International Women’s Day 2017: What does ‘strong’ really mean? 

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. A day which recognises and celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women globally. Social media is awash with support for, and solidarity between, women; with hashtags such as #whoruntheworld and #iamwoman acting as modern day battle cries in the fight against gender inequality.

And all these messages of female empowerment have got me thinking about what it means to be strong.

I’ve never really thought of myself as a ‘strong woman’. It’s hardly surprising that many people have turned to Beyoncé (and her music) as a symbol of the empowered, independent woman. Queen Bey is all about standing up for women – she has even been turned into a mantra for the strong, successful, ‘fierce’ woman who is able to take control of her life, overcome adversity and achieve her goals. #whatwouldbeyoncedo?

Much of the rhetoric of International Women’s Day (at least, that found on social media) is around women being bold and powerful; capable; tenacious; resilient; fuelled with the passion, fortitude and self-belief to rise up against the inequality which has shackled us for centuries, but which we will not allow to oppress us any more. It’s about women championing one another, raising each other up and beating down any ‘haters’ who try to stand in our way. This notion that there’s a ‘Sasha Fierce’ inside all of us waiting to be unleashed. Together, we will take on the world.

And whilst I am in complete agreement with the ideas and the message of this call to arms, I find that I am severely lacking in so many of the aforementioned  characteristics: fortitude; self-belief; tenacity…I have none of those things.

I’m a worrier. An over-thinker, who all too often talks myself out of doing things because I’m afraid of what might go wrong, or what people might think.

I’m sensitive. I feel things too deeply and allow these feelings to consume me.

I’m defeatist. I often give up when things get too tough, choosing to bow out early rather than witness the inevitable failure.

These are not the traits of a strong woman.

Whenever I hear of people struck by tragedy, or faced with adversity, I marvel at their courage, their resolve to carry on and not give up. Their strength is both an inspiration and an enigma.

In particular, when a close friend’s son was stillborn I was in awe of the courage, dignity and strength with which she got through the weeks, months, years which followed. I told her over and over that I don’t know how she survived, that I never could.

Four years later, that same friend stood on my doorstep, pressing me close into her chest, repeating ‘You will survive this.’ 

‘I can’t. I’m not strong like you.’ 

‘Yes you are. You have to be, and so you will.’

And she was right; after all, what else was there for me to do?

I was utterly broken; some days I felt so weak I could barely lift a drink to my lips, or find the energy to follow conversations. I could see no path through the darkness, imagine no life beyond this desolation. But there was no choice other than to keep going. The world wasn’t going to stop turning for my grief; life was carrying on all around me and, at some point, I was going to have to start participating again.

And I was a different person now. I had suffered, I was heart broken, I was afraid. But I was also a mother.

A mother’s job is to nurture and protect her child. To hold their world together like a button holds a shirt. To be their sanctuary, their home.

I couldn’t save Findlay; in that respect, I failed miserably in my role. But my job now is to nurture and protect his memory. To keep our life from unravelling, and instead, live in a way which celebrates and honours him. To make him proud.

Being a mother meant I had to survive, for Findlay.

It wasn’t a case of being fierce, or bold; I didn’t feel powerful, or capable – the opposite in fact. Most days I doubted whether or not I’d make it to the evening, each night I wondered how I’d get through the dark.

I survived simply by getting through each day, each moment, sometimes each hour, one at a time.

I survived by seeking refuge in my family, drawing on their love and support, letting them carry me when I was weary, letting them lead me when I was lost.

I survived by weaving Findlay into the very fibres of my being; by letting my love for him, and my grief for him, guide me and nourish me.

And now we have Leo; I have two boys to survive for. Two boys to love. Raising one, remembering the other.  It’s a complicated business, parenting after loss, especially when you don’t feel equipped with the armoury of a ‘strong woman’ to help battle tough days. But I’ve got through 100% of tough days so far, which is a pretty good record. And I’m learning that you can be strong and broken all at once.

You just need to keep going.