Her 6-yr old daughter assigns her super power to her as they play together at home: “Mommy, your super power is laundry!” My friend tells me, “I knew then it was time for me to get a job. I had to show her I could do more than laundry.”
What is power in our day to day life, and why do many women who have it not realize it? Why do they discount it? Why do they wholly surrender it? And where in life do some of us become afraid of our power and bury it or neuter it? When does it become more important to get along by hiding the strength and command in our personae as thinking and feeling women than to shine comfortably, assertively? And how do we reclaim it when it’s been lost or seems beyond our reach? And is it weakness, and a betrayal of strength or the efforts of other women to gain it, if we choose to relinquish it ourselves?
Mothering is power, but in contrast to power in the business world, mothering power is silent, often unacknowledged, taken for granted, and sometimes is the phoenix rising from fear. When your child is sick or injured, using the adrenaline of the moment to overcome the panic, you use that surge of power to do anything to help your child. You ride that wave of empowerment to question, warn, and advocate. But when the crisis is past, does empowerment remain? Sometimes. But sometimes it is just what is needed at the moment, and then things return to how they were before the crisis. I watch my white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed sister parent from a place of security and celebration, raising her two little brown daughters to own their difference, their beautiful warm dark skin, their glossy coiled hair, their black eyes, their strength. I see now that I parented sometimes fearful of my children’s enormous power and strong personalities. Sometimes, in place of helping them embrace it, mold it, teaching them to use it wisely, I tried to tamp it down, to get it under control because, frankly, their primitive strength frightened me.
I couldn’t see the turmoil their strength and determination raised in me for what it was: my fear of their power, and my fear of my own strength to meet it, because owning it might mean I’d be called upon to use it. And that meant even more conflict than usual. Then, it was easier to push it back and work at making my children conform. Strong children are resilient, however, and my strong children seem to have landed on their feet with commitment and good work ethic, and common sense. But I suffered. Agonizing uncertainty, shackled by fears of what other people would think, kept me from advocating for my children and celebrating them when I should have, despite the prevailing standards for appropriate behavior. And in parenting, there is little reinforcement from the children you’re trying to tame. They continue to push the envelope, to try to negotiate and bully their way to unlimited vistas of self-absorbed behavior, and you are never enough. That is what they’re meant to do. My strength was secondary, and I was often afraid to reach, to challenge, to speak out for myself, so how could I encourage my children to do that? And as they challenged me, I doubted myself and felt inadequate.
Part of the problem is that the acknowledgement that counts in modern society is monetary pay commensurate with power. And there is no pay in mothering that pays the bills. Mothers have no retirement accounts. Mothers don’t get raises, and can’t look forward to paid vacation. And I, and probably many other women, can’t fully believe in the power they have as mothers if there is no concrete validation from society. It can become a lonely place and the future is ill-defined and certainly terminal. Children grow up, and leave home, and the nest is empty. And then what? There’s no pension. There’s no retirement party.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with cranking out a great load of clean warm laundry, especially if that tattered blankie comes out warm and soft and smelling like love and home. But when your daughter thinks the apex of your power is laundry, well then, maybe it’s time for some adjustment. Mothering power, used wisely, produces strong, compassionate daughters and sons who know their strengths and can figure out how to use them. Mothering power empowers children to be proud and sure individuals. How you love your children, how you navigate obstacles in your life in front of your children, how you discipline and talk and laugh with your children (or don’t) teaches lessons. And often the lessons learned from those unconscious moments are far different than the words that come after “Now listen to me….” The potential for growth in those countless moments is unquantifiable. Little eyes and little ears soak it all in and true power is in realizing that and using it in love.
My niece, Lidiya, is a glorious 5-yr old girl. She glows with strength and command as proudly and unconsciously as she wears the vivid clothing she chooses for herself every day; as beautiful and wild as the thick twisty hair that she likes to feel flying back and forth when she shakes her head. For her, power is a fact of life and it is completely and organically meshed with who she is. She uses it to be kind to others. To hug her friend, assuring her she will be back soon, and will play with her then. She uses it to accomplish things for herself, from scooping out her own forbidden ice cream cone late at night, to managing two big dogs like they are toys. And her command of them is so confident and self-assured, they both listen, even though they could knock her over and drag her around the yard. She uses it for determined tug-of-war with her sister, and negotiations with her parents. She uses it without hesitation to stand up for herself in a conflict. She uses it to wade in and stand up for her older sister in a conflict. She uses it to make her world as close to exactly how she likes it as possible every second of every day. It is potent and fierce, and she only has it about half under control. It propels her through life like a water slide, and shoots her out the bottom at the end of the day when she finally drops abruptly into sleep, exhausted. And how she loves every minute of that wild ride. Anyone who lives with Lidiya can only try to climb on and keep up, maybe providing a little parental tweaking along the way. Maybe she’ll even listen, and consider, but compliance is always up in the air, and entirely up to her. I admire her and her molten core of determination, and I think she’s taught me a lot. “Face your fears,” she advised me when she was 3. And now I repeat her wisdom to myself often.
