Monday, October 29, 2012

the fear of vulnerability

I read The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine. The book didn't offer me anything particularly mind-shattering; I had heard most of the ideas she documented before now, but it was nice to see all of them in one place. In many ways, I actually found the last section of the book to be the most revolutionary.

After talking about the culture of affluence, child development and parenting styles, Madeline talks to the reader about the importance of being a serene and secure mother. Obviously, ideally both parents should be in that place, but it seems to have been proven that mothers make even more of an impact than fathers do on the family, and thus the best place to start when it comes to turning around the family culture is with the mother.

She writes a lot of really beautiful ideas in this last section of the book, but the one that spoke the most to me was the chapter entitled "The Fear of Vulnerability." An excerpt is reproduced below.


The Fear of Vulnerability

Affluent moms can be many things: bright, competitive, persistent, protective, interesting, and funny. They are not vulnerable- at least not publicly. Vulnerability is a kind of admission: an admission of hurt feelings, of neediness, of things not going well. This is not the territory affluent moms are comfortable in. We like the high ground, the places that feel secure and capable and accomplished. At PTA meetings, at the gas station, at the florist or the nail salon, even at our social events, our conversations tend to center on our children's accomplishments. There might be some passing comment, in hushed tones, about another mother's kid who was packed off to rehab or picked up for a DUI, but it's never our own kid. In public we shine, and so do our children.

Certainly, the fear of appearing vulnerable is not limited to affluent moms. Many people choose not to expose their emotionally tender spots. For many of us, being wary comes from repeated experience of not having our needs met when we were vulnerable, either as children or as adults. It makes sense to keep our guard up. It helps protect us from disappointment, anger, and sadness.

Somewhere back in our ancestral history it made perfect sense to hide our wounds from our enemies so we wouldn't be clubbed over the head and dragged off to a cave. For women who continue to fear that those around them will exhibit aggression rather than compassion, presenting a "perfect" and formidable front is the best insurance against being exploited and misunderstood. It is also an exhausting and ultimately empty performance. We are human exactly because we love and hate, because we excel and fail, because we are independent and needy. We cannot embrace only our strengths and disregard our weaknesses  Children need to see their mothers being competent, but they also need to see them struggling with challenges. How else does a child come to see that challenges, even failures, are a part of life? Moms who appropriately share some of their difficulties can help model resilience, active approaches to problem solving, and compassion for oneself.

Try to remember a time in your own childhood when you felt afraid and unprotected. Perhaps it was the first time you were left alone in your house and every noise and creak made you jump. Remember the sound of your parents' key in the door and the relief that flooded you when you knew you were safe. Or perhaps you remember your first broken heart when you were young, and how everyone made light of it, except for one dear person who took your grief and your heartache seriously and quietly stroked your hair while you sobbed into your pillow. We were all once very vulnerable, just as our children are now. Mothers who reflexively put up a "good front," who deny the hurt or sadness or depression that is so clearly seen by their children miss the opportunity to teach that while life isn't always fair, pain is always eased by love and connection.


This mother, like many of the women I see, had decided that the cost of vulnerability was too great. Not having a mother she could rely on, she came to the logical but unfortunate conclusion that she was better off not relying on anyone. Bright and capable, she developed the hardworking, organized parts of herself that allowed her to stay busy in the world, while shutting down her emotional life. Little by little, she came to see that while she did not have control over her early traumas, she did have choices as an adult, and that by choosing to be "strong" over vulnerable she had simply papered over the fragile walls of her childhood. 

~Pages 207-210


This section of the book resonated so much with me because I am coming to discover, of course, that this is one of my struggles. I'm not an affluent mom, but I am a person, and I have learned to associate vulnerability with either (verbal) aggression or rejection. And it's that last sentence that is repeating in my head- that by choosing to be "strong" over vulnerable one simply papers over one's fragility. I have valued this strength, and I am not entirely sure that I am wrong to value it, but I wonder if it should have expressed itself in a different way.

I'm intrigued by Levine's argument that when the mother takes care of herself and her marriage, that makes her do a better job of raising her children. She noted that many mothers make the time to attend their children's soccer games or other events, but can't find the time to meet up with friends. Here, these women put their children's needs first, but don't want to make time for their own needs for stimulation, relaxation, conversation, possibly because they worry these needs will be perceived as trivial. Part of what Levine argues is that in fact, when the woman puts her own needs first, she is making herself healthier, which means she is able to be a better mom to her kids.

I am curious as to whether this can be seen as analogous to teachers. Perhaps, when teachers make sure that they are doing things that are fulfilling and happy and solely for them- book clubs, seeing movies, hanging out with friends- that makes them better able to interact with their kids as well.

1 comment:

Dovber Schwartz said...

The question is where does one draw the line