"I'm not nice, I'm not good, I'm just right..."
the Witch "Into the Woods"
When I was small, I wanted to be liked. I wanted people to think I was nice and smart and pretty. I wanted to be popular. The focus of many things I did was to please others. My biggest fear? Disappointing my parents. My next biggest fear? Making anyone (other than my siblings!) mad at me. In school I followed directions, followed the rules, followed the crowd. When the popular girls got Guess jeans, I had to get Guess jeans. When they cut their hair like Farrah Fawcett, I cut my hair like Farrah Fawcett. The only reason I didn't follow the crowd when they made questionable but typical choices for HS students like drinking or smoking pot, was because of my biggest fear. Remember? Disappointing my parents.
Lately, the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into the Woods" has been running through my head on an endless loop. When I was young I would have been Cinderella - nice. Unwilling to make waves or even make a decision because it might be the wrong one. Like so many girls, I thought I needed to be nice and pretty first, smart second. The influences of the world can be huge when you are a child - you listen to everything. Today with the internet and social media it is exponentially harder to not hear and be influenced by "the world."
As I grew there were times when something didn't seem right and I began to experiment with pushing back and questioning what I was hearing and seeing. A Liberal Arts education opened my world a little bit to one where perhaps there were more important things than being nice and pretty. I began to form my own opinions on topics of importance. Reproductive rights, education, politics, religion. I still resisted speaking out too loudly except for with a small group of trusted friends, but in my head and heart, a passion for equality and social justice was starting to burn.
When I became a mother at 25, I tested the waters as an advocate. The hormones that raged through me as I nurtured and gave birth to my first born pushed me to question hospital protocol that seemed contrary to all I had read and learned about childbirth. I formulated a birth plan that helped my husband and best friend protect me from procedures I didn't want. I didn't push too hard though as I still didn't want to make anyone mad or upset with me. I questioned some of my carefully researched plan and ended up medicated and feeling like I'd failed. Looking back, it was clear that the only thing that kept me from a C-Section was that plan and being able to point to it to protect myself and my child from procedures that had no merit, but at the time I felt like I'd failed.
When my child was born, I took a step away from "nice." As I held his warm body in my arms I felt the first stirring of the mama bear in me who would do ANYTHING to protect my child. No nursery, no circumcision, no formula or water - he would have only the nourishment I could provide and he would stay with me. When despite difficulty and pain, my little one had gained a pound in a week from the milk I provided, my confidence in myself grew exponentially. Not only did I grow this magical being in my womb, I was now capable of providing all he needed to grow and develop - so powerful!
The Baker's Wife in the musical is much more ambiguous than Cinderella. She is flawed and bossy. She will do anything to have the child she desires. She is the first to indicate that the "end justifies the beans (means)." He ambition to have a child and live a bigger life than she has hurts those she loves, but at the same time she would and does give her life for them. As a young mother I was still uncomfortable with the idea of disappointing, angering or hurting others, but with a child to protect and care for, my priorities began to shift. I began to work more earnestly at finding ways to advocate for what I believed in while keeping the peace in relationships when I could.
At the same time I was mothering, I began work as a therapist and youth advocate - my voice for justice became louder and more confident around issues that affected children and families. My desire to do this work while continuing to be "nice" took a toll on me and my family as I held it together in the world then came home and "let it all out." Like the Baker's Wife I was critical of my husband and would pick fights and make demands. Like the Baker, my husband loved me and support me anyways.
Child number two came along and having gained confidence in my body and my intuition and knowledge, I took control of her birth. I found caregivers who respected and support me and when she burst into the world, my arms were the first ones she knew. She was a mighty little being and her demands to be cared for while exhausting, pushed me to be focused and to trust her needs and my ability to meet them. Upon her entry to this world, I felt strong and powerful! "I am woman, hear me roar!"
Over the next 20 years, another child arrived and choices were made around work and family that were not what I imagined when I was in college and pictured a career saving the world, but they were choices that made sense and taught me much about love and priorities. These 20 years continued to be filled with challenges that pushed me to think less about being "nice." Raising 3 children with varying temperaments and needs led me to challenge so many systems and protocols that made no sense. We researched vaccinations and chose a Doctor who respected us and worked to vaccinate our children in a way that made sense to us rather than insisting that we follow a schedule that we were uncomfortable with. When our second child, as an infant, refused to be cared for by anyone other than me, I proposed a schedule to my employer that allowed me to bring her with me to work until she was 9 months old. When our first became increasingly unhappy in school, we opted to pull him out and homeschool him for a year until we found a school that better fit his style of learning.
When our second child lost herself during her Jr. year of High School and was hospitalized, we stood outside the doors of the locked psych ward and refused to leave without her. We trusted our intuition that her needs would be better met with caregivers we found outside. We signed the form they gave us saying we were taking her against medical advice and never looked back. She rediscovered herself with much support and continued her journey to becoming the amazing young woman she is.
When our third child followed her sister and lost her way Jr. year, we dug in, did the work, pushed those in her wider world to give her the support and care she needed to find her path once again.
For many years my children pushed me to question my need to please. While I wanted them to do things because "that's how it's done," they made me ask why. When my little boy said "why do I have to keep doing these worksheets when I already know how to solve the problems?" I couldn't answer him any longer. When my infant declared loudly that she would stay with no one but me, she pushed me to create a new reality where my family and my work made sense. When the powers that be said they knew my children better than I did, my CHILDREN made me question everything. "Just because," or "because I said so" or "because that's the rule," were not acceptable answers.
My youngest is months away from leaving the nest. All three of them are on paths of their own choosing. They are thoughtful, smart, caring, compassionate people who refuse to do things just because it's the rule or because someone told them to. I don't agree with them on all their choices, but they have learned to present their arguments and they push me to challenge my preconceived notions of life. While I thought I was teaching them to be "nice," the life they pushed me to live "showed" them that being "nice" and being "good" are not always the same thing nor are they the same as being "right."
Over the last several months in particular, all they have taught me has begun to push me out of the nest. The election of 2016 and the inauguration of someone who is bent on destroying all that is good in this country has propelled me to stand up and speak out. There have been those who have suggested I am no longer "nice." I've begun to take that as a sign of strength. When "good" is on the line, "nice" is no longer enough. The witch sings "I'm not nice, I'm not good, I'm just right." She is the one who challenges the world and all it's flaws. She is the one who reminds us that it is not what we say, but what we do that children are learning from. They are watching and listening.
"Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do children will learn..."
In these precarious times, I've decided I would rather be "nasty" than "nice" if I must choose. I would rather be on the "right" side of history. If being "nice" means sitting by and watching as evil begins to take over our world, I won't do it. I no longer care if my growing passion for activism pushes some to "dislike" me because I speak out. I want my children to see me walking the walk and talking the talk. They have taught me that while compassion and empathy are critical, just being "nice" is not enough. When I started my journey from "nice girl" to "nasty woman" I didn't want to disappoint my parents - this still holds true. What pushed me to own and proudly accept the title "Nasty Woman" is that now, I don't want to disappoint my children.