It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood (2015)


My son has fat little hands—the kind where the knuckles sink in instead of stick out. When Seamus was almost seven months old, he was learning to use his hands. He wasn’t operating machinery or doing intricate beadwork, but every day he grew more adept and added fine motor skills. I look at his hands sometimes and try to imagine what they will be like decades from now. These impossibly small and pudgy fingers: Will they grow up and wear a wedding ring? Play the piano? Fill beakers with bright chemicals and noxious compounds? Tickle a new generation of chubby children?

Will his hands know how to tie knots on the high seas? Pump a heart that has stopped beating? Load, aim, and fire a gun? Will those hands point that gun at a target, or a deer, or an enemy? Will his hands learn how to paint beautiful nature scenes like Grandma Liz? Wield a hammer to build a house or an armoire or a bomb shelter? Will his hands grow vegetables? Prune trees? Harden into fists? Weave tapestries? Click computer keys?

Some of what I can imagine his hands doing makes me happy and misty-eyed; other possibilities terrify me. How do I ensure one outcome and not the other? As a mother, can I write the script of his life?

Can we make him a nonviolent person? His father and I could take a hard line. We could try and control what he is exposed to, shape what he likes, police his interests, and make sure nothing we disapprove of reaches him. Modern dance instead of football? Contact improv not kung fu? Sesame Street not Transformers? First of all, Patrick and I would have to come to some sort of agreement about all those things, adding a whole other layer to our predicament.

So what can we do, beyond encouraging him to play with blocks and trains instead of Battletanx: Global Assault? And what about cowboys and Indians and pirates and policemen? They could all be violent too, right? We’ll shoo him outside to run around in the woods and fields as much as possible. We’ll show him how to love nature and living things. But exploring nature could include pulling the legs off daddy longlegs and throwing rocks at squirrels. I did both of those mean things when I was little.

We will expose him to music, instruments, and melodies, encouraging him to experience beauty every day. But what if the music he ends up loving is loud, endless, bone shaking, and teeth splitting? We’ll feed his imagination with books and stories and make-believe. But what if he heads in a dark direction, dreaming up twisted, strange, magical plots? It made J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, and the Brothers Grimm rich and famous. Is it possible to nudge him down safer and brighter paths?

Patrick and I grew up with very similar value systems, and we both got lots of informative responses to our childhood questions. Why don’t we have cool stuff like other kids? Because we don’t have money for brand new toys and games or the latest technology, and even if we did, those toys promote war and violence. Why can’t we watch TV? Because the messages on TV teach viewers to be consumers, to be complacent, to be sexist, racist, and violent. Because we want you to have experiences and interactions instead of just being entertained by someone else’s imagination.

Patrick remembers spending his weekends at the mall—not shopping, but doing street theater, leafleting, and going into the stores to put stickers on the Rambo dolls that said things like: “This toy teaches violence.”

“Every boy I knew had G.I. Joes,” he recalled. “And when I was at kids’ houses, I had to say, ‘I’m not allowed to play with that.’ Sure, I would cheat sometimes and play with them. If I did, I would feel sneaky and sometimes I would go home and tell on myself. It turns out that playing war isn’t all that much fun. In first grade, we were divided into reading groups and every group got to choose its own name. My group was four boys and they all wanted to be the G.I. Joes. I told them I couldn’t be in the G.I. Joes because I am not allowed to play with war toys. We chose some other name; I think we called ourselves The Ghostbusters or the Smurfs.”

When friends and family members gave Patrick contraband presents, they ended up on a high shelf in the office. “Whenever I went in that room, the box of forbidden toys was the first thing I saw. I knew I could reach it. I knew I would get in trouble if I played with it. Sometimes, I would take down the box and look at the war toys, but I never took them out of their packages.”

