This week I passed a coffee shop table where a friend sat with a pretty red-haired woman. Being introduced for the first time, I blurted out how beautiful she looked in an emerald green sweater set. I think I caught my new acquaintance a bit off guard and upon heading out again I thought, “There I go again…”
My husband shook his head a few months ago as we boarded a plane and I shared with the young, handsome airline staffer that he had great eyes. My daughter cringes when I can’t help myself and tell her friends how I love their outfits. I try to temper this behavior — the poor airline employee blushed apple red just to remind me that this is not common practice — but I still hold a deep belief in acknowledgement.
I believe in acknowledgement and its sister action of encouragement because 1) It’s a conflict resolution skill of the first order and 2) It’s the reason that I have chosen to bravely embark on many favorite accomplishments.
When I am passionate about an issue like good education for all, there is nothing more delicious than another seeing my passion and affirming fully that he’s heard me. “You really care about this. It is what feeds your soul. Here’s what I understand you are saying…” Hearing any of those are balm to the soul. If others are enthusiastically making a point, just let them know that you have heard the content, emotion and impact of their words; this works wonders in conflict. You don’t need to agree; just be clear that you have truly heard them.
Before I left on an year long exchange to Mexico after high school, I was required to go to a Rotary training session over a weekend at a camp outside of Minneapolis. One of the session leaders suddenly required us to give an impromptu speech to about 10 gathered students and adults crowded in a small cabin. 30 years later (can it be that long?) I still remember one of the Rotarians coming up to me and out of the blue saying, “You are really good at public speaking, do you know that?” I didn’t.
Now, whenever I get up in front of hundreds, or embarrass young airline employees that kind soul is more than partially to blame. His words encouraged me. They mattered, whether were true or just one man’s opinion.
Check out this fun piece on artist Joshua Allen Harris, who after a bit of encouragement, has taken to creating fantastic pieces using garbage bags and subway exhaust.
Where has encouragement empowered you? How might you acknowledge another’s contributions this week?
I remember twenty years ago when our son Cameron was a newborn and my husband and I ventured bravely from the suburbs to downtown Washington, DC on the Metro. He must have been three weeks old or so, as Cameron lay on my shoulder sleeping. A man across the aisle looked at the sleeping baby, I’m sure out of natural curiosity or happy memory, and I doubt I’ll ever forget my reaction. Holding tighter to our baby, I worried fiercely he wanted to take Cameron from me. I probably shot him a look that would kill as I envisioned all the ways I would protect my child.
Childbirth had its way with me chemically. Bruce said about a week into motherhood that I acted like I had been hit by a truck OK, not a good metaphor to use with a woman recently recovering from childbirth, but I had to agree with him. The woman I was before the birth had replaced Stepford Wife style while I slept postpartum in the hospital. No, I didn’t become a more diligent cook or housecleaner (no such luck there), but I had become a person who now suddenly would be willing to rip the eyes of out a fellow Metro traveler.
The “mother bear” instinct that took me over was often frightening. I must be honest, Before Cameron (BC), the thought never entered my mind how I might “take out” someone who would threaten one of my loved ones. After Cameron, I began to run scenarios on how I would jump in the tiger area at the National Zoo to rescue my children. How they would have gotten in the pen, I have no idea. Yet as I visualized attacking one claw equipped animal after another, I realized the footloose and worry free BC Deidre was gone.
Around our house in Montana, every couple of years a yearling bear cub appears trying to forage for food. Bird feeders and garbage cans are our usual casualties, but I used to wonder why the mother bears would send off their babies so young. Watching how my mother bear instinct rages within me even though we have grown and almost grown children, I wonder if this early send off is nature’s way of keeping both mother and teenaged bear sane!
With a twenty year old and two teenagers in our family, I am struck by how I still desperately want to keep them safe. I guess I always thought the “BC Deidre” might return when the kids reached a certain age. No luck there. Much to my children’s dismay, the mother bear instinct still remains.
When our children play upon cultural edges, be it teenaged antics or a racy outfit, I notice that I don’t act my best. I want to throw a baby blanket over their heads and take them home, even if they are home! “Guess what, teenagers and twenty year olds need some self-determination and independence,” says my rational brain.Meanwhile, Mother Bear tries to take over, even if her logic on safety is completely out of whack.
Sports are a funny aberration of mother bear gone awry. Go watch the antics of soccer moms. Why might you ask are these women ready to eat the referee alive, find themselves screaming at coach or opposing team parents, or pushing their children to run harder and play tougher? My theory is all the mother bears on the sidelines are internally chanting, “Winners are safer,” and “Great athletes have more opportunities and are thus safer.” Oh yes, and there is the constant message they could repeat that “Athletic kids are healthier (safer), get better grades (safer) and are less likely to do drugs (that will protect them too.)” Our logical minds can find counter arguments to all these pronouncements, yet the mother bears seize the stage and run to sign up little ones for another summer camp.
So, in terms of this blog’s theme, how does a biologically programmed mother “play well”?
