I’ve always been interested in my ancestors – who they were, where they were from, why they did the things they did, how they got to America. As a child I would solicit stories from my grandparents, and try to commit the details to memory. About five years ago, my brother and his wife gave our grandparents a family history book.
By “modeling behavior,” I am not referring to “striking a pose” or “looking fierce” (although I have been accused of posing like at model). In behavioral psychology terminology, modeling, sometimes referred to as social learning theory, is when “people learn new information and behaviors by watching other people,” according to Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Usually, we think of this as something children do – they learn to eat with a fork by observing their parents at the dinner table. My niece was classic case of modeling when she picked up a watering can for the first time at age one and knew exactly what to do with it from watching her mother water flowers.
At a previous job, I trained people to give tours by “modeling” good tour practices. This is all well and good when you have someone who is modeling good behavior and the person on the receiving end is aware enough to ask questions when he or she is unsure or something seems off. Unfortunately, some of the trainees didn’t care about what they were doing and would just repeat anything they heard or saw modeled for them. A co-worker called it “mocking” behavior. We used to laugh at how lazy and ignorant these trainees seemed. Reflecting back on my poor attitude in this situation, it seems very hypocritical now because for years I’ve demonstrated the behaviors modeled for me by my parents without asking any questions or thinking anything was wrong.
Until I went to graduate school, I spent 22 years living within a 10-mile radius of my childhood home. The only time I hadn’t lived in my parents’ house was the four years I spent at university – which included a visit home every weekend. My father was born and raised in my home state; my mother had moved there after college graduation because that’s where her parents lived. Dad is not the adventurous type, and if it weren’t for Mom, we never would have gone camping on the sea coast or made the pilgrimage to Disney World. My brother Mike inherited Dad’s homebody gene, thinking there’s no place better than his home state. He now lives only 15 miles from our childhood home.
When I got into graduate school, I was at the point in my life when I was ready to escape the nightmare that my parents’ marriage had become. Of course I was pursuing higher education, but I couldn’t wait to live somewhere else and shed the yucky feeling that being around my parents gave me. Yes, I was running away from them, but also running toward a future in which I could “start over” and make new friends. Boy, was I ever naïve. You can’t “start over” if you haven’t dealt with the subconscious crap in your head. This is where I made my mistake – thinking I was going to be a new and better person because I moved away from my parents.
I was running away, although I never admitted this to myself or my family. I still wanted to be a part of my family, just on my terms. My brother thought that my going away to school, and my subsequent move out west, was a conscious attempt to not be a part of my family, although I didn’t know this until three years after I moved back east. During the six years I was out west, Mike never made an effort to come see me, even when my parents offered to pay. When I moved back east – three hours from his house – he and Meg visited …
In a vain attempt to solve my parents’ marital problems, I had them come to therapy with me one time when they were visiting me out west. I was seeing a therapist because I was trying to work through some problems with my boyfriend, Russell, while our relationship crashed and burned around me. This is where I began to form my theory of “you’re not in therapy for the reason you think you’re there.” It turns out that I wasn’t ready to be cognizant of my problems.
Mom eagerly agreed to come to the family therapy appointment – “anything for you, sweetheart.” She knew there were issues with her marriage, but hadn’t taken any steps to deal with them. So getting my father to come to a family therapy session might bring him one step closer to couples therapy at home.
There we were, the three of us, sitting in the dimly lit office of my therapist, Cheryl. Dad got antagonistic, not wanting to share or open up. He finally admitted that the only reason he was there was because I asked him to come. We talked about the emotional distance that existed in our family – especially between my father and the rest of us. He admitted that that’s how his parents treated him. His emotional distance became actual physical distance, as he was much more interested in pursuing his own hobbies and career than actively participating in his marriage, and Mike’s and my childhood.
Then the revelation came. Cheryl said, “So you and your brother were married to your mother. You provided the emotional and physical support for your mother because your father was absent.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. Cheryl got it. It was true. Mike and I were both very close with my mother. To this day she is the first person either of us calls when we need advice or want to share news. Unbeknownst to us, as children she was leaning on us for the emotional support and affection that she was not getting from my father. She was sacrificing her own emotional needs (her marriage) to be mother …