Taking Our Seats at the Table in our Families, Jobs & Communities

We talked in our last blog about the importance of gathering around the family dinner table. This blog will take a metaphorical look at “taking our seats at the table” whether siblings in our families, or as citizens in our communities and in the world.

We spend a great deal of time discussing people we admire-- writers, medical professionals, scientists, architects, chefs, designers, performers, educators, politicians and so on.

Some are notable because they took their seat at the table to produce works, ideas, a movement, invention, something heroic or political at just the right moment in our culture and are lauded publicly for it.

However, most of us live under the radar, which does not diminish the importance of our role at the table, whether in childhood or adulthood, in our families, at work and in our communities. In many ways, the seat we took in our families as children helps to define who we become as adults.

According to authors, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish who wrote, Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, a child’s place at the table can arise from three main sources: parents, other siblings and the child themself.

The authors suggest that children might unconsciously slip into different roles because they, and we as parents, want each of them to feel special and have a distinct identity. Bob might be a good reader. His sister Sally might be good in math and a younger brother Matt might be good in art. Another sibling is the “beauty” or comedian, true in the family of one of Margaret’s friends.

Siblings quickly figure out where they fit. Sometimes, this is based on gender or birth order. The eldest son in many cultures is treated like a prince and feels entitled to go first and get his way. In other families, if a girl is the eldest, she might be labeled the responsible one and take on the parental role of caring for her younger siblings as well as many household chores.

Margaret relates to this. The eldest of four, she didn’t mind taking care of her siblings most of the time, and today she loves to work with children. However, in some family systems, say Farber and Mazlish, “The older child may be resentful of having too much responsibil­ity for watching over the younger children, while the younger children may also resent the older child playing a parental role,” they write. Maybe, that’s why someone raised this way might fight having their own children feel like they’ve already been there, done that.  

Barbara was the second child and the only daughter. She played the role of the artistic/creative one in the family and the good daughter. It was clear from messages from both parents that she was the one expected to help with clearing the table, helping to dry dishes and taking on more responsibilities as they aged. Another message, less spoken but still heard clearly, was to do well in school, get into a “good” college, succeed but also get married and have children. A successful job was more important, but less so for her, though she ended up caring greatly about her work because of the passion and joy she derived from it. And both her parents were proud of what she accomplished.

Why do children get locked into these roles and stay there? A child will play their role because it brings them love and approval, say Faber and Mazlish. “Children are smart. They know there are payoffs that come with certain roles. The ‘clown’ in the family can get away with murder.” The child who plays “helpless” gets to see they explain how everyone do things for him (or her).

But by casting our kids and ourselves into roles, we may limit opportunities. Say Farber and Mazlish, “We could easily arrive at the wrong conclusion.” The authors encourage parents to treat their children as they are, not as we hoped they would become. “Let’s not place our children in roles that will defeat them.”  

Each of us strives throughout our lives to find our place at the table, and it’s okay to move around and try out other seats or roles as we age. Think Michele Obama, the second child with a smart and high-achieving older brother. Both were raised in a working class African American household. Michelle could have stayed in her role as second fiddle to her brother, but she found her place at the table through hard work and a great education.

After marrying Barack Obama and becoming the First Lady once he was elected President, she became the first African American to hold that position. Did she assume the same role at the table as her predecessors? She seized the day, carpe diem. She found her seat by developing worthwhile projects using her platform to make a difference such as starting a national healthy eating program and growing veggies in the White House garden. In doing so, she became an honest, hardworking, chic and cool role model.

As part of a writing duo for more than 33 years, we each have found our seat at the table in our work partnership and in our “big friendship,” a term coined by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, authors of Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close. 

We know what each of us does best and we play off each other in that way. That’s why both our writing and personal relationships have endured. In our work we have found that our different writing styles are complimentary. Barbara is a very linear and organized writer who was schooled in grammar by a tough 7th and 8th grade English teacher. Barbara reigns in Margaret, whose style is more horizontal, literary, and out of the box. And at times, we switch roles.

As a result, our writing partnership has grown into a close, rock-solid relationship. We also remember to be kind and compliment one another as well as be honest with criticisms but doing so kindly. “I think I’ll move some things around,” Margaret will tell Barbara rather than say, “Boy, is this off! What were you thinking?” And we never forget the joy of laughing outrageously together.

