I just spent the last two weeks visiting my family in Iowa. Like every family, we have similarities in opinions as well as differences, things we get about each other and things we don’t, and specific ways we enjoy spending our time together, avoiding other activities entirely. And it’s always interesting to see how everyone continues to change over time. The older my three sisters and I get, the more divergent our lives become as we develop our own family identities, make our own choices, and experience very different life challenges and circumstances.
I love the family I grew up in and we had a wonderful visit, but I always find it interesting during reunions like these how easy it is for everyone to fall back into the roles we played during our growing up years. This can be either comforting or frustrating, depending on your family history and dynamics. (Or maybe a little of both!) It’s natural for family members to see us as they always did, holding tight to preconceived notions about who we are, what we’re good at, and where we belong in the world. And when the people around us treat us a certain way based on their assumptions about who we are, it’s hard not to respond in kind. What are the dynamics in your family?
The baby of the family may have a hard time being taken seriously, while the oldest child may always be seen as bossy. A child who caused a lot of grief over the years may still be resented and assumed a trouble maker even though they have long since grown up and seen the error of their ways. The “good” son or daughter may carry an unspoken expectation to fix everyone else’s problems and be responsible to make important decisions even if they don’t want to. These are just a few examples of how your family of origin can affect the way you feel about who you are and your ability to recreate yourself–especially if that family lives nearby and your lives are intertwined.
Why do I even bring this up? Because as we think about making progress as mothers this month, I think it’s important to identify all the hidden areas that may be hampering our ability to move forward. Maybe you have a talent you’d like to pursue, but you feel the disapproval of your mother since she never did anything for herself when you were young. Maybe you want to become a more positive person, but your sister is used to the two of you getting together to complain about everything under the sun. Maybe you’re trying to lose weight, but every family gathering involves high fat, sugar-laden foods that you’re expected to eat.
I’m guessing just about everyone reading this post can relate! And we can all take comfort in that. Our families aren’t necessarily trying to sabotage our progress, but making headway on our personal goals can require a certain degree of determination and focus that may leave our families wondering what happened to their daughter/sister/aunt/niece.
Can we succeed in ways that are important to us while still keeping our family relationships intact? Can we believe in our own personal change and growth when our families believe we will always be the same? I have three thoughts that may help in the process, but I’d love to hear yours as well:
- Don’t pass judgment. Just because you’ve switched to an all organic, vegan diet in an effort to improve your health doesn’t mean you should turn your nose up at those digging into the 4th of July burgers at the family picnic. A condescending attitude never motivated change in others, let alone earned respect for the one looking down at everyone else from their self-appointed pedestal.
- Don’t take offense where none was intended. Are you sure your brother was really implying you shouldn’t pursue your dream of going back to school, or was he just asking a sincere question in an effort to better understand your plans and intentions? We can be blind to our own assumptions about how others perceive us when they may be just as happy as we are to move on. Ask yourself if you’re doing the very thing you’re accusing your family of denying them the opportunity to change.
- This leads to my last thought: allow your family to change as well. By consistently pursuing your own goals with a non-plussed, non-judgmental attitude, you silently give your family permission to make whatever changes and goals they’ve been dreaming up too.
Overcoming the unhelpful labels and expectations that persist among extended family members makes it possible for families to do what they do best: provide support and encouragement for each other in whatever individual goals everyone may be pursuing. Of course, depending on how things went down in your family of origin, you’ll want to learn from that and create an atmosphere of encouragement and support among your own children as they grow up under the same roof and eventually leave home to become “themselves”. After all, you’re going to be the mother at the family reunion someday, and you’ll want those times to be something everyone looks forward to–tofu burgers and all.
Question: In what ways does your family of origin hamper your progress? How do you think you can rise above it and succeed anyway?
Image provided by the author.
Originally published on June 23, 2011.