Somebody else’s kitchen

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Like many of my clients, Millie overworks.

She’s a teacher who gets up at four each morning for the two-hour commute to the school where she’s been a Special Ed teacher at for thirteen years.  She is good at what she does, and basks in the appreciation she receives from parents and coworkers. 

I’ve also never seen her not looking tired. 

She is chronically sleep-deprived and battles an endless series of colds, infections, backaches and muscle strains, panic attacks and depressions.

“I hate how I feel, believe me,” she says.  “But I’m ten years from retirement.”

“If you live that long.”

She nods grimly.  “I know.  But I see no way out of it.  It’s my one shot at financial security.”

“Uh huh,” I say.  “Thought experiment.  You’ve just won the lottery.  You have all the money you’ll ever need.  What do you do now?”

“What do I do?” she repeats. 

“Yes.  Quit your job?”

“Uh, no.  I’d probably stay on for, oh, another year.” 

“Why?” 

She looks at me.  “I don’t know.”

“So it’s not about financial security, because I just solved that problem for you.”

“I guess not.” 

“Okay.  Another question.  Has it ever occurred to you that created this imbalance in your life on purpose?  That you’ve chosen this way of  living for some unconscious reason?”

She looks confused.  “No.”

I know Millie’s history.  I know her mom is an anxious divorcee who pushed Millie to enter teaching so she wouldn’t have to depend on a man.  I know her mom’s mom was an Irish immigrant who raised four kids alone and insisted her daughter enter teaching for the very same reason. 

So I tell her the roasting pan story.

A family gathers for Thanksgiving and everybody’s there, all the generations.  And Daughter’s in the kitchen helping Mom prepare the turkey.  And she notices that mom hacks off the front end the turkey with a carving knife.  “Mom, you’ve always done that to our turkey.  Why?”   “I don’t really know,” Mom replies.  “It’s how my mom always did it.”  “Let’s ask her,” says Daughter.  So they go to Grandma.  “Grandma, why did you always cut off the front end of a turkey?”   “I don’t know,” says Grandma, “but it’s how my mother always did it.”  So they go to Great Grandma.  “Nana,” shouts Daughter, “why did you always cut the front end off the turkey?”  “Because,” Nana shouts back, “my roasting pan was too damned small.”

Millie laughs.  Then stops and looks startled.

“I think that’s why you live as you do.  I think your current life reflects lessons you inherited from your mom and your grandma and internalized without realizing it.  The world’s dangerous.  Never depend on a man.  Seek financial security above all.  Work till you drop.  Ignore feelings and other messages from your body.  I think those were probably appropriate lessons for grandma to learn.  I’m less sure about Mom.  I suspect she absorbed them unconsciously and then passed them down to you. 

“But I do know you’re not Grandma, and you’re not your mother. 

“And I know the right life for each of us grows out of our lessons, our experiences and feelings.  Nobody else’s.

“And I think the main reason you’re here with me now is because you’ve been trying to live a life that was cooked up in somebody else’s kitchen.” 

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