Do you watch “Madam Secretary”? I love shows with strong female characters like this one. I also like the way the marriage is portrayed in the show. The partners are true equals, each with an important job. They are partners that disagree at times, but they respect each other and listen to each other’s truth. And they never give up on their marriage or their children.
In the most recent episode of “Madam Secretary,” the oldest daughter, faced with her boyfriend’s imminent departure to study in England for two years, agrees to marry him. (I should tell you that the parents’ relationship with their oldest daughter has been strained at times. She is very strong-willed and opinionated. But Stevie is finally in college and dating a young man that her parents like.) The parents are startled by the engagement because Stevie is so young (college-age). They comfort themselves with the thought that the marriage is likely to be a few years off. To their surprise, the daughter announces that she will be getting married the following weekend. The parents are invited out to celebrate the upcoming nuptials with the newly engaged couple. When the parents return home, their conversation goes something like this:
Wife: “It was brutal – all that champagne and terrible ideas. My face hurts from fake smiling.”
Husband: “How do you think my tongue feels from biting it?”
Wife: “She’s going to put school on hold, maybe find a job in a pub. She did say pub? For the experience of immersing herself in the culture.” (She says sarcastically)
Husband: “We are going to have to say something.”
Wife: “Oh, you are definitely going to have to say something.”
Husband: “Really?!” (He gestures, pointing to himself.)
Wife: “You are going to have to make her understand about concrete plans and contingency plans and future plans. You are just going to have to explain plans.”
Husband: “Look. I know you are upset you weren’t consulted about the proposal. But now I’m the one who has to tell her she’s about to screw up her life?”
Wife: “Yes. Now is not a good time for me to confront my contradictions. I just need you to stop this from happening.”
Husband: “Okay. Okay.”
Wife: “I mean it’s like my entire history of parental guidance is being erased. There’s no bank. Nothing I have done up to this point matters.”
Husband: “Is this all about Stevie?”
Wife: “Yes… Maybe.”
Oh do I identify with the wife’s statements! The feeling that “my entire history of parental guidance is being erased” is SOOO familiar. Believing that “nothing I have done up to this point matters” rings true for me as well.
My wise father, who spent his career as a Pastoral Counselor and Professor of Pastoral Care tells me that the people he counseled often made those kinds of statements. The task is to refocus on the immediate situation rather than to globalize one’s inadequacies. My problem these days is picking ONE pressing issue. All of my children have pressing issues that occupy my thoughts. I spend much time worrying, researching solutions, planning responses… But I will pick one to focus on here.
I have an 18-year-old daughter who is almost five months pregnant… and she dropped out of high school… and she is marginally employed (four hours a week)… and she doesn’t seem inclined to look very hard for a job… and she has no realistic idea of what lies ahead for her. She is just happy to be pregnant and having a baby girl.
John and I have latched onto the term “launch.” We didn’t “launch” Skye – the way parents are supposed to launch their older teens into adulthood, into college, then maybe into graduate or professional school, which leads to a well-paid career, so that they can someday get married and have children and be able to support themselves. So, now what do we do?
On Tuesday, I shared the dialogue from “Madam Secretary” with the therapist I have been seeing for the past couple of months. He asked me, “How are you doing with being still?”
“Huh?” I responded. Did he mean like when I’m running and alone and it’s a form of therapy and I work on resolving situations at home?
“No,” he said. He was talking about mindfulness. He was talking about calming the mind. He was talking about “being in the moment.”
Who has time for that, I thought. But I asked, “Am I supposed to be paying attention to how my foot hits the pavement when I run?”
He said he thought that would be pretty boring. But noticing the flowers and my surroundings was a start. He gave me examples of the meditation that he and his wife do, and I began to understand that he was talking about not thinking. In fact, he said, “I would never ask you to do more thinking.” Instead, he said, I should be still enough to hear the holy spirit speak.
Hmmm… I left therapy with suggestions about apps for meditation and prompting to schedule mindfulness into my day.
That night, K.J. was in charge of making dinner. We are in the beginning stages of a new protocol where Skye and K.J. have a larger responsibility for providing evening meals. K.J.’s meal was hotdogs. Though not a particularly nutritious meal, it’s a start for K.J. Another part of the protocol is that everyone comes to the dinner table, hungry or not, and we eat together. Until we started this, I had almost forgotten how enjoyable family meals can be because, for the past few years, Skye has refused to be part of family gatherings. Our cohesiveness disintegrated from there.
After dinner, Skye suggested that she and I take our three dogs for a walk. Walking the dogs with Skye is becoming a new routine as well. I had a general idea of the route we would take, but I was otherwise just walking. As we walked, Skye talked about family situations, childhood memories, parenting, thoughts on her future, and about relationships, old and current. I commented and responded with questions – some of them boldly personal. She never flinched. Nor did I. Suddenly, it hit me that I was not carefully tailoring my speech for Skye as I had been doing for the past few years. I realized that I had been afraid of her lashing out at me. I realized I had been protecting myself from the anticipated hurt. Yet, here we were, walking along together like mutually respectful friends. Wow. I felt lighter and unburdened. Could this be something akin to the mindfulness my therapist had spoken of? I had suspended my agenda and stayed in the moment.
The next day, I attended a meeting of the Wednesday Morning Study Club at the Carter Center. Each year, our club focuses on a broad topic and papers are written and presented by members on specific sub-topics. This year, the theme was: “War and Peace: Which Weapons Work?” Prior to our last speaker, one of our members provided a summary of what we had covered/learned this year and an “inspiration.” She talked about the Buddhist ideas of compassion and forgiveness. Compassion, she said, is not pity or empathy. It is accepting that life includes suffering. Forgiveness is for the forgiver. It involves letting go – not forgetting the transgression – but seeing humanity in the eyes of the transgressor. She provided copies of “A Prayer Before The Prayer for Forgiveness” by Desmond Tutu. As I listened to her read the prayer, I was struck by these words:
I am not yet ready for my heart to soften.
I am not yet ready to be vulnerable again.
That, I thought, is at least part of my problem with Skye. I’ve been hurt, and I am afraid of being hurt again if I fully open my heart. This is my issue, not Skye’s.
The prayer also included these words:
Is there a place we can meet?
You and me
The place in the middle
Where we straddle the lines
Where you are right
And I am right too
And both of us are wrong and wronged
Can we meet there?
And I thought, “Yes. I am much more interested in meeting and moving forward than in holding my ground – my ‘right’-ness.” I recognize the arrogance of my position. I’ve been thinking: How can you/Skye not want what I want for you?
In my defense, the evidence is on my side. Education makes life easier. A well paying job guarantees most of life’s necessities and some or many of the extras. But I am not doing myself any favors by imposing my expectation that Skye live the life I dreamed for her. As we now spend time with each other, day after day, we are finding a place in the middle. If I can continue to let go… be in the moment… suspend my agenda… allow space for the holy spirit to speak… and pray for compassion and forgiveness, I trust that my entire history of parental guidance will not be erased. It will simply be expressed in ways different than I imagined.