Mothers are known for being the cornerstones of any family; the foundations that support the beams of our children’s lives. Although mothers experience vulnerability at nearly every turn, it is not something that is viewed as a formidable building block in the complex growth process.
Women are a symbol of strength and for a long time, I viewed strength as meaning entirely devoid of weakness, not just in parenting but in being a woman as well. As a 20-year-old mother, I held tightly to my anger, my hostility, and my cynicism; they protected me from the judgment and stigma that I felt, as well as the painful loneliness I experienced in those early years of raising my eldest. It’s only now, fourteen years later, as a mother of three, that I am starting to branch out and understand this part of myself that allowed only strength to flourish. I’m just starting to understand where my strength is born from.
My mom called me last week, a day after I saw the movie, Wonder, with my daughters, and demanded to know if I was the only one who cried. I had no idea, of course, because I was so engrossed in the story, the emotion, and the empathy I was feeling for Auggie, his sister Via, and their parents. I couldn’t figure out why it mattered if I was the only one who cried or not.
I can’t remember a time that my mother cried, to be honest.
I recall her stern reaction to what she thought was my distressed crying at my grandfather’s funeral. I was twenty-one at the time, a new mom, and I was standing with a group of my cousins at the front of a church, each of us waiting our turn to read our part of the memorial we had written. It turns out it wasn’t me who let out the strangled sob, but one of my cousins; I carried the lesson with me regardless.
Don’t get me wrong, my mother is a loving woman, in her own way. I think she’s just gotten really, really good at hiding her emotions under a front of strength.
I have often taken that road too, of holding onto my emotions and burying them, allowing only my strength to show. However, holding space for our own vulnerability, and showing that side of ourselves to our children, builds vulnerability as a strength and allows us to connect with others in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. I’m just starting to learn this, and it has been a powerful shift. I’m also recognizing that the “weaker” emotions don’t necessarily get hidden but simply manifest themselves in other ways.
I remember quite clearly the day that I showed my children that I was vulnerable. Two years ago, my husband and I played a bit of bedroom musical chairs with our daughters; our youngest, who was one-and-a-half at the time, was long overdue in moving out of our bedroom, so we presented the girls with the opportunity to make over their rooms if they swapped around a bit. As part of the bedroom swapping, we went through their belongings, paring down and passing along clothing, toys and such as we could. I suggested to our middle child, who was eight at the time, that she either choose to pass her American Girl dolls on to her sister, allowing me to box them up and put them in storage or to give them to another child who could use them. She didn’t even bat an eye and agreed to give them up; I promptly and quite unexpectedly burst into tears.
The irony here is that I had gotten to a point where I loathed these dolls, with their outfits that cost more than any article of clothing of my own, and their miniature accessories that I found under the bed and under the heat registers, and their pieces of furniture like closets, lockers, beds, a horse stall, and all of the other things I had to move every time I vacuumed my daughter’s bedroom. I had dreamed of the day my home would be rid of their weird little eyes staring at me.
My response startled even me, and my husband wasn’t really sure what to do with me; he kind of laughed and pulled me into a hug, whispering, “What’s going on?” in my ear. The girls looked at me like deer caught in headlights, not really sure what had just happened.
At that moment where my eight-year-old casually and easily let go of a piece of her childhood, I had a very real reaction to how quickly my daughters were growing up.
I’m learning that showing my more vulnerable emotions to my daughters, versus hiding them, allows us to connect on a different level. A poignant example is a conversation my thirteen-year-old and I had when she first suggested that she was considering moving in with her father full-time rather than make the transition to our new home and new town with myself, my husband and her sisters – there was no hiding the emotion that I felt, and it left me with an opening to share with her in a way that I don’t know that she would have been as receptive to otherwise. We continue to have conversations around this topic, and that initial very vulnerable conversation broke ground for this openness and trust.
This is true not with just my daughters, of course, but with my friends and family as well. I have seen it occur with my writing, as I open up and work through some of the more challenging things I have gone through as a mother. Being vulnerable has opened conversations that wouldn’t have otherwise happened, meaningful conversations and also new relationships with those I have known superficially for some time.
The American Girl dolls are still with us; my daughter refused to get rid of them, likely out of fear of making me cry again. They have stayed with us, moved homes with us, and are now integral pieces of my youngest daughter’s playroom. They’re reminders, for me at least, that when we try to bury our feelings, they’ll still make themselves known, and likely not in a way that is most constructive. I am working on making myself more vulnerable, and showing my daughters that the strength being vulnerable leaves you with is in confidence of owning your emotions and your feelings, and in building a stronger connection with others based on trust.
I would love to hear your thoughts, comments or resources for building conscious vulnerability in parenting.