Nature versus nurture – peacenik’s child is joining the military

by ceejay

I remember so vividly the very first hint I ever had of her yet-to-be existence. I was in a store with my youngest sister and was suddenly so overwhelmed by fatigue that I was leaning over the shopping cart, unable to stop yawning, too weak to stand up on my own, afraid I would be unable to even drive us home. My sister, who already had two children and who knew that my husband and I had recently deliberately stopped using any birth control, began to laugh merrily and then dance circles around me, chanting “You’re pregnant, you’re pregnant, ha-ha, you’re pregnant….” It took three home pregnancy tests to finally confirm her suspicion.

The months seemed to drag on. Knowing that I would only ever have one child – my ex-husband and I believed in the goal of negative population growth, two people leaving behind just one child – I tried to savor every bit of my once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the truth was that I just couldn’t wait to meet her. Early on, when she was no bigger than a bean, I could feel her swimming around inside of me – it felt like a little butterfly touch from within. As the months went on, I could see parts of her body stretching out my stomach, could feel her starring in her own unseen acrobatics show. My private name for her then was “my secret little pocketful of sunshine” because even when I was very stressed out at work, she would move around, make me stop and smile about the growing new life I had inside of me.

And if someone had asked me at the time about the classic debate regarding nature versus nurture, I would have ventured a guess that it was probably about a 50/50 split.

Then, one hot June Saturday night, my beloved precious daughter finally entered this world, stretching out my heart to a love I had never before imagined possible. It is simply beyond words – I am not going to even try. What I can tell you is that the nurses kept coming in to ask if they could take the baby to the nursery so I could get some sleep and my reply was always, “No thank you. You see, I am holding a miracle in my arms and so I can not let her go for one second.”

She came to us very much with her own personality. By the time she was a toddler, the sheer force of her determination, the strength of her personality, shocked me, often even overwhelmed me. By then, if someone had asked me about nature versus nurture, I would have said probably 70% nature, 30% nurture – my daughter’s unmistakable individuality had definitely caused me to revise my estimates. As children, my two sisters and I had been very much girly-girls. That is what I was picturing when the ultrasound technician said, “It’s a girl.” My daughter, however, turned out to be what most people would I suppose call a “tomboy,” although I always just called it my daughter being my daughter. She never stopped moving, kept winding up and up each day until she finally just suddenly collapsed from exhaustion, screamed bloody murder whenever she was strapped down into a car seat. She was athletic, would eventually grow to participate in track and basketball teams, something she definitely didn’t get from her father or me. I had always assumed that a good parent would read to her young child regularly, but to me was born a child who simply could not be still long enough to be read to. Realizing that her preschool education was not going to come via books, I tried a different tactic. I made sure I always got the free alternative weekly paper for my town, searching for educational adventures I could take her on that were free or nearly free, anything where she could move and learn at the same time. We went on hayrides to pick apples in the lovely orchards just outside of town. We toured a state park in the late evening for a presentation on bats. We went to a Civil War battle reenactment. We visited an open house at a veterinary college where she got to see a horse on a treadmill, dogs in a transparent water tank doing aquatic physical therapy for their arthritis, got to touch cow stomachs. I made sure I provided endless adventures to suit my forever on the move child.

Catholic kindergarten was a disaster. She couldn’t sit still. The following year, I found a tiny private school, Discovery School, for her to attend, just eight kids per teacher. Discovery School taught by doing, fitting my daughter’s obvious kinesthetic learning style. In kindergarten, she had been unable to learn the sounds of the alphabet (much later, when she hit public school for the first time, she was diagnosed as having a learning disability, an auditory processing disorder, meaning that sounds got very much jumbled between her ears and her brain). She could not learn the alphabet by just having it sounded out to her. But at Discovery School, they taught the alphabet by putting on their coats, going for a walk, and hunting for things that started with certain sounds – that she could do, again, learning while moving. When she had trouble writing her letters, her teacher had her copy the letters – big – with her finger in a tray filled with sand, again kinesthetic learning, letting her body experience the movement of the letters. When the whole school studied the human body, they turned the entire gym into an amazing replica of the inside of the human body, with tents for organs, lots of yarn all over to represent the blood vessels. When they studied the solar system, they turned a dark hallway in the school into an absolutely stunning to-scale replica of the solar system. For projects like these, the parents and grandparents came to school to be given guided tours by the excited, proud young students, who got to show off what they had learned that way, far more effective if you ask me than standardized testing.

