Keeping It Together
January 4th, 2020
“Keep it together!”
The words were sharp and abrupt. I liked them. I was crying because there was no more ice cream in the fridge (that I was too short to reach). But we had guests coming over, so my mom whispered to me: “Keep it together!” The phrase made my problem seem easy to fix, like I had one piece of a puzzle left to place and all I had to do was set it down. So I did. I wiped my tears, took a breath, and resolved to my four-year-old self that the ice cream probably wouldn’t even have been that good, anyway.
“Keep it together!”
It was Thanksgiving. I was eight years old. I was wearing a fancy dress that kept itching the back of my neck, and the shoes I was wearing were pinching my feet. My hair was hot and sticky–– it was strangely warm for a late-November night. I didn’t want to go to Katie’s house, but her mom was friends with my mom, and it was Thanksgiving, and it was a tradition, and family was there, so that was that. I felt the agitation in my stomach growing stronger, the upset tapping of my feet becoming louder, the tears burning in the back of my eyes. Everyone else noticed too –– and again came the low but pointed whisper –– “Keep it together!” There it was, the answer. Keep. It. Together. So I slowed my feet, blinked away the tears, and sucked in a breath. I could place the puzzle piece down; I could hold popsicle-stick tower up; I could keep the wind away from the straw house. I could keep it together.
“Keep it together!”
A few years later, and at 13 years old I was dating a boy for the first time ever. I had always been slightly uncomfortable with people talking about me, about that about me, ever since I was little. Friends asked too many questions, and classmates would make jokes, and I could usually ignore it. But one day, someone made a biting remark that went a little too far –– “I wonder how far she would go if he asked. Maybe he’ll get something out of her tonight at the dance.” I froze, anger and embarrassment tangling up in a ball in my chest. I could feel the knot about to loosen –– I was either about to cry or yell at them or literally run away. But then, the words –– “Keep it together, Francie. Keep it together.” They rang in my head and bounced around. I processed them slowly. Again came the breath, the placing of the puzzle piece, the containment of the anger just below the surface. I was left simmering, but at least I never exploded.
It was a mantra throughout my childhood. The be-all-end-all of good behavior: keep it together. The art of containing myself is one I’ve mastered. Because I was told to, again and again. I don’t need the words anymore to practice the action. As a child, I learned to deal with problems inwardly, which taught me to do the same now –– as many girls were taught, and as many young women now do.
My brother, Charlie, was never raised this way. As a child the key behavior word for him was “express.” We told him to express with words, with hugs, with questions. His tantrums were tolerated and his frustration was expected. Bad behavior was excused with “he’s just a little boy,” “boys will be boys,” and “girls mature faster than boys do.” And now, as Charlie gets older, he is surprisingly good at voicing his opinions. He is clear when things upset him and almost never keeps his feelings to himself. Sometimes it’s a nuisance, but mostly it’s impressive. He’s confident in the importance of his emotions and bold enough to share them. (It’s true that boys aren’t always told to do this either -- I appreciate that Charlie was never told that boys don’t cry, but I wish that the same could be said for me).
I, on the other hand, am not that way. I am four years older than he is but much worse at voicing when I am upset. Everything from when someone gets my order wrong to a friend deeply hurting my feelings is a difficult confrontation. I consistently have the urge to keep it together. I don’t want to be difficult or worst of all cause a scene. Now, I have ended up more anxious and less assertive because of it.
So, my advice to girls like me or somebody raising one: keeping it together all the time is not the key to having healthy emotions. It will not make you more likable or mature, and it will certainly stick with you to the point of being unhealthy. Let the puzzle fall apart, let the popsicle-stick tower collapse, blow the straw house down.