Patrick secretly played with G.I. Joes; I had the same relationship with Barbie dolls. We both managed to watch a fair amount of the TV at friends’ and relatives’ houses, enough to see that our parents were right—TV shows are sexist and racist and are often nothing more than filler between long blocks of commercials that get inside your head and create needs and wants that weren’t there before. But we couldn’t just take our parents’ word for it; we needed to experience it for ourselves, at least to some extent. Patrick and I were both shaped by our parents’ values and beliefs, able to adopt and apply what made sense and slough off what didn’t. I see this in how we parent our kids.

As I try to imagine (and fight the urge to shape) my kids’ futures, a poem by Khalil Gibran comes to mind:

They come through you but they are not from you, and though they are with you, they belong not to you.

You can give them your love but not your thoughts. They have their own thoughts. You can house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in a place of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You can strive to be like them, but you cannot make them just like you.

Seamus is warm and loving and expresses what he needs and wants. He is free of artifice, guile, and hidden agendas. He has no ego or baggage or insecurity. If I can work to be like him, wouldn’t I be a better person? Rather than trying to shape him in my image, why don’t I embrace his boundless wonder, his inexhaustible curiosity, and his hearty appetite for life? I must strive to be like him in some ways and also try to do what my parents did: provide tools, impart wisdom, love and protect the person, and let go of the rest.


I got spanked as a kid. Not often, not hard, not in anger—but I did get whacked on the bottom. I don’t think it happened once a week, but there was a stretch where it probably happened at least once a month. My brother and I fought all the time. We got spanked when we got caught. Spanking didn’t stop us from fighting, but it did help us be more subtle about it.

My dad and mom both spanked us, but Dad got the duty more often. He was always fair. If my brother was going to get a spanking, so was I. He always explained why we were getting the spanking; he never struck us in anger, and he always assured us that “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

One day at school, maybe in the third grade, a mom came into the classroom and spanked her son in front of the whole class. She was yelling while he screamed and ran. She yelled, “Sit still and behave in class!” and “Come back here so I can hit you!” It was very disruptive to our learning and almost comically terrible. Even then, I could compare my spanking to his and know that I had the better deal.

But the irony of getting spanked as a consequence of fighting with my brother dawned on me early. The fact that my brother and I were enjoined to be loving, peaceful, considerate young people and to break the cycle of violence between ourselves or else get spanked—by one of the country’s most prominent Catholic peace activists and pacifists—was kind of funny.

But my father was breaking his own family’s cycle of violence in how he disciplined us. He was born before the Depression, the youngest of six boys with a domineering and mercurial father who made liberal use of the woodshed and the belt and whatever else he had on hand. He hit in anger, in rage, in despondence. Our dad did not.

He talked our ears off first, and if we had heeded even a third of what he said in our all-too-regular “rocking chair conferences,” we wouldn’t have gotten spanked. He used the flat of his hand in an almost ritualistic way. We cried because we knew he was disappointed in us, and also because crying was expected, because crying made it shorter.

There is no spanking in my house now. And also none at my stepdaughter’s mom’s house. This is a good thing, because I have definitely gotten angry enough to want to hit. It makes me appreciate the self-control of my mom and dad, who were able to hit without anger. Not for nothing were they clergy.

Rosena is a marvel: loving, inquisitive, generous, articulate, funny. She has a phenomenal memory, boundless energy, and never misses a beat. She is also scattered, disorganized, willful, opinionated, and almost attorney-like in her drive to get what she wants when she wants it. And I can get frustrated, offended, impatient, exasperated, hurt, and just plain mad.

A dad once wrote to me in response to one of my columns:

I have found parenting a greater test of my commitment to nonviolence than anything in my activist experience. There is something about (a) my apparent need to control my nearly four-year-old son, and (b) his ability to press my buttons in his challenge to my control, that leads to a lot more yelling than I’d like. I am working hard on giving up a little of (a), and sleeping more to reduce the effects of (b)!

