I’ve named my job in my family as “rock,” but that name needs a post of its own, to talk about the problematic associations of that image. First, here’s why I use it, and why it’s helpful to me:
- If you lean on a rock, it supports you. My partner in life has been so supportive, and I want to offer that same support to him. And: parenting. A toddler needs to lean. Hard. His world is expanding and changing fast, so he needs Mama and Dada to be stable.
- It takes some extreme conditions to crumble or break a good rock. I have given enough of my time and energy to questioning whether or not I’m good enough as a daughter, friend, spouse, parent. You know what? All the drama in my life still hasn’t broken me. I want to know that I am enough. To just exist, as I am, without striving for a perfection that will never exist.
- If you go somewhere else to do something else, a rock will still be there, when you come back. My family’s income, balance, and happiness depend on my spouse going out and doing a lot of things, in the coming year or more. Finish a dissertation. Find an academic job. Move to who-knows-where. A lot of change is going to come, and when it does, I would really like to have had some time to be still. I want to be comfortable, no matter where Nathan’s work takes him. It’s one thing to lean on each other for support, but I have been doing most of the leaning, which is something else entirely. I was beginning to feel like I couldn’t stand on my own. I can. I will.
Here’s why this image is problematic:
- If I’m a rock, am I allowed to need support, as well as provide it? I know that being stable and changing are possible at the same time. But I’m posting this on a public blog. The image works for me, in my family, at this moment, but it’s not one of those universally helpful ideas. Thinking of yourself as a rock might lead to feeling like you need to provide support, but not ask for it. That’s not balance. Serious limitation.
- How do I mark the line between Solid Rock and Crumbling Rock or Broken Rock? What is strength? What is weakness? I spend a lot of time in therapy talking about whether or not I am successfully being rock-like. I really need that, because my therapist is a lot more forgiving than I am. She will push back against any idea that big emotions, or even getting sick, are signs of weakness. She’s good at helping me see the bigger picture, which has a lot to do with me knowing that I am capable and strong, just as I am. I need to be careful that I don’t suddenly decide that an anxiety attack has broken me, and that I have failed as A Rock. My goal is to look back, after we’re on the other side of graduation and job interviews, and feel proud of the stability I have offered my family. I have a lot of room in there to have bad days, get sick, lose patience, ask for a longer parenting break than we agreed on, when we were talking about our schedule for the week. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that I am the ONLY person who decides whether or not I have been A Rock. There is no one in my life who will throw this project back in my face and imply that I’m failing.
- Is change and growth at odds with this job? In my family, as it exists right now, change and growth are pretty constant, and definitely encouraged. If Nathan wasn’t comfortable with me changing and growing, he’d have spent our entire relationship in some serious discomfort–a LOT has changed. When we met, I would never, ever, have thought that I would be comfortable leaving academia for a life of mothering, writing, childbirth educating, and self-exploration. And yet, here I am. We are just as happy now, if not happier, than we were when we were first married. We are good at this growth thing!
Sometimes, I give advice, in this space. I’ve written about what to look for in a care provider, and questions to ask a potential babysitter. But this is not one of those times. I remember the way my father used to speak to my mother about her role as a stay-at-home mom, and the way he used to hand down his decisions about What’s Good For The Family. It was abusive, controlling, and scary. The scariest part is that I bought into it, for a long time. I believed that my mom’s job as a human being was to cater to our needs. Pick me up here, drop me off there. I can so “no” whenever I want, but you have to do what I say. I don’t have to say “please,” or “thank you,” because all of this is just your job. Well, in what universe does someone not deserve praise for doing her job? My dad polite to teenagers at Dairy Queen, when he thanked them for handing over some pre-packaged (delicious!) “Buster Bar” ice cream treats, but he wouldn’t back up my mom, when she asked me to say “please” instead of demanding that she drop everything to take me to a friend’s house. I can easily imagine telling him about this project, being A Rock, and having it thrown in my face a week later that I had upset him and was, therefore, terrible at being A Rock.
I have spent a lot of time around verbal abuse, directed at me or at someone close to me, so I know that this particular image is one that is easily twisted into a trap. It would boil down to this: “I thought you were going to be a rock for our family, but you’re not behaving exactly the way I expected you to!” Mind-reading would, of course, be included in those expectations. The idea of someone else demanding that I be my family’s rock, for his sake, makes me feel ill.
This image, and this project, came about *because* I no longer have anyone in my life who abuses, manipulates, or uses me. I love the irony in all of this – I’m thinking of myself as an unchanging, totally stable thing, in order to prove to myself that I’m free to change, and that I have changed. I have come so far from the place I was, in college, when I actually asked my friends to spend the night with me, to make sure that my depression wouldn’t turn suicidal again, just a few days after I had been involuntarily hospitalized. I date the beginning of this journey back to the day I really heard the dear friend who pointed out that I was asking for more than my loved ones were qualified to give, let alone comfortable giving. This began the day I walked myself back into that hospital and decided that I would start healing myself with the proper help. I have healed so much that I no loner believe that I am sick.
The mental illness I live with does not make me sick. I took control of my healing journey by giving up control to a bunch of doctors and nurses I had never met. I can call myself A Rock, because I have so much freedom to be whatever I am. I am comfortable with paradox. All these things exist at the same time. It is only from a place of great safety that I can use this language, without fear that someone will use it against me.