What do these two exhortations have in common?
“Smile! And the world will smile right back.”
“If you don’t stop pouting I’ll give you something to pout about.”
Yep, in both cases, whoever is being spoken to is not happy. And the chances were really good, especially in days of yore, this was a female. Because when have you ever heard strangers address a man on the street, or at work, or even at home, and say, “Smile, honey?”
On television, all the family shows offered stories in which the kids, and even the dad, could have a bad day, before everybody—especially Mom—rallied with sympathy and fresh-baked cookies. Children’s books were filled with moms who existed in smiling service to their families, without any time, much less emotions, of their own.
We never saw a story in which Mom, or venerable Grandma, or even silly, devoted maiden aunt Minnie, tore off her pearls, turned off the vacuum cleaner, kicked off her pretty heels that she always wore even to do housework, put her head down on the kitchen table and howled. Unless she was being laughed at.
As we got older, the cues got more subtle but no less persistent as societal expectations narrowed in around us, especially those of us who paired off and had kids. We wanted to be good moms, and we had breathed in the lesson that a good mom Didn’t Have Negative Feelings before the child, and when you’re on duty 24/7, well then, you had to tough it out for everyone else’s good.
A good wife, mother, lady, cheered herself up by baking cookies for other people, by always being the rock of her family, by serving others. To serve herself was selfish.
I’m a writer, and this particular blog series was put together by writers, so my focus is writers—particularly older women who, with an apologetic air, admit that they’d really like to write again. Of course it’s too late . . . it’s kinda silly, really, no one expects anything good out of someone old and out of practice . . . Seeing a tangentially related blog series begun by Deborah Ross caused me to reflect on the fact that all of these deflections and apologies I’ve heard are from women of a certain age, women who hasten to point out that they never fought in a war, or survived an attack by terrorists, or lived through a tornado leveling their house around their ears, so they have no room to complain. Even when their hands grip together, their voices wobble, their gaze goes diffuse.
These are the women whose lives never underwent HBO-level devastation, but were still shaped by thousands upon thousands of little—and not so little—hints that the only acceptable emotions from a good woman were smiles or sympathy, or gratitude. And yet their own dreams were squashed down for decade after decade because they needed to be practical, they were depended upon, they were good women.
Even many of those who endured the “I’ll give you something to pout about” threat (which was then carried out) are quick to say, “Oh, that’s the way it was in those days—everybody got slapped/spanked/beaten with a belt. My family life was so much better than most.” Though a soldier never is told that their wound was for their own good—they deserved it—they “asked for it” and the soldier gets it from an enemy, not from those who were supposed to guard your safety.
I’ve met a lot of women in particular who give off a strong PTSD vibe to those who know the signs, but who insist that they are fine, lucky, grateful. And there’s that quick, anxious smile that never quite reaches the watchful eyes, waiting for the world to “smile back.”
Unfortunately, I know way, way too many of these women, especially in the generations above mine, who dealt with their squashed, “selfish” dreams by drinking them into numbness, or smothering them by prescription drugs, or committing suicide by cigarette.
It’s not an easy thing to find safe space in which to vent those longings to try for those dreams again, and to slowly, painfully, make their way to a place where all emotions—messy, mixed, impossible—are considered reasonable, valid.
First you have to believe that you have not failed the world to have them—and that it’s okay to be annoyed, or even angry, when someone wags an admonishing finger and coos “Smile! Everything will look rosy if you just smile.” Because your subconscious knows that what you are really being told under that teeth-grittingly cheery exhortation is that your messy, human emotions are illicit—and if the world isn’t smiling back, you are at fault.
If you have questions about PTSD, I encourage you to read this post by Rachel Manija Brown, a writer who is also a therapist and crisis response counselor. It’s Part Three—go ahead and read all the posts, and check out the resources.
But above all, this series is to underscore the fact that your—whoever you are, young or old, whatever gender—your feelings are legitimate, and that there are resources out there that can help you find a space that allows the real smile to bloom—even if there is no one there to see it.
About the campaign:
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, click here.