I lost my mother in law recently. She was sick for a long time, and her death was something we knew was coming. But when I think of her, there is an empty feeling in the hollow of my stomach. It twists and groans and makes tears blink into my eyes. Not as much for me, or even for my husband. For my kids, only my kids. You see, to Betsy, my children were perfect. And everyone needs that kind of cheerleader in their life.
Maybe you don’t know it, but there’s a song from Snoopy the Musical (I believe most of life can be easily summed up in some quality show tunes) called “Just One Person.” The words are about one person believing in you, and then, like a cascade, others believe in you so you can ultimately believe in yourself. Okay, it’s a lot of sentimental hooey, but it’s so sweet and true. Studies show that support from others can help you rise above challenges that at first glance seem insurmountable: think poverty. In Oakland, a new program is demonstrating this paradigm. Called The Family Independence Initiative, small groups of women get together. They receive a monthly stipend, a laptop and very little else but have accomplished a 20% gain in income since the program started. Why? A variety of reasons, but quite simply, the members believe in each other.
Think back on your own life and who believed in you. These are your people. Your parents and your spouse are obvious choices. The people who are most influential tend to be friends, teachers, bosses. Because they are not obligated because of maybe, giving birth to you. They are someone you look up to and want to emulate. But they also have to listen to you, challenge you and you get an intuitive sense that they see the real you. Just look at the growing field of “personal coaching.” The ICF, or International Coaching Foundation, defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” Wow, who doesn’t want one of those, right? Too bad you have to pay to get it. The magic really happens when it’s someone you already know, someone you already think is awesome. And it’s your responsibility to be open to the truth of your person’s idea of you.
Certain attributes have been documented as predictors of success: high IQ, emotional intelligence, and most recently self regulation. However, it’s the connections you make and feel that result in the real world that make the difference. In suburbia, we have things like Big Brothers/Sisters to help form these kinds of relationships. In our community, there is a lunch buddy program to help kids have someone to look up to. All parents know the importance of a teacher who pushes a kid to apply for a school they may have thought was out of their reach. Or a sports coach who tells them they should try out for the select team. A friend’s parent who lets them know that it’s a pleasure to have them come over to their house. It’s important. It matters.
All over suburbia I hear talk of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and her new book “Lean In,” and her crusade to change the dialogue about feminism. She’s taken a lot of heat lately, mostly because your average suburban working mom can’t relate to Ms. Sandberg’s wealth and the amount of domestic help she receives. I’m withholding judgment until I read the book, but she is struggling because many women don’t see her as their person. To be someone’s person, you have to be accessible. Your person has to be someone who you respect, but also feels a little like you in some way. Someone who doesn’t have to scrub the fucking toilet? Hard to relate to that person. No matter how big or great her ideas.
So who is your person? Your person doesn’t have to be in your life anymore. They don’t even have to be alive. They just have to be someone who laid a brick in the pathway of your life.
Some examples of my people:
My boss in Philadelphia: He defended me to an angry professor when I unintentionally messed up some data in a research project. I will never forget what he told me, “Everyone fucks up. You have my permission to get over it.”
My biology professor in community college: He wrote me a glowing recommendation for a university I didn’t think I could get into (but did). When I read it, I was stunned. He told me, “It’s all true. When you believe it is when you’ll succeed.”
My writing mentor in my writing group: A phenomenal writer, she told me that someone who writes like me should read my work “loud and proud,” and that she was jealous of my writing voice. Made my year.
The list goes on.. and I thank all of my people for their words.
So, when I think of my mother in law. Well, she was a huge person for my kids. As I said at her funeral, if they breathed, she was like, “Did you hear how they breathed? The way it went in and out? Wasn’t that fantastic! They are so special!” I saved all the cards from her proclaiming their absolute perfection, their sheer magnificence. Her words were her honest appraisal of their gifts, albeit rose-colored. I will continue to remind them how she was thoroughly and completely their person. She was all in. Just like I hope to be their person, too.
How about you? Tell me about your person.
Thanks as always to Barbara Paulsen for her inspiring photos. Visit her work at Mt. Hood Mama Iphoneography.