The hard side of love

On tonight’s episode of Bethenny Ever After… Bethenny Frankel, the reality TV star and cocktail mogul with a razor wit and a soft underbelly, breaks down while talking about her daughter:

I want her to be soft and sweet and nice — and not hard and a survivor like me.

And now I’m crying. And I’m not alone.

As I’ve written before, I am a survivor of sexual abuse as well as a childhood marked by alcoholics, absent parent(s), poverty, and social-skill handicapping transience (because how do you learn the rules of adolescence, girlhood, and young adulthood when you don’t even have the same friends more than one year at time?). And my transition into motherhood and the transformations it has brought in my life have been rich, profound, and at times core-shaking. It took me a long time to want to get on this ride at all, and now that I’m here it’s truly full of surprises! Case in point: All the ways that being a mother has been so joyful, so frustrating, so revealing, so challenging, so exhausting, so cathartic, so heartbreaking, so inspiring, and so deeply healing. Indeed, loving my daughter and being loved by her has been one of the most healing and miraculous experiences of my life. She is joy personified.

So, as a survivor who has worked through my own share of pain, I empathize with Bethenny’s sentiment. I don’t want my daughter to have the kind of experiences in her life that would require her to become a hardened survivor, like me. I want to protect her from those kinds of experiences. And I want to destroy all those who would try to bring those into her life.

When you are a survivor — of sexual violence, domestic violence, poverty… whatever — how do you begin to channel all your rough edges and the resilience and strength it took you to survive into the softness of love? How do you speak with truth and conviction and not seem hard, jaded, or even broken? How do you encourage your own child’s light to shine when no one ever did that for you?

Like Bethenny, I struggle with this. I worry about being too hard around my daughter. I worry that I don’t show her enough love, affection, attention, and praise because I did not experience that. There is no well to draw from for me. There is no example to follow. And no matter how far away from the trauma I get, by virtue of it happening to me in my formative years, there are certain scars that will never fade. For instance, I may learn how to mitigate my survivalist need to plan for any “worst case scenario,” but I probably won’t ever be able to turn it off or even take a vacation from it. That instinct protected me from the dangers that I could avoid. That instinct probably saved my life more than once. And that instinct — which I know comes off as pessimistic or even overly critical at times, despite my best efforts to be transparent in my pragmatism — is part of the very core of who I am. It’s just my nature to always have a Plan B in my back pocket for when things go wrong. Because I’ve lived through some wrong times.

In a lot of ways, I have tried to flip the script on what remains in your life as a survivor. Sure, there are some difficult things to overcome and that process of healing can take years. But, there are some things about being a survivor that you can turn into assets. I am a fighter. I am fiercely loyal. I am resilient — no matter how deeply you wound me, I heal. I am resourceful. And I know how to use anger as a powerful motivator. Being a survivor is rooted in a deep strength. After all, that’s how you survive!

But there’s no denying that strength comes at a cost — especially if you are a woman. I am not the person you call when you want to watch a chick-flick. I don’t like going shopping with other people. I don’t have the patience for a four-hour conversation about which beige you are going to paint your living room. I always have to give myself a pep talk when I wear an outfit that shows a lot of cleavage (because I’m uncomfortable with being a sexual object, even in passing). I don’t cook. And, yes, in my younger days I started more than one bar fight by throwing the first punch (or can of beer).

So I know how hard being a survivor can make you. And, if we’re being honest, it can be easy to just stay in that place. To stay cocooned in that hard shell. I know; I did for a long time. It kind of feels like bullshit to leave it behind. After all that hardness did for you — it helped you fucking survive! And then you come out the other side and the whole world asks you to change. Can you just mellow out a little? Can you soften the edges? Can you try opening up a bit? Can you fall into gender norms more? Can you be nicer? Can you just be less of a bitch, please?! And for a lot of us, this is just too much to take. We throw our hands up and storm off, clutching the hardness all the closer, like a warm coat on a blustery day. No, you can’t take my jacket, asshole. I might need it! And I don’t appreciate you bagging on it! When you’ve come out the other side of trauma and can live free as a survivor, it almost feels like another assault that the world doesn’t give you some kind of respect for that. Yeah, I’m hard. But I had to be, damn it! Yeah, I might make you uncomfortable sometimes, but this is who I had to become to survive. If the worst thing you have to deal with is my hardness, then you don’t know pain. Get over it.