Sleep and other aspects of self-care are important components of careful parenting. I handle everything better when I am well-rested and well-caffeinated. Another good idea is trading off. When I feel myself reacting too strongly to our kids, I ask my husband for help. I leave the room. I pass the problem on to him and I take a break. I come back when I am ready to be a grown-up again, when I am cool and collected and ready to dole out consequences that match transgressions—not my level of anger or frustration. That usually means a time-out for her, or a high shelf for one of her stuffed-animal friends.

Talking a problem through with others is also a huge help. But maybe the biggest help I have found is asking why? Why is she acting this way right now? Why am I getting hot under the collar? Why do I care if she does or doesn’t do x? Is it really important, or is it just about control? Why am I rushing her? Because she is being discourteous and distracted, or to compensate for my own earlier disorganization or poor time management? Does my rushing her help her move faster or slow her down? I found a book at the library, Your Seven-Year-Old: Life in a Minor Key, from the Gesell Institute for Child Development. There is a book for every age—4: Wild and Wonderful, 5: Sunny and Serene. I can’t wait for 8: Lively and Outgoing. I was struck by the observation that seven-years-olds need attention and thrive on praise. They are discovering themselves as people capable of action and want to be both recognized for that and reassured that their new discoveries and independence do not mean they are now completely on their own.

If seven-year-olds do not get positive attention for their triumphs, however small and mundane they may seem to grown-ups, they will seek negative attention by acting out. To a seven-year-old, getting snapped at is better than no attention at all. So why is she doing x that is annoying and makes me want to scream? Because I failed to appreciate her effort to help a few minutes ago.

Looking back on it now, I think my brother and I fought with each other because living with a bunch of peace-seeking adults was not always fun, because going to school as the peace-activist kids was only occasionally fun, because having our parents go off to jail was not ever fun, because being together all the time was not fun at all, because life in general is stressful, and because fighting provided a release for all of that. It gave us a chance to scream and cry at each other so that we would not scream and cry at a demonstration where our mom was hauled off in handcuffs, or in a courtroom where our dad stood before a judge in a baggy jumpsuit.

As kids, we never had the words to say, “We won’t fight if you stop going to jail and get all these people out of our house.” I am glad for that. They would not have been able to do it, and we would have also missed out on lots of relationships and experiences that I really value. But it is good to understand the why.


We had a big birthday bash for Rosena’s sixth birthday. It was great: a gaggle of kids, music, pancakes, a rainbow cake, and lots of balloons. Armed with a how-to guide from the Klutz series and a hand pump, I handed out wonderful balloon hats to the youngsters. They were a hit. But I had not studied my guide very carefully, and once they started clamoring for dog, cat, and dragon balloon animals, I was deeply out of my element.

“A wand, what about a magic wand?” I improvised. I whipped it up quick and handed it to a young boy. “There, now you can do magic.”

“Cool, a sword!” he replied, and he dashed off to engage his little brother. Soon all the kids were crowded around my knees demanding swords in all the colors of the rainbow. “I will make you a magic wand,” I insisted to each, manipulating the top of the long balloons into fanciful wand-like shapes. “Okay, but I am going to turn it into a sword,” they said again and again, undoing my handiwork and swashbuckling their way across the church hall. It went on like this all morning. The only child I could get to request a magic wand was my very own Rosena, and even she used it like a sword the minute it was in her little hands. I think something that helped my siblings and I try to choose less violent options was living among so many different kinds of people at Jonah House over the years. I was exposed to all sorts of ways that good-hearted, radical, and thoughtful people interact with children.

At nightly prayer there were a number of women who insisted on saying “a-woman,” instead of “amen.” I was so influenced by this that I took to calling mayonnaise “womanaise.”

At dinner, we were exposed to typical vegetarians and vegans, but also raw foodists, people who only drank juice, and those who weighed all their food portions. We also sat down with people who used kelp instead of salt and who railed against white sugar as though it were a tool of Satan himself (or herself?).

