Advice is easy to find. But good advice? That’s much more difficult. For new parents especially, a community of support isn’t always as supportive as we want it to be. Sometimes we speak to friends or family members who, while well meaning, don’t offer much in terms of substance. They just don’t have the insight to be as helpful as we need them. Other times, they can leave us with more questions than answers or shrug off our concerns as invalid and we end up feeling deflated.
As the saying goes, it takes a village. But it’s up to you to find the right villagers to rely on, a group of people who not only have the knowledge to help you face whatever challenge you’re going through but who can also offer the right perspective and temperament. This is always important. Right now, with questions about Covid-19, school openings, safety, daycare, mental health, marriage during quarantine, and more on everyone’s mind, it’s imperative.
So how do you go about finding the right kind of support? Good branding can help. So, it’s smart to think about yourself as the head of a company, that company as your family, and this group of individuals as your “Board of Directors,” says Dr. Susan Mecca, a psychologist, organizational consultant, and author of The Gift of Crisis: Finding Your Best Self in the Worst Times. This board, she says, should consist of roughly three to five individuals who are willing and able to be there when you need to talk and who can provide varied perspectives and honest advice. They could be friends, family, spiritual leaders, co-workers, neighbors. (A member or two could even be a trusted website or podcast, but you do need people who can talk and respond.) What matters most of all is that they can offer what you need and you trust them enough to listen.
How to Choose a Parenting Board of Directors
Deciding on a board requires a good deal of consideration. And the members will often change from year to year depending on what expertise you require and what concerns you’re facing. “You want to be really thoughtful about this,” says Dr. Mecca. “Who are the three to five people who you want to bring closer during this time, and how can you make that happen?”
For instance, if it’s Covid-19 related worries that you’re struggling with, friends who are in healthcare or education that can provide you good data, or simply those who are wise and have great perspective? Probably great choices. Your cousin who plays Call of Duty all day and drops in a Judd Apatow movie reference every other sentence? Not the best.
When considering what qualities to look for in a board of directors, Dr. Mecca looks to the acronym SUPPPORT. It stands for:
S: Skills and Expertise:
Now, not every single person on the board needs all of these qualities. But these qualities should be in good supply. Here’s how it breaks down:
Skills and Expertise
A parenting board of directors should consist of people who have a particular area of knowledge that you lack or know somewhat but aren’t confident about. This sounds obvious, but it’s crucial to have those with hands-on skills to help you out. Are you a new parent? Have someone who can offer caregiving expertise to keep you grounded. Worried about the school year? Reach out to a trusted friend or neighbor who’s an educator and get them on your “board” for that school year.
“As parents, we can make ourselves crazy thinking about horrible awful things are,” says Dr. Mecca. “An educator might say, ‘Well, as long as you’re keeping them up on math, we can catch them up on everything else.’”
You want someone who can hear your worries and talk you through them not only from a vantage point of expertise but also kindness. “You want someone who not only understands but is an understanding human being, who can be compassionate and can listen,” says Dr. Mecca.
“You don’t want somebody on your board of directors who’s going to be theoretical,” says Dr. Mecca. “It’s really helpful, particularly as a young parent, to have someone take it down for you.” For instance, Dr. Mecca’s niece was talking to her the other day about her son’s picky eating habits. Dr. Mecca explained that her son had the same issue when he was that age. She used an egg carton and put little pieces of various foods in the egg holders. It was a well-balanced meal, but he didn’t know it and he could pick through it. Her niece tried it. That worked. That’s straightforward advice from someone who’s been there.
Nervous, anxious people are not ideal for a seat on your board of directors. Especially if you’re a nervous sort yourself. Same thing can be said about pessimists. “If you call them when you’re having a crisis, they’ll feed your anxiety and not be of particular help,” says Dr. Mecca. “You want to prioritize the people who can say ‘Oh, well, you know, you got through the last thing, you’ll be okay.’”
This is where listening comes in. “You want somebody who’s really a good listener, who’s not going to come in with such a strong agenda that they’re not going to listen to what you have to say,” says Dr. Mecca. Think of a good primary care doctor. They ask you how you are, how you’re feeling, and then they give you their advice. In other words? They start from a place of listening and determine what you really need from them. That openness and willingness is crucial.
