What is strength? In the midst of this women’s empowerment wave we are riding, how do we define what it means to be a strong woman? We strive to be them, we strive to raise them and we strive to surround ourselves with them. But what is it that makes them? The definitions are evasive and become skewed by perception and tainted by experience. Strength is a very personal battle. It is having the persistence to go after the things in life that you deem important. It is about knowing yourself and your boundaries. It is about prioritizing your life so that it feels authentic to you. And because everyone has their own idea of what life is all about and what comes easily to one person may require a lot of effort from another, we end up with personal beliefs on what it means to have strength.
As women, we compare ourselves to one another far too often. I think society has ranked women’s goals and aspirations in order of impressiveness. It seems as though the more in line a woman’s goals are to a stereotypical man’s goals, the more impressive they are considered to be. This mentality of ranking our personal goals has made its way into every aspect of our lives. It follows us into relationships, motherhood and even into how we handle tragedy.
For the two years I have been navigating my way through this injury I have found myself often comparing my journey with others – especially women. Not once over these last two years did I ever have the attitude that I would walk again. It didn’t seem like a plausible outcome for me so it wasn’t something I was ever striving for or spending hours upon hours in therapy for. But then I would see other women online with this fierce determination to walk again. They are devoted to it. And I would wonder what I was missing. Was I not as strong as them? Then I realized that I have been comparing myself to other women for far too long. From the women who got degrees to the women who managed to breastfeed to the women who quickly lost all of their pregnancy weight and – now – to the women who were determined to walk again. I have repeatedly and consistently felt like I wasn’t good enough. I hadn’t achieved the correct goals in life to be a strong woman.
But now I call bullshit. Strength isn’t found in our individual goals and how they rank on the impressive scale. Strength is shown in knowing the right goals for you and in how you go about achieving them. Spinal cord injury recovery is so varied and individual. Yes, there is a lot of strength and perseverance in getting up every day to push your body to its limits in order to try and gain any increase in function and mobility. But there is also a lot of strength in acceptance. In working with what is in front of you and discovering that it is ok to find joy and meaning in your life as it is. Without the ability to walk.
I had three small children at the time of my injury and my number one goal was always to get back to mom life in every single way that I could. These years with kids when they are young are special and so very fleeting. While for me their childhood is now intertwined with the most devastating and difficult years of my life, it is still their one and only childhood and my one and only journey through motherhood. There is very little likelihood that recovery is in my future. Even still, you never know where a lot of hard work could get you. But no amount of increased function and mobility is worth the hours I would be losing with my children. I didn’t survive this accident to miss out on living my life. And so that is where I focus my strength – on adapting, joining in and freeing myself from any guilt I feel that my goals are not good enough.
There are so many areas in the world where women do not have the freedom to choose. Yet here I am with all of this choice and ability to set goals and I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying that my choices aren’t the right ones. I can understand that the only person who needs to be fulfilled by my journey is me, but I’m still working on fully embracing it.
It is easy to look at someone else and think that they are stronger than we are. It is easy to feel like we have given up on ourselves when we see other women reaching goals that we can’t fathom reaching. But there is freedom in the realization that we all have different expectations about life and that strength is not measured in how high your goals rank on some arbitrary scale. It is about showing tenacity and being persistent in the pursuit of the things that will fulfill you. Strength is in the process. It is in the nitty gritty details of everyday life. It is asking for help, taking breaks and changing up your game plan when things don’t go as you’d hoped. It is showing dedication to yourself, your integrity and your goals. Pursue the paths that feel true to who you are, and you can feel confident knowing that you are strong.