The school was very expensive. My then husband was Air Force enlisted and I had become a college student in my 30s when my daughter entered kindergarten, the two of us starting school together. We got a partial scholarship to Discovery, half off the tuition, and we still struggled to pay the rest. While others we knew with similar incomes always seemed to have new car payments, we instead had tuition payments, driving the same old cars, my aircraft mechanic husband forever repairing them himself in the driveway of our home. It was all worth it to us, our daughter’s future so wide open. My husband had a seventh grade education, had joined the military at seventeen when he simply could find no other prospects. “As long as,” he always said, “she never ends up in the military.”

Sometimes I think that only a parent can really appreciate the astonishing speed with which the years can fly by. My daughter had her twentieth birthday last month. I still can’t believe it, my baby, always my baby no matter how old. And now, it’s to the point where if you ask me about nature versus nurture, I can hardly even venture a guess anymore. My daughter has turned outso very different from how I thought I raised her to be. Looking back, I think I actually had much less input than I ever expected, quite possibly even none at all.

For one thing, she considers herself a Christian and I honestly have no idea how on the goddess’s green earth she ever came to that. Her father is a diehard atheist. I am a Unitarian Universalist Wiccan. When she was growing up, the two of us did rituals together – I would have her go to her room and search for stuffed animals that represented the four sacred directions to form the circle (her giant clownfish for water, her little stuffed bird for air, etc.) and she was so into it back then, very excited. She would drum and I would teach her chants about the goddess. We have danced the maypole and the spiral dance together at public rituals. We Unitarian Universalists do teach some Christianity in our Sunday schools but it is treated exactly as all of the other major world religions are treated, studied in distinct units with the premise that all religions can have something to offer us if we are willing to open our hearts and minds – it is I guess a bit of a cafeteria style religion where we endlessly study all we can and each member kind of keeps what works for them. I just don’t know how my daughter came to choose strictly Christianity. She talks about Jesus Christ her Lord and savior and the feminist in me sadly wonders what ever happened to the divine feminine in her life. Does she even remember anymore the earth goddess of her childhood? Does she ever hear Gaia’s call, perhaps in the movement of the trees in the wind, the intoxicating aroma of gardenias in April, the playful hopping of her pet bunnies?

And now what is for me the ultimate has arrived. After two unsuccessful semesters at community college, my learning disabled daughter is joining the military. I am heartsick over it.

Let me say first that, as a passionate genealogist of many decades, I know that my family already has a long history of military service. At least two of my colonial American ancestors served the British crown in the French and Indian Wars of the 1750s. Over a dozen fought against that same crown in the American Revolution. Another dozen served in the Civil War. One of my grandfathers was in WWI and the other in WWII. My father was in the Air Force for ten years during the Vietnam era – I was born at an Air Force base hospital in the deep South and, before my parents divorced, went to kindergarten on a base in the West and then first grade on yet another base up North. And for twenty-four years, I was, unhappily so, a military spouse to my Air Force ex-husband. That experience greatly influences my intense sadness over my daughter joining the military, so please allow me to share that story.

