In the incredibly accurate voting systems that comprise the Senior Year Ranking System of high school, I was not named “Most Likely To Succeed” or “Most Studious” or really anything that I can recall. If there had been more categories, I’m fairly sure my title could have been “Highly Likely To Be Found In The Library Reading Throughout The Entire Fire Drill.” Or, alternatively, “Least Likely To Get A Tattoo.”
A few years ago, once I had rounded the corner of my 40th birthday and the dust of parties and trips and gifts had settled, I decided to mark the occasion with something well-thought-out and meaningful: Bangs. Which I began to grow out the very next day. But following that, I chose to get a tattoo. It wasn’t difficult to pick one out, since a phrase I had read months before had followed me around for months. It was a Hebrew expression, eshet hayil, and it meant “Woman of Valor” or, in my preferred translation: Wannabe Warrior/Badass/Ninja. Once I had settled upon the inking, my sister and I grabbed a celebratory cocktail and headed to the tattoo parlor (not an entry my Google maps had ever been called upon to search for me), where my sister proceeded to document the auspicious event in photographs, precious pictures which mostly showed me with teary eyes and a facial expression that essentially read, “I have birthed three children and I had assumed this would be painless. It. Is. Not. Also, is it too late to change my mind?”
But once the tears had stopped and the reddened, scabbed-over inking had begun to heal, I was thrilled. Mostly thrilled that my permanent marking did, indeed, contain the correct letters and not something altogether profane, since I was completely relying on my sister’s expertise in Hebrew lettering to make sure it didn’t read, “Hahahaha. Fooled you, sucker.”
I think the sign of a well-chosen tattoo (these are important life lessons that you never find in the child-rearing books, people) is that you never regret it. And I haven’t. Five years later, I still love it, I still find courage when I read it to myself and lately, I have been thinking what it would mean for all of us to aspire to be Women of Valor.
The problem is, expectations start when the blurry ultrasound images reveal a baby's gender.
"A girl!” everyone exclaims. "Sugar and spice and everything nice! How sweet!"
The pink begins to flow in like an explosion of Pepto-Bismol (to paraphrase that great classic, Steel Magnolias), and the ruffles and the bows and the clouds of magenta and fuchsia and pastel petal-hued dresses spill out of closets and delicately-stenciled armoires.
Once elementary school begins, the expectations don't stop. Girls are praised for being the nice girl, the good girl, the quiet and obedient girl. Sweetness is the expected sidekick of girl-ness.
All of those qualities matter. There's nothing wrong with the character marks of sweetness and tenderness, and we desperately need them in these brashly-bruising times. Yet, in the midst of schooling our daughters and nieces and friends on how to be sweet, we so often woefully under-instruct them on how to be tough. And life, make no mistake, will call on each of us to be tough.
Sometimes we need to be tough in our friendships. We need to sit a girlfriend down and say, because I love you, I need to tell you that this is not ok. This concerns me for you and for your health and for our friendship.
Sometimes we need to be tough in our marriages: We need to stand up and draw a very hard line and say, because I love you and I love me and I love us, I can no longer accept this behavior.
Sometimes we need to be tough in our parenting. We need to be very, very ok with our kids not liking us for long stretches of time and, in fact, with them being quite certain that we are The Worst Parents In The History of Parenting. If we are never the strictest, meanest, least fun parents in the history of the known world, then we are being too sweet.
Sometimes we need to be tough in our jobs: We need to speak up and say, because I am a human, a child of God, worthy of respect, it is not ok for you to treat me this way.
More and more, we need to be tough in our world. We need to raise a voice and take action and give a donation and join an organization against injustice and hatred, and we might knock a little of our rose-colored pixie dust off in the process.
I’d love for people to think of me as a Sweet Person. But more than that, lately, I want to be a Strong Woman, and I’m finding that these two are not mutually exclusive. We can love with backbones of steel and hearts of vulnerability. We can be unapologetic about our opinions, our value, our work, our ideas, and still give kindness and understanding to those around us.
Perhaps the thing I love most about the permanent marking on my wrist is that, according to author Rachel Held Evans’s beautiful essay in “The Year of Biblical Womanhood,” the phrase is a reminder of who I already am, who you already are. It wasn’t something women had to try to be, but who they were already named and called and praised as by their people. Knowing that this is already my identity gives me courage to live like I am that Warrior I desperately want to be.
So here’s to strong, and here’s to sweet. May we be both of these beautiful things, and may we raise our girls into, to paraphrase the Hebrew, Badass Ninjas of Sweetness and Strength. Eshet hayil.