Why You Don’t Control Your Importance, nor Influence
“Our children never warn us that they’re thinking of growing up, one day they’re just too big to want to hold our hand, it’s just as well we never know when the last time is going to be, or we’d never let go. They drive you mad when they’re little, yelling every time you leave the room because you don’t realize at the time that whenever someone yells “Daddy!” that means you’re important. It’s hard to get used to not being important.”
This clip is from a fiction book I read called “The Winners” by Fredrik Backman. It is the third in a series. It is a great story with great characters. The characters and these types of inner thoughts keep me coming back for more from this author.
The character that said this was born in a small town in the middle of nowhere in some fictional country. The townspeople are all consumed by the hockey team. The character, Peter, was born there and was the most gifted player. He was so good that the NHL drafted him. After five games in the pros, he injured his foot and had to leave professional hockey.
He returns to the small town and joins the club as the coach and later as the GM. Then the star of the team rapes Peter’s daughter. He is faced with the decision. Side with the player and keep the team, the town, and his life as it is. Side with his daughter and lose everything as he knows it, including his job. He chooses his daughter.
So now he is working for his wife. She is a lawyer. He is doing administration. This makes him merely a spectator and fan of the team and sport he once mastered.
He said, “It’s hard to get used to not being important.” It hit me. This is me.
I was, at one time, right in the middle of our Atlanta startup ecosystem. I knew everything that was going on. I saw all the most profitable deals. And now I don’t.
The next generation has stepped in and taken over. They are well equipped and connected, just like I used to be my age. And they are doing a terrific job. It is their time now. It is not my time anymore.
I am no longer important. They are.
I shared this quote from the book with Kathy, and she said, “I remember the last time David (our oldest son) held my hand.”
“You do?” I said with surprise.
“We were walking together and instinctively reached for each other’s hand. Shortly after, David pulled his hand away and stuck it into his pants pocket. I knew right then he would never hold my hand again. It was the last time.”
And this story had me remember another story. This one was a shared experience with our youngest, Nick.
Kathy and I moved Nick into the University of Alabama’s freshman dorm. She was so sad driving back from Tuscaloosa. We didn’t talk much. I knew this was a new stage in Kathy’s life. Our last child, her last child, left home. She has been a full-time mom for the last thirty-two years. She raised our four children. Her life changed dramatically.
The next morning when we awakened, Kathy looked at me and said, “You know what you’re supposed to do today, but what am I supposed to do?”
I looked at her and said flippantly, “Sucks for you.” Then I got up. Got dressed. I went on with my day of meetings and business to-dos. But not Kathy. She was a full-time mom to our four children. Now they are all gone. They left the nest.
Our children moved on to their next stage in life. And when they did, Kathy was deemed unimportant. She didn’t do anything to deserve this. She dedicated her life to her children. She used to be the most important person in their lives. Not now. It was over.
Kathy never sought to be important, but as their mother, she was important. But the importance isn’t something she achieved. It was given to her by our children. It was a gift, a responsibility, a closeness in a relationship, a dependence, a need satisfied. It was true. She was important as their mom. And all of a sudden, she wasn’t.
And now it is happening to me.
Then I realized this might be new to me, but it isn’t new to her. Kathy’s been through this with her job as a mom. Maybe I can learn from Kathy how to handle this life transition with the same grace she did.
Here is what I observed during that time in our lives, her life.
Becoming unimportant creates confusion and emptiness.
It is like being adrift. She lacked purpose. She lacked direction. She was no longer responsible. There wasn’t anything to get done. There weren’t problems to solve. There wasn’t anyone to interact with anymore. She didn’t receive calls asking for help. No wash to do. No rooms to clean. No parent meetings at the school. No games to attend. She had no one to serve.
Her kids moved on. They were living their own lives. They were solving their problems until they needed help.
You are not forgotten.
She still got the occasional call. But it was different. The kids were looking for advice on how to live an independent life—simple things like doing the wash. And then there was the more complex, like how to meet new people and have healthy relationships.
Kathy moved from being their mom to being their mother. As a mom, she had authority over their lives. As a mother, she was now an advisor. And this change was difficult. Both sides had to learn how this new relationship with new responsibilities would work.
The kids had to learn what it means to live independently. Kathy needed to know what needed to be done to support them in this stage of their lives. Her purpose moved from getting through school and into college to helping them become functioning adults and contributors to society.
And then new roles appeared.
Kathy became a mother-in-law. This created new responsibilities and importance. It was helping them discover how to be a wife. Marital issues and the complexity of marriage. Family planning, work, neighbors, furnishing a house, and becoming a part of the neighborhood community. All this was new to our adult children, and they reached out for help and advice.
And then she became a grandmother. And this changed everything. Kathy loves our grandchildren. She took to this like a duck to water. She could not be with them enough. She wasn’t their mother with primary responsibilities. She was the grandmother. Her job was not simply to enjoy the grandchildren while giving our daughters time to grow. To grow in their new and evolving roles as wives and mothers.
So is she important now?
Just before Thanksgiving, we went to grandparent’s day at our two oldest grandson’s school. We planned to have Kathy, and I split up. One of us would go to Charles’ classroom and the other to Henry’s. I walk into Charles’ classroom, and he looks right past me and says, “Where’s grandma?”
What I learned from watching Kathy
I learned a lot from thinking through what I observed in Kathy’s life, how she went from becoming unimportant to becoming important again. It is a process that takes time. A process that begins in pain and ends in joy. And here is the secret to this process.
You must always be willing to serve to get through the transition successfully. You can’t turn inward and self-centered. We do not create our importance. Our importance is given to us by others.