I just finished the rough draft of a paper for my family systems course. It’s a review of the book “Intimate Worlds: How Families Thrive and Why They Fail” written by Maggie Scarf. My paper (and the book) describe five levels of family functioning. The levels are, from most unhealthy to healthiest: Level 5 – Family in Pain, Level 4 – The Polarized Family, Level 3 – The Rule Bound Family, Level 2 – The Adequate Family and Level 1 – The Optimal Family. Levels 2 and 1 are considered on the healthy side of the scale while the others are on the unhealthy side. This scale is called “The Beavers Scale of Family Health and Competence”.
I was raised in level 5 family, which translates to being raised in pure chaos, with no actual leader, no actual rules, but lots of punishment. My husband was raised in level 4 family, where there is an order to the chaos by way of a tyrant. Basically we both had pretty crappy childhoods and we strive to do much better for our daughter. We want her to have a more peaceful childhood; we want her to always knows she’s wanted and loved; we want her to feel safe to be her own person and express her truth without fear of judgement or punishment. Basically we want her to have the childhood so many of us only dreamed of having.
There’s a “test” or inventory at the back of the book that lets therapists figure out where a family is on the Beavers scale. I took the test, assuming we would be at level 2, because really, how could we possibly be an “optimal” family? I assumed at best we are adequate, we have far too many “issues” to be “optimal”. There was no way we could be optimal, just no way.
I was shocked at the results. According to the inventory scoring we are indeed an optimal family system. I took the inventory in to Nick and had him answer all the questions and then I scored it. And sure enough, his scores had us as an optimal family too.
I was confused. I mean, my husband and I fight. Our daughter doesn’t always listen to us and sometimes we yell at her. We each struggle in our own ways to maintain both our independence and our place within our family. Some days have lots of laughter, but some still have lots of tears. How could we be “Optimal”? We aren’t the perfect zen family where every moment we are in perfect harmony with each other. We struggle. Some days more than others, but still we struggle
My problem was confusing “optimal” with my strange idea of “perfect”. It’s true that my family is not perfect. We, as individuals are pretty far from perfect in fact. Even as a system I would say we aren’t perfect. We fit together and work together well, yes, but not perfectly every moment of every day.
But being “optimal” isn’t about being “perfect”. Optimal is about everyone having the space and feeling comfortable to be his or her own person. Optimal is about feeling loved even on our crappy days. Optimal is about knowing that even though we are in conflict right now, this too shall pass and we will get through it, together. Optimal is about joy and safety and comfort and love.
I’ve struggled a lot in the last almost five years of being a parent. I’ve struggled because I didn’t have very good role models for parenting, and I felt so anxious about messing my kid up. What I’m starting to realize, is that I can relax. I am a good parent. My girl loves me and her father and we love her and each other. She loves being with us, so much so that she struggles even going to a forty-five minute ballet class (which she LOVES) where we are not present. She wants to share all of her moments with us. It’s amazing to me that she doesn’t feel any need to escape, to be away from her dad or me. She’s perfectly happy just hanging out with us all day, almost every day.
This is a lot for me to take in. It’s a lot of love and adoration for me to take in. My girl often says to me “You’re the best mama in the whole world” to which I used to respond: “Well I don’t know about that. I sure try to be though.” She started responding to my self-deprecating response with “You don’t need to try, mama. You just are!” I would try to argue with her or simply change the topic, being unable to accept that I did not follow in my mother’s footsteps, that I actually am a good mama.
It took an intense therapy session to really see how difficult it is for me to see the good in myself. And more than that, to accept that others see the good in me too. There is a piece of me that often wonders what a person wants if he or she compliments me in some way, or shows appreciation for something I’ve done. I can’t accept that another person is recognizing something in me that he or she needs to comment on. I struggle with this.
It’s part of my healing path, certainly. Accepting my own beauty, my own goodness, my own joy. Accepting myself as a whole and not trying to put on display all my “bad parts” when another compliments a good part. Trying to keep a soft heart within myself, for myself and others. To not be so defended against the world. To relax. To be.
So I have moved from shock at having what one scale would call an “optimal” family to marveling at this fact. It is amazing to me how we did it. Not surprising, but amazing, nonetheless. We, my husband and I, come from such pain and we are truly walking towards such joy. Our little girl is proof of this.
At some point I will move past marveling and will accept that our family is healthy and whole. That my husband and I managed to create the family we always wanted as children for our daughter. And then later, I won’t think of it at all. It will just be. We will just be. And I’ll be able to experience a little more joy in my heart without feeling overwhelmed by it all.
I’ve started this part of my journey with responding to my daughter, when she declares what an amazing mama I am, with “Thank you. I certainly try to be.” She still responds back with “You don’t have to try mama! You just are!” At some point I’ll drop the “I certainly try to be” and fully accept that I just am, as my sweet almost five-year old declares and sees. I will be able to accept that I am a good mama. I will be able to be a good mama. I will be able to just be.