A Joy of Storytelling

It’s a Saturday morning and I’m sitting in a grocery store cafe. As much as I appreciate the opportunity to focus on my writing for a few hours, weekend sleep-ins are my private luxury and I give them up begrudgingly. When I was a young over-eager analyst with little kids, my husband would get up at the first sign of activity and quietly sneak from bed. He would herd them both to the other side of the house with a soft, “Let’s let mommy sleep.” Now, more than ten years later it’s a chauffeur trip for my daughter that had me setting my alarm for 5:23am. “You’re a good mom,” my husband told me as I headed up to bed last night. Then he paused and corrected himself, “No, you’re a great mom.”

Sipping my chai tea latte, I’m not inclined to argue.

When I started this blog I made a conscious decision to stay away from writing about my kids. They were already in middle and high school, years when drawing attention to yourself is strongly discouraged. And as much as I wanted to interrogate my own journey through motherhood, any stories I would share were bound to put a spotlight on their own development. The more I thought about it, the more it felt wrong to share those thoughts: I signed up for the transparency of Too Much Mel, they didn’t.

No, I don’t write much about my kids, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t the lead characters in the majority of my stories.

This week I was reminded about how important storytelling is to me and the way I show up in the world. We had an all day leadership meeting that included an exercise on how to give and receive feedback. I’ve written copiously about the importance of feedback so I won’t belabor that point. What was interesting was the appreciative feedback I got from one of my colleagues, a close friend who took the time to find me across the crowded hotel ballroom to pass on her thoughts.

She told me that I was one of the best she had seen at explaining the “why” of things, making ideas understandable for people no matter what their level. She shared that it was a struggle for her and she appreciated my natural ability to do it and the way I made it look easy. I thanked her and then told her that I believed she had as many if not more experiences than I had that could be packaged as stories — her personal and professional journey is inspiring to me and I knew it would be for others. The trick, I told her, was to reflect on those experiences and take the time to frame them so that they can be told and retold with authenticity and impact.

As I was sharing that perspective, I realized that I had followed my own advice earlier that week. I presented to a computer science class to support our campus recruiting efforts and was talking over dinner with recruiters and students. The talk turned, normally and naturally, to family. Did the students have siblings? Were they older or younger? How had going away to college impacted their family dynamics? My kids are just a few years away from college and the same age as their younger siblings, so I ended up contributing to some of the conversation. And when the dialogue shifted to the challenges of mothers and daughters, I pulled out one of my favorite stories.

When I was working on a college campus, I had an office in a residence hall. At the time, my daughter was just entering the pre-teen stage when kids begin to see their parents as human, starting to question their wisdom and capabilities. I suddenly found myself booted from hero to an unwelcome and unwanted part of my daughter’s life. I struggled with it mightily. One night, as I was walking to my car I overheard the young woman working at the residence hall front desk talking with her mother. The conversation sounded engaged, positive and, although I wasn’t listening to the words, she seemed eager to get advice and appreciative of the call. When she said good-bye, I thought I heard the same love in her words that I had always heard from my little girl, until I hadn’t.

I waited to the side until the call was over and then walked up to her. “I don’t mean to eavesdrop,” I said, “But I heard you talking with your mother and you seemed to be having a great conversation. I’m interested in getting your perspective: when did realize your mom wasn’t the dumbest person in the world?” She looked at me with a completely straight face and considered my question. With barely a pause, she stated factually and without any humor, “Second semester sophomore year.” We both smiled and I thanked her and wished her a good shift. As I walked away a thought went through my head — at least there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

As I finished the story the table laughed. The students, wise juniors safely beyond their sophomore year, could appreciate their own growth to that point. Looking back at their younger siblings, struggling with their parents, they could see what they still had to learn. The mothers at the table were either struggling with or had survived evolving relationships with their own children. It’s one of my favorite stories because it encapsulates so simply a snapshot of the human experience and I remember with great vividness the feelings I had in the moment.

My daughter is still in high school and there are moments when I know she thinks I’m nutty as a fruitcake. The eye rolls are still there and she often says, “Things are different now, mom.” She’s right, the world is different than it used to be in many, many ways. And yet, I’m certain that there will be a time, about four years from now, when she will realize that what I know and what I’ve learned is a treasure trove that she can dig through anytime she wants. She doesn’t get it but I have faith that time will come.

And I’ll be ready to take the call, second semester sophomore year.

4 thoughts on “A Joy of Storytelling”

  1. Mel, Oh Mel. You have a way of knowing just what I need to hear. I am entering this phase with my own teenager and even though I know it gets better, the way you tell it, makes all the looks an snide remarks from her tolerable.

    Liked by 1 person

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