Raising strong, independent and mindful children seems to be a universal goal for parents. I know it’s a goal of ours. We want our children to grow up with a strong sense of identity, that it is okay to be themselves, that they are worthy of love and that nobody can tear them down. Ultimately, the desire for our children to be unapologetically themselves is strong and we want to cultivate this now, and throughout their lives. But how? How can we teach our children to be themselves? One could easily posit and say “throw out all labels” and just let your children be children; let them explore their world and their ideas in a safe, judgment-free manner. But, it’s not that easy. In fact it’s much more complicated since as parents we bring our own baggage of insecurities. Therefore, it would be foolish for me not to first unpack my personal story of discovering my identity and becoming “unapologetically myself.”
As a gay man I was rather young when I put together I wasn’t like everyone else. My first clear memory originated around the age of six. I knew a lesbian couple (neighbors of my aunt and uncle) and I can remember saying to myself, “if two women can live together and be happy then that means two men can, too.” I didn’t dare speak about it to anyone for fear or being ridiculed. Plus, who is going to listen to a six year old? What could they possibly know about themselves? Turns out more than some would give credit. This memory is so vivid.
In reflecting as I grew older and more aware of myself I remember the nasty epithets thrown at me down the hallways in middle school, on the baseball field or in gym class throughout high school: faggot, fudge packer, worthless piece of shit, you fat fag, you’re a disgusting homo, burn in hell. It was hurtful, demeaning and unruly at times. Many nasty rumors were started and it hurt so deep that I walked around with my head down and just minded my own business. When I needed to be happy on the outside I somehow mustered the strength, but often found myself crying at home trying to make sense of why people saw or even cared that I was different than them. I can remember my mom constantly reminding me that, “sticks and stones may break my bones by words will never harm me.” At times, though, the words did hurt – they cut so deep and to the very core of my identity, even though I was still trying to decipher and understand the nature of that identity. It wasn’t until much later in life I started to care less about others and just started living my truth. But it was through this hurt and pain that I arrived at this place.
This brings me to the crux of why I am penning this piece. Recently I heard a song from the movie The Greatest Showman, “This Is Me,” and it moved me to a place I haven’t been in some time. It’s like my new power anthem. In fact it moved me so much that it got me thinking about how we will create and cultivate our children’s minds to be free, strong and confident. The verse I heard goes like this (no, I won’t sing…):
“When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised,
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Lookout cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me”
I saw it as someone’s social media status, in quotes, and was like, “OMFG, this is my anthem!” So I dug a little deeper to find out the origins which lead me to this movie about P.T. Barnum and the story of his “Greatest Show on Earth.” I won’t argue the historical discrepancies in the movie (as there are many), but I will say that this movie tackles many poignant current-day issues that surround self-identity, self-pride and to put it bluntly, the many fucks none of us should give about what others think. After all, at times growing up I felt like a circus freak, an outcast and even a stranger in my own body. But it would be with a lot of inner struggle that I would finally arrive at the place I am today. Strong. Confident. Humble. And now, raising children with my husband.
The song appears in the movie midway through when the circus cast wants to join the bourgeoisie of Connecticut to celebrate a performance they had just attended (in a highly invisible section of the theater, mind you). Excited to celebrate before their nightly show they were rejected entry to the gala by their ringleader – for the first time in their history with Barnum he refused them entry giving the most asinine of excuses. It’s in this moment we see the ‘bearded lady’ Lettie Lutz finally emerge and bust out this song. She gave me life! And as I watched it for the first time, eyes fixed on the screen sitting at the edge of my seat, there I was singing, smiling and rooting her on (And I mean hooting and hollerin’!). Each member of the circus were constantly judged by society, constantly emotionally and physically beaten down, constantly told that they are less than human, constantly told that they don’t deserve anything in life…that they were freaks. When Lutz starts the song with, “Hide away, they say, ‘cause we don’t want your broken parts” I teared up. I don’t ever want our children feeling this way. Nothing about them is broken. They are themselves, they are human and they are always whole. And our children know, even at the tender age of 14 months, that they are loved no matter what. How do I know? Because it starts with us, their parents, with hugs, kisses and telling them they are loved. It starts by us accepting them for being who they are no matter what, and mark my words, our love will not waiver or be held to any condition.
Lutz continues the song, “But I won’t let them break me down to dust, I know that there’s a place for us, for we are glorious.” At this point in the film we’ve gotten to see Lutz move from a place of insecurity to finally emerging as a freed person, a leader of the pack for the so-called “freaks” of the circus. It was glorious to hear these words. But it doesn’t come without being allowed to feel the hurt – it’s from our pain and negative experiences that she arrives at this epiphany. The lesson? We cannot shelter our children from all possible hurt – it’s impossible. Even if we could what would that do? Nothing. What we can do is encourage them to feel the hurt, openly discuss why it hurts and then determine the right path forward to where that hurt can be used for good. Lutz turns her pain around and uses it as a means of celebrating with the words, “I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.” I still get goose pimples when this is sung…
She then leads her new-found family with the following words, “Look out cause here I come, and I’m marching on to the beat I drum, I am not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is me.” It was in this moment that I felt myself relating to her on a whole new level. I remember the feelings of being a freak, being an outcast and being alone. And it wasn’t just me – it was the drama nerds, the science geeks, it was the music nerds…it was anyone that dared to be themselves. I remember the nerves and heart-pounding excitement the first time I held a boyfriend’s hand in public in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I remember the looks given to us (the gays) when we went to the bars to dance and enjoy time with others like us. Ultimately we learned that from our experiences we can either give in to the pressures of untruths (i.e. give up) or just to live our lives as we see fit. Ultimately, the choice to live my life as I see fit is what won. And here I am, unapologetically me, not scared to be seen and marching to my own drumbeat. This is me. 100%. And I am proud, damn proud of who I’ve become.
The last major line that affected me in ways I didn’t expect was, “and I know that I deserve your love, ’cause there’s nothing I’m not worthy of.” And it’s true. As humans we are all deserving of love. Every single one of us, even when we feel deep down inside that we’re not. And I’ll be damned if I fail my children; may they never doubt that they are deserving of love. In fact, they will be shown that first they must learn to love themselves, and that to love ourselves comes with struggles and acceptance. Each of us struggle with self-love, in fact most of us push it off. How will we teach this to our children? Truthfully, I have no idea. Perhaps self-affirming mantras, giving ourselves hugs, celebrating our triumphs and openly discussing failures. Honestly, to love yourself is one of the hardest things to do and is something with which I continue to struggle. I won’t hide this struggle from them for hiding from something only increases fear of what it is you’re hiding from. I plan on leading by example in that it’s ok to struggle and constantly evolve. That’s part of living in this world: always being able to learn about yourself and even about those that around us. Each of our struggles can help to teach and guide us to be better humans. Each of us have our own truths to live.
The movie holds on to this theme of self-love and acceptance no matter what or who we are. And, even though there are some facts left out that doesn’t change the underlying message: we are all people who are amazing, talented and deserve to be true to ourselves. And it’s with this underlying message that makes me reflect on how I will teach our children to be unapologetically themselves. Finally, I offer an answer to question: how will we let our children grow up to be themselves? The answer: let them be themselves, let them fall, let them explore, with guidance and acceptance that through it all, they are entirely loved without fail or conditions. This is how. With an open heart, an open mind and unconditional love we will teach our children that they are free to be themselves, that who they are is perfect and that their truths are theirs to own no matter what someone else may think or say. We’re all glorious.