I dropped my children off at school this morning, drove to the store, and shopped for groceries with no memory of any of it. After re-watching the latest episode of This Is Us — the closest account of who I am within the context of fiction — I've only just showered, and it's nearing late afternoon. Soon, I'm to grab my kids, come home, and robot my way through more mindless tasks to pass the time. But I'm stuck on the show's matriarch, Rebecca Pearson, who, through the show's arc, becomes the symbol of a woman's strength. But honestly, I can't connect with another trope that forces women to "suck it up," and "move on" from whatever life throws at you. Rebecca on This Is Us sets an impossible standard for moms everywhere. The kind of standard no woman should have to meet. And yet, we're not supposed to complain, or ask for help, or shed a single tear, because that would make us weak or lesser than the Rebeccas of the world.
Over the last 11 weeks, my life has taken a sharp turn in a direction I'd never have chosen for myself, my kids, or my family in general. My personal, marital, and financial struggles combined have made the image of Rebecca's stoic grace something of a ridiculous fantasy. In the show Rebecca, a wannabe singer/songwriter, gives up her dreams to care for her and husband Jack's triplets (one of whom is adopted). She suffers postpartum depression, as I did, and struggles to bond with the adopted baby — something I, too, struggled through with my biological child. At times, her character mirrors the truth of deep pains associated with motherhood — that you can feel complete devastation and joy at once; you can prevail and fail in the same breath. And you can simultaneously find yourself stuck in the past while slogging your way through some kind of future; a future you may not have envisioned when you first set off on your journey. This is where I currently find myself — stuck between what I'm told to feel through characters like Rebecca, and what I actually feel.
In the show, Rebecca's doting life partner, Jack, is flawed, but Rebecca can lean on him. He's a steady foundation and comforting, if patriarchal, trope. Jack is as good a man as they come, even with the alcoholism and Vietnam stint he buried within himself so he could be the man Rebecca and the kids needed. Even with all of Jack and Rebecca's very real, very normal issues that many can relate to, including myself, they're still the annoying picture perfect couple with the beautiful children and the idyllic lives you can't help but compare to your own. They're the epitome of bottomless love, forgiveness, and hope, "taking the sourest lemons life has to offer and turning into something resembling lemonade." However, life — my life — doesn't always follow the same script.
The show captures a lot of things I relate to — marriage, parenting, identity, loss, and complicated family dynamics — but it fails to emphasize the depth of pain these experiences create. There are layers not conveyed in a one-hour episode, or even a season, of TV. This is especially true when Jack suddenly and unexpectedly dies after a house fire, as it exposes the way the characters move through their stories in the wake of total devastation. It is, as I've found, vastly different from the way I'd deal. Jack is the metaphor for every man — he's my husband, the father of my children — and yet, something is amiss in the way Rebecca moves forward after. Sure, there are moments of numbness; of all-out despair — but not really. There are moments she misses Jack, and times when it's clear her reaction to the loss is palpable. But as I watch, feeling the pains of my own life stretch and pull me under, I feel like a complete failure. Because I can't react in the cool, calm, collected way that Rebecca does. I didn't get the script telling me how to cope. There's no director guiding me towards the perfect conversations to have, and no one writing the emotions I'm to feel in any given moment. My story is live, and I've forgotten my lines and missed every last mark I'm to take.
In real life, my kids, ages 7 and 12, understand all that's crumbling around us. Protect them as I may, they've been privy to more than two small hearts should. They've watched as I've crawled out of bed each morning. They've watched as I've poured over the mounting medical bills. They've heard my pleas as I shake my fists to the sky for life to let up, for even a moment. When I catch them watching, listening, I try to mimic Rebecca. I try to stand tall, dry my tears, and tell them it'll be OK. But at my core — as an adult who suffered childhood traumas — I'm still a frightened child who doesn't believe it can be. It's hard to reconcile what they need from me with what I'm able to give these days.
As life piles on, and my days feel harder with time, not easier, I feel angry with Rebecca. I want to see her crumble. I want to see her shake her fist at the sky. I want to see her fall to her knees with the thought she can't go on, because that's real. I want to see her lament over being left alone to do it all — no one asking if she's capable or able or interested in continuing a life where everyone and everything depends solely on her when she had a different life planned. I want to see her show everyone she doesn't feel as strong as they want her to be — and that's OK. Why do we have to remain so composed when we're so broken? Why aren't we allowed to be "weak" when our lives are upended? I wish This Is Us showed more of her completely losing it as real women do; as I do when faced with some of the same challenges as Rebecca Pearson. Then maybe, I wouldn't have to add "failure at being strong" to the already long list of things I feel.
As stare at the pile of papers and bills on my desk — the ones that need my immediate attention and will affect all of our lives — my heart sinks at the thought of what our futures may become. My tired kids share in full-throttle belly laughter in the background. And it's in this moment, I don't wipe another tear, and I don't feel the gut-punch of more pain. Instead, I smile. And suddenly, I understand how Rebecca held it together as well as she did, even as she walked through a living hell.
Sometimes in life, strength surfaces when we least expect it — when we didn't think it was there to begin with. But it is. As if someone went in and rewrote a piece of your script. So, when it feels like you're sinking in quicksand and you can't find a way out, hold on a little longer, moms. Just like Rebecca, like me, you're stronger than you think, and you will be OK.