I was recently reading a book where the author talked about the concept of children picking their parents. She spoke as though these yet to be born little souls are out there in the universe, looking down at the parents that are pregnant out there, and making a decision as to who they will pop out of. The idea was that these babies were picking the parents they needed, not necessarily wanted, because they needed to learn certain lessons in their lives.
This concept has been niggling at the back of my mind. First, because I’m about to have my second child, so I wonder what lessons my kids are meant to learn from me, but second because if I’m meant to have the specific parents that I have, then I wondered what lessons I needed, or still need, to learn.
Let me preface this for those readers and listeners who have contentious relationships with their parents – in no way am I suggesting that if you’re estranged from a parent, or if you have a toxic relationship with one or both that you alter that. What I’m suggesting is that you use this as a little exercise to understand yourself better through them. And, if that still feels like it could be a traumatic experience, don’t stress, tune in next week. I’m not here to make anyone’s lives harder than they already are!
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Now, when I look at my particular parents, so much has changed about our respective relationships in the last three years since they separated. My brother and I would often say that only after the separation were we really seeing our true parents. Looking back, I’m not sure that’s fair, but we definitely have seen a different and more vulnerable side to each parent. What the separation did is that it drastically altered the dynamic of the relationships. Where once the parent-child dynamic was firmly in place, it shifted to adult-adult or adult-advisor or adult-caretaker or adult-shoulder to cry on. It was strange, and at times I desperately just wanted to be the child and put my fingers in my ears and say “la la la I can’t hear this.”
Anyways, all that to say, I’ve learned a lot about each of my parents in the past few years, some good, some bad, and I truly believe the separation in and of itself has shaped the lessons that I was meant to learn.
Let’s start with my Mom. I always felt that I had a strong relationship with my Mom growing up. I knew that I could tell her anything, that even if she didn’t like some of my actions I could still tell her, and that she was my get out of jail phone call. I mean this not just from my own perspective, but my Mom is one of the best friends a person can have. I look at how she shows up for her friends: she’s there for them emotionally, physically and she’ll show up for whatever you need. She’s a true friend in the days where “Facebook friend” means very little. My Mom makes time for people and really cares about how to support them in their dreams and daily lives.
When the divorce happened, that investment that she’d made into her friendships over the years paid itself back in spades. It’s not like she spent that time with her friends thinking “one day I’ll need this in return”, but in return it was repaid.
One of my key learnings from my mother has been the importance of time with friends. That might sound incredibly obvious, but whether due to my struggles with depression, my introverted nature, or the epic life change of having a child, my friendships have in many ways taken a back seat. Depression led me to cancel on friends again and again because the idea of going out of the house was too much of a barrier. Being an introvert, I prefer one on one outings, whereas many of my friends suggest group gatherings that give me a bit of social anxiety. Having a child, well let’s be honest that came with a shit-ton of sleep deprivation or comparison guilt when it came to how other moms were parenting.
I see now the importance of prioritizing time with friends. It’s not that I haven’t been there for friends – I have. Need me in a pinch? I’m there for emergencies, cooked meals, babysitting, you name it. It’s the smaller things that I’ve struggled to show up for as much, and yet they are just as important. And so, I’ve learned from my mother the importance of showing up for all facets of my friends lives, even if I’m in a tough place myself.
Another key learning from my mom is that you’re stronger than you know. Post-divorce, I really wasn’t sure what the future was going to hold for my mom. We’re now three years on, and yes she has hard days, but in my mind she’s a rock star. She’s travelling the world, going on adventures that my Dad never could, or never did prioritize. She’s getting her life back, the life she put on hold to take care of my father. So, while you may get to your lowest point, that just means that you have a lot further to climb up that mountain, but you have to put one foot in front of the other.
It has also taught me, and I think my mom would agree with this, the importance of not putting your life on hold for someone else entirely. There needs to be balance. It’s not that you don’t support your loved ones with their health battles or their careers or their dreams, but you have to remember to prioritize yourself as well. Nobody else is going to put you first, so you have to do that for yourself.
And then there is my dad. Initially, given the contentious relationship that we’ve had over the past few years, my reaction was that everything that I’d learned was what not to do. And to a degree, that’s true. So we’ll start there.
It is fair to say that my father lived a life completely out of balance. He poured his heart and soul into his job, his professional success and the accolades that came with it. It’s due to that commitment that we lived in nice homes and had a comfortable life (bar his foray into entrepreneurship which did not go so well). He was a great provider.
But if you look at the Wheel of Life, which is an exercise that we do in coaching, there are so many other spokes to a balanced life. Agree with them or not, relevant to your life or not, they include:
- Social Life
- Home Environment
- Physical Activity
- Home Cooking
I’d say that my father did well, for the most part, in career, finances and education. But his single-minded focus on his career and the money that came with it led to him pressing the easy button in other areas of his life, or ignoring them altogether.
There is something to be said for the importance of balance, and I think that’s the lesson that I was meant to learn. I remember when I worked at the same company as my father and I worked my behind off. I worked 60 hour weeks to ensure that when the end of year appraisals came, I was ranked the highest you could be ranked. Heck, I got onto the “High Potential” list. It was recognition of all my hard work.
But… my health suffered. I had no energy to prioritize healthy eating, mental health, physical activity, time with friends, creative endeavours, or most of the aspects on the wheel of life.
It led to me getting shingles – twice.
And so, when my husband finally moved to Canada, I think I finally was able to begin recalibrating my balance. We took three months off to travel. Everyone said it was the kiss of death to my job to take that kind of time off. I look back at it now and I wouldn’t change a second of that investment into my relationship, the adventure and the experiences we shared. In fact, thanks to the economic downturn, everyone that is still working where I worked is pretty miserable. I can only imagine how I’d feel to have turned down the opportunity to travel and be rewarded with a job that didn’t fill me up. Part of this came down to luck – I grant you – but part of it came down to my commitment to rebalancing my life and my priorities, a lesson that I’m not sure that I’d have learned without seeing the example of what happens without balance.
There are things that I can flat out say my dad taught me that were good, also. The majority of them centre around work. I know how to engage with people, how to present so that people listen, and I’ve seen great examples of his public speaking. I’ve seen his generosity when it comes to charitable giving and to recognizing those in need as people as well. I will never forget the particular homeless man that my father befriended, spoke to with real humanity, and never questioned supporting him each time they interacted. It is something that I can still struggle with, but it was a positive lesson.
So, all in all, there are some key lessons that I have needed to learn from my parents that are shaping me into the person that I am and who I’m working towards becoming.
I’m working towards a balanced life (a constant recalibration depending on my life circumstances). I’m trying to prioritize more time with friends and being there for the moments big and small. I’m focused on everyday moments of courage, and to not forget to prioritize my own needs. And I’ll continue to strive to be a professional in the work place.
We can’t learn everything from our parents – that’s what the wider world is for. But there are certain lessons that perhaps we are meant to learn from them.
I encourage you to dig into what lessons you were meant to learn from your family of origin. You might just be surprised.