When I arrived at RAF Alconbury, England, a newlywed seventeen year old, I discovered that the place was an alcohol-fueled carnival of misogyny and jingoist right-wing sentiment. I had grown up in an extended family of liberal activists, politically sheltered, my aunt having been, among a great many other notable things, a Jimmy Carter delegate to the Democratic National Convention, my mother the president of the local chapter of NOW (the National Organization for Women). I had never before encountered or even heard about people like those I met at Alconbury and so at the tender age of seventeen, I had not yet mastered the art of knowing how to sometimes bite my tongue around conservatives. I tried talking to my husband’s friends and coworkers. They all absolutely hated me (although, to be fair, the sentiment would become mutual). My official and only name around the base was “that Jane Fonda bitch.” With some regularity, men on the base would in the crudest of terms demand to know from my husband if it was true that I was indeed somehow sexually exceptional because, they said, they could imagine no other reason for the likes of me being on their base. My husband would just laugh and say, “Aw, you guys just can’t stand it cuz you know my wife is smarter than every man on this base.” The daughter of a wife-beating alcoholic, I was horrified by the amount of alcohol I saw being consumed around me, including by my own husband, who took to regularly hanging out at the barracks for wild parties and sometimes not even making it home all night long. I can handle some drinking and can appreciate and enjoy some good tipsy fun, but out of control drunks frighten me and these people, undeniably, were utterly out of control. The misogyny on the base was also shocking and frightening. I kept hearing of rapes in the barracks. They seemed to happen at least on a monthly basis, the whole four years that I was there. The general attitude on the base about the rapes, from women and men alike, was, “She went to the men’s barracks – what did she think she was there for?” The Airmen’s Club was an appallingly crude meat market. For many decades, the Air Force had allowed busloads of British women headed to the Airmen’s Club through the security gate on Friday and Saturday nights. The practice had finally been stopped just the year before I arrived but still on weekend nights, there were always a dozen or so British women standing shivering just outside the gate, obviously dressed up in their very best, just waiting for any American man who liked what he saw to sign them in to the base for the evening. Three years before I arrived Playboy magazine had named RAF Alconbury in its list of top-ten hottest pick-up spots around the world for American men. Air Force wives were expected to stay home and tolerate their husbands going out drinking in groups, frequently to see British strippers who most definitely did not keep their hands to themselves, would in front of a wildly cheering crowd of the birthday boy’s coworkers strip him naked and lather his penis with shaving cream or flavored oils (I had never approved of these married men going to see strippers in general, had even dared to exchange words with my husband’s high-ranking boss about the issue, but these shocking details about what was actually involved were finally revealed to me by an Air Force woman. The only female mechanic in the shop, she had long been accepted as one of the guys and as such was invited to their outings. At work and at parties, she saw a hyper-macho side to the men that most of their wives probably never saw, the side shared with their military buddies. She bluntly informed me that she had absolutely no use for Air Force wives, thought all Air Force wives had to be complete idiots to be married to men like those with whom she had worked. Finally, she said that she had confided in me because I alone seemed to “have half a brain.”). I had one friend, my only American friend, who was as sick and tired of the men going out to behave in such ways as I was, my one partner in rebellion. Every time the men went out on their own, we made a point of going out to the village pub. Together, fed up, we finally hired a British bus to take all of the wives we knew out for a night on the town, to drink and dance the night away with British men.

I grew to absolutely hate military life, hated and bitterly resented the assumption that because they actually outright legally owned my husband, they also somehow owned me. I, I kept insisting, had never enlisted, but they definitely treated me otherwise. Furthermore, in England during the Cold War, the American military was endlessly preparing for nuclear war – we always lived and drilled like nuclear or chemical war was going to begin at any time. They routinely woke us at all hours of the night for emergency drills. On the base, an alarm would sound and all of the military personnel would quickly don their Darth Vader-esque chemical warfare suits and masks. Many times, deep in my own thoughts, I would drive onto the base only to find it surreally populated by frightening Darth Vader lookalikes. Knowing how the masks upset me, my husband thought it a great joke to enter the room in which I was sitting with his mask on, get close to my face, breath heavily through the filters and say in his deepest voice, “Luke, I am your father.” On the verge of tears, I would beg him to remove the hideous thing. To me, the chemical warfare masks were no laughing matter – they meant war. All of the Americans I knew took living under the constant cloud of war very much in stride, all in a day’s work, eat, drink, and make merry for tomorrow we die, finally the chance to “kick me some Ruskie ass – hoo-ah,” but I was deeply disturbed by the cloud of war and began to have nothing but disdain for all of those around me who were not likewise disturbed. The Air Force wanted personal information on me to help them evacuate me in case of nuclear war, including a recent photo of me, even required that I submit to them a hand-drawn map to my home in town. But what in the hell, I always wondered, was supposed to become of the British friends and neighbors I would leave behind when I was evacuated for war but they were not? And anyway what the hell made me so special? Just being American by chance of birth? With Soviet-American war on British soil seeming always imminent, none of the Americans I knew seemed to wonder and worry about the well-being of the British people as I did. No one was ever willing to discuss these things with me, my few efforts to bring it up only adding to my “Jane Fonda” reputation. As it was, no one on the base really wanted to talk to me anyway – I was pretty well able to clear out a corner at a party simply by taking a seat. One memorable night, however, I struck up a conversation with an Air Force woman. Somehow, it ended up coming up in conversation that we shared similarly abusive childhoods. We talked at length about that and then talked like lifelong friends until the party was over. Finally, she stood and said, “Wow, so you’re (my husband’s last name)’s wife. But you’re just so…well, wow…you’re just …well, nothing like what I’d heard.”

