O’Gaea, Ashleen. Family Wicca: Practical paganism for parents and children. Revised and expanded edition. New Page Books, 2006. Paperback, 255 pages.
It’s not often I can start a book review with these words: I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all Wiccans. Young or old, single, handfasted, poly, raising kids or not, this book is worth a read for O’Gaea’s levelheaded, open-hearted way of sharing her years of experience as a Wiccan, partner, and parent. This is not a Wicca 101, it’s not a book of shadows, and it’s not a family self-help guide. It has elements of all of those approaches, but O’Gaea has integrated all of it into a unique blend that feels like sitting down with an experienced, friendly High Priestess over a cup of chamomile tea when you’re frazzled by family.
I don’t mean to be too effusive, but it’s not often that a book lives up to what it says it does. I think this book works in part because O’Gaea has set herself a reasonable goal: she gives guidelines and approaches for Wiccan parents to use in approaching family life as Wiccans, backed up by her own experience, without pretending to have solved the mysteries of the universe or even of why cats continue to curl their eyebrows by getting too close to candles. Throughout, she talks openly about her family’s experiences, but she doesn’t hold them up as a normative ideal. In sharing the way she worked through the issues she faced, she gives the reader an approach rather than a finished solution, and she consistently goes back to the larger lessons, which saves the book from being just a family memoir masquerading as advice.
O’Gaea’s definition of family is “A family is any group of people who know each other well and love each other anyway!” (20) With a practical streak a mile wide, she starts with the nuances of everyday life. To me, it’s a relief to see “Between the Sabbats” as the second chapter title, not an afterthought. After tackling the basics, she does include chapters on celebrating esbats and Sabbats as a family and how to approach rites of passage – including her own “Queening” as an adult rite of passage celebrated with suitable hilarity! She wraps up with a chapter entitled “Living Mythically,” in which she captures more of the essence of living as a Wiccan – adult or child – than many authors trying to write the next blockbuster book of shadows do.
One of the parts that I recommend for adults as well as children is her sophisticated approach to “the big questions” – why am I alive, what am I supposed to do, and why do bad things happen? (127ff) A lot of Wiccans who came to the Craft as adults may not have thought deeply about how Wiccan answers to those questions are significantly different from the answers (or lack thereof) that they grew up with. Sometimes, part of growing up is learning not to ask those questions anymore, especially when we’re dissatisfied with the ways the “patriarchal monotheistic system” (as she calls it, “the other PMS”) handles or ignores them. (206) Wicca lets us reframe those questions, and sometimes we need to go back to asking them in a childlike way in order to do that. She also uses the metaphor of left and right brain to express the ways that she reconciles her logical, practical understanding of the world with the approach of living mythically, where one strives to give thanks for the cycle of life reflected in food, even when that food ends up spilled by an unhappy toddler. (204 – the toddler bit is mine)
In addition, her understanding of magic is particularly sophisticated, as reflected in the following advice:
“Formal Witchcraft – full Circles, Traditional forms, precise liturgies – raises power through adults’ minds. Children who are not yet familiar with or “fluent in” the cultural sources of Craft rituals don’t draw the same strength from them. But magic has been in the world longer than even the customs our rites draw upon, and children can bring their energies to magical work even if they don’t work like adults.” (99)
She encourages handling magic as a natural part of life, with analogies to children’s play to help them understand what we’re doing, even as they keep a firm grip on the difference between the mystical and the practical. Adults often talk about recapturing the unconstrained attitude of play and joy that children bring to the world; O’Gaea’s advice would help parents raise children who never lose that. (117ff) I particularly enjoyed her ritual for how to have a tantrum – and get over it! – including the acknowledgment that adults sometimes need this too. (74)
In this revised edition, she includes a detailed discussion of adoption from a Wiccan point of view, including ways to honor it, to grieve and to rage about what’s lost, and to give thanks for what is found and created. She also responds to reader critiques by specifically discussing the issue of teaching children how to handle possibly inappropriate actions or even abuse from adults. I understand why O’Gaea might have thought the first time around that the issue of abuse was obvious, and didn’t need a particularly Wiccan approach, but it deserves mention. A religion that venerates nature and the body, and honors its pleasures, also includes respect for the boundaries and choices of others, making the idea of abusing children particularly repulsive. But family life isn’t all the easy parts, and O’Gaea acknowledges that.
Even if you’re absolutely sure you’ll never raise kids, you still have to live with what Starhawk calls Younger Self, and this book lives up to its subtitle of “practical paganism” in ways that might help you cope with yourself better, young and old alike.