On Vulnerability

Speaking of vulnerability, I happen to have an appropriate story about this week’s Not Mom, Frances Martin. I met Frances several years back when she began volunteering at the nonprofit I work for. About a week after having a one-on-one orientation with her, one of my biggest fears happened: I ran into a volunteer (Frances), at the Y, in the locker room, while I was basically naked. She’s now a co-worker of mine, a (VERY) dear friend, and someone I wouldn’t at all mind running into in a locker room, naked, basically naked, or otherwise.

Dear Amy,

Do you know about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? It’s that thing—I think we all have experienced it—where you learn some interesting piece of information; then you keep coming across it until it seems like it is EVERYWHERE and you think to yourself, How did I never notice this until now? Am I blind?

Most recently that has been happening for me with the subject of vulnerability, kicked off by a TedTalk on the subject by social worker Brene Brown. Of course, I knew about vulnerability before watching this, but I sort of always, below-the-surface regarded it as bad, the scary thing to be avoided or, if necessary, endured with teeth clenched and armor up. Other times it seemed like that ooshy gooshyness that sentimental people are obsessed with, but that I was too smart/tough to be fooled by.

But every time I turn around these days, I am smacked in the head with the message that the willingness to be vulnerable is necessary for everything important in life—you know, little things like connection, creativity, and happiness. As Ms. Brown points out, as a society we often come to equate vulnerability with weakness, danger, and even gullibility.

In reality it is the opposite—vulnerability is all about courage and taking risks. The more I think about this, the more I consider that large parts of my personality have been constructed around avoiding vulnerability. Growing up, I realized that being a quietly well-behaved, nice, perfectionist may not make me popular, but who wanted that? I opted for invisible, inoffensive, and irreproachable. These meant safe. These were the best armor I could create as a kid against being hurt.

And I have carried so much of this with me into adulthood: An avid reader, but not a writer, the biggest fan of the creative endeavors of my friends while always staying on the sidelines, a 4.0 GPA student through grad school, with no exceptional academic accomplishments, and a difficulty being comfortable and openly myself around new folks. I didn’t even have a Facebook page until recently, which may have been construed as a principled action, but really was so much more about not opening myself up to the world at large.

For the record, I have come a looong way. I am not nearly so shy as I used to be and more willing to do things that scare me and that I am not necessarily good at—like writing blog posts, for example. This recent Baader-Meinhof experience has been inspiring me to make a concerted effort to be bolder and more courageous.

As I take over aspects of work at that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at that have previously been your domain, I can’t help but be aware that I do not have the magnetic personality that you do. Volunteers, teachers, pretty much everyone is drawn to you and I worry that I won’t be able to be as effective without that magic. My guess is that you are SO willing to be vulnerable, to tell joke after joke even if some of them flop, to make a fool of yourself, to throw out a million ideas without fear that a few are not good, that not only are you hilarious and creative, but people easily connect with you.

So why am I bringing this up on momandnotmom? First of all, because I thought that baring open these thoughts is itself a good exercise in vulnerability (though do not doubt that the perfectionist in me, alive and well, has fretted over sending you these words). Thank you Baader-Meinhof, and thank you food poisoning that allowed me only the energy to sit on my couch and type this today.

Second, because I am wondering a couple things: Does my assessment of your willingness to be vulnerable ring true for you? And mostly, because this blog is about motherhood and not motherhood, how has being a mom changed your feelings of vulnerability?

I had previously imagined when I am a mom it will be lots of work, sure, but that that relationship between me and the kid would straightforward and free of vulnerability. I realize that this is silly—all relationships require vulnerability; the more emotionally intimate they are the more they require. Amy, how has motherhood intersected with vulnerability for you?

Love, Frances

Dear Fray,

Girl, you sent me this in 2012, do you realize that? I have a couple of entries in the pipeline, and yet I have been sitting on this for all of 2013. I can’t post one of the other entries until I respond to this. I can’t respond to this because I don’t know how to.

