Dear Colleagues and Friends:
I am honored to have taken on the Presidency of the MCFM and hope that I can fill the shoes of Fran Whyman. They might be petite and fashionable shoes, but they carried a lot of responsibility and did so with strong and thoughtful steps. I have started my Presidency with gratitude to Fran and the rest of the past and current Board, with enthusiasm for an organization and a field that I love, and with a story.
My mother-in-law, Naomi Billow, turned 102 at the end of November. She is independent and travels alone each November from New York to Florida and back to NYC in May. She lives alone and has taken care of herself since 1970 when her husband, a physician, became ill with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and within a few years had to move to a Veteran’s Administration facility. Naomi visited him faithfully for 7 years before his death. I greatly admire her loyalty, her independence, her competence, her respect for the institution of marriage, and her pride.
Why am I telling you this? During a recent conversation Naomi asked me whether I feel badly working to help people break up their marriages. I told her that isn’t how I think of my work and that I feel very good about my work. In her inimitable way she said that I am definitely wrong, and that “helping to break up marriages” is exactly what I do. Why do I disagree with Naomi’s characterization of our work?
People come to divorce mediation because they want to move forward in their lives in as positive a way as possible. Usually they are on the road to accepting, or have accepted, that a marriage they hoped would be central to their whole lives, has broken down. Is that break up a failure of the individuals, of the institution, or of the two people in combination as a couple? Or is it a failure at all?
Perhaps it is an opportunity for growth and change or, as likely, a reflection of growth and change that have occurred in a way that makes the marriage no longer viable, or at least no longer what the couple originally envisioned. There is almost always sadness and mourning, disappointment, fear, and anger. But failure is not the place where most people dwell when they choose mediation.
Rather they seek help to accept the change that has occurred and to work to move forward in the best possible way, given how difficult it is or can be to create and then face a new independent life. Ironically, Naomi, who believes deeply in the institution of marriage, despite her acknowledgment of how traditional gender/marital roles limited the lives of most of her women friends and relatives and her own life, is one of my great models for living independently with little complaint and deep acceptance of changed circumstances.
Helping individuals and couples live with their changed circumstances, no matter how difficult, and look to the future with hope and open minds, is a significant aspect of what we do. MCFM helps aspiring and experienced mediators learn to work with clients in this way.
Last summer I had the opportunity to learn from Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy). A central tenet of her teaching is “Radical Acceptance”. Radical Acceptance is a Buddhist phrase used to describe how best to live our lives and how to take the first step when circumstances have changed unexpectedly and are not what we had hoped for.
Again, ironically, men and women of prior generations in the Western world, and perhaps current generations in other cultures, “radically accept” that marriage of a man and a woman is the only and best structure upon which to base a strong society. The opportunity we have had in the West for the past 75 years or so to begin a search for better, different, and more individually fulfilling structures for relationships is one of the reasons why mediation has arisen as an important process in working with families. Mediation allows for the growth and change of gender roles, gender identities, improved parenting, and new directions in work and professional development for all people, regardless of race, gender or age, which we are witnessing in families who come to us for help.
So I will go on thinking of my work as helping couples move forward creatively and accept new challenges so that they can be the best possible parents and individuals in the context of their own unique life circumstances. And I cheer Naomi on in her independence and presence of mind in the life she accepted and created for herself.
And to our readers, I wish you and your families a great school year and a productive and joyful 2017 – 2018.
p.s. since I wrote this letter, our country has elected a new president; I hope we will all put our conflict resolution skills to the test in furthering improved communication, maintaining civility and promoting civil rights in the world.