Hold Onto the Light: Smile, Honey!

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 The National Center for PTSD

Anxiety and Depression Society of America

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.

 

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Comments

Hold Onto the Light: Smile, Honey! — 24 Comments

  1. It all goes with the idea that a woman’s most important job is not the physical labor of housekeeping, but the emotional labor: writing the thank-you notes, keeping track of everyone else’s stuff and appointments, etc. And part of that is always presenting a calm, unruffled front.

    • Not just the physical labor . . . otherwise, spot on. It was the way we were raised, and an admirable goal, but the cost if that was not how you wished to live your life?

  2. I don’t say this lightly, but the death of my husband freed me in ways that I never expected. Still, it has taken years to undo all the expectations poured into me by my (well-meaning) parents, society, and even my siblings and myself, and make time for writing. It is finally easier now – I have a great job, the kids are grown, and I determinedly stay single because the thought of getting trapped back into that world of expectations absolutely frightens me to the bone (PTSD? I had never thought of it that way – that gut-clenching fear – but maybe in a way it is).

    • *nodding*

      My mother said after she nursed her second husband to the end, that she might like to travel with a man again (assuming she could afford it) or do some fun things, but she was never picking up anyone’s dirty underwear again, or cleaning pee off the bathroom floor. And she seems to have been happy to stay single ever since.

    • Carolyn, I understand and relate. Long story and explanation about my husband’s last years and our relationship during that time… but the bottom line is I’ve opted to adamantly remain single for much the same reasons as you have. I still remember the look on a friend’s face when I said, “I don’t want a spouse getting in my way.”

  3. I feel great guilt when I don’t want to take on the caretaking tasks that I feel I’m expected–or even I myself believe I ought–to take on. I also really identify with the bleak sense of being expected to be over something when you’re not over it.

    • Yeah–that guilt is something that seems to press specifically upon women. There are a lot of catering tasks to be done, and it is admirable to do them, but I do strongly feel that these are made easier when shared.

  4. My mother watched too many women get trapped into giving up everything to care for sick and elderly relatives. Too many women who were bright, well-educated, funny, and kind became embittered slaves to their familial duties. She made certain she had enough money tucked away for assisted living and then foster care so she would not burden her children with her health issues. This left me free to visit her with joy nearly every day while continuing my life and career.

    Thank you, Mom.

    • Phyllis, my MIL did the same – 81 and still going strong. I do keep an eye on her though my spouse (her oldest son) is long gone – the other kids don’t seem to care to, so I do. I don’t want to do that to my kids either. What a gift!

  5. This is why I’m always interested in the biographies of women authors. Did you see the recent biography of Shirley Jackson, just out? She had a tough life of just the sort you describe.

  6. I remember frequently being ordered to smile by strangers as a girl. Females of any age were never supposed to look or be serious. The last time I was ordered to smile by a strange man was several years ago in a Home Depot. I whirled around and walked out. What I should have done it urge him to order a man to smile.

  7. Excellent article. Excellent, and I thank you so much for writing it.

    I also want to point out that I said and felt the same things in my early 20s. I hadn’t lived through any horrific experience. I didn’t have a university education. I didn’t live in an ivory tower with all sorts of letters after my name proving that I should be allowed to write. My experiences weren’t anything I would want to read about, or write about.

    I had to meet another mother with several boys who proudly introduced herself as a writer, even though she was unpublished at the time, before I saw writing as a possibility for me.

    Even then it was six months before I got up the courage to call her and ask her, “But–how do you do that??? How do you be a writer?”

    Fortunately, she took me under her wing.

    • What an awesome woman! It’s exactly that reach-out that helps to overcome the cultural pressure, bit by bit, or as Ann Lamott says, bird by bird.

      • You know, she had/has this great voice. If a goddess had a deep, resonant voice, it would be this one. She could even sound quite officious at times. And when I called her and asked, but how do you write about these things you’ve never done?

        It was as if I could hear her leaning forward and arching one eyebrow and saying, “You make it up.”

        Oh.

        Oh!!!

  8. I wonder if this is a part of why my mother stayed single after the divorce? (She dated a few times early on, early enough that i don’t remember any of the men) Certainly the bit about parental caregiver sounds right; Mom did a lot of care for my Grandma before the end, and the move to the home was an improvement in their relationship, and I could see the stress lower (It was still stress; a lot of visits, a lot of driving, still being the main one to go, still being the biggest caregiver outside the home itself. There were reasons besides gender why it was more Mom than her siblings, but those reasons don’t ameliorate the stress.)

    I am grateful forever to have a husband who is willing to support the idea that I want to write etc (And that other friends of mine have the same).I hear so many stories about women – in past generations especially, but also still some women my age, younger – whose husbands love them genuinely, care about them sincerely, believe they are doing the best by them — and still squash their wives into little boxes because that’s how it is and what a woman does in a marriage. Or men who think they want things to be equal, right up until the husband is making less money, or the wife suggests he could take some of the parental leave to mind the baby. Then suddenly it’s all an issue, they can’t take it after all. Those women, as you say, seem determined to make it all sound okay. But it always sounds to me like a death of a thousand cuts. Lots of trivial things becoming something not trivial at all.

    • Yes, yes, and yes. I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had since this post went live, about older women who are grateful to be single; younger women who feel guilty about their feelings when they should be grateful yadda yadda, and basically all enduring those thousand tiny, invisible cuts.

      • Lenora Rose – my husband (now deceased) was like that. He actively fought my writing – even once told me that if I had to choose, which would I choose it or him? I told him, flat out, anyone who loved me would never even ask such a question in the first place. When I sold my one and only mystery, the negativity I received from him was the beginning of the end of my heart (and then he got sick, and I had to quit writing, and he passed away 3 years later, and I was free). It wasn’t until he passed away, some time after that really, that I began to understand just how trapped and terribly unhappy I’d been. If I ever meet someone again, well… I will never ever let myself get in that position again. Ever.