A couple days ago I read this quote by Bill Cosby and pasted it on my Facebook wall:
“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
Almost immediately, 20 people “liked” it and a bunch of others left comments describing how they wrestled with the disease to please, and how hard they worked to rid themselves of it. Of the 20+ people who responded, only one was a man.
I was reminded of Harvard professor and social psychologist Carol Gilligan’s seminal work, A Different Voice, in which she lays out girls’ moral development and how it differs from boys’. Gilligan found that boys’ moral code is based on individual needs while girls’ moral code is based on the collective.
Although there are plenty of upsides to thinking about the larger community, there is also a dark side. Girls begin losing their voices in the middle school years, as their moral code, based on preserving relationships, takes hold. Girls often betray their individual values, silencing themselves or acquiescing when they know they shouldn’t, in order to keep their place in the group.
Trying to Please Everybody Got Me in a Whole Mess of Trouble
To be accepted by my first husband and his family, I yessed and pleased and acquiesced and accommodated. It doesn’t really matter why I did, just that I did. When I realized I’d given way too much of myself away, and started to reclaim my voice, things didn’t go very well. The marriage ended badly. And the post-divorce years were hell.
Part of what made the post-divorce years hell was that I still struggled with the notion that my rights and needs weren’t of value. The struggle was made more intense because my ex also believed my rights and needs had no value, and told me so repeatedly.
Because my ex’s rage spilled over onto the kids, especially Luca, I was left with a terrible choice: agree to things I shouldn’t in order to calm my ex down, or draw a line in the sand and incur more wrath, which then hurt the kids.
It was excruciating not to be able to create a peaceful co-parenting situation and it was painful to have my ex tell me repeatedly that I was a lousy mother.
Because, even though we were divorced, we were still connected as parents. And on some level, I still wanted his approval.
When I could no longer dam the floodgates of post-divorce craziness, I gave my ex essentially full custody of my son. I did it to calm him down. I did it because I believed it was the only way to get Luca out of the conflict. I did it because I wanted to protect a new marriage that was getting dragged down into the abyss.
I chose to document this evolution in a blog, and on other sites. Let me tell you: if you want to experience what it’s like to displease people, tell them you’re a non-custodial mother. The common sentiment was that only “bad mothers” (whatever “bad mothers” are) only lose custody, therefore I must be a bad mother and, in general, pond scum.
For a girl with the unfortunate compulsion to make nice, this went down as smoothly as a vial of arsenic. I had to keep telling myself that the only person who truly understood what needed to be done was me, and that other people’s opinions of my mothering had no bearing on the truth.
Luckily, giving my ex custody turned out to be the best thing I could have done for Luca. It enabled him to have a more integrated picture of the divorce, to figure out that his mom wasn’t so bad after all, and that his dad had some chinks in the armor.
And yet. There are times when I still struggle with being a mother who doesn’t do mother things. Like enroll Luca in school.
Hello, I’m Luca’s Mother
Earlier this week I went to Luca’s new school to introduce myself to the Head of School and others on the administrative staff. I gave them the custody order so they would understand Prince and they were required to include me in all school issues related to Luca.
I wanted them to see that I didn’t have snakes coming out of my head. I wanted to familiarize myself with my son’s school for obvious reasons: I need to know his friends, his teachers, his curriculum and homework requirements.
So I sat at the conference table with the Head of School and the Staff and I explained as gingerly as possible why the custody arrangement had changed and what my legal rights were.
For those of you who have never struggled with assertiveness, this may not seem like a big deal. But for me, it was huge.
And it was huge because, while I wanted the school to see I didn’t have snakes slithering out of my head, I wasn’t trying to please them. I was stepping back into my role as Luca’s mother, even though it is not the role I imagined or would have chosen. In essence, I was saying, this is who I am and I expect you to deal with me.
And can I tell you? It felt great. It felt great shrugging off the albatross that is people-pleasing. I was relaxed, I was self-assured, I was able to talk about difficult things in a respectful, just-the-facts-ma’am manner.
They seemed to like me. But what I noticed more was that I liked them. They were open, easy to talk to, and seemed to genuinely care about Luca and learning about our family.
I didn’t drive so much as float out of the parking lot. As I motored back to work, I wondered what impact my “not-pleasing” (not be confused with not being polite) had on the Staff. Did showing up boldly as myself, sans my inner Sally Field, make them feel more at ease, thus contributing to the success of the meeting?
I think that it did. And I think I need to try it more often.