Updated: Jun 23, 2022
Parents everywhere teach their children that they are special and unique. I know I heard it from my own parents and shared the same message to my two kids. I’d delight in their developmental milestones, support them in their struggles, and look them in the eye and tell them that they were special. I’m sorry to all the other parents out there, but nobody was cuter, sweeter, and more brilliant than my child.
It took a major disruption in my life to start shifting this deep-seeded thought process that was ingrained in me from my own upbringing. Was this internalized message of ‘specialness’ doing more harm than good? If you’re really that special, then your life experiences, including your sadness, struggles and failures, must be unique to just you. I knew that logically to be untrue, but emotions seem to run on their own thought processes.
My critical uniqueness came to a head when my father became terminally ill. At the time, I had two much smaller children, I was in a job that was unfulfilling to say the least, and my anxiety was at an all time high. Logically I knew other people lost parents, found themselves in jobs they disliked, and felt burned out. But I was too deep in my emotions to think logically. I felt isolated and alone, unique in my misery.
Therapy and other lifestyle changes brought healing. But another surprising thing helped and had long-lasting benefits and changed my life course dramatically. In grasping with the reality of my father’s mortality (which forces you to consider your own), I felt driven to preserve a piece of him in some way. So, for purely selfish reasons, I set out to capture my father’s story. I asked questions I had never bother asking before. Because I felt stuck in my career, I asked about his work life. Because I felt disconnected, I asked about his relationships with his parents, siblings, and spouse. I was surprised by his responses. He was a successful VP of a large electronics company, but his outward success did not tell his full story. He made some big and expensive mistakes. As a young kid, he often felt bullied and ignored. This was all news to me.
Any other person might not be surprised to hear that he had as many stumbles and setbacks in his life as the average guy. But to a daughter who was raised thinking her dad was invincible AND that she was ‘special,’ this started a series of life-changing discoveries. Though hearing his uninterrupted and unedited story, I felt more connected to my dad than ever before and at the same time, started understanding a lot more about my own life.
I compiled some of these stories into a book, first for me, but inevitably for anyone in our family to read about and learn what made this great man tick. That same year, I started doing the same thing for other families—because, not surprisingly, I was not unique in wanting to learn more and connect with my family on a deeper level. Gone went the career slump I was stuck in and I have created a professional life that I now love and am proud about. Since 2015, I have preserved close to 200 life stories, each as beautiful and surprising, funny and touching, as that first one.
I’ve since discovered that the power of sharing family stories is backed by research that deserves more attention. According to an article in The New York Times, “the single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Studies have proven that children who know more about their family history grow up more secure and resilient. Even stories as simple as learning where parents or grandparents grew up or how they met can give the next generation a sense of being connected to something larger than themselves. Our immediate and early ancestors have gone through struggle, loss, and pain. They have also experienced great joy. Sharing these life stories is another way of saying, ‘You’re not alone.’
While parents everywhere will continue to tell their children that they are special, perhaps we should also teach them that they are beautifully ordinary, too. We are connected to our fellow humans through our shared life experiences. It took a crisis to realize that I’m really not that special, and I'm grateful for it.
Source: Feiler, B. “The Stories That Bind Us.” The New York Times. 15 March 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html