This past summer my oldest son did his first internship in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was hard to have him away from home; he had been back for only a few days this summer after classes ended at college before he left for this internship. Now he has just returned and is gone again to begin his sophomore year. It is an emotionally difficult time for me. I had always imagined that sending my kid off to college would be a joyous event, but it has been an emotional roller coaster ride.
All of this has caused me to reflect on my life as a mother and what it means to become vulnerable in such a role. As I see it, embracing vulnerability is a feminist act because it resists the stereotype of the self-contained mother that always sacrifices without thought of herself. While it means a commitment to a care of the self, it acknowledges that the self is always in relationship with others. It recognizes that the self cannot be made invulnerable through meritocracy, something which institutions often fail to recognize. It can be a place of theological reflection and solidarity.
Now my vulnerability stems from the feeling of inadequacy that has always followed me in the process of raising my kids. As a mother of three teenage children, I do what I can to raise them. However, in my own busyness of being a professor, it always feels as if I fall short. I can feel like a good mom one day, then the next day—when I lose my cool with the kids—I feel like the worst possible mother in the entire world. As parents, we work so hard to get things done at work and at home. Then at the end of the day, we have questions about why we do what we do.
In those times, I feel the most vulnerable and the most inadequate. Not only at home, but also at work. I feel that I cannot keep up with all the demands in both places. As a woman, I think we often feel that we need to excel at both places to even have an equal footing or allow ourselves to work in our workplaces and feel worthy at home.
Most of the time, I find myself wanting to crawl away rather than live in these places of vulnerability. In these vulnerable places, we open ourselves up and see ourselves as we are. We see the failures that we have made or have caused. We recognize the mistakes that we have made and are presently making. We see our regrets and wish we could have done things differently. As we stay in our vulnerable places, we see that only we can learn from our failures and move onwards.
As I spiral into my vulnerability of motherhood, I always try to seek a way out. I see what ropes I can hold onto to climb out of such a threatening space. Then I realize that there is no magic rope which will take me out of it, so I stay there. Society thinks vulnerability is a bad thing and that we should avoid it. My reaction to it seems to be evidence of this.
Vulnerability is when we put our guards down and say to the world that we are not perfect, that we are not the supermoms, or tiger-moms that society encourages us to become. We cannot always cook homemade meals. We cannot sew up the loose buttons that keep falling off pants and shirts. We cannot make every soccer game, every dance recital, or every competition. We cannot do everything at home and at work. And it is ok to fail and limit our time and energy and the ability to be in one place at a time.
This makes me recall a specific event in my life when I was forced to take on more than I could, in which I became vulnerable but not by my own volition:
When I was giving birth to my third child, SARS had broken out in Toronto. My hospital was shut down for weeks, so they instructed those giving birth to call a number once the contractions began so that they could direct them to an open hospital. I was sent to such a hospital and didn’t have a pleasant experience. The intern doctor there refused to give me the epidural. I desperately needed it for my first two births, as I have a hairline fracture on my left hip from my 20’s that was painful during delivery. For my first two deliveries, my doctor had turned me over onto my left hip so the epidural would run into that hip and leg.
You can just imagine the enormous pain I endured without an epidural. My labor lasted eight hours and I screamed for at least four of them. I was in so much pain—it felt like someone was pulling my left leg off—that my eyes were rolling up into my head. I literally thought I was going to die and I screamed and yelled for the epidural. No one gave it to me, as the doctor wouldn’t allow it. I had never been in that much pain in my life.
This pain makes sense because when my baby was born, he was a whopping 9 lbs,1 oz.—a huge baby with a huge head. I couldn’t believe the size of this newborn. He looked like he was already three months old!
The next morning I was walking around the hospital floor looking for the nurse when another new mom who had heard me screaming in childbirth said to me, “You don’t have to be a superwoman. You could have asked for help!” I asked, “You got an epidural?” She said yes, and I told her that I asked for it and they kept saying no.
In retrospect, this experience supports the point that there is a widespread problem in the healthcare system in which women’s pain and health is not taken seriously. This hospital made me take on being a “superwoman,” which made me vulnerable but not in a productive way. Inadvertently, I was made to perform it for others, which contributes to the idea of a “superwoman complex,” which tells us that we can do it all, that we can excel at work and then be a supermom 24/7. But we cannot. We have our limits, our mistakes, our regrets, and our downfalls.
Contrary to how we may feel, this is a space of becoming and solidarity: We can break down and wallow in our failure, or we can step into our vulnerable spaces and ask for help. When we become vulnerable, we allow our weaknesses to show and let others know that we cannot do it all. We express to our community that we need help and that we need each other to survive. We recognize that we cannot raise a child by ourselves, that we need the goodness, strength, and gifts of the community of family, friends, and even strangers.
As such, this can be a place of theological reflection and support: Vulnerability becomes an avenue for help, hope, grace, and love. We need to become vulnerable more often than we allow ourselves to be. And once we recognize the power of vulnerability, we can allow ourselves to be ourselves and accept all our broken journeys, shattered dreams and lost hope. And in that space, we can even get a glimpse of the divine who stands in solidarity with the vulnerable. The passion narrative shows Christ’s vulnerability to the world. Vulnerability then becomes a theological exercise and mode of living. Vulnerability then becomes something beautiful rather than negative.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is an Associate Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. She is the author of Mother Daughter Speakco-written with Elisabeth Sophia Lee; Intercultural Ministry coedited with Jann Clanton-Aldredge; Embracing the Other; Making Peace with the Earth;Here I Am; Christian Doctrines for Global Gender Justice co-edited with Jenny Daggers; Theological Reflections on “Gangnam Style”co-written with Joseph Cheah; Reimagining with Christian Doctrines co-edited with Jenny Daggers;Contemplations from the Heart; Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit; The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other; and The Grace of Sophia. She is a co-editor with Dr. Joseph Cheah for the Palgrave Macmillan Book Series, “Asian Christianity in Diaspora”.