Birthdays, at least at my age, always have a rather sombre core to them. When there is less ahead than behind it’s hard not to spend at least some of the day in reflective mode. As I parent, I often find my birthday occasions rather a lot of reflecting on my children as well. I try and recall being their age, I muse on how far from my dreams of the kind of parent I wanted to be I am. And after a year that saw me lose someone whose heart had mine, deal with the serious illness of my mother, and then my own, well this year was hardly going to pass un-mused!
These least few months have caused me to reflect deeply on the how part of “who I am”. It seems clearer than ever (to the point where I am astounded at my stupidity for not getting this earlier) that how we live defines who we are much more than anything else. But we are rarely encouraged to think about this. We ask our children “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, not “how do you want to be when you grown up?”. As if simply by occupying one of societies pre-defined (work) roles we will somehow solve the mystery and challenge of life.
When we are kids with think instinctively of how – I remember nights sitting in my room watching the ice form on the window (ah, life before central heating) imagining me happy, me being creative, me overcoming some amazing obstacle. What was uppermost in my mind was how I would be – I would be brave, and adventurous, and creative. But people would constantly ask me what I would be, a question I rarely had an answer to (other than a kelp farmer living under the sea with a pet dolphin… Jacques Cousteau much influenced the younger me).
Such questions imply that what is not something that is intrinsically us but something we must turn into and that we need to look outside ourselves for approval not inside. By asking what we undermine our children’s sense of confidence and belief in self, we put the focus outside themselves – to be a what you have to be accepted as a what by others. Thereby we condemn our children, as we were condemned, to a life of seeking constant validation from others.
It was a sense of humour, creativity and stubbornness (in its positive aspects) that carried me through these weeks. Not my facilities as an ethnographer or a teacher or any of the other career roles I have occupied in my time. Equally, stubbornness (in its negative aspects), difficulties with letting go, and fearfulness contributed to me being in this situation. So this birthday I am re-assured to know that how I am as a grown up is pretty ok, though with room for improvement. But mainly, I hope more than anything that my role in my children’s lives will help them on the path to understanding and clarity about how they want to be when they grow up, and to not get caught in the trap of defining themselves through pre-defined labels only others can grant them. As Langston Hughes said:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.