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Hinge Moments, Leadership, Life, Teaching and Learning

I Raised You Up? A story of parenting (and leadership?)

January 21, 2020, Author: Chris Breen

This story starts almost ten years ago when I rather reluctantly agreed to become a silent one-third owner of the house that my daughter and her husband were wanting to buy. I did this as they had been told that, as they were both self-employed, this was the only way that they could get a bond approved for the house.

Fast forward to 6 months ago where their world has changed dramatically. There are now two lovely children but they have been living apart for a year but are not yet divorced…

I became involved when my daughter sent me a copy of an email she had received from her husband in which he threatens to stop payments on the bond as a way of getting her blacklisted. (You can tell this break up is not going smoothly…).

I decide to write and point out that this threat is not helpful as it draws me into the conflict. As a third owner of the house, I will also get blacklisted. I point out that this would not be good for me and that I will have to take legal action to protect myself unless he backs off or makes a plan to buy the house and transfer the bond into his own name.

Two weeks go by without response and then a flurry of emails ends with my receiving a very angry email in which I am accused of being the main cause of the end of their marriage because of my parenting: ”what you’re too stupid to f#$%ing understand is that the you have ended up completely destroying the one person you should have protected”. 

I have enormous compassion for this man in his anger. I have been through this painful process of divorce with young children and know the self-recrimination and guilt and lashing out in despair. I take a step back and reflect on my own parenting. Many of my mistakes immediately rush into my consciousness. I certainly made some huge mistakes in my efforts to make sense of this task of being a parent while trying to fulfil all the commands and guidelines that had been passed on to me by parents and teachers. In retrospect I can see how busy I was with my work – especially when I started teaching. I was starting new courses and supporting the students at a time when I was also trying to take a stand in the extreme contested educational struggle of the time. I know that I often followed the example of my father and disappeared rather than stand up and take a stand and face the inevitable fire. I had two main mechanisms – disappear or erupt. Neither of which was helpful.

I try to convey these thoughts to my son-in-law and acknowledge that I have made mistakes and have many parenting regrets. Over the years since I got divorced from my children’s mother, I have tried to acknowledge these mistakes. I have tried hard to keep lines of communication open and, in recent years have been blessed to reach a place where our relationships appear to be on strong and fertile ground.

Another three months passes with all seemingly settling down into routine with sporadic skirmishes between daughter and my son-in-law. A new year starts and welcomes in the new decade. All is quiet for 3 months and the new year is starting…

I have been strongly influenced by David Whyte’s work on the Three Marriages and the crucial importance of the marriage to self, without which one cannot have successful marriages to others or work. I start the new year determined to pay far more attention to this marriage to Self.

So it seems natural to find myself at 5am just before sunrise taking a long slow hour long kayak ride around the island near my home. I breath deeply and take in the beautiful views of the mountains and moon in front of me. It is a spiritual experience and I become one with the water and the birds and embrace the tears of gratitude that erupt and overflow. I am reminded that all is good and as it should be. I take time to thank the gods for the gifts of my life.

I arrive home to a new crisis. My son-in-law is angry again and has erupted. He has unilaterally decided to change the parenting arrangements of my working daughter with no notice. Instead of sharing parenting equally each week, he now insists that they operate on a week-on wee- off as from the next day. He says he will prevent her from collecting the children the next day as per the status quo 0f their parenting over the last 18 months.

There is a core moment when I feel the pull to either erupt or disappear. It is a familiar moment that I have spent a great deal of time working on and researching over the past 20 years. I call this a hinge moment. Fortunately, on this occasion my life’s work on hinge moments pays off and I catch the moment and breathe and manage to stay in adult.

My daughter and I keep communicating. She gets advice from professionals. I write to hubby and lay down a line in the sand which says that this action breaks the status quo without negotiation or agreement. I will accompany my daughter at collection time and will witness and video record what happens. If she is denied access I will support her returning with the police. Further communication from him suggests that this is going to go down to the wire. He is not going to back down.

My daughter and I arrive at the appointed time and place. My daughter presses the intercom button while I record. She speaks to someone working there. The children and husband are not there. We leave and decide to leave some space to breath and try again later before heading for the police station.

Half an hour later he phones to tell my daughter that she can now come and collect her children. He has fortunately decided to back down. This crisis passes… For now!

Later that week I am given an enormous gift by my partner. A fortnight earlier we had celebrated an amazing 5 years together. After a month’s holiday she has returned to her home and work and sends me a link to Josh Grogan’s You Raise Me Up which she says is a token of gratitude for the multiple ways in which I have loved and supported her in our time together.

The timing is emotional – especially given the earlier events of the week – and my tears flow. As I listen I remember another video clip which uses this piece of music as background. It’s a story that takes place at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games. It’s the occasion of the men’s 400metre final where Derek Redmond from Britain is one of the favourites. He’s doing well going down the back straight and then suddenly pulls up sharply holding his thigh – he has torn his hamstring! At first he collapses to the ground in tears, but then he gets up and decides to try to hobble through to the finishing line.

As he starts this long journey of around 200m, race officials try to get him to leave the track. A man breaks all protocol and runs onto the track, puts his arms around Derek and starts supporting him on his quest to reach the finishing line. The man takes over the task of fighting off the officials.

The man is Derek Redmond’s father.

I always cry when I watch this video. I know first hand what is involved in this cameo. I was an international 400 meter hurdler who would almost certainly have competed at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico had South Africa had not been banned at the last minute because of its apartheid policies. I have been in the air reaching for a hurdle at top speed when a hamstring has torn. I know the pain and despair as I realised the loss of dreams and the disappearance of all those hours of training.

I find the video and watch again and the tears immediate flow with a greater force than ever. Then they pass and I found myself filled with love and gratitude. In a part not shown on this particular video, Derek’s Dad moves away slightly just before the finishing line and ensures that Derek crosses the finishing line on his own.

I realise that I have just walked alongside my daughter and given her support. I have had the chance to rescript my parenting relationship with my daughter. This time I did not erupt or disappear. I walked beside her while she was in pain. I supported her but did not try to take control and problem solve. At all times she held her sovereignty and decision making over what actions we would take.

I am now in my 70’s. It’s clearly never too late to learn how to step up and act with authenticity and grounded strength.

As my tears flow yet again, I am struck by the way in which life continues to give me the opportunity to replay old scripts from my life in different ways that allow me to heal old wounds. These moments ask me to have the courage to be honest with myself and to expose and explore my flaws and wounds and, most importantly, let go of old stories. These moments are often generous gifts from unexpected sources – this would not have happened without my son-in-law’s contribution!

I realise in hindsight how focused I was on the daily challenges that I most frequently brought my organising self home with me which meant an inevitable transactional interchange with my children such as ‘Have you done your homework?’ ‘Is your room tidy?’ It feels good today to see that we have managed to move beyond those mistakes and foreground the positive interactions that brings me to a place where I can recognise and embrace Derek Redmond’s father’s way…