Intergenerational Inspiration Q&A with Deborah Burns, Founder of Skirting the Rules®
Skipped generations of 40 years or more are what we traditionally mean by “intergenerational” but there can also be power and inspiration in a “multigenerational” relationship. Deborah Burns is the former media world chief innovation officer, who recently authored her memoir entitled, Saturday’s Child, about growing up with her unconventional mother. In this interview, she shares who and how people from other generations influenced her life.
1. Intergenerational relationships traditionally focus on people who are “skipped,” non-adjacent generations like grandparents and grandchildren. Have you had someone in your life from a different generation who greatly inspired you?
Like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, I had fairy godmothers. Two of them, actually, both in-residence and on-call twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week. They were my aunts — my father’s older spinster sisters — who lived with my parents and only child me. They were the polar opposites of my larger-than-life, glamorous mother, and their ways balanced hers. I loved them with my whole heart and they loved me fully in return, which helped to ease the ever-present longing I had for my elusive mother.
2. What is something you enjoyed doing with them and what did you learn?
The two women divided up the responsibilities of the household and my care — Aunt Lena did the food shopping and cooking and from her I learned Italian culture and cuisine. Aunt Lilly was responsible for all school and homework oversight, as well as any cultural aspects, from operatic arias playing on a background radio to carving bars of soap like Renaissance sculptors. I saw my mother mostly on Saturdays and although she remained my greatest influence, it was my aunts’ oversight that kept me content throughout each day.
3. How has this relationship continued to impact you? Is there something you do or a motto you follow in your personal or professional life that came from that intergenerational connection?
I grew to be a magazine media world executive with a husband, three children, a house in the suburbs, and a dog. I realized later on that to pull it all off, I had become all of the three different women who raised me. A blending of influences without question. Someone who could suit up glamorously and operate with a bit of confident bravado yet could come home and sink into cuddles and cooking and crafting. The multigenerational relationships of my childhood taught me to appreciate differences, to look for the best in everyone and every situation, and to turn what could be viewed as a disadvantage into an advantage.
4. Is there someone in your life now from a younger generation in which you have a special reverse-mentoring relationship? What type of experiences do you share together?
I have two sons and a daughter, and now that she is an adult with an independent life of her own, my Millennial daughter has become my litmus test for almost everything. Incredibly clever and astute, she always awakens me to new things. She transformed my life by planning a trip to London for the two of us a few years ago, and it was there — as I stared at portraits of unconventional women from the eighteenth century — that inspiration struck. I suddenly knew that I had to write about the women, as well as all I had discovered about my mother and myself. It all led to the memoir, Saturday’s Child, and to a new life for me as an author. All because of her.
5. How do you encourage intergenerational relationships in your family, business or community?
Throughout my career, I have always been a mentor to the younger generation, and a sounding board for people in my own generation and the one above me. I’ve always possessed a deep sense of people and situations — that has served me, and them, well. And my aunts come back into play with this answer as well. Thanks to them, family and warm gatherings with great food have remained important to me, and I love mixing it up with relatives on Sundays so the generations stay connected.
6. Is there a book, movie or piece of art that has reminded you about the importance and power of intergenerational relationships?
My newly released memoir, Saturday’s Child started as a love letter to my mother, but soon after I began writing, I realized it was actually about me. As I unraveled the myth of my goddess mother, by the end I recognized that the message of the book was really for my daughter’s generation. In order for Millennials to reach their potential as they grapple with new realities in this disrupted, accelerated world, all the myths between the generations must come undone. This notion has given birth to workshops between Boomer mothers and their Millennial daughters so they can have freeing conversations as they redefine expectations and what success looks like today.
7. How can our readers learn more?
Deborah — thank you so much for taking the time to share about the amazing women in your life — from the different generations! Aunts can play such an important role in the lives of nieces. It’s nice to recognize them and their impact. I look forward to reading Saturday’s Child!