I’ve had some power for the last 15 years; power attributed to me by virtue of my title of Director. Power granted to me by parents of the children in my preschool, power accepted by those parents as governing them as well. Most of the time. My position gives me the opportunity to formulate programming and curriculum. I am trusted to make changes as I see fit. I advise and alert according to my experience as a teacher. I laugh and reassure according to my experience as the parent of children grown up and gone. It still surprises me that adults listen to me about their children, and that they seek my advice. When I realize that parents are nervous to talk with me, I haven’t worn it comfortably; sure I haven’t earned it. But now I give myself a mental shake, and my rightful due. I’ve worked hard for decades, and listened. I’ve made many mistakes, learned from them, and been through enough trial and error that I am finally becoming comfortable in acknowledging success. It wasn’t until I embraced the knowledge that I am good at my job because I work hard at it, and care deeply about the outcome that I felt comfortable wearing that confidence on the outside, and really feeling it in my daily navigation. This is a confident assertion I can hear my Lutheran upbringing tsk-tsk-tsk-ing in the background: Never admit you got this. Never assume you’ve nailed it. Once you do that, your pride and Karma will sucker punch you in the gut and an epic failure is your certain and entirely deserved fate. The thing is, I don’t think I believe that anymore. I also know I couldn’t have made this assertion at any other time in my life, and that awareness came just in time. After a lifetime of self-deprecating denial, I think I’ve accepted the mantle of the power I have earned. And then, recently, it became time to use it. And that is a different exercise entirely.
Before my eyes, a good woman’s life and family were irrevocably changed by a freight train of power fueled by fear and incompetence. Rumors about her and her job were fabricated, whispered, and exaggerated. People in the church, once her family and her foundation, turned inquisitors. One issue rectified and corrected, another would slither in to take its
place. She saw no escape, and her fate was a foregone conclusion from the beginning, despite the hoops through which she obediently tried to jump to keep her job. Once you’re on the radar of a person who fears and must control, you never are free, and her every move was scrutinized and curtailed. So you are told where you may go to the bathroom. You are told what you will wear. You are told how you will spend your time outside of work. And in my fear for her, frustrated with my inability to relieve her pain, and disbelief that this could even be happening, I listened to Lidiya’s voice and faced my fears. Struggling to steady my shaking voice, I spoke out for her. I questioned the way she was being treated, and why, and it built and built, and then there began to be whispers about me. About my teaching. About my intentions. About my character. And that same power slowly began to pile up and rotate in another direction, toward me, and I couldn’t get out of its way when it touched down. It’s fingers reached into my home, my sleep, pressing me hard under the weight of its size and anger, while smiling at me on the face of it, and offering thoughts and prayers as a thin veneer of pious sop.
I wonder at the coincidence of this happening just as I am making peace with, and embracing my own strength. And what I saw and experienced bears out what I have always suspected. Power wielded from a place of fear and weakness is the most oppressive of all. It took several years of self-protection, looking over my shoulder, scrutinizing each communication and request for a meeting for the hidden message, the code. I was always wondering how it would certainly impact me down the road, revealed as finished and sealed and my compliance an assumption, regardless of the effect on me or what was entrusted to me. It took many months to outlast the hope that things might just work themselves out, and finally, at the breaking point, I knew some action was necessary. And as I began to push back, to disagree, and to question, not to acquiesce to pats on the head and being told I didn’t really understand, the pressure became more intense.
It was a time of long nights of lost sleep, grinding worry, what to say and what to leave unsaid. There was the risk to my job, my security, my happiness to consider. It was difficult meetings at which supremely difficult things had to be brought out and examined. It was anger turned on me, and frustration exploding, and feelings unavoidably affronted. But make no mistake. I don’t regret drawing the attention of that freight train of a tornado. There was no choice. It was my time to speak. And now, after some time passes, there is no muddy sediment on that resolve, and it still glitters; pristine, brilliant, and diamond hard.
The resolve of women who are determined, organized, and supportive of each other is an inspiring thing to see, and it’s even more inspiring to be part of it. Women, at their best, are strong and kind. They remember who their friends are, and when necessary, remember who their enemies are. Good secure women don’t hold grudges, but they do remember facts, and then act carefully and deliberately on those facts. They bring dark mucky packets of resentment and manipulation out into the light of day, air them out, and dry them, revealing what was kept hidden. And while it is exhilarating and satisfying to finally be acting instead of watchfully waiting, it is also searingly painful, and we have to acknowledge and manage the collateral damage. I can finally celebrate that strength. I can finally say yes, it is mine and I’ve earned it. I’ve used it to help people. I have used it for an unpopular cause that I knew was right and true, even though it was certainly the difficult way. I have made enemies that I know can’t, and probably won’t, forgive me for the first time in my life. The flip side of that, interestingly, is that for the first time in my life, the idea of having enemies doesn’t make my stomach churn. I am comfortable with the necessity for what we had to do. We all were. We rectified the situation without hysteria or drama. We faced our fears down, and discussed our concerns openly and thoroughly.
