Mental Health Matters: Developing a Sense of Identity

My cousin and his wife adopted a baby last year. As soon as they brought her home from the hospital, he had a list of all the things she’d be and do. She would like cooking; he’d ensure she would because he props her up in the kitchen as he prepares meals; he’s a retired military chef. She would like fishing; he’d already taken her out on her first boat excursion. I feigned a smile as he described how fractions of her life and her identity were being shaped by his likes and dislikes.

pianoI suppose raising children in this way is natural. My mother was a skilled pianist. On Saturday mornings, she drove my six-year-old self to the north side, where I took Suzuki piano lessons. A brown piano sat in the corner of the dining room, where I remember practicing and learning one song, Cuckoo. It wasn’t until I advanced to reading sheet music that she looked over at me and asked one question.

“You don’t want to do this anymore?”

My answer was, “No,” so I was allowed to stop.

There was little else I remembered doing at that age. I devoured books, and eventually I wrote. By the time I was ten, I’d written and created a book about a boy, who had to assume responsibility of his home due to his father’s death. It was called On the Farm and was nominated for an award sponsored by Gwendolyn Brooks. But were these enjoyable to me, or were these just hobbies my mother had introduced to me? After all, she did have a bachelors in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also had boxes of unpublished essays stashed away in our basement.

It seemed imperative that I learn who I was independent of others. Psychologists agree; they suggest adoptees learn what they like/dislike apart from their adoptive families.

img_0522While writing is something my mother and I shared, it really is something I like to do. I was reminded of this six years ago. I’d written a piece about going natural, and on a whim, submitted it to For Harriet. My ego was overwhelmed with the thousand or so responses that essay garnered but writing for public consumption as a way to discuss a new thought was also something I felt I’d been missing. Connecting with others is necessary for my being. The following year, I began this blog and have loved every minute of not only writing, but also engaging with others about our daily lives. And if I use the what could you do for hours rule, then writing would definitely be it.

So, yes to writing. But what about other things I’d picked up throughout life?

Dwight and I have been married twenty-four years. When you’ve been with someone that long, it’s also important to discover what you like separate from your spouse. Superhero movies is that thing for me. Once I realized that Marvel was creating a seemingly endless timeline of films, I had to bow out. A few years ago, I expressed to him that I would only be watching one per year…with him…at the movies. I’m not sure how he feels about this, but such a small decision made a huge difference for me. I’d rather write, blog, or read a book than watch the same trope play itself out under water, in a fictional African land, or in a parallel universe.

I’ve also recognized that I like to entertain company in creative ways. For example, I’ve created something called a Christmas tree decorating party. I thought it’d be cool for each person in our family to have their own five-foot tree, and subsequently, invite a few people over to eat, drink, and decorate them. I’ve also thrown a Christmas brunch with all women. Sons weren’t even welcome. My youngest daughter and I made breakfast food and served about fourteen women.

transient_memphisSome of you may have also noticed I like photographing homeless and transient people. Many have asked me why? Others have judged it as rude. I think this hobby is the best example of stepping into one’s identity. I have my reasons. Sometimes I explain myself; other times, I don’t, because what I’ve found on this journey toward understanding self is it doesn’t matter what others think. It doesn’t matter if I can articulate why I enjoy something, and it doesn’t matter if it’s aligned with what my family or society values.

All that matters is that I know what I like and how I feel when I engage in it. This has been my greatest lesson of all about developing a sense of identity and of being myself. As a result, my sense of self no longer relies on the approval of anyone else.

Monday Notes: Worry ‘Bout Yo Self

When I was in my 30s or so, I emailed my father because I’d had a revelation.

“You treat all of the women you’re connected to horribly,” I announced.

I’d cracked the code and I had proof. At the time, his mother was a recent double amputee, who’d just moved in with him and his wife. During a breakfast outing, she confided to Dwight and me that he was charging her rent.

I also recounted a rumor I’d heard about how he’d mistreated my own mother. It was something about helping another woman move to Moline, IL while my mother was hospitalized 165 miles away. The indiscretion occurred before I was born, but I’d heard about it so much, primarily when adults didn’t know I was listening, that I could re-tell it myself.

I left the secrets I’d accrued about his current relationship unsaid, and instead, concluded with his treatment of me, which included explicit and implicit abandonment and unfulfilled promises.

“You always did judge me harshly,” he wrote, “but you know what? You’d do better psychoanalyzing yourself.”

At the time, I was offended.

Wouldn’t knowing my parent offer insights into myself and our relationship? I mean, I guess I could’ve phrased it with a less judgmental tone, or used “I statements,” but I’m no therapist and at the time hadn’t sought therapy. All I suspected was that I may be better if I understood his patterns of behavior because parts of who he was had affected me in some way.

