There’s a scene in the iconic film, Terms of Endearment, when the inimitable Shirley MacLaine as Aurora Greenway unleashes an intensely emotional expression of outrage while her daughter lies in bed at the hospital suffering. With agony, despair and profound love for her child, she says:
“It’s past ten. My daughter is in pain. I don’t understand why she has to have this pain. All she has to do is hold out until ten, and IT’S PAST TEN! My daughter is in pain, can’t you understand that! GIVE MY DAUGHTER THE SHOT!”
I have two starkly divergent reactions to this scene: My pre-motherhood reaction and my post-motherhood reaction. I can admit that before I became a mom, I watched this scene, and though I had some compassion for Aurora, I also thought she was slightly batshit and could benefit from a large glass of sauvignon blanc.
But I’ve seen this movie since becoming a mother and boy have I changed my tune. In my post-motherhood viewings, I’ve stood in virtual solidarity with Aurora. I’ve even found myself nodding my head vigorously, eyes welling up, every impulse inside me wanting to heal the pain of both mother and child. Of course. Parents can’t bear the suffering of their children. They are our babies. We want to take away their pain.
Yet sometimes the pain is necessary. Sometimes the pain is what will actually support our children to grow and learn.
My daughter is in pain. Thank GOD, she is not sick. We are all healthy, and my reference to Terms of Endearment was in no way meant to convey anything to the contrary. I know we are blessed and do not take that for granted.
But she’s still in pain. Psychic pain. Situational pain that she confronts on a daily basis right now (it will pass). 8th grade pain (we have upcoming plans to have dinner and watch 8th grade together. We will bond. I have no doubt I will cry, and she will call me “weird.”). Pain in her world. It’s real. It’s meaningful. It hurts.
When the situation at hand first presented itself, I noticed my automatic. I went immediately into “fix it” mode. My baby was hurting. I needed to kiss the boo boo and lift the pain. Also, there was- and continues to be- some very real injustice and unfairness in the situation. Not to worry; I would save the day!
As luck would have it, in the midst of MY emotional chaos around my child’s life (because let’s face it- I am bringing a boatload of my stuff into this space), I connected with my coach. He reflected to me that I- myself- was grieving. I- myself- was in pain. About this and other things in my life. We co-created this awareness that I do not, as a matter of course, give myself space for these kinds of feelings. Anger- yes? Sadness and grief- not so much. So I often operate on top of the emotions. I can create results from that place, but the experience of my life is inauthentic. I took on the practice of being with and allowing my grief, and then he asked me this: What do you want for your daughter?
It was a simple, clear question and one that I was able to very readily respond to. I want Alex to have a fulfilling and rich life, complete with love, connection and adventure. I want her to be courageous, confident, independent and self-sufficient. I want her to really know that she is the source of her life, that she gets to say how it goes, that she has the power to create the life she truly wants for herself.
And how exactly would my “fix it” M.O. sync with these commitments? Um….not very well at all. Plus- truth be told- I can’t fix this thing. It is likely un-fixable. How perfect!
So, I decided to look at my commitments- to Alex and to who I really want to be as a mother- and choose from those commitments. Which meant I had to do it differently. This involved me coaching Alex to take a stand for herself, to speak up, to be her own advocate. And it also involved a conversation in which I shared with her that these actions may not make a difference. Even if Alex took all of this on, the results might not change. But it was still worth it to try. It was still worth it to generate self-confidence and to empower the experience of taking a stand- regardless of the outcome (thank you Dr. Blasey Ford). I told her this was a great place to practice these skills, which will serve her throughout her life.
She listened. She took it on. She challenged the status quo. And so far, nothing has changed. It’s pretty crushing for both of us, and I’ve been encouraging her to persist and to keep going. A stand does not crumble with a no. It is stronger than that.
I’m the grown up here, and I doubt anything will change. And yet I firmly believe that the experience of Alex advocating for herself is valuable for her. Critical even. At the end of the day, she will have practiced using her voice, taking up space and asking for what is rightfully hers.
She will also have learned that pain does not kill her. Pain will not kill me either.
And as the saying goes (cue eye roll, but it’s true): What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.