I have found three supporting tools:
Self awareness – that my hormonal mommy makeup wires me to “keep them safe at all costs,” reminds me to pay attention if I’m going“bear.”
Check out the story – When I get a bit territorial, it helps to realize what statement I’m using. It usually that ends with, “…are safer.” It’s then good to remind myself that it’s not always true that kids who get straight A’s are safer for example. What’s the story I’m using? Is it appropriate? Is it fair to my children?
Be compassionate – I often dislike how wishing to create safety creates fear-based reactions. I want to support self-determination, creativity and independence in my children, so worry, inadvertent fussing or nagging rarely pleases me. But, I’m still a mother. Get between a grizzly and her cub and you’ll be in trouble. That my claws come out from time to time is only natural. Being kind to myself is better for all involved.
Once out of my childhood house, but “Before Cameron,” I was always confused by my mother’s reactions when I’d periodically visit. Going out with friends, she would be worried if I returned late or struggled over choosing a new job direction. I would remark how silly it was how I could travel all over the country and live thousands of miles away and it didn’t bother her at all, but at home I needed a curfew. Now twenty years AC, I understand entirely. Mother bears become just that when their cubs drop by, whatever their age!
Serve your wife, children, father, and mother, and treat them as if they are very dear to you, but know in your heart that they do not belong to you. – Ramakrishna
When my son and I addressed his high school graduation announcements this week and started to receive others, I found myself ruminating more about celebrations, rites of passage and community. As I wrote earlier, cross culturally, ceremony is used to facilitate moving us from one phase of life to another. Our community helps by showing up at the celebration to witness our change. Also, even though an event might focus on one family member, it also can support transition for others. For example, puberty, graduation and marriage rituals signal shifts for both the child and the parents while funerals publicly mark changes within not only a family, but also within a community.
So, I’m feeling pretty comfortable that closing celebrations are important for both celebrant and their family. But, I’m noticing they also cause some stress. First, we have to face an ending and a new beginning, which elicits fear of the unknown. The ground shakes a bit underneath all our feet as we recognize that we haven’t yet practiced this next phase. We’ll figure it out, but it requires figuring! After years of teaching and conflict resolution, I try to take special care around endings. Be it the end of a workshop, a business or a phase of life, a structure that has given us comfort is being taken away and that causes disequilibrium. Being gentle with oneself and those around seems in order.
Celebrations can not only throw us off by making us face by an ending, but it can also be stressful figuring out just who to invite! Not only do I get to confront where I now stand, but also who actually should stand with me.I’ve come to think of my community as organized in concentric circles with me at the center. At a macro level, I’ve got an inner circle of family and friends that surround, then a mid circle of acquaintances and an outer circle that is comprised of other’s in my “tribe” be it of a town, country and then the greater human race (or all living things depending on one’s viewpoint).
Now, within each of those circles, there are further gradations. Like within the inner realm, there are the friends you would call without hesitation at 3 am versus the buddies you would ring up happily up til 9 pm. Among your family, there is the sibling with whom you shared a room and the distant cousin you met once. Thus, the former of each example probably would be placed in a closer circle than the latter.
In our culture, we usually invite portions of our inner circle to coming-of-age ceremonies. However, since we don’t clearly know within which sub-circle everyone belongs, this can create messiness. Invite too many and appear to be trolling for dollars (or maybe it always looks like that with graduations!), or don’t send enough and offend a family member. Also, although I believe ceremonies are important, I would be hard pressed to appear at every event to which we have been invited, or to send a gift for that matter. So, choosing who to invite and how to respond also creates disequilibrium.
As one friend commented when we spoke about attending celebrations, “There were two events about which I still question if I should have attended. The first was a gathering of friends around a woman who had suddenly lost her husband. We had recently become friends and I wasn’t sure she would have wanted me there to comfort her. The second was a funeral of the mother of my daughter’s friend, should have I gone? It’s not always clear.”
So, with 18 school days left, the cap and gown have been tested in the kitchen and the announcements were sent. For the lack of a better guide, we followed the Golden Rule and mailed to those from whom I would expect a similar notification. I’m thinking I will use the same when deciding how I should respond when invitations appear. Meanwhile, I find myself full of mixed feelings; including great joy for the future that lays ahead for my son and some anticipatory sadness for his absence at home next fall. Endings are indeed important and sometimes tricky business.
Graduation and wedding season will soon be upon us. Time to dust off the wingtips and maybe cough up some dough for an appropriate gift. A sometimes uncomfortable (could just be the shoes) experience, I know that many in my world wonder why we should partake in these events. Yet, looking at these and other “closing rituals,” my advice would be to tie that double Windsor and show up if it makes sense.
Humans struggle with comprehending that an experience or a relationship is over. Our propensity to create stories and habits seem to play into this difficulty. For example, if I ask you about your family or your work, you are going to tell me a story. I might tell you that I am a mother of three, married for twenty-four years to an attorney and live in Bozeman. It may be true, but it is still an interpretation of my reality. All the “facts” I provide color how I thus perceive myself. Tell the story enough and it becomes a habit even though some of its details may have changed.
