Women are remarkable creatures. A woman’s ability to nurture allows her to bond with her children and others through social connections. Her brain is extraordinarily hard wired to multi-task. She wears her emotions on her shoulder and is not scared to cry. Alone, she is amazing but within a group of fellow amazing women, she can move mountains. I have a confession to make. Many of the attributes that I listed above do not come naturally to me.
I recently read a research article about how men and women show compassion. The study explained that, historically, people have viewed compassion as a more feminine trait exhibited by gentleness and oriented toward emotion and communication. Women seek to build emotional bonds, heal wounded feelings, open rapport, find common ground, and create comfort. The research indicated that men show compassion as well, but in a different way. A man will show compassion by exhibiting more protective behaviors to help ensure survival. They tend to be more pragmatic and focus on cultivating strength and problem solving. Men seek to help make others stronger, give them tools to overcome problems, assist in tasks, participate in team efforts, and empower others to take care of themselves. When I read this article, I had sort of an “Aha” moment. Let me explain.
Over the years, I have fallen into the belief that somehow I got shortchanged in the estrogen department because I have never been very comfortable building emotional bonds, talking about my feelings and creating emotional comfort for others. When others are emotional and crying, I have a tendency to disconnect and help problem solve, which is, according to this study, more masculine in nature. I am also very aware that many women might conclude my response to their tears to be somewhat aloof or insensitive. This logical approach to emotional discomfort is how I approach empathy when I am working with families of children with disabilities. Perhaps others find it ironic that I chose to work in the disability/mental health field which is typically considered to be a nurturing and compassionate line of work, dominated by women. When I tell people what I do for a living, they usually respond by tilting their head, as they wrinkle up their face with a sympathetic expression that says, oh it is just so wonderful that you are helping those people. Sometimes they say “You must have so much patience” or “It takes an especially kind person to do that.” What is even MORE ironic is that I am not very patient nor do I consider myself especially kind. I chose this profession because I enjoy using a straightforward approach when working with families. I tend to share practical information, give them tools they can use to help themselves, and ultimately empower them to be better advocates for their children. I consider my work successful if a family no longer needs my support or help. Sure, there is empathy in what I do but not in the more traditionally female methodology. After reading the research article it became clear to me that I feel unsettled around other women because I tend to show compassion with a more traditional male mindset. So this got me thinking…..How does that expression of compassion equate to how I raise my children?
My son is especially sensitive and cries often (a couple of times a day) as a way to release his frustration. His anxiety disorder can make an ordinary day feel as though you are on an emotional roller coaster. For the first few years of Thomas’s life I thought to myself, why on earth did God see fit to give a woman, who struggles with compassion and nurturing, a boy who needs an immense amount of compassion and nurturing? I still struggle with giving him what he needs emotionally but perhaps I was given the extraordinary task of raising this boy because I tend to approach compassion and nurturing from a more traditional male perspective. Perhaps Thomas responds best to a more pragmatic approach so that he can learn better ways to problem solve.
This brings me to my daughter, Leah. Remember how I said earlier that I feel as though I got short changed in the estrogen department? Well, I’m pretty sure that Leah did NOT get short changed in the estrogen department. She is not scared to show her emotions, loves princesses and all things pink, wants to feel emotionally connected to me and needs a more typically feminine approach to compassion. As the mother of a young girl, I am profoundly aware that she adores me, is watching and learning from me and, quite frankly, that makes me feel anxious and somewhat inadequate. Mark and I joke that Leah is a mama’s girl who, if she could, would crawl back up into my uterus and stay there forever. During my pregnancy with Leah, I suffered from morning sickness the ENTIRE 9 months. Sometimes I wonder if it was because my body was just not used to all that estrogen. When I was in labor with her, my contractions were very powerful and I progressed fairly quickly however she was determined to stay inside as long as she could. By the time I progressed to 9.5 centimeters dilated, Leah was very high in my abdomen and my water had yet to break. My OB joked that my baby was just too comfortable in there and wanted to stay. I envisioned her in my uterus, curled up in a ball, snug against my rib cage, refusing to exit. When she was a newborn, she would scream whenever Mark would hold her. She only wanted me and literally slept on my chest and in my arms, 24 hours a day for the first 3 months of her life. I thought for sure that the stupid baby sling would be permanently fused into my torso from wearing it so often. As she grew older, she was happiest when she is in my arms. I had to learn to do laundry, cook and clean with a baby on my hip. Thomas was never that attached to me so it came as quite a shock after Leah was born. Sometimes, her need to be with me was so overwhelming that I literally felt as though I would suffocate under the weight of her devoted attachment. I was not used to another female (albiet a tiny female), being so enamored with me and there was a part of me that worried I was not worthy of her devotion.
