When I was in kindergarten, I always drew my mother to be as tall as the whole paper — and all my other family members were always drawn significantly shorter than her. My teachers would question these works of art, but in my eyes, my mother towered over everything — taking it all in stride with a silent, unfaltering strength.
If the world is a scary place, then my mother is electrifying. She uses fashion as armor, and has the type of walk that lets you know she's always headed somewhere important — things she eventually passed on to me. Whenever she felt sad, she'd channel her energy into something productive, like painting our bathroom walls. If we ever struggled financially — or struggled in general — I'd never know about it because she always shouldered the burden without any indication of stress.
We were a party of two, an only-daughter-and-single-mother duo almost as close as Rory and Lorelai Gilmore. I wasn't always conscious of the meaning connected to the roles we played in each others' lives and how they affected our dynamic. But, more importantly, I wasn't aware of how I was internalizing some of the expectations that came with our roles.
As an adult, I know that our family dynamic molded and blessed me with a fierce independence and strong will, but it also crippled me with needing to uphold an ideal that hasn't always felt authentic to me. I fear asking for help. I fear inconveniencing the people around me. I fear allowing myself the luxury of genuine vulnerability.
For my mother and I, the mandate of embodying the strong woman archetype, especially as a Latina and Black Latina, respectively, helped us navigate our most trying situations, and forced us to always have things under control. As outsiders to mainstream American culture, being strong wasn't really a choice — it was survival.As outsiders to mainstream American culture, being strong wasn't really a choice — it was survival.
Due to this pressure, I've felt like I have to constantly function at my highest capacity in every setting — which of course, is unrealistic and leaves me exhausted. I've felt the need to be able to show up as the most empathetic for my friendships, the most emotionally stable in my relationship, and the most creative, resourceful and capable person at school and work. At times I've felt like I'm playing "The Sims," guiding my character through the many factors in her life and anxiously tracking her performance in all of them.
There have been countless times when a solution to my problems has simply been to ask for help — to allow myself to need. But in my mind, that would mean I'm admitting defeat — that I'm not actually handling everything all that well.
My obsession with perfectionism and embodying this picture of strength has been most challenging this past year, especially after starting grad school during a pandemic, when my functionality and mental capacity has felt lower than it's ever been. Settling into a new city during the busiest year of my life as a grad student has forced me to confront that my ideal of strength leaves no space for my humanness, and often leaves me isolated and burnt out. I learned that I needed to allow myself a plethora of vulnerable moments in order to build a community.
Recently, the concept of "softness" has shown up on my social media feed, and has been more widely discussed among communities of color — primarily among Black women. While there's not a set definition for the term, the idea behind softness is fairly simple: living your life in a way that makes space for your vulnerability, and by extension, your inner peace.As I navigate my transition into embracing softness, I've realized my most meaningful relationships and cherished moments have been the ones where I've specifically asked for the things I needed.
Since my mother so gracefully carried us through our survival phases, I now have the luxury being able to sit down and reflect on not only how her strong will shaped me, but also how much I want to incorporate that independence into other parts of my existence. This entire process of learning to be more soft has required a lot of learning and unlearning, and rethinking what strength looks like.
As I navigate my transition into embracing softness, I've realized my most meaningful relationships and cherished moments have been the ones where I've specifically asked for the things I needed. Whether that was allowing my friends to take care of me, or allowing myself to be seen and loved fully, these too have been impactful moments in which I've understood that there is strength in vulnerability.
While my mother's example of a strong woman set me up for independence and stability, my version has some alterations. I'm someone who admits defeat, allows herself to be taken care of, and embraces vulnerability and emotion. Both my mother and I are strong in our own ways, but I've learned that strength can come in many forms. It just so happens that my form of strength allows room for me to feel more than I used to.