At Home for The Holidays? Here’s How to Survive Your Parents
A teacher of mine once said that the advice we give others is actually, often, the advice we most need ourselves.
This is always in the back of my mind when I share what I’ve learned or what I think with people who’ve asked for my advice. I try to think of it as though I am my own, amazing, free advisor, but that the sport of the day is to figure out which of my own issues the advice I’m giving at any given moment might apply to. And almost always, life presents me with a rich opportunity to apply it.
The other day, I was doing the four-hour drive to see my parents, in Bakersfield. My family celebrates Thanksgiving a week in advance of the actual holiday, so I get to miss traffic and a few other folks and their spouses always get to see both sides of their families.
While I was driving, a young relative of mine called, and we caught up while I was driving. She shared that she had a lot of anger with her parents for preparing her for a post-college world that no longer rewards education the way it once did, and for constantly pestering her about working several (great) part-job jobs, versus getting a “real” job and staying at it until pension-time, the way they did.
I shared with her from my experience as offspring that I think the issue is generational, and that it’s certainly not limited to her parents. My parents, too, worked the same jobs for 30 years, and have looked at my own career path with equal parts concern and awe. For their parents, success was just making ends meet. For her parents and mine, success was having a “good” job, ideally with a governmental entity or a large corporation, and staying at it long enough to get a pension. One of her parents and one of mine had actually made it to college, later in life, and managed to elevate beyond their own expectations, at their “good jobs”.
The incremental increase our parents hoped and worked to real-ize for us was that we would go to college and get great jobs, but ideally still with a government entity or big company, and ideally still with a pension. They simply could not have foreseen, I told her, the Great Recession and the devaluation of a basic college degree. They could not have foreseen that their daughters, she and I both, would go on to get master’s and doctorate level degrees, and then pursue something other than the traditional career path from those degrees. They could not have foreseen — and still don’t understand — the massive disruptions to what a “good job” is that have been driven by Silicon Valley, the Internet, the death of the pension and the gig economy.
She expressed frustration that her mother wouldn’t stop criticizing her path, even after she told her Mom in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t choose a career like her mother’s, even if she did have the choice. To that, I told her that she should feel free to express herself, but also should know that her mother is not in a position to share her mental frames for “good job”. I told her that trying to control others’ behavior or allowing it to dictate our own emotional states is a losing battle. And I shared with her that she has lots of choices for how to handle this that she might find much more emotionally satisfying, including expressing her POV, minus the anger and vitriol, without the expectation that her mother will change her behavior. And also including just no longer having that same tired old script of a conversation with her mother.
I told her the developmental stage of disindividuation is only successful when we see and feel those boundaries, the distinctness of what we want and are as separate from what are parents want and are. I told her from that perspective, the system has worked, in her case. And in mine.
In fairness to her Mom, I told her I know from experience as a parent just how hard it is to stop giving unsolicited life advice to your children based on your own mental frames. Even when your own thinking no longer applies to your kids or their peers. I told her parents do this because we are concerned for our kids, and want the best for them and, because the only ways we can see the situation from is through our own lenses, our own mental frames, for what is good and right.
Shortly after she and I hung up, I pulled into my mother’s driveway. “Ah, so,” I thought. “Here’s the part where I’m going to have a bunch of ‘rich opportunities’ to take the advice I gave Henrietta (names/changed/protect/innocent/etc).”
But you know, a funny thing happened. Maybe because I was thinking this advice was really well-timed for myself, or maybe because that conversation with Henrietta had put me into parental compassion mode, my parents didn’t get to me on this trip. There were tiny seeds that could have caused friction, but I dealt with them in a bold, decisive way. I dealt with them with clarity, honesty and no expectation in the moment, based on what seemed right.
My Dad said some things I disagreed with, and I told him so, but gently and without any expectation that he would change. I explained why I disagreed and shared my own experiences that were the basis for my disagreement. I added a little dose of humor, without self-deprecation, just to lighten the mood. He respected my opinion and even agreed with me.
My Mother refused to do some things I’d have liked her to. And I just let it go, instantly. Her “important” and mine don’t have to be the same. When someone asked me about it later, I’d actually forgotten the incident had even happened.
I had some conversations that should have been challenging with my Dad, but approached them thinking about the advice I gave Henrietta. I didn’t just hit him with my opinion. I shared my appreciation for his journey and his sacrifices, and shared with him my 10,000 foot view of the situation, offering him the clarity of an outsider’s perspective. I asked him to have a little more compassion and generosity with himself in a hard situation, and encouraged him to make some choices that don’t jive with his mental frames for “good” and won’t be popular but are the right thing to do. I told him I’d back him up. And he could hear me.
This time, it was real that the advice I’d given was the advice I needed. But there was something bigger than this principle at work here. Something in the energetics of having released the desire to change the situation, of having accepted and allowed my parents to be who they are and need to be, and of remembering how many times wise adult Tara has made great choices in terms of engaging in non-mission-critical battles with my parents actually shifted the whole atmosphere around these relationships. It defused it entirely. People behaved better, way better, that normal.
And that felt good. It actually felt great.
Call me woo-woo if you want to, but i other relatives were getting into some stressful, turbulent, conversational topics, cranking up one of those conversations that goes nowhere, gets gossipy and I dreaded, because it would either suck me in or put me in a position to have to figure out how to be the wise adult Tara in the conversation. But a funny thing happened. Just at that moment, my 4-year-old cousin Bella popped up. She basically flew at me with open arms, yelling “COUSIN TARA!!!!!!” She marveled at how my hair was braided like her hair, and how we were basically the same because she’s 4 and I’m 41. We took a selfie. She asked me (to my horror) if I had Snapchat. She grabbed my phone and started voice searching for songs to dance to on YouTube. She insisted that we dance. She said “Let’s dance!” and I looked over at the crazy conversation people, looked back at her, and said “Ok! Let’s dance!” And so we danced.
By the time she was done, and released me from my service (!), the crazy conversation I’d dreaded dealing with was naturally breaking up. It was over, and I didn’t have to engage or break it up. It was as though the decision to accept, allow and change my own behavior vs. trying to manage anyone else’s had gone ahead of me and paved the path for that trip with ease and calm, at least in my experience of the trip.
I share this in hopes that it reaches you before your own Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s or other holiday family gathering that might normally make you crazy. I dare you to try on this new possibility, the possibility of extending compassion and acceptance to the hard nuts to crack, in advance, and the possibility that doing so might shift the entire atmosphere from fraught to freedom.
P.S.: I issued a 30 Day Writing Challenge for Conscious Leaders a few weeks back, and over 150 brilliant souls signed up! I decided to take the Challenge right along with them, and it’s been a profound journey for many of us. Most people are journaling or free-writing every day, privately. I wrote this post on Day 21 of the Challenge. I’ll be doing another writing Challenge in January; click here to get on the list for the January Challenge.