On Being “The Strong One.”

It’s the thing people have always said about me.

“You’re just like your mother.”

And what they mean is that just like mom, I’m The Strong One. The responsible one. The mature one. The opinionated one. The stubborn one. The passionate one.

“You’re just like your mother, but you seem to have swung the other direction.”

This is the thing that people are saying about me more and more often, and what they mean is that just like mom, I’m opinionated, but I am far less conservative than she was. They’re alluding to the reading material I frequently post on social media, which I’m afraid has given away my bleeding heart. My family and faith community are conservative evangelicals, so I should tell you that this bleeding-heart liberal confuses even herself. I’m not entirely sure how I got this way, except that maybe for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If my parents wanted my ideological pendulum to swing right, perhaps they should have pushed it left. But instead they had me listening to Rush Limbaugh when I was in grade school. The other day I was listening to NPR and the host chose the opening riff from “My City Was Gone” as filler music between reports unironically, and it made me so cranky that I proceeded to post three links on my Facebook about those heinous SB 1062 discrimination laws before noon, just to irk any Republicans that might be reading. (Sorry not sorry. Please take it with a grain of sarcasm.)

Maybe I look like it doesn’t bother me that I have a growing reputation for being as liberally opinionated as my mother was conservative, but this is false bravado. A few months ago I was sitting on a friend’s couch drinking tea and discussing all of this with her when she gently asked me,

“Are you afraid she’d be disappointed in you?”

Her words broke me open like a dam. In a flood of tears I quietly nodded yes. And that was just a question of politics.

There are other things since my mom died that make me wonder whether she’d be proud of me: life choices, family relationships, my ability to accessorize an outfit. Most days I feel like I hold true to her legacy fairly well. I may be leaning left in my politics and I honestly don’t care if I wear black boots with a brown belt, but the important thing is that I let the story of her life influence my own. I let her love for me fuel my own love for others. I let this experience of love and loss transform my writing.

Except some days I’m not so good at swallowing my bitterness. I still find myself struggling to drudge up any amount of compassion for certain people, like the nurse that nearly ripped mom’s IV port out of her chest, or the relative that showed up a week before her death and made themselves way too comfortable, or the other relative that got a little too inquisitive about the insurance money after she died, or the ones that didn’t show up at all. How would mom handle it if she were here now? I don’t know, but the thought fills me with guilt. I’m supposed to be carrying all of this with some semblance of grace and redemption, but some days my arms get tired. I feel like I’ve been holding up this really heavy torch and I need to put it down but I have no safe place to set it, so I risk setting everything around me on fire.

I was sitting in my therapist’s office last week and we were talking about a particular relationship that has fallen apart since mom’s death. It was possibly the worst day to be discussing this, because I’d woken up that morning especially short on compassion and forgiveness. I was going on and on and on about how tired I was of the expectation that I’d be the bigger person, the magnanimous forgiver, The Strong One just like mom.

“I’m not going to do it anymore,” I told her. “I can’t. I won’t.”

My therapist nodded deeply.

“Absolutely. You don’t put yourself in a position to be manipulated again,” she said.

“I can’t keep being The Strong One. I’m too tired.”

“I know you are. So take a rest.”

“I just can’t carry that torch for mom anymore.”

“She wouldn’t want you to.”

Oh.

It suddenly became clear to me that the person I needed to work on forgiving was my very own self, for not being my mother.

Here’s the truth I began to understand that day: sometimes our strengths are also our weaknesses. Our desire to be The Strong One and honor the people we love is a beautiful thing, but it can also lead us to profound feelings of insecurity, guilt, shame. And sometimes the unsafe people in our lives see that vulnerability and manipulate it. They make us question whether we’re really The Weak One. The Disappointment.

This is what happens when our love for someone is deeply tied to our identity, and I’m in the midst of untangling myself from that. I have soaked up those words, “you’re so much like your mom” like the praise that it is, but if I’m being honest, those words have also fed my secret fear that at the moment I fail to be The Strong One, the Just Like Mom One, people will stop loving me.

But I’m just me.

I can’t try to fill mom’s shoes or maintain her relationships or her politics or her faith because I have my own.

And I don’t have to doubt that if she were here we might argue, but she’d love me. I’d be safe with her.

So I’m putting down the torch. I’m choosing not to be The Strong One. Not because I’m choosing to be weak instead, but because I don’t need that label.

The only one that matters is the one I already am: Daughter.

[Illustration by Cate Parr.]

  • Cherity

    Beautifully written.

  • Jennifer Ellen

    Beautiful, and I can relate in so many ways.

  • http://hopefullyknown.com/ Tamara Rice

    This is so beautiful, Bethany. And I read it through the eyes of someone who is also breaking away from her mother’s conservatism … only my mother is here to see it. A blessing, of course, but one with a challenge. All of which to say that your conclusions offered me some perspective and healing myself, even reading this through a lens that isn’t colored with profound grief. So thank you, and thank you again for sharing such intimate parts of your story.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      I always love your insight, Tamara, but this comment especially I really appreciate. It means a lot to know that after publishing a post I was really anxious about, my words offered healing to someone else, even when our experiences are totally different from one another. The wonder of writing on the internet – bringing people like you and me together. I’m so thankful for that. Much love, friend.

  • http://littledidsheknow.net/ Cara Strickland

    Oh friend, this took my breath away.
    Thank you so much.
    I found a lot to resonate with here, on a lot of levels, and I love your heart in this piece.
    Thank you for sharing this, exactly this.

  • http://www.livingonehanded.com/ Ryan Haack

    Yes, yes, a million times yes. Thank you for being vulnerable and for sharing your journey with us, friend. :)

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Thanks, Ryan. I always appreciate your encouragement. :)

  • http://foodandfireforthemind.wordpress.com/ Marta

    Oh my, this. I feel as though I could’ve written nearly every word myself. Thank you so much for your candor, it gave me peace and comfort today.

  • Tom Poland

    As all ways Bethany I really appreciate you’re writing and thoughts. This has been a particular struggle for me too since my mother past away just over a year now. I have had to face the harsh reality that much of my identity was wrapped up in my mother and her character traits of compassion, adventure etc. Reading this and knowing that I’m not the only one who has had to face figuring out their own way of doing things following the passing of someone significant is really really encouraging. Thank you! Also know that as you journey and figure out how to live you’re own life you are not the only done doing this (even though it most likely feels like you are). Thanks again. Keep up the great processing and thanks again for sharing, every post helps me to journey and process too!