I’ve mentioned in a few other posts that I’ve had some rough years. You know, that patch where you’re hit with one thing after another? I’ve kept my melodrama low-key — nobody wants to hear me blubber on when they’ve got crap of their own — but I recently shared my story with a group of ladies. Afterwards, one approached me to chit chat.
“I don’t know if I could be as positive as you are,” she said, touching my shoulder for emphasis. “You’re so strong.” I wanted to cringe, but out of politeness I just smiled and thanked her instead.
That word, strong? Irks my nerves. Strong is a good adjective for paper towels and bad smells. For people — especially women — it has a habit of boxing us in and being a hindrance more than a compliment. And we pass that mess on to our daughters to keep up the “stay strong” tradition of shouldering stress in order to live up to the label.
In my family, it’s a given: if you’re a Harris, you’re a strong, black woman. We don’t try to be per se. My mom has never cracked a hand across the back of my neck for being a wuss or a wimp. It’s just that so much malarkey has been tossed in our collective direction that we’ve had to learn how to withstand financial struggle, personal strife, abusive relationships, cheating husbands, job losses, and devastating diseases as a group. Nothing unusual to most families, but in ours the key to survival is to stay strong. There’s that word again.
It’s shown up in greeting cards and pep talks, words of encouragement and motivation lectures. Strong, for most ladies, is a way of life. But it’s also open to much interpretation. What we generally think is a characteristic of being strong might actually be self-destructive and just downright crazy.
Some folks think being strong means letting their man knock the living daylights out of them and not saying anything because their inability to handle the situation makes them seem weak. Some think it means internalizing the pain and sorrow they feel from being beat down by life and covering that up with phony smiles and flawless hair and makeup. Some think it means surviving indescribable obstacles but accepting defeat as the regularly scheduled program for their lives. True, there’s strength in survival. But there’s freedom in hoping for more.
So being “strong,” in the wrong instances, is a dangerous badge of honor.
My interpretation of strong was born from being raised by a single mother. My mommy is smart, resourceful, dependable, hardworking. I grew up with that don’t-expect-anybody-to-help-you-but-God attitude because my mom passed it on to me. So naturally, as I did what I needed to do to make sure my own daughter was safe, healthy, and happy, I was conscious of being strong, too, just like my mom. I didn’t like asking anybody for help, even if I really needed it. I’d figure out a way to do it myself, whether it made the situation five times harder than it had to be or not.
I didn’t even want to take my daughter’s father to court for child support. Strong women, I thought, could do it by themselves. My mom did. And when, after 10 years of not paying a red hot dime, he got the papers demanding monthly payments for our child’s living expenses, part of me still felt like a bum for going to those lengths for the little bit of money that I got. Even now, I refuse to rely on it.
But strong, if that’s what I even am, isn’t something I want to pass on to The Girl. Part of the beauty of being a woman is a natural-born expressiveness, an ability to articulate how we’re feeling and what we’re thinking. Men struggle with it a heck of a lot more than we do. So what I’m trying to teach her is not necessarily that strong is a bad thing. It just needs to be more clearly defined. I’ve hated the vagueness of it, so I’m making it clear for her so that she doesn’t confuse strong with stupidity, or that she has to stifle anything in order to be respected or accomplished.
I want her to know that strong is the ability to get back up when circumstances knock you down, but it’s not any less admirable if you have yank on somebody’s hand or get a boost from behind in order to pull back up.
Can you teach your daughter to be too strong? Is there a line to draw in self-sufficiency and independence?
Image via roonb/Flickr