Our Narratives Matter
My son was born 7 weeks premature. I was 20 years old, totally unprepared to be a father, and I remember looking at that tiny little being as they rushed him out of the room to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). I didn’t know whether he would survive the night, let alone what difficulties he would face growing up as a result of he early birth – if he lived. All I could do was listen to the doctors and wait. If I felt helpless as an expecting father, I felt even more helpless then.
I was told he would need to stay in the NICU at least five weeks, until his weight were closer to a normal birth weight, his lungs had developed enough, and his liver was working properly. So it was that much more surprising when he came home on day 10, having responded to all his treatments exceptionally well and put on plenty of weight.
To be honest, I have no idea why we developed so quickly. Good doctors, good genes, good luck? Who knows, but I believed it was his spirit, his drive to live no matter what, that intangible will to be that some people have.
You see, I was in school in Rhode Island, and his mother lived in North Carolina. She had driven up to see me one last time before travel was forbidden by her doctor. My son was born on the last planned day of that visit. I told my friends its because he wanted me there when he was born. His mother’s labor lasted 13 hours, most of it very light. She only had three hard contractions at the end. The doctor barely made it into the room to deliver my son, most of his birth was overseen by the nurse on duty.
If this had happened while his mother was in NC, I would never have been able to make the drive in time to be there. Thus, I invented a cute little story that made people smile and painted my son as a willful and deliberate individual from before the moment of his birth.
I told him that story as he grew up. When the relationship with his mother and I ended (It had never been a very healthy one), it was already apparent to her that he was a “Daddy’s boy.” He wanted to be with me, and eventually, that’s how things worked out. Maybe that, too, was because of the story I told myself – that he wanted me there at his birth. Maybe I behaved a little differently than I would have otherwise.
I know many young, first time fathers feel left out of their infant’s lives. The earliest months and years of a child’s life seem to revolve around their mother, but none-the-less, my son clearly had a special bond with me, even in spite of my living hundreds of miles away and only seeing him every few weeks during the first year of his life.
He didn’t have it easy growing up. He’d been abandoned by his mother, his father (me) was under-educated, poor and too young to have enough life experience to really know what he was doing. But I always told him he was a fighter, that whatever he decided he wanted, he would get if he worked for it.
He had difficult times, and I was not the best parent. School was particularly difficult for him, not because he wasn’t smart – quite the opposite in fact. He needed more stimulating classes to keep his interest, but public school didn’t offer much, I had no money for a private one or even tutors. We tried a charter school, but that ended badly when he clashed with the personalities of the teachers.
His spirit to get what he wanted often rubs people the wrong way. But history isn’t written by those who conform, is it?
I frankly feared he would end up worse off than me. I’d had a privileged upbringing, and my lack of success in adult life at the time was mostly due to my own mistakes. But without the same opportunities I’d blown, he was going to be starting with so much less than me. But I never stopped believing he was fighter, even when it meant he was fighting me for what he wanted.
With poor grades, in spite of obvious intelligence, and a willful defiance to any authority, I feared the worst for his future.
Then he found something he loved – computers. First it was video games, then the electronics of the devices that played them, then the code that ran the devices. The more he learned, the more he loved it and the more focused he became. He knew what he wanted to do, but his path was far from certain.
He would need to go to a top college to get the training and degree to get the career he wanted. That meant getting his grades up, getting accepted, and finding the money. Somehow he did it all. He graduated high school and got into the college of his choice. He got his bachelors in computer science before he was 21. Because he was a fighter, he was willful and defiant and he would not stop until he got what he wanted. He managed those things while my business was failing and our house was in foreclosure. He marshalled the resources he needed to achieve his goal.
His obvious skill and talent created a Catch 22 for his employment prospects. He was too good. Every interview ended the same – he didn’t have real world experience, but his talent for the job was far superior than entry level. No matter who he interviewed with they were afraid he’d leave for a better job soon as he was no longer “entry level” on paper. Some even moved him up the interview ladder to consider him for management positions, but his lack of real world experience always cost him in that area, too.
He languished working as a bus boy, and taking side gigs installing WIFI for over a year after he graduated. But he never gave up, because he’s a fighter.
Finally, he got a job in his field and he was off. Already he was earning more than I had in my best year, and he was just beginning. Soon he was offered a better job and he moved up. Several times he was fired over conflicts with his superiors – he is still willful – but each time turned that into a new opportunity with a raise in salary and more control over his work.
Now as he approaches 30, he is as willful and defiant and intelligent as ever, and he has achieved more in his few years in the work force than I have in my entire life – both in terms of financial success and impact on the world. Because he’s a fighter.
I’ve seen many children grow up, and I’ve seen how the beliefs and attitudes of their parents shape how the behave in life. There is much in life we cannot control, but our belief about ourselves, who we are, what we are capable of absolutely determines how we respond to the things we cannot control. Those narratives we tell ourselves massively impact our lives.
As parents, we have the power to shape our children’s’ personal narrative from the very beginning. As adults, we have the power to change our own narratives and change the course of our lives.
When I was a young father, and telling my son he was a fighter, I also often viewed myself as a loser. I’d thrown away so many opportunities for “success” and my life reflected it. But over time I began to see myself differently.
I forgave myself for my mistakes and missed opportunities, because I learned to recognize I was young and naïve. I realized I could only work from where I was, and I began to recognize the massive challenges I had already overcome – a lack of education, learning disabilities, physical weakness, homelessness, the difficulties of being a single parent. I began to see my past hardships and overcoming them as badges of honor and achievements.
I stopped seeing difficulties as a reason to complain or to blame myself for failure, or even as proof I was a victim of circumstance, and began to see them as challenges and another chance to add to my growing collection of badges of honor. As I continued to treat my son as a fighter, capable of anything, I began to seem myself that way, too. After all, who had he inherited his fighting spirit from?
My narrative changed, and my life changed with it. Instead of being someone who’d had it easy, who’d never really achieved anything on my own, I saw my achievements as much more meaningful because of how low I’d gotten at times. Its not a great success to reach the top of a mountain if you’re start from 10 feet shot of the summit. But to get halfway to the top, after starting from the base, that is an achievement – and armed with that achievement reaching the peak seems that much more doable.
This is just one story from my life, one of thousands. Over time, whenever I remember a story I haven’t thought of for years, whether I’m telling it to myself or someone else, I am careful to consider how I tell it. Stories I once told with me as a victim I now tell with me as a hero who over comes. Because, no matter how one particular story ends, I’m still here, still alive and so I have won, in that one fact, no one has stopped me yet.
The narratives we tell ourselves about who we are and how we go through life are critical in shaping our life. I encourage you to think carefully about the narrative you tell about your own life. Did you choose it? Or was it given to you? Does it serve you?
There is more than one way to tell any story, the question is, what’s the best way for you to tell your story to yourself?
What is your story? How do you see yourself in the world? Do you belittle and degrade yourself by focusing on your failures and flaws? Or do you inspire yourself by focusing on your achievements, and successes, no matter how trivial they may seem?
Share your story in the comments, it may very well inspire someone else, and in that way, you may change the world without even realizing it.