The Roles We Play
I’ve been thinking about the roles we play lately. I grew up as Jean and Ed Winter’s daughter and Sheila and Lyn’s sister. In my family, that meant that there were expectations required of me and the role I occupied. We weren’t quite at the ‘children are to be seen and not heard’ stage but, thinking back, we were close. Make your bed, do your chores, do your homework, don’t talk back, pay attention to what adults say to you, don’t make waves, do what you’re told to do, don’t ask questions. Above all, don’t get on Ed’s nerves!
And then I went to school. Thankfully, I love learning because it was not fun following my sisters through school. I remember my grade 5 teacher [who had taught my oldest sister for grades 5 and 6 followed immediately by the middle sister in grade 5, followed immediately by me] saying: “I expected more of the sister of Lynette and Sheila Winter.” It says a great deal about the impact of those words that I can still remember them over 50 years later.
Again, there were expectations – rules to follow. Move quietly through the halls walking in single file, no talking in the halls, put your hand up to answer questions, do your homework, don’t talk out loud in class, be neat and tidy, play nice with the other kids in the class, do not talk back to your teacher, do better than your best. Above all, don’t ever question authority. And then there was the extra whammy from home about school: get A’s, be the best student in the class [translation: get straight A’s, be helpful, be biddable, be the most tractable student ever known to exist], don’t do anything that would mean that Ed and Jean have to come to a parent-teacher conference.
When I had completed all my schooling, I went to work. That was expected. Get a good job [good money and job security]. Become a contributing member of society. Heaven forefend if I should ever become a burden on society and have to ‘go on welfare’! And there were expectations. Be punctual, get everything done well ahead of any deadlines, help others, share what you know, be reliable, contribute to the fabric of the workplace [which, since I taught, meant that I was expected to coach and volunteer for committees], don’t question authority, don’t make waves, implement every directive from the board and the principal and the Ministry of Education. Above all, do not ever get on the wrong side of the principal or any parent.
And, since I’m female, there was the expectation that I would get married and have children. My father used to call me every Sunday and inevitably our conversation would end up at that point. He told me he was worried I’d be alone. I just couldn’t get him to understand that the two roles I did not want to adopt was those of wife and mother. Those roles did nothing for me. Just more stuff I would be expected to do even if I was not interested.
And as I grew up and especially after my father died, I have felt that I was not only the family rebel but I was the family hero. It was my job to make things right and to fix things and make life easier for my mother and one of my sisters and one of my nieces.
And lest I forget – there are the roles I have given to others in my life. My favourite aunt whose word was sacrosanct. She was a larger than life woman who had carved out her own life her way. A great role model but also, as I look back, a bit unreal. My middle sister who I saw as my saviour in my family. She could make me laugh and she could divert my father when he was about to blow up at me. Just about any boss I have ever had. Each has been the ultimate arbiter of what was acceptable and expected. Assigning roles to the others in my life meant that I had a role in relation to theirs – an expected way of interacting and responding. Not to the person but to their role in my life.
Any wonder that the sum of all the roles I have occupied in the last 62 years has been a biddable, reliable, conservative, compliant, insecure, watchful, scared of my own skin, often confused, and frequently very angry person.
How do you respond when anyone asks what you do? Do you reply with a form of I am mySelf and leave it at that? Or is your response couched in terms of your job, or who your kids are, or who your spouse is. Is your answer not YOU but the role which you claim depending upon who you are talking to and the context of the conversation?
While I knew that I didn’t like limiting myself to responding, “I am Jean Winter and I’m a high school teacher.” or some other form of statement, there was a benefit to responding that way. First, I responded using the standard socially accepted response. So I fit in because my response fit the expectations. And second, and as annoying as it is to write this, the role gave me a cloak of expected ways of being behind which I could hide. Coach meant something specific with a particular set of actions and behaviours. Teacher, sister, daughter, friend, singer, choir director – living out the expectations of any of these roles meant that I could hide from others. I could hide my anger and my confusion and my emotions and my personal reactions. Wear the role, change psychological clothing so to speak and I was safe. No one would know ME and no one could hurt me. AND I didn’t know myself either.
Being and living the role instead of living and being mySelf has had implications on how I have lived my life. It is only in the last 18 months that I have begun to shrug off the roles I’ve accepted in my life to this point. The most recent case in point is that I have not been able to fit into the ‘role’ of choir director at church anymore. The role is no longer a fit. That is what has been off kilter with working at the church this last year. I have not placed the minister in the role of ultimate anything. I’ve been questioning authority and seeking to do the job as I see it, not as it has been expected to be done.
As I’ve come to understand the roles that I have adopted dependent upon the living systems in my life – family, school, work, church, as I’ve been divesting myself of the cloak of each role, I have accepted my own process of becoming psychologically naked. I am baring mySelf to myself. And I am daring to bare mySelf to the world. I’m not like the emperor in the fairy tale who marched through the streets of the city having deluded himself into believing that he was wearing the most magnificent suit of clothing which only special people could see. I’m still wearing clothes. AND I’m not deluding myself about mySelf any longer.
In choosing the bare it all and to bear it all, I have chosen to expose mySelf to myself and to the world. There is such exuberant freedom possible in choosing to get rid of roles and their outdated trappings.