A Case Against “Just Putting On Big Girl Panties”

Lately a new phrase has joined the “get over it and move on” mantra collection: “Just put on your big girl panties and get over it.” The times I’ve personally heard the statement, it is usually after some lamenting list of life’s troubles, punctuated with a deep breath. Yes, there are times where a solid, “Stop your crying and drive on, Soldier!” is needed. I’ve often said that the eleventh commandment is, “Thou shall not freak out.” Yet, today I feel a case should be made against “ just putting on big girl panties.”

First, ‘big girl panties’ must be defined. The sentiment is that wearers must grow up, show some maturity and resolve, and perhaps stop expecting someone else to change the stinky things for us; the proverbial panties are an attitude. Forgive me, but I’m going to be literal for a moment. Maybe it’s my toddler-mom stage, but big boy underwear isn’t defined as respectable boxers or briefs (that hopefully have no visible holes). They are a symbol of potty training accomplishment demonstrated by superheroes and movie characters. Thus, I’m not sure why the package of princess undees alongside the big boy underwear aren’t big girl panties.   ‘Day of the Week’ panties might be helpful for deliriously exhausted new moms to help us keep track.  The next aisle over holds respectable cotton and lace shoe-strings; Granny-panties to thongs, these are big girl panties.

If we carry the metaphor, this means the ‘big girl’ dons drawers  like thongs that put material or string up the butt-crack, where it gives her a total wedgie for the day. Eventually,  we just adjust to the uncomfortable factors of life- a permanent ride-up- for all sorts of reasons.  Some people take pride in their ability to face hardship. They flaunt their ‘big girl panties’ for all to see, not unlike teenage mall-crawlers in their low-rise skinny jeans, the strutting pants-saggers, and the elderly ladies whose Visible Panty Lines can be seen from Russian satellites.

My issue is not with the ‘face it head-on’ mentality; far from it. Certainly there are too many whiney-babies who need to shush, not post vague updates 4 times an hour, or gripe to every nearby stranger. When something pierces the heart, it’s not something one puts on immediate display. That’s when a well-intentioned butt-kick is not helpful. The sobbing mother outside the NICU and the man whose wife was killed by a drunk driver don’t need drill sergeants. So often the discomfort of others drives the knee-jerk reaction to skip to the “getting over it” movie montage. Grief gets the fast forward to the glorious triumph. Friends and supporters can sometimes be so quick to find the good that they hike your undees up for you in a well-meaning lack of sensitivity.

Things may turn out for good, people will adjust to a new normal, and deaths occur, but pushing through delicate material causes damage. When a mother faces cancer, a desired baby is stillborn, a soldier loses limbs, car accidents claim young lives, children are diagnosed as ‘differently-abled’, or healthy friends die suddenly, the situation needs to be assessed. The desire to go back to the old normal, even for a moment for some emotional peace, is inevitable. Even the strongest of us wish to trade in our Big Girl Panties for the innocence of princess panties and plastic tiaras for a time. In these moments, real comfort comes from a silent mouth and listening ear while we readjust.

A real-life example of big girl panties in a bunch: One young woman suddenly lost her husband to a dormant and unrecognized heart condition during Lamaze class- 8 months pregnant with their first and long-awaited child. He died almost instantly, although they were literally inside a hospital that was hosting all the leading heart surgeons of the state at the time. The clichés and difficult truths rolled in along with covered dishes and cards, but one ‘comforting’ comment took the cake. AT THE FUNERAL one woman said, “You are so young and lovely- God will just send you another man to marry who will just love you and that baby. Good will come from this before you know it.” (I believe this qualifies as an emotional atomic wedgie.) Yes, this young widow did put soldier on, but she didn’t “just put on her big girl panties”.  She grieved, birthed her child, and raised it in a new normal. She grieved, prayed, found a support group, and chose to see the good.  You can’t adjust and ‘drive on’ in a vacuum.

I find it fascinating to watch reactions of others when a soldier cries. Whether kneeling at a memorial made of a pair of boots, a weapon, and a helmet, palming the black stone of the Vietnam memorial in remembrance, or welling up at the Star Spangled Banner, there seems to be a quiet understanding that the soldier has seen and endured something that can’t be fully comprehended by the bystander. I’ve seen others put a hand on the shoulder, offer a solid man-hug, or whisper, “It is okay”- an allowance for the emotion and a promise for the future. I have yet to see- in that moment anyway- someone put his chin up and tell him to put on big girl panties and get over it. It may come shortly after, but not in that moment. Perhaps those fighting less obvious wars should be awarded the same consideration.

When I severely broke my collarbone in high school, I was put in a brace that limited my mobility. One day my mother, sister and I were sitting on the floor and sorting out belongings. In the process of going from seated to standing, my undees relocated. Horror of horrors…I couldn’t reach. I very pitifully asked, “Mom? Do you love me?” Puzzled, she looked up and answered, “Yes, why?” I whimpered, “Will you help me? I have a wedgie and I can’t reach it.” Through tears of laughter, my mother took full advantage of my helplessness and took a small revenge for the thousands of diapers she changed. As it usually does, things got worse before they got better.  It wasn’t a pretty moment, but henceforth it has been a story recalled as a reminder of dedicated love. True love is present in the uncomfortable and unglamorous moments.

We all carry invisible burdens. Some have visible evidence, but often it’s an iceberg that we only see the peak of. Be cautious, my dear ones. Flippant comments or encouraging clichés may do more harm than good. We all need battle buddies to muster us for the fight, but other times we need someone who will help carry the ruck sack or pull us up the mountain. Don’t be the school yard bully who gives atomic wedgies when a friend just needs time to readjust. The time will come to soldier on, but as our loved ones face life’s unexpected hairpin turns, let us be more like the undergarments that offer adjustable support rather than ones that look nice but make things more uncomfortable.

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