Or, was he right?

Would I do better to simply think deeply about my own negative behavior, which was quickly adding up and determine how to proceed with life in a healthier way? Would it be better to stare myself down in the mirror and focus on the image reflected back to me?

Nah.

Fifteen years ago, it was much easier to point out everyone else’s flaws than to identify and focus on my own. It always is. Plus, I wasn’t ready for that type of introspection.

conquer_oneselfBut, after finally doing the work, I find it’s also important to research your family of origin as a method of recognizing patterns of behavior they may have passed on to you. Sometimes these models have inextricably bound you together in unhealthy ways.

However, I do recognize the rudeness of my communication. If I had the opportunity to re-send this email to my father, I wouldn’t. I’d just accept the observations of his life as observations (and judgments) and be grateful about how helpful they may be for me.

While I believe we will do best to worry about ourselves, ultimately, we were each shaped by our first communities, our families. And understanding who they are/were can be integral to understanding ourselves.

What do you think?

Monday Notes: New Mantra

I was raised by a celebratory family. My mother’s side was known to praise any and everything that I did. No matter what I accomplished – piano recitals, school functions, dance programs – my grandmother, grandfather, and great aunts and uncle would proclaim, “you were the best one!” On top of that, my mother was known for creating parties. Some planned and some instant.

“Punch in a glass is just punch,” she’d say, “but when you pour it in a punch bowl, with sliced oranges, well that’s a party!”

We partied often. And it was something I grew used to.

Similarly, my father’s side of the family is known for arriving from out of town to celebrate accomplishments. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t seen or talked to the person in months or years, if they’re invited to a graduation party, birthday event, or funeral repast, they will find a way to join in and turn up.

My childhood was wonderful in this way. But then my mother died, and so did her parties.

Eight months later, I threw my own seventeenth birthday party. It was the first time since the funeral that family members were all in one space. It was the first time since we’d buried my mother that things felt normal.

When I graduated high school, I asked Grannie if she was going to have a party afterwards. Some call it an open house.

“You want a party?” she asked.

“Yes,” I beamed.

“Well, you’re gonna have to pay for it yourself.”

biggest_fan_2So, I did. I bought royal blue streamers, royal blue tablecloths and napkins, and ordered myself a white sheet cake, with royal blue icing that read, Congratulations Kathy! After graduation, family and friends celebrated the occasion with me in Grannie’s basement.

Throughout the years, this pattern continued. If I wanted to celebrate me, then I created an event to do so. Sometimes these were joint, out-of-town birthday parties with friends. Other times, like my doctoral graduation or 40th birthday party, I planned a celebration independently to physically say congrats.

Over the past few years, I’ve grown weary of planning festivities for myself, yet I’ve continued to achieve. To maintain a commemorative spirit, I’ve begun taking myself out. If I do something that I believe is extraordinary, then I splurge on a meal.

I also share great news on social media, because even though sites like Facebook can be annoying, the reality is that Internet communities love to uplift you when you’ve done something positive. To be honest, it’s like dipping a glass ladle into that fancy bowl and scooping out the bright red punch my mother used to make. It tastes sweet. It feels special.

But as I approach 46, I realize those things are all outside of myself. And because I seek growth in everything I do, I’ve developed a new mantra. What I’m doing is important, even if no one else acknowledges it.

Don’t get me wrong. I still celebrate myself in explicit ways, but this phrase reminds me to also turn inward. It reminds me that my self-worth is not tied to my success or anyone’s validation of it. And it liberates me from expecting external gratification in the form of celebratory acts. This is a new practice. We’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, tell me if you’ve ever had to re-frame how you function in the world because of your upbringing? Are you a celebratory person?

Update: The Visit

“Why did you come?” That’s what Dwight asked me as we drove down I-10E, away from his brother’s home.

I came because I should be able to visit family without there being a problem.

I came because it’s what I do. If I’m in your city or state for business, then I let you know so that we can see one another, even if the other person wouldn’t do the same.

I came because I finally realized that it’s not anyone’s job to like, love, or validate me, so how they feel about me (positive or negative) doesn’t matter.

I came because, despite what people may think, I actually do like family.

Those are the answers I gave. But there is one more. I came because I believe part of my purpose is to work out relationships and their challenges. That’s why I write about them so much. Visiting my brother and sister-in-law was one more opportunity to work through how to be in relationship with them.

To be clear, the visit was pleasant. In fact, I had great conversations with my nieces and nephews; we even laughed and played on their trampoline.

Even though it was great, a few concepts were reinforced about interacting with family.

compromiseCompromise is required sometimes. My brother and sister-in-law are Christians. We visited on the weekend; therefore, SIL announced that the six of them would be attending church Sunday morning and we were welcomed to attend. The alternative? “You’ll just be here in an empty house if you don’t come,” she said.