Everyone took turns cooking, and we’d watch our dad carefully. If he got out the peanut butter at dinner it meant that he did not like what was being served. He would never say anything, but his getting up from the table meant that we could eat peanut butter sandwiches for dinner too. A woman who lived with us taught us to say “directly forward” when we were giving directions, instead of “straight.” Her point was that the dominant male culture prioritized straight over other directions and made us think that straight was the only way to live.

By way of contrast, our own parents—a former nun and priest who were often at least a decade older than other community members—were fairly conventional in their child-rearing techniques. “Please,” “thank you,” eating all one’s dinner in solidarity with the starving children of Africa, “may I please be excused,” long lectures about one’s behavior (differentiated from other kids’ long lectures only by the frequent, learned, biblical references and occasional diatribes against morally corrupt American consumer culture), and periodic spankings.

If you set aside the whole protesting and getting arrested and going to jail and talking about one’s faith all the time stuff, they were basically normal. Our parents ate meat, drank alcohol (though it was seldom on hand), enjoyed classical music, cursed with passion and imagination when provoked, and enjoyed detective novels.

We were not allowed to watch TV (morally corrupt American consumer culture). The worst thing we could do was fight with one another (which my brother and I did constantly), and the second-worst thing we could do was lie, which my brother and I did all the time to cover up for our TV-sneaking and our fighting. I learned a lot from the people with whom I shared the dining room table while growing up—but less about “healthy eating” than about obsession, fixation, and control. I learned to work around my parents’ prohibitions on TV and gorged myself when I could. To this day, if a TV is on in a room, I can’t not watch it. I learned to lie to be able to do what I wanted and still be an appropriate peace activist kid. I’m not proud of learning all of that. I don’t like it…but I did it.

Does it really matter if my stepdaughter plays with magic wands or swords? Why do I want her to call it a wand when she wields it like a sword? If she is having fun and not hurting anyone, does my politically correct overlay do anyone any good? Or is it just a semantic absurdism like “womanaise”?

What do we teach children by our words and actions, and what do we want children to learn? How can I be a parent who is learning alongside my marvelous child rather than imposing my vision of the world on her little shoulders? How can I be a parent who makes the world safe, beautiful, and governed by some logic, while still being honest about its morass of problems and our responsibility for all of it?

Children are little insurrectionists. They turn our lives upside down and they insist we see it through their eyes—and they care more than anything about fairness and friendship. Maybe we have more to learn than to teach.


Rosena is mad for horses. As I was reading to her from The Black Stallion Returns one night, I found myself editing heavily. Walter Farley’s sequel to The Black Stallion was originally published in 1945 and is, in my humble opinion, horribly written. How many times can young Alec look or act “determinedly,” and is that even a word? What is worse is that the book reflects the casual prejudice and ignorance of the time—the Bedouins of Arabia are portrayed as backward and swarthy. Also, the book is really violent.

So as we approached the denouement, I found myself trying to keep the action going while avoiding the fact that the swarthy Bedouin was about to drive Alec and The Black off a cliff.

It’s true that without that bit of action, the whole chapter makes no sense. But Rosena was half-asleep and perhaps not following what I was saying, and I did not want her last words and images of the day to be of a horse and boy smashed in a rocky tomb.

If protecting her from imaginary violence is tough, shielding her from real violence is even more difficult. And is it even the right thing to do?

Since she entered kindergarten, the violence and unpredictability of the world has been in our face. In December 2012, a young man armed to the teeth massacred twenty kids and six adults at an elementary school less than eighty miles from our town. And then months later, two heavily armed young men detonated bombs at the Boston Marathon’s finish line, killing three and injuring hundreds. Our plan was to be there, cheering on our friend as she finished the 26.2-mile course.

There is killing in Syria, Afghanistan, Gaza and Iraq; saber-rattling and threats of war on the Korean peninsula; death and destruction from West Texas to Bangladesh; the random and not so random brutality displayed in inner cities and suburbs throughout our country; the grind of poverty, racism, and sexism; the looming threats posed by cataclysmic climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, and environmental destruction. The list goes on and on.