When I am coaching with parents, I notice that sometimes the stories about our children reflect a long-passed reality. For example, we may be treating our offspring as though they were young when they needed our minute-by-minute concern. However, if they are now adults, they would best handle their personal affairs.
But, who wants to let go of good thing? Our brains sure don’t! That I am “a young mother just starting out” is usually preferred to “I’m a middle-aged woman alone.” I want to hold on to the good stories as long as I can. Yet, ask adults whose parents refuse to let go and treat them like ten year olds. When it’s time, it’s absolutely time. There are times when we need to consciously shift to a updated description of where we stand and thus to a revised way of conducting ourselves. In letting go, we open ourselves to new and maybe even better possibilities.
Celebrations like graduations and weddings push us to move on. When we overtly acknowledge an ending, we are more apt to face facts and adapt. I believe this is a leading reason why funerals and mourning rituals are the most highly celebrated of all rites of passage around the globe. Even if we admit ourloved one has died, the publicly act of celebrating this ending with our community makes it harder to act otherwise.
If your child is not the one graduating or getting married, showing up is still valuable. Rituals “stick” when they are witnessed by others. When I’m waffling on going to a celebration, I remember a favorite essay from the National Public Radio program “This I Believe” by Deirdre Sullivan entitled, “Always go to the Funeral” (click here to read or listen to this piece.) Ms. Sullivan explains, “I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that. The first time he said it directly to me, I was 16 and trying to get out of going to calling hours for Miss Emerson, my old fifth grade math teacher. I did not want to go. My father was unequivocal. ‘Dee,’ he said, ‘you’re going. Always go to the funeral. Do it for the family.'”
And so, this summer I too will pull the dress from the dry cleaner’s bag, slip into the pumps and know that whether I am the parent or just the friend my appearance at each event is worth any discomfort.
Six months ago turbulent financial markets gained national attention. From a journal entry I wrote last September…
“Every friend I have seen in town over the past days brings up the falling Dow and failing banks as a conversation topic. This was not supposed to happen. They are struck by how very smart Harvard MBAs constructed this mess and the government let it all occur. What can they trust? As I type, I wonder what the effects of this mass loss of faith in our government and the financial system will yield in the days and weeks ahead. What would this paragraph say six months from now?
Carrie explains, ‘I lived outside of San Francisco during the large earthquake of 1994. I remember friends struggling for months afterward since the ground had moved underneath their feet. Somehow it didn’t bother me since I believed it could and had prepared for an earthquake such as the one we experienced. But, now with the economy falling apart around us, I feel like the ground is unstable and I understand for the first time their panic.’
Fantasies of hording money between the mattresses filtered in as I drifted off to sleep last night. Before bed after the Dow lost nearly 1,000 points over two days, my husband Bruce sat on the couch, face lit by his black Mac Book and scanned online newspapers. He read off to me the Wall Street Journal headline ‘Worst Crisis Since ’30s, With No End Yet in Sight.’ A CPA and tax lawyer, his radar is tuned to the financial markets, and I rely on the blips and beeps that appear on his screen to send off my own alarms. Although a man of understatement most of the time, I could tell even he was concerned. While visualizing hording soup in my basement, I can hear my alarm system is screaming, ‘warning, warning…’”
Six months later, I still have periodic soup stocking fantasies depending on the week…and WSJ headlines. I wish I did not.I’d rather consistently possess optimism and poise with a dash of clarity, but that seems beyond my reach.
Six months has a special connotation for me as a mother.I usually got disheartened about a ½ a year into each child’s arrival. After our first son,I remember thinking, “I should have lost all this baby fat by now,” “We should be settled into this new family configuration,” and “Why is this still so ridiculously hard?” Six months is a long time to endure chaos and confusion; by then I have used up most of my just-muscle-it-through reserves.
To survive, my logic became if our culture’s standard mourning, or better said, “adjustment” period historically was a year, then shouldn’t I give myself the same? We knocked off an old life when each new baby arrived. The metaphoric gravestones could have read:
Young Couple – RIP June 1989.
Family of Three –B: June 1989, D: March, 1991.
Moving from one-on-one play (two adults to two kids) to zone defense — June 1994 (I was raised in hockey country)
For my children – if any of you have read this far – what we got in exchange was worth more than any loss we experienced. There was never a need to wear black, although, I do like how I look in that color. Understand that by recognizing that we were in an adjustment period culturally prescribed as a year, I relaxed and let go the need to have it all together.As an older, wiser mother once told me, “You are not supposed to be graceful during this phase.”
Signs of six-month financial chaos exhaustion are appearing in my circles. It seems we are asking similar questions including, “Shouldn’t have this mess figured out by now?” and“Why is this still so ridiculously hard?” Yet, we could have a memorial service for a past leader in our community, Mr. Stable Banking Industry – From 1935 To 2008.As we adjust to our new family configuration without our dear “big brother,” I realize I need to allocate a full year. Someone wonderful may appear to fill our past protector’s position, but in the meantime, I’ve still got a six-month excuse to be less than graceful as we traverse this uncharted territory. Know that I accord you the same.