Those who you reach out to should be respectful. Not only of you, but also your values and your fears. These are people who won’t write off your worries but rather acknowledge and validate your feelings. They will say, “Yeah, that does sound scary.”
Now, and this is very important, this doesn’t meant they’re going to give into them. “But they’re willing to be respectful of them,” says Dr. Mecca. “Instead of saying ‘Oh stop worrying about that, you’re such a nervous person, they’re going to validate and be there for you.”
These people should be confidants and therefore be understanding when you say that the information you’re discussing needs to not be shared with others. You will likely be sharing personal feelings, beliefs, and fears with them and they need to be able to respect your privacy when asked.
Assembling Your Board of Directors
Looking for — and maintaining — your board of directors requires work. But it’s work that will go far in helping you and your family work through issues. Here are some things to keep in mind.
1. Think Through the List. Then Think Through it Again
The big question to ask when looking at the SUPPORT attributes is “Who comes to mind?” What friends, family, clergy people, or others do you immediately think about? Why? Would they be interested? Do they have a perspective or vantage point to offer good advice? Are they respectful of who you are and how you’re raising your kids? Sitting down and really interrogating your thoughts is the first step.
Now, a quick note for couples: A good exercise is to ask one another: ‘Who would be on our board of directors?’ This way, says Dr. Mecca, you sit down together and write a list of shared friends and relations. If you don’t do this, it’s easy to run into the problem of, ‘Oh these are my people and these are yours’ which can cause conflict. And, as the issue of emotional infidelity can always arise when you’re relying on someone else for personal, intimate advice, this is a good tactic to follow. You can split the “board” and one person can do most of the talking to one of ‘their people’, but it’s crucial that both parties respect the opinions of those on it. If your wife doesn’t really like your mother-in-law? She’s off the board.
2. Aim For a Good Mix
Confirmation bias is real. The last thing you want is a board of directors that consists of a bunch of yes men and women who simply go along with your initial feelings. Variety is key. Think: Someone who you know will align with you. Someone you know who will be respectful of your initial stance but push you further. Someone you know that is a great big-picture thinker.
3. Make Sure You Have Somebody Who’s Been There
Dr. Mecca isn’t big on archetypes. But she has two must-haves for a personal board. The first is an individual who has been where you are now and can look back and show you the path they traveled. Have toddler-age kids? Make sure you have someone who’s been through the toddler years. Experiencing a personal loss and need support? Make sure you have someone who went through grief and can see it from their vantage point.
The second is someone whose advice and perspective you respect. “This is someone who, regardless of the situation, always seems to ask good questions that make you think hard,” says. Dr. Mecca. “That’s priceless.”
4. Be Explicit
Recruiting someone for your board of directors takes a few conversations to shape the relationship. It’s important to be upfront. Are they willing to be there for you? Are they okay with being confidential when you ask them to be?
“You want to be able to say, ‘I want to come to you in the beginning and if you don’t have a good perspective, then that’s fine. I don’t expect you to always be on for me,” says Dr. Mecca. “Another important part is telling them ‘I want to be able to come to you from time to time with things that are super confidential and are you going to be comfortable with that? Is it alright for me to tell you something that you’re not going to tell your partner or kids or anybody else?’”
That explicitness comes down to the actual problem-solving conversation as well. “It’s important to ask the person such things as, ‘What’s most helpful to you when I tell you about this?’ or ‘What do you need from me?’”
5. Watch for Burnout
Maintenance is a big part of the board of directors. Relying on someone’s emotional energy always brings up the issue of burnout. You want to have three to five people on your board for varied opinions but also to avoid such scenarios. “Maintaining the relationship is very important. If you just have one person on your board of directors, the likelihood is that you’re going to fatigue them when you’re going through a crisis,” notes Dr. Mecca. “And it’s also important to acknowledge that the relationship a two-way street. You are there for them when they need you as they are they for you.”
A board of directors is a core group of people on whom you rely to get through the hard moments. These people are there for you, and you are there for them. But there’s an explicit ask of the relationship. You want them to offer honest advice and perspective when you need them to. Should all relationships be like this? Yes. But you want to have people that are qualified and trustworthy, who can say “Look at it from this perspective” or “When I was there I did this…” or, “I understand. That was hard for me, too.” Being conscious of who you speak with is key to making it through hard times or tough decisions. With this group of trusted individuals in your corner, life gets a little less foggy.