This fall I spent 3.5 weeks traveling with my mother in Ghana, Africa.
Before embarking for this trip, I had never had a particularly strong desire to go to West Africa. I’ve always wanted to visit many different places, like Morocco, Peru, and Nepal, but West Africa never quite made it on my list.
By contrast, my mother has dreamed of visiting Ghana ever since attending graduate school. She is a professional visual artist and has painted textiles from around the world for longer than I have been alive. In graduate school, she discovered the Kente textiles, which are the traditional yellow, gold fabrics of Ghana, and she has always been curious to see where they are made.
The relationship between me and my mom is complicated. She frequently drives me crazy, so traveling in close quarters for several weeks in a foreign country was a bold test for our relationship. How does the old joke go? “Why do your parents push your buttons? Because they installed them!”
When people have asked how our trip to Ghana went, I’ve been saying that I condensed 10 years of therapy into 3.5 weeks. But even that — while there is some truth to it — doesn’t give enough credence to my role in the relationship.
Just prior to going to Africa, I proposed that my mother and I go see a therapist together — a preparatory measure that might help shepard the trip to Ghana. One of the things that I brought up in therapy is the history of co-dependence in my family.
I think of co-dependence as me being unhappy with someone else’s condition, so much so, that I feel the need to change someone else in order to be happy myself.
My mother’s father died of alcoholism, and while I did not know my grandparents well myself, I suspect that my grandmother was codependent with my grandfather. My mother’s brother, my uncle, struggled with addiction, and died of associated complications. And, I suspect, other members of my family have echoed these codependent patterns, as well. And then here I am, 3 generations later, realizing that I have been codependent with my mother.
When my mother is unhappy, I am unhappy. When she is angry, I am afraid of the consequences. As a 33-year-old adult man, I remain timid and intimidated by her emotions, and my default is to try to “fix” them.
I brought this up in conversation with the therapist. Some of it landed with my mother and some of it she denied, but regardless, speaking it aloud made a difference.
My intention for the trip was to show up loving and supportive of my mother, but refrain from letting her emotions affect my mood or trying to problem-solve for her. This concept set a new precedent for our relationship.
One of the hardest things to explain is the fact that I did not expect my mother to change as a result of my actions. The change that I was hoping for, and at least partially achieved, was in and for myself. At times throughout the trip, my mom was just as controlling as she has ever been. My work was to show up calm, compassionate, loving, and clear — no matter what she was doing in a specific moment.
The experience of this trip got me reflecting on where else in my life I may have acted with codependence. When I look back at my very first romantic relationship back in college, I see threads of the same codependency I have with my mother. My former partner and I were consistently care-taking for each other and unhappy if the other was displeased. That was not the only relationship where this has been the case. When I look at my history as a leader of teams, I have a lot of strengths: I am compassionate. I am a clear communicator. I care enormously about the well being of my people, but sometimes I care beyond a healthy limit. There are times when it is not okay with me for my employees to be unhappy.
“Love. Guide. And then let go of the outcome.”
I think of good leadership, whether with a family member, a romantic partner, or a business colleague, as having three principles: love, guide, and let go. Love them. Invite them towards what you are wanting. Then let go of the outcome. Historically, I have been unable to let go of the outcome.
While the trip to Ghana was by no means a magic cure-all, it pushed me to spend those 4 weeks practicing how to love, how to guide, and — especially that cursed third step — how to let go of the outcome.
The first week was really challenging. Primarily because Ghana was a very challenging location to travel through, but also because the consistency of daily practice and spending more time with my mother than I have since I was 18 provided a level of practice that allowed for long-term change.
Three days after returning from Ghana, I evacuated my family from the Sonoma County fires and was grateful to discover an ease in leadership with my parents that had never existed before. Packing the house until midnight, getting up at 3am — all the while, trying to figure out which time zone I was in — allowed me to find a level of collaboration with my family that had never existed previously.
I’m excited to bring this significant change into all relationships in my life going forward — into romance and every work relationship that I will have for the rest of my career. I look forward to transferring this skill and being able to show up more clearly than I was able to previously. Perfectly? Of course not. But with a new and improved baseline for loving leadership.
Last weekend, my mother called me up and my mind immediately jumped to several things that I had promised to do for her but had not yet completed — calling travel insurance, paying bills, etc. Before I could say that I was getting to them, my mother stopped me to say that she really appreciated everything I had done to support her in Ghana and during the evacuations.
That acknowledgement is not the reason I went to Ghana and took 4 weeks out of a busy career. I did not expect my mother to change in any way as a result of our time together or even appreciate my efforts. My work was about unpacking the complexities of our relationship. But that acknowledgement was definitely the icing on the cake.
My mother and my relationship is not perfect — and it never will be — but I’m grateful to have spent time putting in the work with her. And I look forward to more.