Hester Bancroft encourages us to explore our roles in family life in the third of a six-part series on Life Investment
This month we will be looking at our roles in the family; as a daughter, a sister and (if you have children) as a mother. We will also be looking at how well our relationships are working with our parents, our siblings and our children; what is currently running smoothly, what could be running even better and what steps we can take if there are things we’d like to change.
Firstly let’s look at the main role you play in your family. This may be a role you have actively sought or it may be a role that has evolved through the particular dynamics of your family. As you read through the roles below you may feel at different times you play them all. What we are looking to identify is the role that resonates with you the most.
This woman is effectively the head of the family (or, traditionally, the tribe). She diaries family gatherings, ensures family celebrations are organised and is always there in a crisis. Some women adopt this role very early on in their lives, especially if their mother is absent or vulnerable in any way. Many women, however, take this role on when they become mothers for the first time as the new sense of responsibility they feel towards their child can expand to the functioning of the wider family unit.
This is the woman who holds onto her ‘child’ status; she carries an expectation that other family members will look after her with whatever help she might need. The dependent does not tend to organise family functions or celebrations, instead expecting that others will do this. The dependent will ask for help with financial, practical or emotional issues but rarely notices if other family members need support. If she did realise, she would, most likely, feel unable to provide it.
This is the person who feels life is very hard; she can feel put upon by her family and, although she may do a lot for those around them, will do so with an air of weariness or even resentment. The martyr tends to put everyone’s needs before her own resulting in her feeling she has very little time, help or support for herself. She may complain about this but tends not to ask for help from others in any meaningful or productive way.
The Counsellor & Mediator
This is the person who is forever sorting out family disputes or disagreements; soothing ruffled feathers, suggesting compromises and ensuring everyone is alright. She tends to be the one to whom everyone turns if they are having problems and is known as being a great listener. She can sometimes feel her own needs or problems can go unrecognised by those around her so it is important she learns to ask for support when she needs it.
This person can slip between roles with ease depending on the situation she finds herself in. She is happy to organise family functions if needs be, although she is equally happy to just do her part in putting together a celebration should someone else in the family be organising it. She enjoys her family and maintains good contact with members, remembering birthdays and important events. She feels able to ask for support from family members when she needs it, although is also very able and willing to step in to support others when necessary.
It is useful to have a real awareness of the roles we play in our family so that (should we feel we need to) we can choose to take on a different role. It would be useful now to grab a pen and some paper and make a note of your answers to the following questions:
- What key changes would enable you to have the role you would like in your family?
- How would your family react if you started acting in this way?
- What difference would it make to your life in practical terms?
- What difference would it make to your feelings about yourself?
As discussed in the first article in this series (on intimate relationships) it is empowering to think of every relationship we have as a well-choreographed dance. If we wish to change how the relationship is running we must first think about changing our side of the dance. That way the other person has to change their behaviour in order to keep dancing.
In light of that, we are now going to look at the specific relationships we have in our family.
Blame it on the parents?
Our relationships with our parents are the most influential we have during our formative years and, very often, beyond. Whilst each of us is born with our own biologically rooted individual differences that create tendencies for us to behave in particular ways, our parents, because of their own temperaments and their own experiences, will respond to our needs in a particular way.
As any parent of more than one child knows, each of their children evokes different feelings in them and provokes different reactions. This goes some way to explaining why our personal relationship with our parents (whatever that is) may differ so much from the relationship our brothers or sisters may have with them.
During childhood we literally learn how to ‘be’ in the world from the significant adults around us. We take onboard labels and limiting beliefs handed out unwittingly to us which (unless we question them and seek evidence to the contrary) will shape us as people. In addition, we learn how to ‘do’ relationships; be a sister, a wife and a mother by literally ‘modeling’ what we see. As children we do this unconsciously, which is why, even when we do not like a particular behaviour, we will often catch ourselves repeating it.
It is easy to blame our parents for difficulties we experienced as a child or even, perhaps, difficulties we have now. It is, however, important to recognise that parents ‘parent’ in the best way they can; they do what they believe to be right based on their own understandings and experiences. Recognising this can allow us to reflect on our relationships with our parents from a more insightful position.
It would be useful to now think about your parent-child relationship and answer the following questions:
- What did you love and admire about each of your parents as you were growing up?
- What did you find hardest about them?
- What values and beliefs have you taken from your parents?
- What was the most important thing each of them taught you as you were growing up?
In addition to reflecting on our childhood relationship with our parents it is also important to reflect on how our relationship is now. As we grow, and move into adulthood, the way we interact with our parents naturally changes and evolves; the power relationship equals out as we become less reliant upon them emotionally and financially. As we all know, however, very often the hardest criticism to take can still be that (intentional or not) handed out by our parents. Think now about the dance you dance with your parents as an adult:
- What do you enjoy (or cherish) about spending time with your parents now?
- What do you find frustrating about your parents now?
- Is there anything you feel your parents don’t know or understand about you that you would like them to?
- Is there anything you would like to understand more about your parents?
