This is our second week in Budapest, a scorching 35’c and yesterday my daughters got into another fight with each other. It was my three-year-old nephew’s birthday celebration in a local café, merely hours before my brother and his family were boarding a flight back to Perth. It was 10am and my teenage daughters who have trouble getting up before noon sat drowsily at the table, looking bored and aloof. Despite the fact that I had warned them that this low-key celebration wouldn’t take more than two hours and that it was important to me that they made an effort to be kind and (somewhat) sociable, my twelve-year-old daughter kept tapping my shoulder and asking in French, “so, when are we leaving?” I asked her to stop, but she didn’t. And before I knew it, my girls were attempting to strangle each other, and I lost my cool. Suppressing tears, I said goodbye to my brother I see so rarely and boarded the tram with my daughters, without exchanging a single word on the way home. We had already a big discussion at the beginning of our trip about how each of us needs to take responsibility for our behaviour instead of looking to blame the other. What else could I do to have this message sink in?
When we arrived home, I asked my daughters to give me their phones and handed them each a piece of paper and pen. I asked them to spend the next hour in silence, writing a mini essay about how they envision the rest of the trip, and what they are going to do to make it happen. I warned them that if they write something along the lines of, “I’ll behave myself, if my sister behaves herself,” they will get another hour in silence and an opportunity to revise their text. My youngest daughter, displeased with the assignment, asked me if I was going to do the same. “Absolutely,” I said. My older daughter, a serious student, asked for the required word-count. I told her that there was no word-count, but that I wanted her to get as detailed as possible.
So, we each retreated to our quiet spaces and began writing. An hour later we reconvened in the kitchen. My fourteen-year old daughter volunteered to read her mini essay first, titled, “How the trip is going to go in the future”:
I want the trip to go better than how it has been. I want the trip to be stress-free and I will make that happen by acting more patient and not arrogant towards others like I was the day we went shopping. I will also not bother my sister and start fights. It poisons the atmosphere and makes everyone around us uncomfortable. I want to avoid that. I will find other ways to entertain myself like reading books. I will also try to communicate more with nagymama. I want to be conscious that you (mom) have limited time with your family and the moment you spend with them here are important. That’s why I shouldn’t ruin that by being mean to my sister. I’m really sorry and I want to have a good trip with you. I want to have a good experience and swim and eat good meals. I promise I’ll be nice to my sister by giving hugs but respecting her intimacy and I’ll talk to her nicely. You too.
I was holding back tears as I thanked her for her beautiful words. Next, it was her sister’s turn.
- How I imagine the rest of the time we’re in Budapest and croacia/Zagreb = I think we will have a lot of fun and it will be cool and we’ll have fun if everybody is positive and I’m excited to go to chibinik it’s just that I know I can’t promise that me and Celeste won’t fight a little sometimes because it’s normal but ME, I will make an effort not to fight.
- For the rest of the vacation, I will do my best not to get annoyed easily by you and stay positive even thought I am tired or hot, ect… I will also make an effort not to ask all the time “When are we going” or “What time is it”. That’s it! 🙂
Her essay made me smile. Now it was my turn, because I wasn’t off the hook either.
What I would like to do for the rest of the trip: Spend quality time together, eat breakfast, lunch, dinner while having nice conversations, or just chilling. (I’d love some hugs, but I know it’s too much to ask)
- Swim in the ocean
- Have nice meals
- Great chats
- Fun time with nagymama
- Fun time with Danira and Pasko.
What I will do to make that happen:
- Be more attuned to what the girls need. Food, rest, time away from the sun etc.
- Never skip my meditation and yoga practice so I have my shit together and I don’t take out my frustrations on the girls when it has nothing to do with them.
- Practice compassion.
- Practice patience.
- Avoid yelling
- Practice active listening to the girls when they are trying to get my attention and tell me something important.
- Pay for everything
Next, we had a candid discussion on the points we had raised and made some revisions. Most notably, we each promised to watch our language and the intention we put behind our words. No swear words (in any language), no insults, and no hurtful comments. I told them that I would hold onto these essays as a “contract” and if the promises in it are broken, we would return to revising them in silence, for as long as it took for us to be committed to the behavioural changes we had proposed.
When the hard talk was done, I asked them if there was anything else I needed to be aware of; anxieties and worries I had perhaps overlooked and needed to be more sensitive to. I reminded them that I loved them like crazy and that I would always listen to them and fight for them. They challenged me on my ability to physically fight for them. I told them that once I used to be a soldier, but by this point we were already laughing and planning on ordering pizza.