Taking on many roles has helped us evolve. Farber and Mazlish say that’s natural. “Life demands that we assume many roles. We need to know how to care for and be cared for; how to be leaders and followers; how to be serious and a little ‘wild’; how to live with disorder and how to create order.”

What do you want your role to be as parent, child, sibling, cousin, worker, activist, creator, inventor, teacher or whatever? Can you change your role as you move through life? Yes. It’s not only important to take your seat but also to change places when possible. Doing so can also be great fun. At the same time, no one who’s had to fight for their seat should ever feel they might lose it by standing up and speaking out.

How do you step out of your seat and into another? Here are a few strategies:

  1. Try leaving your role and comfort zone, if you can, and reconcile the fact that you might fail at first in order to succeed. If you were “the quiet laid back one” in your family, you might think you’re unable to assert yourself now. You never had to for everyone else in the family did your speaking up for you. Example: you want a raise but are afraid to confront your boss. You can remain mute or read about positive ways to speak up. You don’t have to be snarky to be persuasive. Come up with an approach, then role play with a trusted friend or partner. Next, try it for real and see how it feels. We might not be successful the first or even the second time but do it enough times and you’ll become proficient in your new assertive role.
  2. Organize a community event to promote a cause you care about, even if you weren’t the leader in your family.Now’s your chance to change yourself and the community landscape. Perhaps, you’ve been the family member with the green thumb, you want to start a community vegetable garden and then donate to food pantries nearby. Send out an email through the community website that you are looking for others who enjoy planting and tending gardens. Let the idea grow from there with you in your new role leading the way. At the same time, new friendships might blossom.
  3. Turn from a negative role—maybe, family slob--into successful home organizer. You certainly know how to make messes and most likely you learned, at some point, how to clean them up. Maybe you start in your own home and branch out to help friends and businesses, especially important now that many are working remotely. It’s nice to be able to monetize your new role.
  4. Parlay your talent in another role—maybe, the family clown--to segue into the entertainment or the news business. Margaret’s friend who was the family clown went into journalism and worked in TV news reporting on air. She was great covering events unscripted with her uncanny ability to turn a phrase or bring a story to life.
  5. Try your hand at something your sibling might have done better.If your brother was a naturally talented musician and you can’t hold a tune, then maybe focus on another way to express your creativity. Perhaps, you can draw or act. If you want to learn to sing, you might not be on the level of Maria Calais, Rene Fleming or even your sibling, but you can at least sing for your own pleasure. And always celebrate your sibling’s success; doing so can be contagious.
  6. Focus on caring and justice rather than playing your role as the family stoic if you’re not naturally compassionate. Empathy can be learned. Read. Go online. Try serving food at a homeless shelter at holiday time to boost your compassion quotient. The world needs you now more than ever.
  7. If you were always known for being shy,volunteer and try starting one-on-one conversations with the other volunteers or those people whom you are helping. This can lead to meatier conversations and new communication skills. Maybe, you journal about your conversations and expand this into a book. Or, as one friend of Barbara’s did, start taking photos of family or friend gatherings. This too can lead to a book or even a curated photography show. Soon you’ll be seeing yourself as a good listener, another new role to add to the list.  
  8. Take on responsibilities you never felt comfortable doing such as cooking a gourmet meal. You weren’t considered the family cook or even allowed in the kitchen as a kid, but you have a great palate, a good nose for fine wines and enjoy food. It's time to put those skills to good use. Start small. Organize a dinner party for four. Buy favorite cookbooks. Take a cooking class or two or consult a YouTube video to learn technique and who knows, soon you might be making bagels, as Barbara did, or chocolate babka, which she hopes to tackle.
  9. Give up roles you became tired of performing. Barbara has learned not to rush in and always be the one to organize a dinner or gathering. She took charge with a friend of compiling a “yearbook” for two of their high school reunions but promised herself no more for future gatherings. While it was fun initially, it became too time consuming with the second. Her attitude is someone else can pick up the mantle. And that decision feels good.
  10. Don’t pigeonhole yourself and others. If someone tries to put you in a box with a label, speak up and share how you view yourself in a low-key way. Do so when others label themselves as well. Tout their other skills. Nobody is one-dimensional. Most can change seats as if they were playing the game of musical chairs. And remember you are never too old to try out a new part. What will it next be?

Let us know what your role in the family was growing up and how that has shaped who you are today.  

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