When the dust settled, people rearranged themselves into new alliances, decisive action was taken, and a theatrical martyrdom was assumed like a heavy velvet cloak to deflect and obscure the real unowned ugliness. Even though the outcome was the only thing that could happen, what we hoped would happen, we each suffered regret and sadness along with the extreme relief, the exhilaration of new possibilities, and the sudden absence of scheming antagonism. And in the quieted aftermath, I discovered I no longer wanted that power. It drained me. It changed the landscape so completely, it could never be repaired. My limits for that turmoil were far exceeded, and there was no regrouping possible. For the first time I knew with clarity that it was my time to leave. I decided to voluntarily give up the power I so recently embraced, and I resigned.
But it wasn’t a relief. It was a swirled bittersweet candy I sucked on for weeks, moving it around with my tongue from spot to spot. Does it taste good here? Or here? How about here? There were isolated moments when I felt calm freedom and certainty. At those times, relieved and at peace, as I settled in to finally enjoy that sweet layer, thinking surely that was what there was at the center of all of this, I could still taste the sadness creeping in. And fear. And finally, depression.
With the blessing of my husband, I flew to South America with a friend who’s been through tough times and who loves me. Who has a good grasp on a solid reality that retains its magic and is sprinkled with serendipity. He’s a friend who challenges the assumptions of others and makes his life wholly and fearlessly his own. I needed that. We rented a car and drove away from Buenos Aires on a 2500 mile search for the Andes, dark purple wine pressed from spicy high altitude grapes, and cabrito, juicy salty crispy baby goat grilled over the hot embers of a wood fire. We laughed and took photos, and we talked about everything. We teetered at the edge of canyons, dizzy from the altitude, with our mouths open in awe. We drove 100mph on two lane roads, zipping around and past the pedestrian fearful slowpokes that plodded along, in the way and dulling the edge of our adventure. We spent a day content in silence, thinking our thoughts and shedding them like old skins, one by one as the miles peeled away under the tires of our car. We stopped by the road to photograph a cemetery made of carefully tended mausoleums and graves carved right into the side of the mountain that had its roots in the Inca tribes that occupied this land. The week before we got there, a raging river, flooding over its banks with Andean runoff had carried away half the town. We arrived as the Carnaval celebration, delayed for only a week because of the tragedy, took place.
In the dark dusty streets of the pueblo, lit only by the moon, lined with adobe houses made from the mud and grass of the ground we stand on, these people face their fear square in the face. They wave enormous rippling silk banners back and forth, beat drums and play trumpets in hypnotic rhythms that echo the centuries of ceremony and ritual that stretch back beyond recorded time. Their costumes are dark, and small mirrors are affixed to them, reflecting bits of light that happen to shine from open doorways. There are no street lights, and this Carnaval feels menacing and primal; all blood and bone, and thoroughly tragically human. Their dancing is frantic and aggressive in the dusty warm dark. Their dancing is a talisman against the death that stalked those narrow streets a week ago, as it has time and time before, as it rained and rained and water poured off the mountains and into their homes. This dancing is reclamation of their fragile hold on the land. They are injured, but they are not vanquished. We wonder to each other how much time these people spend worrying about their future, about their health, about their jobs. We begin to sense the value in being part of a Nature so overpowering there is no way to escape her. Nature always will find her way, and this humanity must keep dancing to survive; dancing quickly out of her way, or directly in front of her in defiance of her fury. They care for the graves of their ancestors as they know the only permanence in this huge land is death.
These mountains, the Andes, are massive. Their palpable looming power indescribable. They are breathing things, coiled up in the darkness and in the daylight, not caring whether we come or go, or even if we survive the trip. They planted themselves here eons ago, thrusting up out of the crust of a young Earth in a catastrophic birth of fire and lava, draining an ocean and exposing shells and sea life to an upheaval so violent the ancient sea floor is thrown up above the clouds where we now stand upon it. It is impossible to imagine. The chaos of primordial creation gouges out scars everywhere, and I, finally, am nothing. Stunningly insignificant. Utterly inconsequential to this huge harsh world. I am a speck. I am dust. And it is such a relief. In the heat of this high desert, with no one on the road except ourselves, and no houses to be seen, only the abandoned ruins of roofless adobe walls, life comes down to these four things: Water. Muscle. Grit. Luck. We stand in silent submission to the magnitude of these mountains because we have no choice. She will have it no other way. I finally feel my depression lift. I understand, I accept, and now I embrace my desire to give up the trappings of my small power, and in that I find the strength of real peace. I am enough as I am. The taste in my mouth is finally the ancient elemental sweetness of ground maize and dark purple Tannat, and my heart opens and flies. And I am free.