When you become a parent, there is an invitation, as soon as the egg is fertilized or the adoption papers finalized, to wrestle with extremes: fear and hope, joy and pain. This deep diving into the confusing currents of love and child rearing is the realm of the feminine. Whether you identify as male or female or somewhere in between, the emotional involvement of being responsible for life inevitably calls upon the female aspect of your being to show up and do the hard work of loving while seeing clearly, of listening while you have a bazillion things to get done, and making endless decisions about limits and rules and schools and babysitters and doctors and food and sleeping and yelling/not yelling and—Yes? Did you need something, honey?
An image that recently came to me as I was decompressing after a difficult morning with my six and a half-year-old wild-child, was that of wrestling with a dragon. A dragon is a mythical creature, so by what means is it able to wield power over us? Much of it is psychological and emotional…intangible on many levels, and yet it has the ability to deeply affect our lives. We all have parts of us that can appear terrifying but, like a dragon, these parts of us, which leap out, flames blazing, ready to destroy, are blustering projections of the very things that scare us most. The dragon I was wrestling was not just my son’s dragon, but also my own. We all have an inner dragon. Sometimes it helps us to stay safe, or be heard, and sometimes it jumps out to show us that we (or someone else) are in emotional trouble.
Entering into conflict with anyone can be confusing and upsetting; it causes us to come up against our own triggers as well as those of our “adversary.” So often when we are fighting with someone, we are fighting with their dark side, their old wounds and deeply ingrained patterns. It’s not the beautiful core of the person we think we know; it’s the stuff that’s fighting its way to the light with the desperate hope of being seen and loved. But it’s so damn ugly.
When this happens with our children, it can rip our hearts apart. It hurts to see them in pain, and it hurts to feel that pain ourselves because of a reaction to these ones we love so much. We worry that baring our dark side in front of them will hurt them, or even scar them. On one hand, we’re worried by their behavior, wondering if it means they’re going to grow into dysfunctional adults. We imagine this rude, ungrateful child as a grown-up, stomping around their New York City flat like the stay-puff marshmallow man from Ghostbusters. On the other hand, we know they’re hurting. When they hurt, we hurt. Author Elizabeth Stone said, “Making the decision to have a child—it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ”
Loving this much is not easy on the spirit. There is too much at stake. We have cumulatively forgotten what an important job it is to raise respectful, loving, honest, vital, interested, and curious citizens. We have forgotten that it takes a village. We have forgotten that you have to sweat, bleed, and cry to do it well. We have forgotten that everyone makes mistakes. This is because we have forgotten to honor feminine grit. This is not to be confused with the traditional notion of feminism, which seeks to give women the same rights and privileges as men, but rather a return to honoring female qualities in everyone, to improve the ailing emotional health of our society. Our culture gives the impression of honoring the feminine but fails to implement the functions that would put that consideration into practice; such as paid maternity and paternity leave, baby-friendly hospitals across the board, wage equality, and high quality subsidized child care. Even the modern ideal of feminine beauty points to the imbalance of masculine and feminine in our culture, for the soft moon-like beauty of the women from Botticelli's paintings have given way to the hard-edged masculine beauty of contemporary fashion models.
Feminine is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as:
- Having qualities or an appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness:
1.1 Relating to women; female.
We as parents, and especially mothers, for we are the ones traditionally expected to embody the traits of femininity, are expected by society to be steady, gentle, organized, successful, composed, on time, fun and (WTF?!) pretty and delicate. I’m sorry, but what is more feminine than the act of giving birth, be it to a child, an idea, or a business? And did you ever see a person push a baby out of their vagina, start a company, or write a book, wielding only the qualities of delicacy and prettiness? Called to mind is the viral photo of the quintessential newborn and new dad photo- with mom in the background wearing a gigantic postpartum diaper. Birth is messy. Life is messy. Delicacy and prettiness can never truly be anything but peripheral or incidental when it comes to what matters in life. Therefore, they cannot be defining characteristics of an entire sex.