The cloud of war continued and by the time of the famous women’s protests of the late 1980s against our newly nuclear sister base, Greenham Common, my heart was actually secretly with the British women I saw chaining themselves to our fence, while the American G.I.s around me just mocked and laughed at them. Seeing the women’s bravery and determination, I felt terribly guilty for knowingly existing on the wrong side of that fence, but I just so happened to have fallen madly in love at the age of fifteen with a military man and I couldn’t figure out what I, a twenty year old simple Air Force enlisted wife, was supposed to do about it all. I eventually came to mock the military’s absurd overuse of acronyms (they could and did have entire conversations using mostly just their acronyms), only gradually becoming aware that many of their bland enough sounding acronyms actually referred to some terrifying tools of war. Always a rebel at heart (my mother would say it’s the rebel Irish in me), I also greatly disliked the military’s highly regimented lifestyle, their endless rules and regulations, their tight command structure and great emphasis on rank (in the military, rank was definitely supposed to command respect, but it was obvious to me that military rank had no correlation whatsoever to the person’s intelligence or heart or soul or any of the qualities required to command my respect). I once had a stack of overdue books from the base library and my husband was actually called in to his commander’s office about it. My husband and I argued endlessly about my status within the orbit of the military, with the eighteen year old me rebelliously demanding, “What the fuck are you supposed to be, my father?” and him saying, “No. I am your sponsor. The only reason you are allowed on the base is because of me. I am responsible for everything you do, even a speeding ticket.” I chafed at the idea of my husband actually being responsible for me, insisted that no one was responsible for me but me, but alas that was not the military way (and, as we were always told, there are just two ways – the military way and the wrong way).

After four years in England, the very first morning that we woke up at billeting (a military base’s hotel) at our new station back in the U.S., my husband left for his first day of work and I got out the phone book, made a same-day appointment with an admissions officer at a local business college, and 100% Southern girl me bravely drove in snow for the first time to get enrolled in a school, determined to never again be financially dependent on and at the mercy of a military man as I had been overseas. We took a home in town, twenty miles from the base – I wanted nothing to do with their financially free but spiritually smothering military housing. I began to create a life for myself totally separate from my husband’s very military world. As my husband rose in rank to become chief of his shop, he was expected to play host for his table at social events. It was generally expected that his wife would play hostess, but I refused, limiting myself to their Christmas parties (and even then only some years), biting my tongue hard most of the time and then getting the hell out of there as early as I could possibly make a polite exit.

That military spouse experience, the outrageous misogyny I encountered, informed my feminism. I have said ever since England that while my mother raised me to be a liberal feminist, it took four years at a military base overseas to make me a radical feminist. Over the years, I tried – hard – to teach my daughter how to examine the world through a feminist lens, although little if any of that seems to have stuck with her. She absolutely shocks me now – me, with a Bachelor’s in social justice issues along with a Women’s Studies concentration, me, who did my senior thesis on “Masculinity and Militarism: Two Mutually Reinforcing Myths” and found it necessary to write twenty pages over the thirty page minimum requirement – by saying things like, “I couldn’t care less about that. I don’t even like women. Women are all just bitches,” the language of those unknowingly oppressed by the patriarchy coming right from my own daughter’s mouth, her words darts headed straight for my heart. After the Civil War, when Sojourner Truth was being publicly congratulated for having helped a number of those in bondage escape to freedom, she said, “But I could have rescued so many more, if only I could have convinced them that they were slaves.” It appears that, for all of my background in feminism, both formal and informal, I have failed to convince and rescue even so much as my very own daughter. And now, she is joining the most patriarchal, woman-hating institution there is. Sexual harassment and rape are widespread in the military as has been reported by journalists and even investigated by some female members of Congress in recent years. A female soldier in Iraq is statistically many, many times more likely to be assaulted by a male member of the American military than she is to be harmed in any sort of battle – for female G.I.s, the enemy comes from within. Perversely, the woman who reports sexual harassment or rape up the chain of command is the one who will see her military career put on ice, not her abuser. That is exactly how it was when I was in England nearly thirty years ago and it still hasn’t changed. My daughter is, mother love aside here, a truly beautiful young woman. I greatly fear for her safety in the military. I know too many stories of gang-rapes in the barracks from the two and a half decades in which I was connected to the military, know from a dear friend whose husband worked in the command post how hard command worked to ensure that those stories never went public.