Admittedly, this was an emotionally exhausting experience, but also a gratifying opportunity for a deeper connection. Hours later when we were enjoying our pizzas, I thought to myself, boy, this parenting thing is hard core. Only days earlier, my brother had explained to my daughters that his job as a parent was not to be his children’s buddy, but to educate them. While educating your children, setting boundaries and saying ‘no’ is a lot less enjoyable than being their fun-loving buddy, there is a flip side to this exchange: Our children too can teach us some valuable lessons – provided we are open enough, and humble enough to listen to them. Yes, as parents we may have the upper hand of authority and experience, but our children have that remarkable innocence that examines things from a less biased and less corrupted perspective. Adults tend to over-complicate and overthink things. How many times have my young daughters stopped me in my tracks and called me out when I was failing to deliver on my own parenting advice? The word ‘responsibility’ never came up once when I was growing up. I had to learn its meaning on my own, the hard way.
I was almost thirty when a friend in New Zealand taught me an unforgettable lesson. I still remember where I stood in her kitchen and what I wore the day she asked me if I was still in love with my ex-boyfriend. I tried to dodge the uncomfortable question by saying that “it was complicated.”
“You have to forget him,” she said it as if it were an undisputed fact.
“You are right. For four and a half years he’s been fucking with me,” I said like a skilled victim.
“Has he? Or have you allowed yourself to be fucked with?”
The blow of her words felt like the greatest slap in the face. But boy, did I ever need that slap to finally wake up to reality? Time stood still for a moment, before I turned to face her. “You are so right,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I don’t think you were ready to hear this before, but I know that you are ready to hear it now,” she said.
That afternoon, only a couple of months short of my thirtieth birthday, I walked to Wellington beach a new person. Someone who was “response·able” for her actions, and someone who was answerable for where these actions had led her. Sure, it stung to know that my ex-boyfriend wasn’t the only one to blame for the demise of our relationship and that maybe I had played a part in it too. But choosing to take responsibility freed me from the powerless fate of a victim who was dependant on someone else’s actions, or permission. I had won my agency back.
Later that night, I got thinking about the world at large and had another epiphany. On my website’s ‘About’ page I state that my mission “is to challenge the status quo & encourage respectful, meaningful conversation.” I seem to be obsessed with having the uncomfortable conversations that most shy away from; I am interested in exploring the grey zone between the black and white. But why? Because what disheartens me in the world, especially in politics, is seeing our leaders act like the worst children. Instead of taking responsibility, they spew out hate and blame the other side. “The election was rigged, voters were misled, Russia interfered with the election, the Media is biased…” and so go on the excuses. Political debates resemble fights in the playground: “I didn’t do it. It was him.”
Politicians are not the only ones who do it. We all do it. I do it. “Idiots, racist, deplorable, selfish, privileged, a fringe minority with unacceptable views, woke, homophobe, transphobe, white supremacist, conspiracy theorist…” Does any of these labels we are quick to slap on ‘the other’ sound familiar? Ouch. An uncomfortable thought. Mea culpa. And here is another uncomfortable question: How have these cheap labels helped in converting these enemies into our allies, lessen the division and hate, and help underprivileged groups in tangible ways?
Acknowledging wrong-doing is the first, important step without which no progress is possible. “I’m sorry,” has immense power in it. But in my book, an apology that is not followed by a responsible action is worthless. Self-flagellation alone will not make the world a better place. It will only make the wrong-doer feel better about themselves. Just like my daughters’ mini essays demonstrated, an admission of wrong-doing has to be followed with a committed course of action.
So, what if we could give our leaders a similar exercise: to write an essay on all that they have gotten wrong; the things they have failed to deliver, and then ask them to write a new contract on the exact steps they were going to take to fix the wrong-doing – a contract by which we could then hold them accountable? Or, imagine a primary, or a campaign, where a hopeful nominee addresses the people like this, “I am here to listen. Please tell me how my party and I have failed you, so I could do better.” In other words, they would listen first. And I mean, really listen, not pretend to listen. Listen with the intention to understand, and not with the intention to respond.
I know, looking outside is easier than looking within. Wagging the finger at someone else requires a lot less effort than having an honest look at ourselves. ‘It wasn’t me. It was him’ is an easier self-talk than ‘Oh, shit. I do the exact things I deplore in others.’ But –
We all want to be seen, and all want to be listened to. When people are repeatedly ignored, they will do the unthinkable: vote for someone like Trump or vote for Brexit. And we, on the other side, will continue to be shocked. I know I was. Then, most of us will slap an unattractive label on those ‘idiots’ whose choice is unfathomable to us and call it a day. We will convince ourselves that we are right and they are wrong, and the divisions will continue to grow.
Taking responsibility is hard work. It is a practice. And let’s face it: we each have our prejudices, even the most progressive, enlightened of us. To expose them to the air and take responsibility for our behaviour is deeply uncomfortable. But ultimately, the rewards outweigh the discomfort. Growth is rarely a smooth, comfortable process. It is a bumpy ride. But I can’t think of a worse prison than being stuck in a victim’s mentality: sit comfortably in my little cell and blame the rest of the world for my woes. That doesn’t mean I don’t fall prey to this tempting way of thinking, but I do my best to catch myself. Did I say already that this parenting thing was hard core? But this is a responsibility I have towards my daughters: not only to educate them, but continue to educate myself, and strive to do better. Always.