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.

dominating what, exactly?

I was tempted to add to the comments section on this: “Taking the Lead on Child Rearing,” an examination of why, “despite all the studies that show dads are taking on more and more responsibility in raising their children (in two-parent heterosexual households, that is), the issue of which parent plays a more dominant role… still presents a challenge for couples.”

But I didn’t, because there’s something mildly desperate about The New York Times’ effort to give these issues “Room for Debate.” Sometimes, there’s no real debate to be had–rather, there’s just room for people to kvetch.

K.J. Dell’Antonia describes how she needed to walk her husband through an afternoon kids’ schedule when she was away, and she did that little dominant parent “dance.” What does that mean? Was she pleased that she was the one that knew everything, after intentionally not leaving a list of what needed to be done? I understood Bruce Feiler’s follow-up question: was she protecting her role and in a way, treasuring the idea of a bumbling dad/husband?

She shifts gears in response, indicating that knowing everything and saving the day (for her kids’ schedules) gives her license to work outside the home and “have it all,” and increases her esteem in the eyes of other moms. She can’t escape it (her dominant role) or she’ll have guilt, or shame. Bruce responds rationally, with a basic, “who gives a hoot?” to all the eyebrow-raising, tut-tutting moms out there.

So K.J. concludes that what this is really about is her–her own judgment of herself. That the “mommy wars” are just internal shame spirals, amplified and multiplied.

End of “debate.”

I just want to shake K.J., and wake her up. And I want to sock Bruce in the arm, just because he, too, was missing the point. Their conversation was not about child rearing. It was about marriage, and the kind of work that parents in a marriage need to do together.

Child rearing is Work. It is a Job. It is not something that comes naturally, any more than say, being a chief financial officer at a large corporation comes “naturally.” It is not something whose details and logistics are magically memorized by all involved.  The way you and your partner manage the work of child rearing reflects (1) the way you and your partner communicate, and (2) the level of respect you have for each other’s skills, time, and preferences.

Without good communication and healthy respect, the work of child rearing will–and I do mean will–turn into the worst kind of burden. It will turn the “dominant parent” into a martyr (or worse, know-it-all), and it will turn the other parent into a perceived slacker (or worse–actual slacker). This applies to two-earner/two-parent families, and single-earner/two-parent families.

I think my husband would agree that right now, I am “dominant” because time allows and requires it. And so what? We make the most of our skills, our expertise, our preferences, our time. Sometimes it’s 50-50, sometimes it 90-10. It’s just work.

Yes, we can fall into these traps, where we keep score, where we revel in our “dominance,” and maybe do a little dance (I still don’t understand K.J. on that one). As parents… as mothers… We can feel righteous, or guilty, or put upon, or taken for granted. We can simultaneously question whether we’re good enough as mothers and why it is that our partner just doesn’t “get it” or “pay attention,” the way that we do. Those traps are hard to escape.

I’ve climbed out a few times, with my husband’s help. After I asked for his help, clearly and respectfully, because that’s a hallmark of marriage. I avoid those traps now, because he’s removed them, by listening, with sincere appreciation for what I do all day.

He doesn’t want me to fall in again. There’s too much work to do.