Neither Dwight, nor I believe or participate in organized religion. I haven’t attended a church service in countless years. But from 11a until 1p, we listened to praise and worship songs and a lengthy sermon on the Samaritan woman (John 4).

We could’ve stayed at their home. But we didn’t for one reason. We hadn’t seen them in seven years. We came to spend time with them, and if they’d planned on being at church while we were there, then that’s where we would be too.

yin_yangDifferences make connecting difficult. The more I conversed with my SIL, the clearer our differences became. She likes rural communities; I like major cities. She’s introverted; I’m extroverted. She likes the cold and snow; I live for the warmth of the sun. She has a very quiet voice; I speak from my chest (a colleague once told me). She prefers tea; I love a full-bodied coffee. She’s conservative; I’m liberal. I could probably continue but I’m sure you get the point.

There’s nothing wrong with being different; however, it does make establishing a relationship a bit harder because there rarely seem to be common liftoff points. For example, although it was nice of her to buy coffee for me to have prior to church, it was instant. She didn’t realize this might be an egregious act to a coffee drinker. But because I was in a space of compromise, I drank it with gratitude. This brings me to the last lesson.

It’s okay not to be close with family members. It really is. Sometimes family is just family. Sometimes they are just the people to whom you are related. Sometimes family are just the people who married into your space, or you into theirs. For a long time, I thought otherwise. I believed family should be the people with whom you connect with the most. This isn’t always true, and I was reminded once again last week.

Close relationships require shared activities that allow for bonding. There are families who bond over vacations. Some families bond over holiday drinks. Other families bond over sports. I’m not sure our differences will allow for many bonding experiences. And without those, I’m not sure how the relationship can be closer.

While my visit was enjoyable, it was clear that we will more than likely remain as simply family. And that’s okay.

So, that’s the update. Let me know what you think about either of these points. Also, it’s the holiday season! Will you be spending time with family you aren’t particularly close to? If so, how will you manage?

DADDY CONTRIBUTOR: Charise Kollar

Today, meet Charise Kollar, author of “Marshmallow,” whose story skillfully connects the dots of her relationship with her dad’s relationship with his own father.

1521808695783Why were you inspired to contribute to this book? My ears perked when I heard that this anthology was in the making. I have long used personal journaling to process and heal from the tumultuous memories of my childhood. Granted, most of my personal writing has been positioned from the perspective of a fictional character. I suppose the distant relationship that I formed with my characters helped to reframe the situations in which I was writing about. This anthology contains my first memoir that features my voice as the narrator. I was inspired by this project because I knew that it would be a challenge I needed to take on in order to grow as a writer and as a daughter.

What is your father-daughter relationship like now? Embracing adulthood and physical distance have been the greatest gifts ever bestowed upon my relationship with my father. The physical distance has pushed both of us to spend genuine and meaningful time with one another when we have the ability to do so, mostly because we understand how fleeting these moments are. Time and age have softened my father, while adulthood has provided me with a rational layer to my overbearing empathy. We are learning to “meet in the middle,” I suppose.

If there is one thing you could tell your father what would it be? Years ago, during a rare vulnerable moment between us, I asked my dad, “Are you happy?” He scoffed, stared down at his coffee, and responded, “Yes” without hesitation. I have known this to be a lie, or rather, I have felt that there was more to the conversation than that brief yes. If I could go back, I would tell him that it’s not too late. It’s not too late to live fully and search for his true purpose. Perhaps this will motivate me to reopen the conversation before it does become too late.

If there is one thing you could tell men with daughters what would it be?

Please, for the love of all that is good in the world, please listen. Listen to your daughter, your partner, your siblings, yourself. Listen to the world’s messages. Listen to what is being said and what is not being said. Action limits us if we are neglecting to listen.

What are you working on currently? At the moment, I am immersed with researching and writing about “the ego” and social media involvement, specifically through the lens of body image advocacy. I find that many activists with an online presence utilize their own persona to inspire conversations within their communities, but I am curious as to how beneficial the social media involvement truly is for the individual activist. While I am definitely a supporter of social media as a means of communication, I am finding interest in how much of our involvement is ego-driven verses authentically intentional for the movement.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetCharise Kollar is an English teacher by trade with a passion for mentoring and igniting a sense of self-awareness in teens. She is the co-founder of the spiritual blog for millennials, Real Talk Universe (realtalkuniverse.com). While she was born in New Jersey, Charise is a self-identified Floridian who has been residing in Tallahassee since 2008.

A portion of the book’s proceeds will be contributed to an organization important to Kollar, The Oasis Center for Women & Girls. Their mission is to “improve the lives of women and girls through celebration and support.”

Paperback and eBook are available to order TODAY!