To Parents Like Me: It's OK Not to Be Strong and Simply Survive
“I could never do what you do.”
“You are so strong.”
“I don’t know how you do it.”
These are phrases I’ve heard on and off throughout the past year from people who have the purest intentions. I know when people say things like this, they’re doing so from a place of sincerity and likely not knowing what to say to someone going through something difficult.
For that reason, I’m hesitant to say anything. But, the reality is I have to be honest about where I’m at instead of just talking about how important it is. So, to be honest, those kinds of comments, though appreciated for their intention, often lead me to an internal dialogue I never really talk about.
And it goes like this:
I don’t have any choice but to be “strong,” although strength isn’t what I personally call it. What others see as strength, I see as survival. I’m doing what I’m doing not because I’m an extra-special super-mom with all these coping skills at my disposal, not because I have my shit together more than you and not because I’m some zen master who knows what to do when crises occur.
I do it because I don’t know what else to do. I know my options are pretty limited. I can’t change what I can’t control, and so I have to make meaning of all that I can’t control. The thing about this is there is no handbook to survival. You go through each day, some days more begrudgingly than others, doing what you can without much thought. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever been to an out-of-body experience. I’d like to think I’m making a conscious choice to make lemonade out of lemons, but I know that’s not reality. Reality is I have no idea what I’m doing or how I’m even surviving at this point. I know a big part of it is because I feel like I have to. I have three beautiful children who need their mom, and even though there are a lot of days I don’t feel like I have the capacity to give them what they need, I keep trying my best. But again, the “choice” to do so doesn’t feel at all like a decision I’m making, but rather the opposite — there isn’t any other possible way to keep going but just to keep going.
And the reality is, I’m going — but it’s not pretty.
I guess I can say I’m doing well — all things considered. But strength isn’t what got me here. Survival is. And I’m starting to find out survival is a time-limited thing. Eventually, after survival comes sheer lack of function. And it’s no wonder. How long can a person last before they can no longer soften the blow of doctors acknowledging their child is “definitely a rare case,” or hearing words like “poor muscle tone, white matter issues, delayed development or brain involvement” from appointment to appointment. Or seeing their child tremor on a regular basis. Or having to hold down their screaming, shaking, terrified child through another procedure? How long before the forced smile fades when you’re discussing bringing your child across the country for undiagnosed disease programs at hospitals you thought only existed in the movies? How long before a person breaks?
For me, it’s taken about 15 months and 28 days. Being strong and not allowing myself to be vulnerable often enough has only prolonged all of the trauma of this season in our lives. I’ve only recently come to the conclusion that the only thing left for me to do is to acknowledge that, in fact, I don’t have it all together and that’s OK.
I felt I needed to name that because it’s important. Because there are a lot of people who are just surviving and on the outside seem like they are making lemonade. And those people need love. They need to know it’s OK if they don’t have it all together –even when it seems like having it all together is literally a life or death matter. No person can hold all of the pain and uncertainty and fear and anxiety of being in survival mode.
We will all, at some point, find ourselves in situations where our power to do anything is completely limited. And when that happens, it’s OK to not give into the pressure to carry the weight of all of that despair on your own. People will tell you you’re strong and it might make you feel good, but at the same time, it can make you feel like you can’t be anything but strong. That’s OK for a while, and it’s OK to get you through to the next hill, but it just can’t be a long-term solution. At least that’s my experience.
Sometimes strength is really just survival. I can’t tell you how to get through it because I’m right in the middle of that journey. But I can tell you it’s a lot easier if at least sometimes you allow yourself to feel anything but strong.
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