What happens when a little vulnerability changes everything

 It can be surprising when you need to have a brave, honest conversation. Sometimes, when you least expect it.

It can be surprising when you need to have a brave, honest conversation. Sometimes, when you least expect it.

Recently, I took my mother-in-law to the Doctor. The trip left me with some heartache, grief, and a need for a brave, honest conversations with myself.

First, let me say this has been a hard post to write. I’ve had to wrestle with some demons — why am I writing about this? Is this my story to share? Am I hurting anyone in the sharing of the story? How would my mother-in-law feel if she read this? In the end I decided to share it because I have tried to do it with integrity and respect, and because it may serve others to think of the situations where you need to show up with courage and compassion, to have brave, honest conversations with loved ones, and with yourself. It may help others who believe that vulnerability is the path to connection, but who get caught when it catches them surprise.

Back to the story.

My mother-in-law is 89. She has two Doctorate degrees, from a time when most women didn’t get a university education. She goes by her married name and her professional name, when most women were defined by their father or husband’s name. She was a pioneer and a first feminist. She would have strongly supported every woman’s right to march in yesterday’s Women’s marches, but would have never done so herself because the situation might have been a little unpredictable, uncontrolled, where things could perhaps get out of hand. She is opinionated, strongly independent, and confident. She can be judgmental, demanding and harsh in the expression of her views. She has no time for sentimentality or vulnerability in anyone else and believes strongly in always having things handled, even when you don’t. She is an adventurer, having travelled to most of the countries in the world over her life, including wildly brave trips like taking the train by herself through Kazakhstan in the 1960’s. She is all those fierce, independent things. However, she is never nurturing, gentle or vulnerable — those things aren’t in her. She doesn’t believe in what she views as weakness, and she can harshly condemn weakness in others. That is just who she is.

I’ve struggled over the years being comfortable with how she shows up in the world. I applaud her bold courage, her independence and how she lives her life on her own terms. I’m in awe of her trail blazing spirit. I also struggle with her “say it like it is” approach, and honestly, sometimes I’m offended by the things she says. I’ve got a secret yearning for a close relationship with my mother-in-law, my husband’s only family. I wish we had shared interests or deep conversations about the things that matter, but I’ve told myself a story for 17 years that this will never come to pass. Those are my feelings and reactions, not a problem with her. Over the years we’ve mostly found a balance in our relationship and roles.

The challenges started with the assumptions I made.

I thought I was taking this strong, proud, independent woman to her appointment. She asked me to come because sometimes she forgets things and I would remember the details the Dr. had to share. After all, she is 89.

It was a long Dr. appt. with multiple exams. That’s the context of the event. The feeling of the event was a gradual disintegration. In this context, this fiercely independent woman became confused, disoriented, vulnerable, lost, uncertain, wanting to provide the “right” answers. I wasn’t expecting that. I’d never seen her not know the way. Never seen her be vulnerable or confused. Even when her husband of almost 50 years died two years ago she was stern, practical and moving on.

It threw me off balance to see her lost and uncertain, and I didn’t know what to do. She leads, we follow. She is in charge, and we go where she wants us to. But in this moment, she was lost.

I had to ask myself “How do you want to be in this moment? How do you want to show up? What is called for in this moment?” I could have done nothing. That was an option. Instead I chose the roles of advocate, translator, supporter. I chose to act on her behalf, asking questions I thought she would want answers to, channelling her curiosity and directness. I translated the overwhelming amount of information the Dr. shared into bite size chunks, slowed down the conversation, checked for understanding and decision-making after each piece of information. I chose to be supportive, thinking of how she would want to be supported, not how I would want to receive support or how I would want to offer it. I thought she would want things normalized, to receive affirmation that things had gone fine, to not make too big of a fuss over things. I offered that in a no nonsense manner. I’m not telling you what I did so you can tell me I did OK. I have no idea if I chose correctly. What I chose is what I chose in that moment when I was taken off guard and surprised by something I never expected to happen.

The appointment ended, and I returned my mother-in-law to her retirement residence for a much needed rest.

I’ve been left with this unsettled feeling ever since. I’ve been trying to process it and what I’ve been left with is this:

  • People are all vulnerable when their masks come off — and everyone has a mask.Remember that. Don’t think because someone shows up in the world one way over and over again that the vulnerability isn’t there under the surface. It’s just that some masks are harder to take off and deeply ingrained.
  • Vulnerability gives you windows into someone’s soul. What you see there might surprise, unsettle you or make you uncomfortable. When someone is vulnerable, be careful not to judge. I got this beautiful window into my mother-in-law’s soul, and some of the things I learned I wished weren’t true. That means I judged them.
  • Vulnerability in others can make us question what we stand for. How do I stand in a value of “we can talk about anything” if what I learn makes me uncomfortable? I think (and I hope) the moment of learning is in seeing the tension and trying to stay with it. It would be great if I got it “right” but its really more about honouring the other person more than your own discomfort.
  • Vulnerability in others can make you vulnerable too. It can make you question your choices, your values, yourself. After some time to process it, I think thats good and right and beautiful. It makes you stretch and grow, see your own mess more fully, and choose to live brave anyway.
  • Vulnerability creates connection, every time. I have this deeper, more empathetic appreciation of who my mother-in-law really is, in ways I thought would never happen. I’m touched and humbled by the opportunity to have seen beneath the mask, to have had a glimpse into her soul. Those moments will stay with me.
  • Vulnerability in others softens your own heart. I realize that for years I have responded to my mother-in-law based on how has she presented to me. Tough, strong, confident, harsh….I chose to accept that mask she presented and to never look beneath it. I chose to respond in kind, with less generosity, compassion or empathy than I would show most others, because she didn’t want that from me. I closed my heart to her, because of the assumptions I made about what she wanted from me. That’s a story I’ve told myself for 17 years, but its a story I can write a new ending to.

Now, things are back to “normal” with weekly dinners, and phone calls, and her mask firmly in place. But I’m different because of that moment — I’ve been given the gift of seeing her a little more fully, and my heart is softer and my life is fuller because of it. I’m grateful for my own stumble and uncertainty. Even if our dinner conversation goes back to talking about the news, or what is happening in the retirement residence, I’m holding a small window into a bigger picture of her soul. And I’m writing a new ending for the story of our relationship.