When the Child Is the Family’s Pillar of Strength

Pillar of Strength

How in the world could anyone expect a small child to bear the brunt of the family’s needs? To be the emotional rock, the pillar of strength? Yet, I remember that burden being placed on me as early as six years old. Maybe even younger, but my memory is too uncertain at that point.

You might expect the family matriarch, or patriarch, to be the rock everyone leans on in times of emotional turmoil. At the very least, that responsibility should be levied on an adult, shouldn’t it?

But I remember as young as being in the first grade being told that I had to be strong. I was told there was something specific and awful coming—and it did—and my family prepared me well for it. When the dreaded thing happened, it tore me up emotionally on the inside. But rather than let down my parents and my extended family and add to their burden of emotional pain, I sucked it up. I was their little rock that they didn’t have to worry about.

I watched the world fall apart around my family, but the one thing they didn’t have to worry about was a crying, panicky, needy first grader. If they needed any reassurance that there was something solid left in the world, I was there: quietly taking it all in, but giving no trouble while every adult around me fell apart.

After that, in every tragedy, every illness, every catastrophe, every death, I was the pillar of strength for the family, whereas I’m told that, as an adult, I am the “emotional centerpiece” for my friends and social circle. For my family of origin, I was the un-emotional rock, at least outwardly. I hid my emotions under that rock and took care of business. Planning a funeral, someone not expected to survive a hospital stay, no worries. I was there. Just…taking care of business while everyone else seemed to have the freedom to fall apart, to cry on the spot, to let their emotions show, to be such an emotional person. I always found my role in any catastrophe or emergency to be the opposite of what I felt.

And yet, people who know me well know exactly how very emotional I am.   It comes out in my writing and in private but seldom for public display.

Year after year, I saw others in pain, in trouble, in need. And, even if I felt exactly the same way, I was still the rock that everyone else seemed to cling to.

And then…and then, as soon as everyone was out of sight and I was all alone that…that is when I allowed myself to fall apart. When no one could see. It was rare that this expectation was reciprocated. It was a role I continued with many of the friends and family around me. Something I had started so young and didn’t know how to cast off, nor did I know how to ask for it in return from others.

And so, it became generally accepted knowledge that nothing bothered me and that I could handle anything. Anyone who overheard my prayers would have known differently. Anyone who read my blog or my writings, back when they were private or for consumption only in a healing forum for those who had suffered abuse, would also have known differently.

There were few times when I asked my then partners to be my rock, to afford me the luxury of being weak and falling apart in his arms. Only one was ever up to the task. And only once can I remember being so desperate that I asked for that level of help in return, even after all the times that I had been his pillar of strength. Though this man and I have not spoken in years now, I will always regard kindly those moments when not only was I his rock, but he was mine.

Probably the most loving and most appreciated moment that ever passed between us happened in the middle of the day, in broad daylight. He messaged me at work to ask about a rather tough emotional situation going on in my family and when I responded that I could barely hold it together anymore, it startled him because I was always the one who held it all together. He picked me up in front on my workplace and drove me to a nearby park where we occasionally picnicked and asked me what it was that I needed. It was such an odd question. No one had asked me, as a child facing the same catastrophe as the rest of the family, what it was I needed. I was told, instead, how I needed to be and what everyone else needed.

I answered him truthfully, more than anything else, I just needed to be held. For the next half hour, I just needed to be held and to let him be the strong one. We moved into the back seat, where there was more room. And, there, I wrapped my arms around his chest, put my head against his throat, and allowed him to enfold me in his arms and hold me for the next half hour. For that brief moment in time–when I could show my weakness, my fragility…when I could show how bad I was hurting–that was a landmark moment in my life and one I’ve not experienced either before or since with a romantic or non-romantic partner–being able to let someone else be my strength, my rock, being able to allow myself to be vulnerable in a way either others or I, myself, have not allowed me to be since I was old enough to read.

That moment stands out for me, not like a candle in the night, but like a bonfire in the darkness.

Over the years, I have had good friends and close friends who’ve stood beside me and those who’ve stood behind me and, occasionally, those who’ve stood in front of me. All in a protective way. But few have stepped in to take my place and bear my own emotional pain. At least, until recently.

It’s never really been possible in my extended family. They all still see me as the person who takes care of everything, no matter how bad the tragedy.

Something is happening that is telling me that this way of life is changing. That, after 50 years of being the family’s rock, suppressing my own emotions for the good of the family unit, this is changing and in a way I never expected.

I was called on again to be the pillar of strength in a family situation, in spite of the fact that I really needed to take care of myself and my own health and put myself first, unlike all those times before. I didn’t have that luxury though. I had an obligation. One I didn’t want to do but one I knew I needed to do and one that no one else could do. The kind of obligation that I could never shirk this duty and look at myself in the mirror again. No matter how hard this was going to be, I had to do it.

In the process of preparing myself to be the pillar of strength again, I shared these feelings with my younger daughter who, at the age of 22, turned to me and said, “You don’t have to do this alone. I’ll be there for you. I’ll be your rock, mom.” Her older sister did the same when we walked to Camino de Santiago together and she allowed me to step away from my role as the person in charge and took on the responsibilities I would otherwise have worn.

My children are all grown up now and they’ve both taken on the role of being my rock, as I am theirs. Having someone else take on the role of being the strong one, instead of me, doesn’t feel quite right after almost 50 years of this habit. How sad that adults in a family depending on each other and being each other’s rock in hard times would seem strange. And yet, a six year old child being the pillar of strength for the adults in the family was not considered strange at all, if it was ever even realized.

I am blessed to have my own rocks after so long thinking no one ever would be.