Just as my experience as a military spouse informed my feminism, so too did it inform my peace activism. Having arrived back in the U.S. on the eve of the first Gulf War, I had come to join the ranks of peace protesters like those I had first glimpsed from the other side of the fence at Greenham Common in England. Just as I tried to introduce my daughter to feminism, I made a point of always including her in my peace activism, took her to my many peace marches. Once, when she was about eight and we were given blank signs to decorate before a rally against the second Iraq war, she wrote on her sign in her childlike printing “KIDS IN IRAQ JUST WANT TO PLAY” and adults read it and just began to weep. I took her with me to Camp Casey, where we joined heartbroken gold-star mother Cindy Sheehan in camping out under the hot Texas sun just outside the vacationing George Bush’s ranch to demand an end to the killing. Together, we marched every year, rain or shine, cold or colder, in the parade to honor Dr. King’s birthday – Dr. King, who called on us to be foot soldiers for peace, very much what I hoped my daughter would become. She went with me to hold up signs at busy intersections on election day, to knock on doors for political campaigns. She was raised in Unitarian Universalist Sunday school, where for us spiritually diverse U.U.s, the first uniting principle of our religion is “1. We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.” And now, she is joining an institution whose very foundational premise is that it is acceptable to take human life as a means to a political end. Even though she will have a supporting role in the military, she nonetheless will be facilitating war. Her legacy will be one of war and death rather than of peace and life. She is becoming a cog in the greatest, most efficient killing machine humanity has ever known, will become like her father and her grandfather and her great-grandfathers before her a mere pawn in the endless chess games of sick war-making politicians.

And me, well, my heart is pretty much breaking. When I was scrimping and struggling to put her through that wonderful private school, I was open to her doing anything that pleased her, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. But this, this is absolutely the last thing I ever wanted for her, the one and only thing I knew I absolutely did not want her to do.

Nature versus nurture? Well, I no longer have even a guess because the values I worked so very hard to instill in my child do not seem to have stuck at all.


A postscript – While I was proofreading this, it suddenly occurred to me what my mother would say. My mother would quote from memory what Kahlil Gibran says in “The Prophet” about children. I had forgotten about that. So I guess the idea then is that “my” daughter , once my tiny bean, my secret pocketful of sunshine, has never really been mine to influence at all, belongs instead, as Gibran says, to the world of tomorrow.

On Children
Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.

3 replies »

  1. This is a remarkable essay, in more ways than I think I have yet understood. I obviously have no useful advice, but I do know that the things we’re taught growing up stick with us, even if we actively try and exile them from our lives. It would be a miracle if her military experience didn’t bring her into contact with the things you describe, and perhaps there is every reason to hope that those experiences will cause her to reflect on what she has, to this point, rejected.

    Hopefully the dark side of that culture won’t victimize her, and when all is said and done it may turn out that the next few years were necessary to galvanize her as truly her mother’s daughter.

  2. Dear Sam,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtfulness and kindness. I must admit that I have been hurting so much about her joining the military at all that I have failed to think any further ahead, as you have done in your comment. It is possible that military misogyny may yet bring her to a sense of solidarity with her sisters and lead to a feminist awakening, just as it radicalized my own existing liberal feminism so long ago. It is possible that exposure to a culture of constant preparations for war may yet lead her to begin considering larger questions of war and peace, death and life, just as it did for me – who is “the enemy” and why and who said so, what kinds of overwhelming force are we using, what about the civilians in our path and so on and so on. I can definitely find some comfort in those lines of thought, so thank you once again from my heart to yours.

    Also, thank you to the Scrogue who went in and fixed the damn formatting errors. This is the third piece I have had up at S & R and with each one, the same formatting error has happened – every time I had used italics in my original, the S & R page has stripped away the italics and instead run the word I tried to italicize in with the word before it with no space! It has not been sloppy proofreading on my part, I promise, for before I publish any of my writing, it has been proofread some ten to twenty times. I have had over 2000 viewers to my piece on the U.U. church being invaded by protestors and, perfectionist that I am, I am mostly just embarrassed by the formatting errors I see in the piece. Damn. I guess I will just have to give on up using italics in any possible future pieces.