I’m a lifelong non-confrontational, “nice girl”. Like all other “nice girls”, I learned at a pretty early age to keep quiet when something upset me and accept inappropriate remarks and behavior with a polite smile, because that’s what “nice” people do. They keep the drama quotient low and avoid conflict whenever possible.
The problem is that conflict is absolutely, positively, 100% UNAVOIDABLE.
I grew up to marry a crazy smart and extremely driven guy. At first, it was easy to be the one who let things slide to avoid disagreements – keeping calm and carrying on seemed like the mature thing to do. After all, nobody likes a condescending nag, and I didn’t want to run him off.
Then we had kids.
Our first parenting fight happened when our daughter was a mere 24 hours old. I was post-partum, anxiety-ridden, and recovering from a painfully traumatic birth experience. The only way I could respond to my husband’s suggestion that we give our newborn formula was hysterical crying.
This was a huge step forward for me, even though it scared the living daylights out of my husband.
Motherhood continued to push me out of my comfort zone, making me someone else’s advocate and protector. My children depend on me in ways I’m still discovering – including standing up for them and their rights, even when it’s awkward. Both of them were born with tongue ties that caused numerous problems, until I fought long and hard enough that I found someone who took me seriously and could fix our issues. Both of them have severe food allergies that others don’t always take seriously or understand fully. I know I look crazy reading labels and grilling waiters in restaurants, but it doesn’t bother me. If looking crazy (and occasionally inconveniencing others) keeps us out of the ER, I’m happy.
It began when I found out I was pregnant with each of them, and the transition to Mama Bear was immediate. It felt perfectly natural. But a few years into motherhood, all this sticking up for my kids started bleeding into other areas of my life.
And one day, out of nowhere, I actually stood up for myself.
I will never forget the first time I raised my voice in opposition to another adult instead of just letting his chronic bullying and condescension slide for the sake of “keeping the peace” and being “nice”. He was surprised, I was surprised, and my kids were wide-eyed.
That moment changed everything for me.
The world didn’t come crashing down when I stood up for myself – in fact, the person in question never tried to bulldoze me again. He liked me less, but no one else did! And my kids, who were used to seeing me fighting for them, saw me fight for myself. Thinking back, I couldn’t even count how many times I had apologized for myself or for them when none of us had done anything wrong – or how many times I allowed someone say hurtful or rude things because calling them out on it would only make the situation “worse”. I realized I had been implicitly teaching them that being liked was more important that being respected.
I want my babies to know that it’s OK to expect people to treat them respectfully, and that means knowing how to set boundaries. Obviously there are still times when the right thing to do is blanket a situation with grace and choose to remain silent. But there are also times you have to be willing to address conflict head on.
So now, even though it is uncomfortable, I push to myself to engage – even in front of my kids. Especially in front of my kids.
Of course, some subjects are too mature for their little ears – some are too private or complicated. But my children won’t learn how to keep cool and reason logically with others if I don’t show them how. They won’t learn they have the right to hold their ground and argue their case unless they see me do it, too.
Instead, they’ll either learn how to add fuel to the fire with hateful speech and bullying, or accept unacceptable behavior for the sake of being “polite”.
They need to know how to hold a minority position without caving at the first whiff of opposition. They need to know they can push back when an authority is abusing its power – and that you can do all of this and still be a kind person. They won’t learn these things if I stuff my feelings down and stew on them privately, smiling like a “nice girl”.