know your narrative

Bruce Feiler’s “This Life” essay, “The Stories that Bind Us,” in the past weekend’s New York Times shares that “studies indicate that children learn resilience when they hear what their relatives before them have faced.”

Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, he explained, and those narratives take one of three shapes.

First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”

Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

My husband and I–we each grew up with that third narrative. We each grew up with fathers who proudly, repeatedly, and emphatically shared the stories of their families, of themselves as youngsters, of ups, downs, challenges and accomplishments. About a dozen years ago, my sister started a family writing project, wherein instead of giving Christmas gifts, we exchanged brief stories, written by each of us, to be given and read aloud when the families got together. (My favorite stories are those by my mother… only because I knew all my father’s stories by heart.)

The telling of stories, a family narrative, a larger entity of which you are a part… it’s powerful, apparently. If the research is any guide, it’s protected my family… my families… from a messy, sad, happy and scary set of experiences that make up our lives: Ascending, Descending, Oscillating.

Maybe it applies to marriages? To a couple? Maybe a sense of being a part of something bigger than oneself is what makes some marriages succeed and recover from trauma, or overcome obstacles, or avoid obstacles in the first place.

Maybe the connection one has to another is maintained and strengthened, or repaired, with that oscillating narrative. Maybe? Maybe some marriages are stuck in a descending narrative that seem too steep to climb out of. Maybe some marriages are expecting their narratives to be in constant ascension.

Then again, some marriages simply seem to need new characters. And stories end.

So many are ending.

Pay attention, take care

Please read this if you can; it’s lovely and heart-wrenching.

“Over time, the worry I felt when she first told me about the disease began to fade. We knew the statistics, but statistics… get you only so far. Besides, my mother had never been ordinary.”

My mother’s immune system is just over a year old now, after her autologous stem cell transplant, performed in response to multiple myeloma. Her kidneys were casualties of this cancer, but not her, remission remains.

It is very hard for me to think about her overall prognosis. Very, very hard. So I write about my boring little life. My corporate wifery. The PTA. My friends and their myriad issues. My political and social concerns. And our kids, of course. I find myself raising them and thinking “my mom did this,” and feeling… Better.

But mostly, I find myself impatient, impatient with everyone who wastes their time making foolish decisions or being thoughtless or careless or haphazard or messy or nonsensical.

I’m trying to find patience. Not sure I’ve ever really had much patience to lose, but wherever it is, it feels like it’s light years away.

We should live in our moments, we should. But we should be careful with them. We should make the most of them, for ourselves, but more so, for others. For others who have fewer.

I need to do more and do better and I just don’t know how. Hmmm.

related by equality

There’s a petition on The White House’s site asking that the President stop using the phrase “wives, mothers and daughters,” because it is counterproductive to the fight for women’s equality. Tracy Clark-Flory, writing for Salon, quotes McKenna Miller on the issue as it would be applied to gay rights: “The reason to fight homophobia isn’t because ‘you’ve got a gay friend,’ it’s because it’s simply the right thing to do. The reason why a woman is valuable isn’t because she’s someone’s sister, or daughter, or wife, it’s because of the person she is unto herself.”

True. The reason to expect, let alone fight for, equality among sexes (male, female, or transgendered), or among those with different sexual orientations, or among those with different abilities, or among those with different religions, is because it’s the right thing to do.

But why do we do the right thing? We do the right thing because we know we wouldn’t want the wrong thing done to us.

Each one of “us” in this country comprise a community: A big, messy community in which you may never meet even one 10,000th of one percent of all of its members. It’s a community that can make you feel lonely, isolated, or safe and in good company.

When you hear a phrase like “wives, mothers, and daughters,” and in the case of gay rights, perhaps not the phrase “gay friend,” but the more accurate, if not all encompassing, phrase “sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters,” the people named are no longer “them.” They become one of “us.”

There should be no reluctance in using the fact that one is a part of something–a marriage, a family, a community–in arguing for equality. Nobody diminishes me for naming what I am in relation to others. I am proud of my relationship to others: as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, an employee, a volunteer, a citizen. I am not isolated, I am not alone. I am safe and in good company.

Sure, the President used shorthand, likely because he is trying to appeal to a pretty stubborn segment of old-school old boys’ club members. Whatever. There are bigger fights to fight.