It takes a village” component. There’s part of me, however, that is suspicious of this notion. I want to interrupt it. I worry that there’s somehow a way to be not be “Westland enough.” What if a parent steps outside one’s preconceived mold? I think about the parable above and conclude, “We all have our thing, don’t we?”

So what do we do about our differences as parents? What do we do about having areas of nonchalance for some issues and areas of worry for other issues? And what if don’t align with our children’s friends and classmates? For some it might be the consumption of Doritos; having, or not having screen time limits (or no screens at all); an acute hypersensitivity of perceived helicopter parenting; news exposure; rated PG13 movies; cursing in the home, and so on. From big to small, our differences stack up and can become significant and impactful. How do we actually be with our differences as parents? How do we cherish differences while still respectfully and candidly expressing our viewpoints when necessary? When do we hold back and note that differences are differences and not necessarily deficits?

I’ve been thinking about two options as I grapple with these questions—two that seemingly counterpoint each other but hopefully balance each other out.

For one, I am a fan of a guideline taken from Visions Inc. inviting people to “practice self focus.” This guideline invites me to acknowledge that I have my own set of flaws and my own stuff. (I turn into a witch at 7 p.m., for example.) My flaws should theoretically keep me plenty busy. Thus, I can step away from focusing my attentions outward. This self-focus guideline invites me to not pass judgment, which, I admit, can be really hard! For example, I vividly remember eating breakfast outdoors on the sand at Annenberg Beach House a year ago and peering over at a two year old across from our table. He was facing the Pacific Ocean and staring at an iPad the entire duration of breakfast. I was reeling. And basically, I think I wasn’t as present with my own children because of my preoccupation with that child, or rather his parents’ choice. In retrospect, I needed to either focus on my children or invite the little boy across the way to play with my children and our sand toys. This leads me a second option and another Visions Inc. guideline of communicating across differences: It’s okay to disagree; it’s not okay to blame or shame self or others.

Having candid, courageous conversations with fellow parents with whom we are in relationships is essential. When I ask someone if they are willing to hear a concern and I then have the opportunity to share it with them, I am taking responsibility for myself and my needs. It’s not that I’m necessarily attached to any particular outcome. But by sharing my concern and asking for what I need, I am freeing myself of any resentments and stress towards another. I once read that responsibility means that each person asks for 100 percent of what they want 100 percent of the time. I can do this as a parent—with other parents—even if it’s uncomfortable. Once I’ve shared and I hear their response, I can then reestablish a boundary if necessary. The point is I am being open and I am staying in my own personal integrity.

We talk a lot about community at Westland. I think community is our biggest strength, even our biggest draw. Westland’s sense of community was certainly the biggest appeal for me during my search a year ago. When I think about the word community etymologically and within the context of Westland, I am left wondering, “What is our common unity? I hope that one of our common unities is how we treasure, celebrate, notice, and utilize (maybe the hardest one) our differences. I believe we can be strong in our collective values and remain open to the different ways we navigate parenting. I believe that we can practice self-focus and confront each other in respectful, open ways.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: I believe that we can hold EO hand sanitizer in one hand and a chocolate cream-filled donut in the other.