The Art of Vulnerability
Updated: May 11, 2022
I woke up last night, in that darkest bit of night - you know, when daylight still seems like an eternity away and you know you’ve had nowhere near enough sleep to get through the next day without at least 10 cups of coffee. And as it so often does nowadays, my brain just switched itself on and started doing its own thing, at 90 miles per hour, unable to put the daytime worries on hold, but rather tossing them all together on one big, messy pile, making them seem all the more unmanageable.
And I started pondering: we seem so keen to put on a brave face so much of the time, trying to be strong, be the person we think we should be or want to be, pretending to have the experience we think we should be having. A phenomenon that, to my understanding, is particularly common in the early weeks after birth:
New mothers of cute and cuddly babies should be over the moon, full of joy, floating on a pink cloud of blissful happiness, right? So if my experience happens to be anything less than that, surely I must be doing something wrong, and people will think I’m a bad mother if I let it show…
And a gazillion mothers have done this all before me, with brio and without any support (from what I can tell from their online posts at least), so why shouldn’t I be able to do just that?
Maybe there’s a stubborn sort of wishful thinking to it: if only I pretend hard enough, it will actually be so? Like we’re both the leading role and director of our own play, and if we just believe it, fiction will become reality. Keep faking it till you make it!
So often, though especially when I go on social media, it feels to me like we are all brilliant masters in the Art of Pretending.
There’s a book called “Musings on Mothering”, and one of my (many) favourite stories in it, is a short text called “High Heels and Lipstick” by Rachel O’Leary, who writes about seeing a mother from up the road walk past every day with her new baby, wearing high heels and lipstick (the mother, not the baby obviously), while Rachel herself was in her dressing-gown, uncombed hair, feeding her baby (again), feeling like she had to hide in shame. Only years later, when their children were teenagers, did they actually meet, and did she find out that her neighbour, too, was falling to bits at home, and that the high heels, the lipstick, were all she could do to hold onto her sanity and feel like she was coping. “I wish I’d known”, Rachel writes, “We could have had a laugh about it when we needed to. I wish I hadn’t assumed I was the only one drowning in isolation. I wish I’d got to know her better, and allowed her to know me with all my failings.” Her story, in all its simplicity and honesty, always brings tears to my eyes.
So what would happen if we all stopped pretending so much of the time? I do wonder if pretending to be fine actually helps us to feel better at times? If it keeps the structures we have built for ourselves from falling apart? If it keeps us from falling apart?
But what would happen if we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable? To say to those around us “I’m not fine”, “I haven’t got this”, “I need help”. Maybe the world around us wouldn’t collapse. Or what if it collapses just enough so that we can start building something new, that is honest, and real, and not so much darned work all the time. Cause isn’t all this pretending just exhausting on its own? What if we started practicing the Art of Vulnerability instead? If we allowed others to see us with all our struggles, and failings, and messy feelings. What if that vulnerability gave us the opportunity to reach out for support and allow ourselves to be surrounded by warm, caring people who are there to just sit with us in those darker hours. And accept us. And accept the experiences we are having, the Good, the Bad and the Messy. Maybe even tidy away a bit of the mess while they’re there. And prepare us a nice, hot cup of tea. One sugar, please. Aaahh… now doesn’t that simply feel much better? Don’t things finally start to look just a little... lighter?
If you want to find out more about how postnatal doulas can offer you support after birth and help you feel more positive, have a look at the services I provide on my website or read my blogs on this topic: "Rethinking the Postnatal Period" and "What Doulas Do".
by Anne, Postnatal Doula, Breastfeeding Counsellor and founder of MamaMoon.uk
Musings on Mothering, Edited by Teika Bellamy, Mother's Milk Books, 2012