First, relinquish your role as Manager of the Universe
David called to say he and his wife were back from visiting our daughter and her family over the MLK weekend. Technically, David is my ex-husband; more accurately, he is my friend.
There was once a time when our true friendship, post divorce, didn’t exist. No animosity, just what I’d call our readjustment years. Getting past our past roles and creating new ones that worked better for us, for our daughters and our spouses.
Before the call ended, I asked how our 17-year-old granddaughter was doing. I knew she’d been accepted to two universities and was waiting to hear about Chapel Hill. “I think she’s signed an apartment lease close to a technical college and plans to go there for a year.”
My heart sunk a little.
The danger of beliefs, based on feelings
Later that night, I investigated my little heart sink. Why did my body respond with disappointment and a little sadness? Hadn’t I been down this road, learned some relevant lesson before?
Our first-born (same granddaughter’s mother) had taken a different path at 17. She’d given birth to our granddaughter and soon began to work, delaying college despite a virtually perfect SAT score.
Although our daughter’s life has not been one I envisioned, the one I felt (thus, knew) was best for her, she is living proof that there are myriad ways to accomplish anything. That a diploma at 22 years old, a wedding at 28, two planned offspring and a VP of something at 35 is not the only path forward. Certainly not the sole route to meaning or happiness. Or success… whatever that might mean to each of us.
I did some mom things pretty well, but what I most regret is giving my daughter streams of unsolicited, narrow-minded (and fearful) advice about how she should live her life. Not only when our granddaughter was born, but for another 11 years. My pontificating did not stop all at once. It still finds its way out of my mouth from time to time.
But this regret has a silver lining. I’ve learned that some lessons are transferable: Regardless of my role doing anything, it’s not my job to be the expert, to direct as my default, or to save anyone.
Feel those feelings, then consider all your roles
We all assume various roles. Each role comes with particular lenses we look through based on societal expectations and norms. As a mom, I’m supposed to be x, but at work, I’m y.
In fact, the industrial model from which most work and education systems derive is based on the mandate that we learn and perform specialized roles. This goes for our notions of what constitutes family and community roles — a good parent, a dutiful citizen.
At the same time, all roles change based on societal changes.
If we don’t pay attention or if we cling stubbornly to comfortable roles that beg for change, we lose the ability to adapt and to relate to others. This inability hinders our relationships.
If we want meaning and closeness with others, if we want to be active and useful for as long as possible, looking at the health of our relationships via our roles is a good place to start.
All your roles relate because they belong to your mindset
I was taught to keep personal and work identities separate. As a young professional in 1986, I was written up for being three minutes late to work because my daughter’s daycare was running late, for instance. (My title was director… I hired people.)
And despite my visceral aversion to “Leave your brains here,” posted over factory punch clocks or “Limit calls to 3 minutes on approved breaks only,” in dingy vending rooms, I recognize now that I, too, was part of that system.
The industrial mindset spilled over into what I believed was a good mother’s job: to help my child succeed within educational and employment systems designed to fit within the uniform, lockstep, specialization model.
The same mindset helped to create similar problems, especially early on, in my social justice work. Although I was lucky to have parents who taught me the importance of humility and modesty, I over-estimated the ability of book smarts, degrees, and research to influence change.
The most valuable knowledge I’m still learning and re-learning hasn’t come from the three ivory towers of my formal education. It’s come from people in my community who have helped me take a harder look at my own role expectations. To acknowledge that I have some knowledge and skills to offer but I don’t know what they know. I don’t have their skills or done what they’ve done.
My skin is lighter than most of my teachers, but more to the point, so is my lens.
As much as I hope I’ve helped my community, I’ve been helped. I’ve learned to adapt my understanding of what a trusted advocate does and doesn’t do. How to be useful. Hint: it’s not delivering one-way information, grabbing the leader role, or building a program and then asking others to sign on.
As one community leader told me,
“Don’t build the ship without us and then ask us to climb aboard.”
I still slip up sometimes — just as I do with my daughter. And that’s ok. Just like a ship, I can course-correct.
Yesterday, I found this social media post by another community leader:
There will come a time as an ally that you must sacrifice your voice, comfort, and power for equality and meaningful change. A time when you simply must defer to the oppressed for their guidance and wisdom and release your fear of not being in control or being in charge. A time when simply the only roles you have are to return resources, stand behind the oppressed and release power…— LaKeisha Gantt
This is the hard work that white advocates and allies need to talk about. Hard as in hard to break the habit of taking over, needing things done our way, giving opinions (because they are so very important!), and sucking all the air out of the room.
Yet, like reducing the frequency of my parenting fails, deep change is possible. It’s all about paying attention to what’s going on in your body, your thoughts and feelings — especially when you recognize the pattern. This feels familiar. Haven’t I experienced this before? Maybe this is a habitual response that I can change.
It’s hard. Not impossible.
It also takes a commitment to change to your adapting role. Even a slight alteration that invites more curiosity, less control.
As advocates and allies, as parents, and as citizens, we must suspend disbelief that our great ideas or kick-ass skills are the only or the best way forward.
We must listen more. Ask more questions. Stand or sit with others’ truths. Especially when we’re uncomfortable. When it’s not going like we expected. When our precious feelings take up so much room, they’re bound to get stepped on.
Now I need to call my granddaughter and congratulate her.