on vulnerability & parenting

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This week, I’ll attend my third graduation in three years — one for each of my three sons. Until I typed that, the magic of its symmetry was hidden even to me. Here’s where we’ve been: 2020, middle son’s high school graduation; 2021, youngest son’s high school graduation; 2022, oldest son’s college graduation.

I’m so proud of all of them.

I’m proud of myself, as well, even though I say so tentatively. Patting ourselves on the back is something we’re not supposed to do as women. I hesitate to scold myself here, and I’d normally delete it before publishing. However, the current national/political/moral conversation makes it important and necessary to call out all the ways this country tries to control women. So! I do pat myself on the back for raising three thoughtful, passionate, feminist (hell, yeah!) sons, but what I’m also proud of is doing so while making no secret of the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

Instead of faking the perfect family, I tried to lean into and celebrate the imperfect one. Instead of leading my sons, I tried to walk side-by-side with them, learning with them how to be in the world, figuring out who we were in it as we went along, deciding how best to take care of ourselves within the family unit and apart from it. Both of those positions — the individual and the collective — have been broken from time-to-time, and they’ll likely break again. We don’t always succeed. There are plenty of times we have more tension than merriment, more distance than closeness. But I believe the full spectrum is instructive: So much growth happens when we can find compassion for each other and for ourselves.

There’s not a lot of evidence yet about whether or not they agree with me that finding freedom in messiness was the way to go. I’m clear that I’ve made mistakes and that the consequences of those will come home to roost. I’ll do my best to be open and receptive when that happens. I hope that if I can claim one superpower as a mother it’s that I have worn my flaws on my sleeve, that I have been open with my boys about being a work in progress, about not having the answers.

Getting separated/divorced from their dad set the stage for this. At first, I framed it as the chance to do things how I wanted to do things, i.e. to create new traditions and set different expectations. Those things were true, but what was also true was that I didn’t know anything about how “new” or “different” would look. How *did* I want to do things? It was scary then (11 or 12 years ago) to be finding my way, and it’s scary now as I try to navigate this new phase of parenting.

Their infant, toddler, preschool and K-12 years had a certain kind of “duh” quality to them. I don’t mean to imply it was easy: It wasn’t, and to say I struggled is an understatement. But it was straightforward in many ways. If they were hungry, I fed them. If they were doing something dangerous, I tried to stop them. For now, as you can see in this picture from the 2020 graduation, they’ve outgrown all of this, including me. Quite literally. Their focus is exploring whatever is ahead, and, as they should, they’re doing so mostly without me.

Today is Mother’s Day, and it’s fraught for so many. It’s difficult for me, too, even though I love my boys ferociously. Trying to bring them into the world, I miscarried four times, and then in 2009, my own mom died at age 52. To further complicate things, I had a mostly adversarial relationship with her. It was confusing to me — most people found her quite delightful, and she was a doting grandmother to my boys — but it helps explain how out of place I’ve felt my whole life.

This Mother’s Day, I haven’t had the chance to see my boys (one is in Oklahoma wrapping up his final semester of college; the other two are recovering from COVID). And so today has been all about self-care. I’ve been enjoying mimosas my way (strong LOL), rocking my Kamala shirt and writing. Later, we’ll BBQ some homegrown lions mane mushrooms for a pizza.

It’s been really nice, and I’ll get the chance to celebrate with the boys soon enough. I’ve never been one to push/force holidays or traditions. We go with the flow and make our time count as we can.

I was also never the type of parent to try to control my kids (and maybe it shows LOL), but if I held even a tiny morsel of anything resembling an illusion of control, it no longer exists. They’re 19 (almost), 20 and 22, and I’ve named this era the “spectator years.” Already, it feels like the hardest part of mothering so far. Even when I’m asked for help/guidance, ultimately all I can do is watch. It’s time to see if I gave them anything helpful at all, and it’s terrifying.

I plan to get through it by leaning on the exact thing that got me here: vulnerability. These kids have ripped me open in the most painful, fascinating, delightful way, and it’s given me a strength I didn’t know I had: learning to be OK with what’s raw and unfinished and uncertain — both as it makes an appearance in my mirror and as my boys experience it for themselves. I have developed the ability to accompany and witness. I can love other humans as they are this very moment even when nothing — not even the love itself — is pretty or polished.*

It’s one of the most amazing gifts this most recent decade of mothering has given me, and it’s captured in this quote from an old episode of the On Being podcast: “Courage is born out of vulnerability, not strength.” In The Courage to Be Vulnerable, Krista Tippett interviews Brené Brown, and they talk about how we typically avoid vulnerability at all costs, a tendency that manifests as “perfectionism, judgment, exhaustion as a status symbol, productivity as self-worth, performing, proving,” etc. Brown discusses her research about shame and self-worth and says they stand in the way of living life wholeheartedly. This conversation leads to a really powerful question: “[What if] our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted?”

It’s how I’ve survived the challenges of motherhood and the severe self-doubt that it can cause to rear up. I am able to face my fears about myself in the world or my boys in the world because not because I’m strong: I’m able to roll my sleeves up and get in there because I’ve learned to be vulnerable. Fear and uncertainty aren’t roadblocks; they’re natural parts of a process.

*These skills came too late to be helpful in loving my mother through this same lens. It’s the subject for another post, but it does help me understand that we were robbed of many possible chances to sort out the complexities that came between us.


  1. Said with the simple resilience of experience. Yes, and another word for vulnerability is visibility, the real gift of relationship. Thank you Carolee.

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