Or, I supposed it’s not that I can’t. I haven’t. Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve responded to it. About a hundred times, about a hundred different ways over the last year. Here is something about being a mom: To call it a roller coaster would be VASTLY UNDERSTATING IT. And, for the record (and I’d be surprised if this were a surprise), I have all the same safety mechanisms that you do. I too have avoided being or feeling or—god forbid—appearing vulnerable.

In an effort to move on with my life (and this blog), as it were, I’ll just give you a bullet-pointed list that succinctly (perhaps this is what I was looking for?) sums up some of my hundred responses:

  • When one’s child is as smart and funny and lovely as Violet is, one can—for brief, glorious stretches of time—feel the opposite of vulnerable; in fact, one can feel almost superhuman in one’s ability to procreate. (One cannot, however, even during one such glorious stretch of time, use the first person when discussing it.)

  • Sometimes, when I look at my daughter, it feels like I have created a tiny version of my most terrible self. Every frustrating or bossy or mean thing she does, she learned from me. It’s like having a living, breathing incarnation of your own vulnerabilities as a roommate. A truly odd roommate. Who you have to spend almost all of your freetime with. And feed. And soothe in the middle of the night.

  • I have never been so weak in my life.

  • I have never been so certain that fates align as I have been since having a baby. Everything about it—that weird science that involves the odds of a certain egg and a certain sperm which is the only recipe to create a certain baby who seems so made for me—is covered in cheesecloth and accompanied by a string-laden soundtrack.

  • I had been so focused on having a baby for the last five years or so that 1) I was unprepared for how hard it would be (yes, EVERYone tells you it’ll be hard but I DIDN’T BELIEVE THEM) and 2) I stopped thinking about other things. I don’t know what my purpose is. I know a hundred things that it could be. But I don’t know what my next goal is, and I’m realizing how important it is to have one in mind.

  • Having a baby has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and sometimes I am really, really bad at it.

  • Having a baby has been the best thing I’ve ever done, and sometimes I am really, really good at it.

  • That-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at may have allowed me to develop a persona who has a very magnetic personality, however, that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at has changed me into someone ill-suited to life with a toddler: Goal-driven, focused, impatient, task-oriented. Sometimes I feel like, if I hadn’t gotten so accustomed to putting on my that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at costume, I would be a better mother.

  • I don’t know what I would do without that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at in my life. Go crazy.

  • AND SO ON.

  • AND SO ON.

  • AND ON.

Social media gives you a chance to present your life however you want to. Maybe that’s what nine months of procrastination comes down to. I may err too much on the side of posting positive things (although I like to think that this blog is one place I don’t do that). I’d imagine I’m one of those people who appears to “have it together” on social media (or at least, I hope so; truly, I guess that’s what I’m going for, but what a thing to admit on social media). I have it together about half of the time, maybe a little more. But MAN, I do not want to be one of those people who’s always complaining about their baby not sleeping (but Frances, Violet is a toddler and SHE IS STILL A TERRIBLE SLEEPER) and therefore, they are so tired (but Frances, my god, I AM SO TIRED), and while we’re at it, let’s throw in something about how busy they are, and how crazy things are (but Frances, I AM SO BUSY, THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH TIME).

Conversationally, being a mom is tough. If I talk about how great she is, I’m bragging. If I talk about how challenging she is, I’m complaining. And then there is the expectation that motherhood magically completes you, makes you somehow more whole. I would love to tell you that becoming a mom changed my life into light and color, but that would be lying. There is more light and more color, sure, but there is also a lot more frustration and doubt and worry. I realize, now that I have a baby, that I could have lived my life childless and been just as happy (the freedom! the sleeping!), but I had to have a baby to realize that. Ah, life. You always get the last laugh, don’t you?

The best marriage advice I ever got was from my friend Chrissy. She said something about how EVERYONE is tired, and EVERYONE is busy, so when you have dinner together at night, just assume that those two things are a given and don’t talk about them. It was great marriage advice, but I think it’s good life advice too.