I lived like that for a long time. And I suspect that Bethenny has, too. But I think she has had some recent experiences that are not unlike my own. For one, we both became mothers later in life than the norm. (Our daughters were born only weeks apart.) And, we both have had to find our equilibrium in marriages to men who are from a life made up of experiences and family wholly different from our own. (I know there are rumors of her having marriage woes, but for the benefit of what I’m about to say, I’m going to ignore that for now.) Before I met my now-husband, I didn’t know anyone whose parents were happily married to their original spouse. I didn’t know families that ate “family dinner.” And I definitely did not know how to handle being welcomed into a family that seemed alien (in a good way) to everything I had ever known.

During last season’s finale of Bethenny Ever After…, I remember her saying something about how she had gotten everything she ever wanted and then asking, “Who gets everything they ever wanted?” Like, Holy crap! Now what?!

And I totally get that because, I too feel like I’ve gotten everything I ever wanted. During those nine years that I survived sexual abuse, I would often pray to God (even though my family was not religious and did not go to church). I just started doing it because once I was finally alone in my bedroom and whatever horrors were over for the day, I needed to feel like there was something good in the universe. I needed to feel like I was not alone, in a good way. I would pray for lots of things, some important and some trivial.

But I would always, always pray for two things: that I would one day have a home that was safe and comfortable with no threat of homelessness or danger; and that God would bring someone into my life who loved me, unconditionally. When I was 14 and praying for these things, they were painfully desired and fairly abstract concepts because I did not know what either one felt like. When I was sending up that prayer, I think in my mind I thought I was praying for my father to come back into my life and rescue me. Or perhaps, that once I left home for college I would be so successful that I would be able to afford to provide a safe place for myself and find love on my own terms. I certainly did not think that what would happen was that I would meet a boy when I was 15 that would later become my husband and with whom (after almost 15 years of marriage) I share a safe home filled with unconditional, honest love between us and with our daughter. And somewhere in there I got a college degree and built a nice career for myself, too, among other things.

My life might not be as lavish as Bethenny Frankel’s — no multi-million-dollar liquor deals in my household — but I think I understand the kind of shell-shock she felt last year when you could sort of hear the panic behind the joy when she tearfully talked about getting everything she ever wanted. Because as a survivor, there’s always a sense that nothing good lasts. And that, deep down, you don’t deserve good things in your life. (I mean, what was all that trauma about, if it wasn’t because somehow you deserved it — right?)

And now you have a beautiful baby daughter. A child who is everything wonderful in the world. A baby who adores you unconditionally. And it’s profound. And it scares you.

I don’t want my daughter to be hard like me, either, Bethenny. And I absolutely don’t want her to be a survivor. Strong? Yes! Because she had to become strong to survive? Hell, no!

But I’m a bit hung up on a part of the sentiment that Bethenny puts out there. She doesn’t just want to protect her daughter from being hard and a survivor. She wants her daughter to be sweet and nice, too. And that’s where I disagree. I want my daughter to be a bad ass — in a good way. I want her to be whip-smart, fierce, brave, adventurous, creative, strong, and happy. So, so happy. I want her to be a good person with good values. But she doesn’t have to be “sweet” unless that’s her natural personality.

After thinking about it, I’ve decided that maybe what Bethenny means by soft is love itself. We think of hard as being the opposite of soft. And that, at least a little bit, strength is the opposite of loving. Here’s where I challenge Bethenny and all the other survivors out there to create a new script about what it means to be hard and what it means to be loving. Because I think being loving — open, unconditional, honest love — takes a lot more courage than being hard. It seems easy to stay in the hard shell. But it’s so limiting. And in truth, when we push through the hard shell, that’s when we bust through the last vestiges of trauma. Because just like our capacity to endure and survive, our capacity to love has been inside us all along. And what I have found is that I feel 10x stronger as a loving person then when I was in my shell.

I may never be able to give up the comfort of a back-up plan or ever feel comfortable at “girly” functions because being a survivor is always going to be a part of the fabric of my being. But I also know that I have a loving side. And what I pray for now is that my daughter is happy, healthy, smart and knows she is loved beyond measure. And if my prayer track-record is any indication, I’m going to get everything I ask for, and then some.

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