The traits typically attributed to the masculine aspect are thinking, logic, intellect, and spirit. The traits of femininity correspond to feeling, emotions, instinct, and soul. Our masculine side dives into problems headfirst. It makes clear decisions and sees things in terms of black and white. It overpowers its adversary with force and logic. It talks more than it listens. Our feminine side approaches problems gut-first. It knows when to soothe, when to be firm, when to be fierce. It listens more than it talks, and makes decisions based on instinct. It honors complexity, and is not afraid of messiness. It does not seek to win, but rather to overcome. We need both aspects to be honored equally in order to interact with others and ourselves in a healthy way, and this begins within each of us.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve berated myself for being too messy and emotional, for making decisions based more on instinct than logic, and for prioritizing my family over my career. I think that in part this is a result of not having been properly trained in how to use my feminine strengths effectively. However, I am learning to embrace and embody my feminine qualities. Part of this process for me has been about honoring the years of childbearing and child-rearing as times in which my feminine strengths are called up to bat more often than my masculine ones.
Another part of the process has been about learning to blend my masculine and feminine strengths to be a more rounded person and parent, rather than allowing the two sides to be at war with each other. With children, we are called upon to remain in an almost constant state of compassion (feminine), which requires endless reserves of patience (feminine), but we still need to get shit done (masculine), and interface with the external world (masculine), and for me personally, it is very easy to get overwhelmed when I need to do these things all at once. Tapping into my feminine resources has helped me learn to view life from a more energetic rather than fixed perspective, which is especially helpful when I’m feeling overwhelmed or fixated on specific goal that, when you’re moving at the pace of a 3-year-old, just might not be attained.
How often do we witness public examples of women being criticized for an overly emotional response? Just consider the expression “judgment clouded by emotions”; we are trained to automatically discredit, reject, or condescend to emotions expressed in public, and so we automatically mistrust and discredit our own emotions on a regular basis. However, our emotions are rife with information — information that can be unpacked and translated into cohesive and credible insights. They should be paid attention to no matter how they initially present themselves. It is the inner feminine that gives birth to the seeds of growth, and she expresses herself on an emotional platform. This information needs to be honored and put to use to heal the lack of love in our lives.
In “All About Love: New Visions”, author Bell Hooks writes of the lack of a universal definition of love as one of the reasons that the concept of love, wreaks such havoc in our culture. She cites M. Scott Peck’s definition of love: “The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth”, thus making it clear that in many of the instances in which we think we are giving or receiving love, we are not. As the late French philosopher, Arnaud Desjardins wrote; “There are no bad people, only badly loved people.”
Just as the totality of Christian or Muslim culture cannot be ascertained by what is written in the Bible or the Qur’an, culture is not defined by what is written in the law books, as there are immeasurable ways in which to twist words and meanings. Passing laws ensuring equal rights for women did not ensure that females and female qualities are equally valued in our society, and despite our best efforts, we have a long history of upholding a patriarchal society. We as humans, both female and male by sex, owe it to ourselves, and future generations to heal the rift with the feminine within ourselves and in our communities. This begins with paying attention to what our emotions are telling us. For example, if you find yourself acting like a jerk to those you love, chances are that you are not a jerk, but that you are suppressing pain, anxiety, or fear. Negative reactions to stress do not arise just from drinking too much coffee or simply feeling overwhelmed, they come from not paying attention to what is bubbling just underneath the surface of the image we present to the world. Research shows that addiction is, in part, a byproduct of lack of social connection and bonding.
Glennon Doyle Melton wrote, “I spent the first half of my life being afraid of pain. I found a million easy buttons to transport myself out of pain: Food, booze, sex, shopping, snark, scrolling. I was afraid of the wrong thing. I’m no longer afraid of pain—I’m now afraid of the easy buttons.”
Humans need to feel connected to others and to their feelings to be healthy, which means that feelings need to be legitimized. The inevitable emotional extremes of living become intensified when we have dependents. Parenting is hard work. We make it harder by resisting the feminine qualities of grit, nurturance, and empathy. We work against our innermost desire to do the best we can for our loved ones by allowing our culture to undervalue the job of a parent/caregiver, and all that it entails. When we are able to acknowledge and legitimize our true feelings and motivations to ourselves, (and when we get really brave, to others) change and growth on a larger scale become imminent. As Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man [woman] changes his [her] own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him [her]... We need not wait to see what others do.”
Malia Marquez has worked as a waitress, a yoga instructor, a high school art teacher, and a birth and postpartum doula. She currently lives, writes, and mothers in Western Massachusetts, and is an MFA student in creative fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her essays have been published in Rebelle Society and the Huffington Post.