Frances? I’m tired. I’m busy. But I don’t want to talk about. CAN WE ALL JUST AGREE NOT TO TALK ABOUT HOW TIRED AND BUSY WE ALL ARE? I’m all about self-expression, and putting out whatever you want to put out. But being tired and busy is just so…tired. Sometimes when people talk about how “crazy [it] is” I just want to start screaming. It feels like that’s the new way of saying your life is important, that you are important. And OF COURSE you are. (And OF COURSE you aren’t.)

And Frances? If you’re still wondering if I feel vulnerable, then worrying for nine months about not knowing how to answer this question was valid. Vulnerability and motherhood do not intersect. There is no intersection. There is just a long stretch of road, one right on top of the other.

Your friend, Amy

PS Oh, and as for your assessment of my willingness to be vulnerable: YOU have developed your OWN magnetic that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at personality over the course of the last year. As for me? My magnetism is fading away. Here was the secret, though: People love to laugh. Be willing to do ANYTHING for a laugh. That’s what I always did. And, to avoid making anyone ELSE the butt of the joke (no one ever won friends or influenced people doing THAT), make yourself the butt of the joke. People will probably see it as courage or strength or confidence or at least a devil-may-care attitude. It is, of course, only a mask that looks like such things; it is the opposite of such things. It is the sort of vulnerability offered up by tight-rope walkers. But it works.

Dear Amy,

This was like a little time capsule! I haven’t looked at that letter since I sent it last year. How interesting to read about things that I’d forgotten ever thinking. It makes me realize I should write my thoughts more often, so I don’t always have to think them up again from scratch.

Since I wrote to you, so many things have changed! For instance, I now wear gold lamé pants in public on a regular basis. Also? I don’t beat myself up as much when I make mistakes at that-non-profit-writing-center-we-work-at because I know that when you do something hard and worth doing, you will make some mistakes.

So many things have also stayed the same! For instance, I am still not a mom and can only begin to pretend to understand what that might be like. I also still think that you are doing something hard and worth doing, and maybe you shouldn’t beat yourself up quite as much when you make mistakes? Especially because you do such a darn good job so much of the time, whether this can be discussed in the third person or the first?

Because I can only begin to pretend to understand what being a mom is like, and how it relates to vulnerability, I am deeply grateful to you sharing your thoughts on the subject. “Just a long stretch of road, one right on top of the other”—what a beautiful and haunting image. And girl, you KNOW how I love a bullet-pointed list. Also, tired and busy? Though maybe I won’t know the true meaning of these words until I am a mom, they are a part of my daily existence for better or worse.

In fact, I frequently wonder if we are always tired and busy (and I mean you and me, but also EVERYONE) because we are doing so many worthwhile things that require vulnerability, like making things, like being moms and not-moms, like doing the day-to-day maintenance required for all of our rewarding but time-consuming emotionally-invested relationships, and working at fulfilling jobs at certain non-profit writing centers to pay for all these wonderful things?

Or, are we always SO busy and tired, because it makes us FEEL like our lives have purpose and meaning, while still letting us avoid doing really hard things, things like having a difficult conversation with someone we love, or sending out our poems to publishers, or writing in our journal about experiences we’d rather not think about, or sitting quietly with our uncomfortable feelings of anxiety or sadness or anger.

As with any dichotomy, I’m sure the truth is somewhere in the middle. Or perhaps, busy/tired and vulnerability are just a long stretch of road, one right on top of the other. And of course, tired and busy are not options when it comes to being a new mom, they just are facts of life. But Amy, you know how we have started sharing weekly goals with each other? Perhaps, this week we can make a goal that we will spend just a little less time on the tightrope, trying to hold everything together in precarious balance, carrying out an elaborate circus act, and just a little more time sitting quietly, armor down.

Love, Frances

Gurl,

Of course you managed to put the smartest, most positive spin on something I’ve been feeling pretty negative about. Yet another reason I’m so glad to know you.

Love, Amy

Frances Martin coordinates volunteers, manages programs, and holds an MSW from UM. She is also an expert canner, horse drawer, and cat costumer.

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