Growing up, my family and community watched the news every night. It was the only TV I got to watch, and so I was there in the front row. When I was about Rosena’s age, I watched, transfixed, as the Iran hostage crisis unfolded, as the Mount St. Helens volcano exploded in Washington State, as the Irish Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands starved to death in British custody, as four U.S. church women—Jean Donovan and Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, and Dorothy Kazel—were raped and murdered in El Salvador, and as President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II were both shot and injured. The whole time, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock stood at seven minutes to nuclear midnight (it is at five minutes today, by the way).

This is what we talked about around the dinner table. And it was terrifying. I had nightmares. I worried. I recently found a “poem” I wrote when I was nine:

What will happen when the bomb comes shoting [sic] down? I am not in a hurry to know. I don’t want to see it come tumbling down. The president will say: I declare war on Russia, or India, or Norway, or any other country. But it’s not their fault. We could have prevented it from happening. I hope we can someday.

It is written in my best handwriting and illustrated with little bombs.

When I was Rosena’s age, I knew a lot about nuclear weapons. We watched grainy black-and-white documentaries about Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the wall of our living room. I could fold paper cranes and tell you the story of Sadako, the little girl in Hiroshima who died of leukemia even though she was not even born when the United States dropped the two nuclear bombs on her country in August 1945. She tried to fold a thousand paper cranes so that the gods would make her better. She did not finish her task, but her friends and family kept folding origami cranes after she died, erecting a statue of her in Hiroshima.

My sister Kate also remembers growing up with an active fear of nuclear weapons. When she heard planes flying low overhead, she expected that the bombing would start any moment. Despite this fear she doesn’t think that we should have been more sheltered as children. “The gift from that exposure,” she says, “is a more or less constant awareness of my level of comfort in daily life and of those who aren’t so lucky. The challenge of that is to then strike a balance between guilt and action. Do you get self-serving about it or do you find tools and resources to address the problems that you see?”

It made sense that we knew all this. It helped us understand our immediate reality—going to lots of protests, watching the people we loved getting arrested and hauled off to jail, collecting food from dumpsters and sharing it with hundreds of our neighbors on a weekly basis.

Rosena is not writing poetry yet, but she is churning out art at a prodigious rate. I marvel at her cheerful drawings—blocks of color, grand sweeps of magic marker and crayon, intricate illustrations of her big loving family. Each drawing comes with a long and elaborate backstory that she relishes telling. There are no nuclear bombs or heavily armed men lurking in the background. Nuclear aggression and mutually assured destruction are not part of her pictures. There is not even a hint of deprivation or longing—except for deceased and beloved cats, and the dog and horse she hopes to someday have.

Within an hour of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, we got an email from her school with suggestions for how to talk about the tragedy. They said that we should stick to simple and brief reassurances that she is safe and that school is safe. Over the weekend, we got another email updating parents and caregivers on new school security procedures, telling us how they planned to handle discussions with the kids on Monday. “In K/1 we will not make any reference in the classrooms to the incident. As we normally do, children will write about their weekend. If any students mention the incident, the teacher will do a check-in with them individually.”

As far as I know, Rosena still does not know about the Sandy Hook massacre or the Boston bombing. She is blissfully unaware. I think this is a good thing. Lots of kids don’t have the luxury of being shielded from tragedy and deprivation. Almost seventeen million kids in this country are hungry, for instance. Every hour in this country, eighty-four kids end up in the emergency room as the result of violence perpetrated against them. The picture is much worse outside of our borders—every five seconds, a child dies of hunger somewhere in the world. I want Rosena to know all of this someday. I want her to grow up compassionate and empathetic. I want her to work for justice and peace. I want her to be curious about people and empowered to help them. But, right now, I just want her to be a kid—innocent, lucky, happy, and mad about horses.