Place. I’ve put it as part of the strapline to my blog and I find myself constantly thinking about it. Place as in where we fit in the world and where we actually, physically live. Is it home and what is it that makes it home? A place where the people we have relationships with live? Our community? A place that makes us feel at home, sheltered? Somewhere to set out from and return to of a day? Our space on the checkerboard of life perhaps?
So many questions. Every year around this time I feel a certain restlessness. It is an old and familiar feeling and it covers me again like a pair of warm, worn gloves. The photograph above shows Ballyholme Bay where I spent a lot of my childhood and adolescence as my family lived in Ballyholme, a couple of streets back from the sea. My mum still lives there in the same house she has lived for 62 years this August – now the oldest original resident as my mum and dad moved there when the houses on that park were first built.
I wonder did she ever feel a sense of restlessness, a want to live somewhere else. There is an old family myth that they once, almost, moved house to a much larger house that looked directly out over the sea but because I was so upset at the thought of moving and cried so much, they changed their minds! My response to this is always that they must have been very poor parents to give in to such a demanding child but the truth is I do have a bit of a memory of that time and the consequent fear I felt at the thought of such a big change.
Later, in my teens I couldn’t wait to leave my home town. I felt the draw of another place then too albeit only in as far as Belfast a mere 20 odd miles away. Since first leaving home at 18 I have moved house and lived in eight different ‘places’ the furthest of them from Ballyholme still only 20 odd miles. Unless of course you count our holiday home (a static caravan) which I did live in over the summer months for several years which was a grand total of 110 miles away. Not exactly a big stretch.
Most of that time has been spent living in Belfast where I live today and it feels like exactly that – where I live. Not my home nor my community, not where I feel most at ease or sheltered – well, sheltered now maybe as I have spent the best part of a year remodelling this house to make it comfortable for me. My friends don’t live in Belfast, at least not any that I see on a regular basis, I don’t see work colleagues here daily either. Okay the family tie is quite strong as I have one daughter not yet quite fledged and it is in close enough proximity to my mum whom I do remain close to.
In his book ‘Leaving the Nest, What Families Are All About’ the psychologist Tony Humphreys describes the importance of leaving our original family to set up a separate family unit for ourselves as adults. This leavetaking of the family is not necessarily a physical exodus, even though this is advisable for young adult family members. As an adult it is difficult to establish one’s own life space and pattern, he says, while for example living under the same roof of other adults.
However, he goes on to say, emotional separateness from families of origin is a far more important issue. The major tasks for parents according to Humphreys are to promote independence in themselves and in their children, to let go of children once they reach late adolescence, to take responsibility for their own lives and promote responsibility for themselves in their offspring and lastly to create adult-adult relationships with their adolescent and adult offspring. Parents apparently often resist the suggestion that they need to stop parenting children who are in late adolescence or young adulthood but it comes more easily to parents who have developed their own independence.
Then, he goes on, there are those people who physically leave the family – may even move to another country – but there still has not been an emotional leavetaking. Some people leave home through rebellion against families that are over protective or highly defensive. People who ‘people please’ subconsciously seek to cast others as substitute parents and, likewise adults who put on a tough veneer and pretend they need no one are showing deep dependence.
As human beings Humphreys says, we have many needs which can only be met in relationships with others. However, having needs is not dependence. When you acknowledge your needs, take responsibility for them and express them in a way that allows the other person the freedom to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, you are being truly independent. When you demand that people meet your needs or when you act as if you do not need anybody, you are showing dependence.
I found this book really helpful when my own children were in their adolescence and I was working in a parent support role. Actually, that was why I said I started reading it but the truth was really that I had a feeling I had some work to do around leaving my own nest and family of origin. This familiar feeling of restlessness and a need to ‘get away’ to somewhere else had been with me for a long time then too and some of what he was describing about emeshed families and the realisation of self within the family resonated somewhere deep within me as a then 40 something adult.
Humphreys says that in the case of an adult, the means of establishing self-reliance, independence of family of origin and mature relationships with parents are the same as those he identifies for the creation of an effective family (unconditional love communicated by means of affirmation, affection, encouragement, concern, support, belief in the other’s capability, listening and warmth). The one difference is that rather than relying on parents and other family members for a sense of self and independence, as an adult you learn to rely and depend on yourself.
Basically, you need to parent yourself in a way that leads to the realisation of self and involves a belief in your own immense capability and a deep unconditional loving and acceptance of yourself and of others. He then cites characteristics to aim for such as having high self realisation, unconditionally loving and valuing yourself, parents and other family members, seeing parents as people in their own right, not conforming to parents’ and society’s expectation of what you ‘ought’ to be, being open to change, competing with self not with others and being self-directing, independent and self responsible etc., etc.
As I walk along the beach I think about the journey I have taken since flying my own nest. When I first read Humphrey’s book I recognised a lot of the ‘Passively controlling characteristics of adults who do not love and leave the family’ that he lists (it is a very long list!) Today I see more that reflect myself in the list of characteristics of ‘Adults who do love and leave the family’. The restlessness is still there but to a much lesser degree. Interestingly now that my father is gone and my mother is becoming more dependent due to her age and diminishing physical capability, I feel our relationship one of less dependence. It feels more a healthier adult-aging adult one and is a much better basis from which to work out how best to support her in the years to come.
I love this line of the sea. It formed the backdrop to my childhood and now it helps the brewing thought process make place for my future.