Opening Words from Sun. November 6 by Rebecca Karlen

Good morning. I am Rebecca Karlen, our family have been members at The Ethical Society for about 10 years. My husband is Carl, and we have two kids, Oscar and Milo. Milo is in 7th grade and Oscar is a senior in High School.

From experience, I have learned to predict, were we talking one-on-one, your next question, one I have come to dread. You might know that the question is something like “So, what is Oscar planning for next year?”

As a parent I constantly feel like I am part of this cohort of parents, all of whom are heading to a destination of guiding our kids into adulthood. And I feel like everyone else has a map to the destination with turn by turn directions, an estimated arrival time and a little chime that says when they need to correct the course. Continuing my metaphor, here I am and everybody in the group is confidently driving away. As a person who feels lost, I am reassured that there really is no map or directions and there are actually a multitude of destinations, so everything is really OK.

But I have a fear that gnaws at me at all times. I am afraid that I am going to miss something in this college journey, miss a deadline, drop the ball, forget something, take a wrong turn and life will be messed up forever.
Rationally I know 2 things:

  • 100% guaranteed I will look back and realize there’s something I in fate DO regret or that we could have done differently
  • It’s probably going to be OK

Years ago I was talking to my best friend Rachel, and she said when talking about something that is challenging, worrisome, problematic – there are only 4 possible things you want from your conversation partner –

I asked her about this subsequently, and she could not remember what she had been referring to – but I think it came from her studies as a social worker, so if there is a social worker or therapist who knows about this concept I would LOVE to read an article about it because it is a concept that has stuck with me… I am not even sure there were 4, but here goes.

Suppose I have a problem. A situation. Something that is bothering me. 4 things I might want when I share it in conversation.

  1. I just need to be heard. I need to vent. Or I need a shoulder to cry on. I need to share the burden of this issue out loud to another person. What I want is a witness, a listener. I may want to be told “yes, that sounds really hard” or “I am sorry for what you are going through” or “you are right, that’s not fair”.
  2. I want you to support me to reason out the problem for myself. You are going to encourage me that I can figure it out. This might include asking questions like “what do you think would help?” An example – Carl likes to talk through what he is packing when he goes on a trip. He typically has everything he needs, but it helps him to go through it out loud with me. I might say “I think you have everything” or ask “I wonder if you need all those sweaters?” Sometimes I am good at being this person, sometimes not so much.

I may be more authoritative in this situation and say “That is too many sweaters” which is #3 – proposing solutions.

  1. As the person with the issue, what I want is guidance. Tell me what you think I should do. Or tell me a story about how you solved the same problem in the past. Some people have a very helpful FIXER personality, they automatically go to “my friend at work had this issue and here is what they did” or they might offer a resource they think would help. Have you ever been looking for #1 I just want to be heard and gotten #3: “you are telling me what you think I should do?”

Everybody has. And it can be annoying. Sometimes I get mad. But I have to remember, it’s not that the FIXER is doing something wrong. Sometimes we need to be clear “I’m not looking for a fix right now, I just want to talk about what is going on”.

I know for me when I get frustrated by being offered solutions it is because I think the FIXER is judging me, they must think I am not capable. “How dare they!” While at the same time there is a voice in my head saying “Alert alert! You are not capable!! You cannot figure this out!!!”

And of course I go into FIXER mode myself. But I do try to remember to ask permission to fix, I might ask “may I make a suggestion?”

I said there was 4, and the last one is

  1. Like that Bonnie Tyler song – “I need a hero!” I want you to solve my problem for me. I don’t want to know how to solve it, I do not want to solve it myself – What I want to hear is “I’ll take care of it” and I never have to think about it again.

SO, back to our high school Senior. Talking about after high school is not a casual conversation for me. I feel quite lost. I just had one of these conversations yesterday with some moms, two of them have kids in college, and they are full of suggestions for me, throwing out acronyms of super helpful programs, books and websites I have never heard of, and sharing success stories that leave me wondering “how does everyone have the map?”

Of the 4 categories what I would really like here is a 4, somebody to swoop in and figure all of it out for us. One version of this fantasy is the college counselor could call with a perfect opportunity for our Senior, preferably one that includes a full scholarship.

However, these what-about-next-year conversations often go category 3, I say “We are not certain about plans for after High School’ and people go into FIXER mode, offering suggestions, sharing the map of a journey that was successful for them.

What I am puzzling over is how to manage my feeling that I am messing everything up, absorb the bits of intel that may be helpful, and be accepting of so much uncertainty while continuing this steady march toward an unknown destination.

In closing, I will say that I am simultaneously relieved and terrified to know that nobody really feels like they know what they are doing.

So, if we talk during coffee hour later, feel free to ask about my dogs or my houseplants.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.