Here is what we don’t acknowledge nearly often enough: there is a difference between stoicism and strength. I’ve displayed both faces to the world, and I’ve learned that one is based in fear and tension, where the other flows from bravery and release.
When I was in the first hard hours of labor with my first child, my shoulders rose to my ears with each contraction. I clenched my fists, hard-set my jaw, banged on the hospital bed and made sounds without vowels. I was doggedly determined to give birth without pain medication, and so I held it all together with the force of my will. After hours of this, my midwife approached me as I panted between contractions and said, “You have to stop fighting this.”
I didn’t understand her, and growled in frustration as the next contraction surged. She said, “Imagine these contractions like waves. You can’t make the wave retract by shoving it away. Let it break over you. Watch it come in and watch it recede. It will go away. Try to relax into it.”
It made sense. It might have been the best advice about parenting I would ever receive. In the years to come – a second labor resulting in a second child tormented by many health issues – I would try, as I noticed literal or metaphorical clenching, to remember: it comes in, it recedes. Let it break over you. Strength is in that wisdom – the inner resolve to wait and watch, to feel and acknowledge without bracing for the next wave.
Stoicism, on the other hand, is in the tensing of every metaphorical muscle, the readiness, the building up of armor to protect us from what’s approaching. The mother I sometimes find myself creating – head held high, not needing help, not needing sleep, not needing a release – looks fiercely independent. She is the mother about whom other parents say, I could never handle that like she does. I needed that stoic mother in operating rooms and clinic appointments for my daughter. I needed her in parent-teacher conferences about health plans. I needed her whenever I had to give my daughter more bad news about a new medically required diet or surgical procedure or medication. The stoic mother was someone who served a purpose, but she was not strong.
The strong mother within me was the one who called my friends after the children were in bed and asked for help. The strong mother within me visited online bulletin boards and posted honest messages that included the words “scared” and “nervous” and “why?” I looked through the strong mother’s eyes across a table at a fellow parent and asked her, through tears, what I would do if my daughter died. It was the strong mother who laid me in the arms of someone I trusted after my daughter survived her biggest surgery, and that strong mother released all the tight cords holding the stoic mother to me so that I could collapse, sobbing, and tell my friend how frightened I’d been.
The strong mother within me held my older daughter when she was bullied and cried along with her. That strong mother gave me the voice to tell my daughter that it had happened to me, too, and that strong mother let me grieve with her for the both of us. And then, that strong mother held my heart while I wore the stoic mother’s face to school to meet with the principal.
If stoicism is about looking tough, strength is about trusting in your inner fortitude. It takes more guts to admit your fear, your inadequacies, and your humanity – and to let the waves of all of that crest over you – than it does to stand with your hands out and your face expressionless and try to fight them off. A strong mother is able to take her vulnerable pieces and, when the waves knock them out, to gather whatever help she can find to replace them.
Every time I opened my heart, my arms, and my voice, it took bravery. Admitting my fear was almost as daunting as the things I about which I was most fearful – and that’s the key. Standing at the waves – looming, cold, unstoppable – and releasing my urge to stop them with my own rigidity was what made me truly strong.