Family Is Complicated

One of the first people I hugged on Christmas was my niece’s boyfriend. They started dating this year and since then I’ve been relentless about connecting with them: dragging them to family events, inviting them out on the boat and hosting them (twice!) at my home. My niece has been a fixture in my entire adult life, joining our family as the first grandchild just before Christmas. She’s my goddaughter and I love her to pieces, especially now that she’s emerging into adulthood. It turns out I like her boyfriend a lot, too. He’s upbeat and sincere, a younger quieter version of me.

Okay, they both got hugs.

When they announced after a few hours that they needed to leave to visit with his family I understood but was still disappointed. I pouted and tried to talk them out of it until they laughed, “Maybe we’ll stop by later.” It’s exactly the kind of thing you say to an annoying overbearing aunt, so when they came back later I was surprised and delighted. It was my mother-in-law who noticed he was wearing a new t-shirt and complimented him on it. I piled on asking whether it was a gift and which member of his family had given it to him. I was struck by his pause, his smile and his response.

“It’s complicated.”

Growing up, my family was simple. My parents were married for just over a year when I was born, the oldest child and only daughter. The family tree was easy to understand, everyone had a simple description and aunts and uncles and cousins arrived at the appointed holidays and reunions. The only thing that I ever had to explain was the fact that I had an extra grandma because my mom’s parents divorced when she was in college. And really no one ever gave you a hard time for having an extra grandparent — not when some kids didn’t have any. I won the kid lottery.

Things changed when I was in college. My parents announced that we were going to have a foreign exchange student come live with us for a year. I remember the family meetings describing what it would mean and setting expectations for how we would behave. We talked about whether we should request a boy or a girl. My brothers picked boy, my parents picked girl. I was the deciding vote and I decided a girl would be easier for my mom and simpler logistically. So, girl it was. A girl from Russia.

Once the decision was made I moved my stuff into the basement and prepared to join the family welcoming her into our home.

The summer she arrived was the same summer I met my husband. I had lots going on and was focused in my own quasi-adult world. The time flew by and before I knew it I was heading back to college. While my parents and brothers adapted to a new person in our family, I went back to my own self-absorbed life. While they pulled her into our traditions, the mall trips and family lunches on Saturday, the Sunday visits to grandma and grandpa’s, I was going to class and spending weekends with my boyfriend. I was so detached from the day-to-day that I barely noticed my family shifting over the line from simple to complicated.

I remember the moment when I realized things had changed. It was after I left to study in Australia when I got the weekly call from my mom. They had picked up a new puppy and named her Sasha, the Russian nickname for Alexandra. I was half-way around the world and heart-broken — how could they have made such an important decision without me?

And then it hit me: My family had gone from hosting a foreign exchange student to loving a second sister.

I was 20 years old when I went from being an only daughter to having a sister and it took me time to acknowledge that my family wasn’t simple anymore. I spent years explaining and extrapolating, telling people our long and complicated history. It took years of visits and weddings, cards and phone calls for me to get it. I knew I was finally over the hump when I got on a plane to go to New York City over the summer and just said, “I’m meeting my mom and sister for the weekend.” For Christmas she got me a necklace that says “sister”. I love it.

So, I understood when my niece’s boyfriend said it was complicated. I stood up, got a stylus for my iPad and sat back down next to him. We drew out his family tree and I saw the interwoven connections that at the surface defy the simple terms of brother, sister, mother, father, and cousin. We laughed as I asked questions about the people who make up the complex network of loves and lives that make him who he is. After we finished, I couldn’t help but agree. It is complicated.

But that’s family.

Strength in Weakness

This morning I pulled into a parking spot in the empty corporate garage. Instead of popping out of my car immediately I took a deep breath and typed a quick status update on Facebook. It said:

High stress today as I do my final readiness for a big presentation this afternoon. If you have a moment to think calming and supportive thoughts my way, it is appreciated. It is in these moments that every ‘I’m inadequate’ worry bead rears its ugly head — no matter how much work, thought, preparation, etc. I’ve gotten to the point where I know it is just the way I’m wired and I lean in through it — but it still sucks.

Staring at the screen of my phone, I paused again. I knew as I was writing it that it could be viewed as needy. What if someone thought I was fishing for compliments or wilting in the face of pressure? What if someone read it years from now and thought, ‘That’s not leadership behavior. We need someone confident.’ I considered and cross-referenced and contemplated how it would be interpreted…

…and then I clicked post.