As we ourselves get older, we can find ourselves becoming more concerned with our parents’ wellbeing and (particularly as women) we can be very quick to take on the role of nurturer or carer. If this role evolves through necessity without any real thought as to what we can manage it can come hand in hand with the negative feelings of guilt (for not doing ‘enough’) and possible resentment. If you are in this position I urge you to think through the following questions:
- What support do your parent(s) need both emotionally and practically?
- What support can you reasonably offer and are happy to give on a regular basis?
- If you have siblings are they doing their part in supporting your parents and, if not, why not?
- What other options are there for your parents and you to have the support they need and for you to maintain a healthy relationship with them?
If everything follows the natural order of things (as we all hope it will) our parents will leave this planet before us and we will, for a while, be in the world without them. This harsh reality though should not stop us from ensuring that our relationship with our parents is the best it can be through honest and open communication and a mutual understanding of one another’s needs.
Brothers & Sisters
Our siblings (and I would like you to include here any very close childhood friends who crossed the threshold into adulthood with you) hold a privileged position in our lives; they have shared a huge part of our journey with us and knew us before we became our polished (or not so polished) adult selves.
We can (and usually do) differ in temperament hugely from our siblings and yet there will, at our core, always be some common ground and shared understandings that come from growing up with the same parents, sleeping under the same roof and eating at the same table.
The family roles we take on can be most clearly seen between siblings because, as children, each of us vie for our own unique position within a family. Siblings do not hesitate to label one another (the happy/moody one, the goodie/naughty one, the sensible/crazy one etc) and these labels can become part of who we are.
Think now for a moment about when you were a child:
- What positive labels were you given by your sibling(s)?
- What negative labels were you given by your sibling(s)?
- What did you enjoy about your sibling(s) when you were growing up?
- What did you find frustrating about your sibling(s) when you were growing up?
- What labels did you bestow upon them?
When we think about these questions we inevitably look back through our childhood lenses and will remember how it was to be a child in our family. Now think about your relationship with your siblings as an adult:
- What do you love and admire about your sibling(s) and who they have become?
- Has anything surprised you about the way they are as an adult?
- What do you find hard about your relationship?
- What changes would you need to make if you wanted your relationship with your sibling(s) to feel more mutually supportive and connected?
Those of us who are lucky enough to have grown up with siblings have had the benefit of being able to learn very early on how to handle peer relations; we had to compete with them, wrestle with feelings of jealousy, master the art of negotiation and through them we also experienced the joy of companionship. In short, our siblings help us to understand ourselves and others. If the relationship is good as adults, they can continue to do so.
Our children can be the source of our greatest happiness, our greatest pride and our greatest anxiety. When we have our first child we are plunged into an emotionally heightened world that is never quite the same. It would be useful now to spend time reflecting on (and writing down) your answers to the questions below:
- What do you really love about being a parent?
- What do you find the hardest thing about being a parent?
- What are the things you repeat from your own experience of being parented?
- What values do you most want to pass on to your child?
- When you think about your child as an adult; what would you most like them to say about how you were as a parent to them while they were growing up?
None of us can be a perfect parent (we all know such a thing does not exist) – what we can all strive for though is to be the best parent we can be.
The most positive way of parenting comes through providing ‘high love’ and ‘high limits’. Children need to feel loved, appreciated for who they are, and supported. If you are feeling in anyway ‘disconnected’ from your child the quickest way to remedy it is to commit to spending some one-to-one time with them, doing something you both enjoy so that you can ‘re-bond’. Think about (and note down your answers to) the following questions:
- What do you and your child enjoy doing most together?
- When did you last take time to do that activity with your child?
- What do you really love and admire about your child as a person?
- How good are you at telling them about those qualities you see and love?
As well as feeling loved, children also need to feel safe. The best way to achieve this is through ensuring we have high limits; clear and consistently reinforced boundaries around unacceptable behaviours. Children flourish when they know what is expected of them and what they can expect from us. Many of us struggle with this and yet having clear boundaries and consequences is much easier than most of us realise. In addition they allow us, as parents, to feel calm, in control and more able to enjoy our children.
- What are your ‘buttons’ – the behaviours that drive you crazy?
- How good are you at explaining clearly and specifically what behaviours are unacceptable to you?
- What consequences have you put in place to support those boundaries?
- How consistent are you at ensuring those consequences are enforced every time your child goes through a boundary?
Putting routines and boundaries in place immediately allows us to feel calmer, more in control and more able to enjoy and appreciate our children. Even with our children we dance a certain (sometimes unhelpful) dance, so taking time to think about the patterns of behaviour we follow and deciding what needs to change can allow us to create a happier home life for everyone.
You and your family
Having taken time to think about your family you should now be in a great position to set yourself some clear and attainable goals by answering these questions:
- What role do you now want in your family?
- What changes do you need to make to have the best possible relationships with your parents?
- What changes do you need to make to enjoy your relationships with your sibling(s) even more?
- What changes do you need to make for you to be the parent you want to be?
They say we choose our friends, not our family, but what we can do is choose for it to be the best it can be. As Jane Howard, the American writer, once said:
Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.