I have always avoided confrontation. The thought of speaking up and asking for what I wanted or needed was a lost trait in my character.
When I was a kid, I had no trouble speaking my mind but somewhere around puberty, like so many others, I became a people-pleaser. And pleasing others often means denying yourself your true feelings, wants and wishes because they are the very things that might offend or put someone out.
There are a lot of us out there.
When I was managing editor at a monthly magazine, I quickly realized how many of our female employers and freelancers would apologize, not speak up for themselves, and settle for less than wanted, whether it be workload or salary. In stark contrast, male employees, even those with little experience, would rally for themselves consistently.
So what made me, after so many years of being non-confrontational, finally learn how to stand up for myself? My kids.
When my oldest was just four months old, she acquired a horrendous, whooping sounding phlegmy cough, fever, diarrhea, runny nose — the works. “Just give her nose drops,” the doctor told us, “there’s no infection.”
A few days passed and she only got worse. When I told the doctor this on our next visit, he condescendingly told me to not overthink things. Surely, she just needed some cough medicine, yet my little girl continued to choke and suck in air day and night.
Bleary-eyed and worried, I told the arrogant doctor he was wrong and left his office. I found another pediatrician, Dr. Tandon, who saw her the same day. He said she had a very serious infection and gave us a combination of antibiotics, steroids, and fever reducers. When her cough was still scaring me two days later, he admitted her to the hospital. Dr. Tandon saved her life.
That was an urgent situation but many others, thankfully less serious, would follow. When a girl in my daughter’s class began stealing her snacks, I had to force myself to speak to her mother. I put a whole lot of unnecessary thought into the exact words I was going to say because back then, the thought of confronting someone was literally painful to me.
There was a teacher who marked a test wrong, the relative who insisted on my child kissing her hello, and a friend who smoked in front of the kids. Through taking baby steps in these minor situations, and calmly explaining why my daughter deserved credit for number 4, why she had the option to choose who she would kiss and hug, and why they could not smoke in front of my child, I slowly began to gain a voice.
It was a tiny whisper at first, but it grew each time I used it. While I would let so many things slide when it came to myself, once I had kids, I knew that I had to change that because they had no one to speak up for them. It had to be me.
Last year, I graduated, so to speak, when my daughter was diagnosed with a chronic condition that involved every system in her body. She needed accommodations at school such as an extra set of books at home, extra time for tests, and then a reduced schedule, and ultimately home instruction. I had to fight tooth and nail for every single thing with an administration that was uncooperative at best. It was the most frustrating and gut-wrenching experience of my life.
My daughter went from being an A-student to barely being able to tolerate reading a page. It felt like she was being penalized for a medical condition that was out of her control.
I learned to advocate for my daughter quickly, talking to others who had been through similar situations, demanding that the school simply do its job and provide assistance. I had to question doctor after doctor for months until she was finally diagnosed with a not widely known but not uncommon condition called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).
In POTS, the autonomic system which controls automatic activity like heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, blood sugar, and even breathing, malfunctions. Symptoms may include heart palpitations, extreme fatigue, brain fog, nausea, headache, light-headedness, heat intolerance, insomnia, headaches, gastric problems, chronic pain, and near-fainting or full fainting spells, especially upon standing upright or walking.
It was a months-long battle and I confronted the school administration repeatedly while I educated myself on the medical issues along with the legalities of what medically ill students are entitled to in school settings. By June, I felt exhausted. Due to an incredible home instruction teacher appointed by the Board of Education (not her school), she graduated on time.
Learning how to speak up didn’t happen fast or right at the beginning as my first child was born. Only through practice did I learn how to stick up for my kids and myself… and it’s a work in progress.
I still have those days when I let things slide that I shouldn’t. I still would much prefer to avoid conflict, but I choose to face it head-on, even when it makes me so uncomfortable I want to melt, because I want to show my kids that they need to learn to how to stand up for themselves and ask for what they want.
As moms, we have to be our child’s advocate, and if that makes other people uncomfortable, or gives them extra work, or simply makes them annoyed, so be it.