We all have a personal life journey. Mine seems to be a continual struggle toward integrity. I don't mean integrity in the casual sense of respectability or righteousness; I mean it in the literal sense of being integrated
, not fragmented into different personae for different audiences. Genuine integrity requires authenticity, the willingness to be honest about one's feelings or one's position on a particular issue. Don't get me wrong; I'm not celebrating the willingness to convey one's moment-to-moment state of mind with no effort to rein in its expression--in other words, I don't advocate smashing dishes (or people) to "authentically" convey one's anger. I support the use of situationally appropriate words and actions to convey inner states that may be much more intense than the words and actions let on. But to use words and actions that are the opposite
of what one is feeling--well, that's the path to pathology. Smiling brightly and saying with a brittle voice, "Oh, nothing
, honey, nothing at all
!" when asked what's wrong is not a display of integrity. To say, "I'm upset, but not ready to talk about it yet," or "Yes, I'm angry about ____," or "I'm feeling a mix of things and need to sort them out," or even, "Yes, dammit, I'm angry!" is far preferable, integrity-wise.
Now, I realize this all seems like a condemnation of people who are not willing to be honest about their feelings. I don't mean it to be. Some people grow up thinking they cannot be honest because it's not safe. Honesty has gotten them into hot water. I learned this lesson early, hence my adult trek toward integrity. As a child I was not allowed to convey anger, indeed, to feel
anger. It was unseemly, unfeminine, and worst of all, it was hurtful. My anger was actually interpreted as an assault, even if I did nothing with it. It's taken years and several therapists to convince me that feelings are neither good nor bad, they just are
. It's what you do with them that counts. My mother, with whom I've experienced much conflict over many years, had it even worse than I did. She was profoundly abused and grew up with the crazymaking notion that she had to put on a different face for different people, and even different faces for the same person, just to survive. She brought that lesson to my childhood, and now I'm trying to find a way to override it.
Which is what brings me to the biggest emotional challenge I've experienced so far: keeping up what I call my Mommy Game Face. If an adult wakes me up four times in the night, I can express my anger and frustration in an appropriate way. But what do I do with a baby who's just being a baby? The desire to provide my daughter with a loving environment has led me to adopt this perpetually upbeat, validating game face that departs quite markedly (and frequently) from what I'm actually feeling. Moreover, I think this is the way it should be. I believe that parenting a very small child is one of the few life tasks that require occasional (okay, constant) inauthenticity, for the sake of the child. Nothing creepy and malicious like saying "You woke me up again, didn't you, Shithead?" with a syrupy voice and a big grin, just sighing and saying, "It's okay, everything's alright," when everything is most certainly not alright. Every kid knows how terrifying it is to see a parent sobbing or petrified with fear; it's like the whole world is falling apart. We need to believe that our parents are able to tap into a bottomless well of optimism and courage, especially when we're very little, and sad, and afraid. So I'm trying to create the impression that I have such a well, when the reality is, I don't. And let me tell you, even this minor league inauthenticity grows tiresome. It's like there's a tradeoff between my own neurosis and my daughter's: to preserve my sanity, I need to be authentic; to preserve hers, I need to be inauthentic. I feel as if I'm backsliding some days, like all this progress toward integrity is being undone by the requirement that I put on my Comedy mask when the Tragedy mask seems to fit much better.
As parents, when do we get to be ourselves again? When they're 10? 20? 30? And how do we model integrity for our children if we have to hide so much of who we are from them?