As a child, I did not consider myself very girly and I’m pretty sure I gave my mother a hard time (sorry Mom) about wearing frilly dresses and patent leather shoes. I hated to have my hair brushed and to this day, I am not a big fan of pink! I have an older brother and we grew up in the country so I was accustomed to rough housing, building forts in the woods and playing in the dirt. I did participate in some feminine activities, for example ballet. Although I enjoyed dancing, I always felt a bit out of place around the other girls who had a more typical ballerina frame as opposed to my lanky, thin and broad shouldered body. Because I struggled with the complexities of being a young girl, I observed other women and choose female mentors of whom I revered as exceptional and motivating. There was my eccentric fifth grade teacher who took a special interest in me, encouraging me to overcome my inhibitions and grow more confident in my academic skills. My ballet instructor was beautiful, graceful and kind and I loved watching her dance at our annual recitals. At a young age, I became curious about writing and took a special interest in a professional writer from Eastern North Carolina who inspired me to begin journaling and writing stories at a very young age. When I left college and started my professional career, there were other women who made an impression. One such woman hired me right out of college when I had no idea what the heck I was doing. She saw something in me that I could not recognize within myself and she is the person with whom I give credit for launching my career in the field of disabilities. Some of these women might not have realized their impact on me. Others were keenly aware that I was watching and learning and I believe that they made it their responsibility to take that mentoring seriously.
For the first few years of Leah’s life, I worked three days a week and stayed home with her four days a week. Since I started my new job a few months ago, I have been able to travel more, which I absolutely love! It’s been an adjustment for all of us as we figure out how to manage the household with my new work schedule. Mark has been great and really stepped up but Leah has had a more difficult time adjusting to mommy being gone. I recently spent five days, in Arizona, on a work trip. Shortly after I returned from my trip, I chose to go into the office early, before Mark and the kids woke up. When Leah came downstairs for breakfast she realized that I was not there and demanded that Mark Facetime me. Once she saw my face on the phone she started bawling and asked if I was on a plane again. I cringed at her outward display of emotion and tears and bit my lip to keep from saying, “There is no reason to cry, you will be fine.” I took a deep breath and mustered every ounce of energy I could to offer her the emotional support she needed and help her feel more connected to me. I did it!
Now that I am raising a little woman I realize that she is looking to me as a mentor. I also realize that other young women might be looking to me as their mentor and I have a responsibility to those girls. My neighbor across the street has a fantastic teenage daughter who is a senior in high school. She has taken a special interest in my children and me and she is often at our house just hanging out. At first, I wondered why on earth she would want to hang out with a boring middle-aged mom. Only recently, have I started to become aware that perhaps she is studying me as as I did my ballet teacher, my fifth grade teacher, and my professional mentor. The other night, I did something that I don’t typically do with my daughter or any other woman for that matter. I took Leah, and the awesome teenage girl across the street, to the salon for a pedicure. I have never in my life gotten a pedicure with another women. It’s something I do by myself, in solitary, with a book or my laptop. I went outside of my comfort zone and took two young women with me to the salon and we had a blast! My daughter was in heaven because the nail tech let her choose three nail polish colors and painted cute little flowers on her big toenail. Leah listened as my neighbor’s daughter and I chatted about girl stuff and she was grinning from ear to ear.
When Leah plays mommy, it usually involves putting on some of my work clothes, kissing her babies goodbye and heading off to work with a “Have a great day, sweetie, I’m going to work.” Some moms might be heart broken or feel guilty if their daughter chose this impression of their mother. I, on the contrary, found it delightful. Perhaps it means that Leah is aware that she and I are different in some ways. She needs the emotional comfort and bonding that it is hard for me and I feel the need to show her how to take care of herself and feel empowered. I’m trying to meet her in the middle and I like to think that she is trying to meet me there too. Perhaps her impression of mommy is her way of showing me that she understands our differences. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Even though it might not be the most traditional impression of a mother, my daughter’s imitation of me is her way of showing compassion toward her quirky mother and I find that rather flattering.