I had a bad day recently, and I told Facebook so. “You’re so strong,” someone told me. I swallowed an urge to punch my computer screen. That person meant those words as a compliment. They meant, “You’re doing great, keep going.” They meant, “You do extraordinary things.” They meant everything but what I wanted to hear at that moment, which was:
I am here. I see your pain. You can lay it down.
I’m a parent in the 21st century, and I’m sick of people calling me “strong.” I spend my days herding children, which sometimes seems like corralling feral cats. I love my kids. I adore my kids. I am hashtag blessed. But they can be too much, too many, too loud, and too extra. Some days, they all yell at the same time, and I want nothing more than to clamp my hands over my ears and yell too. I can’t. Like my therapist tells me, when every child in my house degenerates into meltdown mode, I am the most emotionally mature person in the room. I have to act like it.
I am tired of acting like the most emotionally mature person in the room. I am tired of being strong.
I am as strong as the coffee I chug when I wake at dawn to work. The sun’s a lazy bastard; I’ve made friends with wrens and sparrows, who sing before its rising. I’m so fucking strong I am incapable of sleeping in anymore. Habit wakes me at five, five thirty: dark hours, solitary hours. My husband snores away. “How do you get up that early?” my friends demand. They are admiring. They wish they could get up that early. They speak of it as an option, a decision, an advantage.
I resist shouting at them: I get up that early because I have to get up so early.
I work. Maybe you throw in those loads of dishes, or switch those loads of laundry, or clean up the kitchen or pick up those toys. Maybe the dawn, that precious time before children stir and your partner awakes, is your only sliver of alone time. You, too, have made your peace with dawns because you’ve had to make your peace with dawns, and aren’t you so strong, aren’t you so productive! What a busy little bee!
For once, when I’ve posted to Facebook at four a.m., I want someone to say: um, it’s the asscrack of dawn. Why the fuck are you awake?
Speaking of Facebook, I do what most of us do: I repost relevant memes and articles. Some are funny. Some cut to the bone: memes about parental narcissism, memes about parental estrangement, memes about childhood trauma. I don’t pretend they aren’t applicable. In fact, because my whole family’s blocked, I sometimes say something like, “I feel this so hard.” The avalanche comes. You’re so strong. You deal with this so well. You’re coping amazingly.
You probably do the same thing. Maybe you post about your divorce or a death in the family. Maybe you put up pictures of a child you lost, or mourn a miscarriage you had. You don’t even have to directly post about your trauma; you only post an article about it. Friends know what it refers to and pile on. You’re so brave. You’re so strong.
People mean well, they do. They’re trying to be supportive. They don’t know what to say so they type sympathetic word-vomit.
But for once in my goddamn life, like you, I don’t want to be strong. I don’t want to deal well, and I don’t want to cope amazingly. Instead, one of you type the words, Hey, it’s okay to break down over this sometimes. I’ll be there when you need to. Tell me, This sucks big fat donkey dong. I know it hurts you. I’m here, and if you want to talk, I’ll listen. If you want to cry, I’ll hold you. You don’t have to say anything.
My friends even tell me this about therapy, for Christ’s sake. They’re so goddamn proud of me for going. I am so strong to know I need help and ask for it. This doesn’t help. They’re fucking empty words, because therapy is hard work. Changing how I view my entire existence on planet Earth scares me, and sometimes triggers me, and sometimes simply smacks me in the face with how much I’ve been traumatized. Don’t tell me you’re fucking proud. Sit with me quietly. Say, I’m here. You can cry. You don’t have to be strong anymore.
Those words are all we want to hear: You don’t have to be strong anymore.
We want: I am here. Now it’s your chance to lose your shit, and I’m here for it. Cry. Yell. Or don’t yell. You don’t have to say a word. You don’t owe me an explanation. But for a little while, you can lay that burden down.
We only have a short time on this big blue world. Don’t spend it mouthing stupid platitudes about strength. Instead, actually see someone’s pain. If you really do care, make the offer: call me. I’ll stay on the line, even if you do nothing but cry for an hour. Make a real effort. It’s easy to tell someone they’re strong. It’s not so easy to step up.
Step the fuck up.
Don’t tell us we’re strong. Stand up, see us in all our messiness, all our hurt, and say, “You’re not alone.”
Then be there — so for once, we don’t have to be so strong.