Published on May 31st, 2016 | by Wendy Kennar2
Can Acknowledging My Weakness Actually Be a Sign of Strength? Asks WENDY KENNAR
Strength is easy for my second-grader son to define. He can stand in front of his bedroom mirror, flex his muscles, and show me that he’s strong. He can carry his own backpack—loaded with his homework folder, lunch box, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. At the market, he can push a shopping cart filled with quarts of milk and a 24-pack of bottled water.
Ryan is strong. It’s easy for him to see and easy for him to measure.
It’s not as easy for me to define my strength. When I am trying to be strong, I am often physically pushing myself to do something that I probably shouldn’t. I find all my preconceived ideas about strength being tested. Because I am not just a mother of a seven-and-a-half-year-old son. I am a mother living with an autoimmune disease called Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease that causes me chronic pain and weakness in my legs.
I have never defined strength solely based on my ability to lift heavy items. Strength meant doing what needed to be done, regardless of how I might be feeling. It meant that although I couldn’t afford a car, I was still going to earn a college degree, which meant I commuted on six buses a day, for at least three-and-a-half hours each day. Strength meant carrying on even when exhausted. Strength meant getting to school by 7:30 am to prepare for a day teaching fourth-graders even though I had been up most of the night with Ryan.
Strength meant I kept going, I didn’t stop, I didn’t rest, I didn’t nap. I was MOMMY (all capitals intended), and I would take care of everything.
Now, I’m not so sure. If I go outside and play handball with Ryan, I use the strength in my body to play. I stand, I serve, I hit the ball. I move back and forth, and sincerely try to be a good playing partner. And, my legs inevitably hurt. But I keep playing, because my son wants to play, and I want to be a good mom that has these experiences with my son. I go outside and play because when we come back into the house, my son washes his hands and tells me what fun he had. I suffer through the pain.
But then I’m not much fun after that. I’m hurting, and feeling bad that I hurt. I’m sad and angry and frustrated at the unfairness of the situation.
I have changed my life in certain ways to compensate for my chronic medical condition. I no longer am an elementary school teacher. I’ve accepted the fact that my doctor advised me that teaching is something I just can’t do any more. But, I can see what that change has brought me—the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mom to my son. On the other hand, changing my parenting, telling my son there are games I can’t play, just makes my heart ache. All I can see is what it would be robbing us of.
And so I stubbornly (or stupidly, depending on your point of view), keep up the charade. I have borrowed the “no pain, no gain” mantra from hard-core exercise enthusiasts and have been applying it to my parenting activities.
Because, deep down I am always operating on a level of fear. I play handball now, because I still sort of can. I can stand on my own two feet, hit the ball, and play with my son. But what if I can’t always do that? There have been times in the past when it wasn’t possible. Times when I was recovering from a muscle biopsy and couldn’t even pick up Ryan, who was then not quite two-years-old. He doesn’t remember those times. He was too young. He doesn’t remember me without pain in my legs. And so I push myself to fill up his memory bank with how I am now, what I can still do, in case it changes. My actions are being dictated by a lot of what if’s. What if my mobility worsens? What if my legs can no longer support me? What if my rheumatologist comes right out and tells me to no longer engage in these physical activities?
Because I am a “rule-following, good girl,” I would do what my doctor tells me to do and stop playing. But then I see it as my son and I being punished. Missing out on something we once shared. So far now, it’s me taking the punishment, suffering the pain, but hopefully giving my son a happy, fun, parent-involved childhood.
But how much longer can I keep it up? How much longer can I pretend? How much longer can my body take it?
I remember a philosophy professor in college telling our class that a truly wise person readily acknowledges what he/she doesn’t know. Can the same idea apply to strength? Is there an aspect of strength that acknowledges my physical weakness, my physical limitations? Is there a measure of strength in admitting what I can no longer do?
Would I be an even stronger Mommy by acknowledging what I can no longer do and then teaching my son about adaptations and modifications that need to be made (for instance, I can sit on a bench and watch him practice handball for a bit)? Would I be demonstrating a new level of strength by not pretending to be the same Mommy I once was, the Mommy who didn’t live with daily pain? Can I still be strong even when I try to take a step back, and try to stop being all things for my son?
When I first step back into the house, ball in hand, feeling the aching, it’s easy for me to resolve that I shouldn’t play again tomorrow. But tomorrow will come, and my son will ask me to please play outside with him. I’ll tell him my legs hurt, and that I think I should rest today. He’ll use one of my favorite expressions that I say to him so often. He’ll encourage me to “just try your best.” He’ll promise to “go easy on me.”
And my resolve to better acknowledge my own needs will weaken. I will play. I will hurt. I will repeat the cycle.
I know there isn’t much I can do to strengthen my legs, to make the pain go away. But much like my son flexes his muscles in front of his bedroom mirror, I need to flex mine too. I need to work on staying strong, on making up my mind to take it easy and sticking with that. I need to show my son that I need to take better care of myself so that, ultimately, I can take the best care of him.