Over and over I hear that social media is damaging because it only shows the best of us. The best pictures of our best families acting on their best behavior in the best circumstances. Young people, especially desperate to meet societal standards of milestones, stress themselves out because they haven’t checked some box, or they haven’t checked it as well as someone else who has a better marriage, more accomplished kids, a sexier job or a bigger house. I’m sure I’ve unintentionally contributed to that stress as people compare their lives to mine, especially on those rare nights when I head out on a date night and post happy, smiling pictures of Mel and husband on the town.

The problem is this: in any given year there are a handful of date nights, compared to 100’s of work days when I come home and collapse into bed without feeling anything but exhausted.

And that’s why this morning I chose to acknowledge that my life wasn’t perfect. I am a strong, intelligent, capable and prepared businesswoman and I was feeling stressed by a big presentation. In my head I knew it would be ok, but in my heart I wanted my support network to remind me that it would be ok. I needed to be strong enough to be weak, to own the stress, not just for me but for the others that I knew would read it.

It helped that two nights ago I was up late chatting with a peer on social media. Somewhere amongst our back and forth he simply typed, “You’re an inspiration.” It reminded me of a blog post I wrote last year about being Inspired to Inspire and how difficult it has been for me to accept the fact that my words and actions matter. I may not understand completely why they matter, but I have to admit they do matter. So if you’re reading this looking for inspiration I hope you’ll take one thing away from this: it takes confidence to admit that you are struggling and it takes even more confidence to ask for help.

Do it.

Humble and Kind

Last spring I took over a new work team. A virtual team, they came together in real-life to integrate the systems of a newly acquired company. I had been connecting them into our team meetings using technology, but I worried that it would be hard to meet them face-to-face. So, I was ecstatic when I learned that the next site they would be integrating was only an hour and a half away from my home. I made plans to meet them for lunch and then work with them for the afternoon.

When the day came I jumped in my car and headed off. I got turned around once or twice in construction, but still managed to pull into the parking lot just as everyone was arriving. Popping out of my car, I caught the confused looks in their eyes. “What,” I asked, “you didn’t expect me to drive a Ford Focus?” The group chuckled and then someone explained that there had been active speculation about which luxury sedan or SUV I would pull up in. No one had guessed the corporate executive would drive a car loved by college students.

Walking toward the restaurant I shared my story. I told them that after working for seven years at Ford I didn’t know how to buy another brand of car. I told them that my husband and I had been nervous moving to Chicago because of the higher cost of living and I wanted to keep our expenses low. I told them that I like small cars and high fuel economy. It’s hard to say how they felt hearing me prattle on but in that moment I didn’t feel like an executive, I just felt like a person.

I’ve had a hard time articulating my desire to stay true to my roots as I’ve progressed through my career. There is this balancing act to appreciate what you’ve earned while pushing back against unnecessary trappings and unearned privileges. I worry incessantly that I’ll start to feel entitled to special check-in lines or upgrades or perks. I don’t want to forget the little girl who was happy trudging barefoot through a woodland path to swim in a community pool or sleeping on a ratty couch in someone’s basement. The young woman that was happy in a crappy one bedroom apartment eating Hamburger Helper and seeing second run movies at the dollar theater.

After all, she’s the one that got me here.

Recently, I heard Humble and Kind for the first time. Tim McGraw identified my struggles so well that I found myself singing along and remembering the lyrics, especially the chorus.

Hold the door, say please, say thank you
Don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t lie
I know you got mountains to climb but
Always stay humble and kind
When the dreams you’re dreamin’ come to you
When the work you put in is realized
Let yourself feel the pride but
Always stay humble and kind

Of course that is easier sung than done. Our culture is ready and willing to put people who have climbed mountains upon a pedestal, telling them they are more deserving of respect and admiration. In the face of messages that equate financial success with goodness, I remind myself that humility and kindness are the currency of a well-functioning society. I remember that I drive a Focus.

Or at least I used to drive a Focus. 

Last weekend my teenage daughter got her driver’s license and the Focus passed to her. For two months I have been trying to find a new car, oscillating between feeling like I deserve a really nice car and feeling like it is a wonton luxury. The night after we bought the most expensive car we have ever owned I lay in bed worried about what I had done. Was this the tipping point? What if it changed me? And then I realized something.

As long as I am worrying about it I am probably going to be ok — no matter which car I drive.