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A Trauma Mama Watches “The Greatest Showman”

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My husband and I went to see “The Greatest Showman” a couple weeks ago. It hit me in the heart for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. Then I took three of my kids to see it and I was familiar enough with the story to be able to see some new angles. I think it touched my heart in the ways it did because of how trauma has touched my life.

I’m going to assume if you’re reading this you have some exposure to the movie plotline. It’s a fictionalized story of the life of P.T. Barnum. He’s a character I’ve long been fascinated with. I recognize this movie isn’t a documentary of his life, so I’m talking about the trauma aspects of the movie, not what his life was actually like.

In the movie we watch him grow up in a world that is clearly less than ideal for a child. An absent mother, cold father, poverty, and then he becomes an orphan. All of his previously existing problems become overwhelmingly bad. And yet, he retains a drive for success and an eternal optimism about what life could be like. On the surface, this seems like a healthy way to cope.

But a Trauma Mama knows better.

We watch our kids who have that drive for success and an eternal optimism and we see what lies beneath—a deep fear that they’ll never be enough or have enough and a desire for things to always be bigger and better to compensate for the loss they’ve experienced. It comes from a deep pain and what seems like a bottomless pit for love and approval. Even a healthy and happy family, a stable marriage, and a successful job can’t seem to satisfy that need to always find the next thing that’s going to make you feel the way you dream you’re supposed to feel. It’s not hard to see how that kind of thinking can lead into struggles with addiction as the joys of the normal world never seem to be enough to block out the pain.

I love the not-so-subtle song choice of “Never Enough,” sung by a woman fighting her own demons of not fitting in and fearing that she’ll never measure up, in spite of all of the approval and success in the world. The song is set up with this initial verse about how she wants to savor a moment, and how without the one she loves nothing will ever be enough. But after that initial verse, all that’s repeated is this “never enough” idea over and over. It’s not hard to imagine that with or without the one she loves, nothing will ever be enough. The second time she sings the song, the first verse is tellingly omitted all together.

Through the course of the movie you watch Barnum risk more than he should with mixed results—sometimes he’s wildly successful and sometimes he losses it all. By the end of the movie, he recognizes that what is truly important is the stability of his family and an acceptance of who he is and where he’s come from. The scene where he’s riding the elephant to his daughter’s ballet recital is such a perfect visual representation of his own self-acceptance and his new ability to clearly see what matters.

This is what we want for our kids from trauma. We want them to be able to make peace with their story. We want them to no longer have to operate out of a mistaken belief that they aren’t worth loving and constantly having to prove themselves. We don’t want them to wrestle with this idea that they will never be enough and consequently, nothing will be enough for them as they work to medicate their pain. We don’t want them to make unwise and risky choices, always pursuing the next high.

So how do we accomplish this without our kids having to hit some kind of rock bottom point? The truth is, we may not be able to. But we can try. We can work intentionally to build them up, treat them with respect and kindness, and let them know they are enough for us- they are worthy and deserving of love.

We also need to give lots of room for their struggles. We need to let them work through their pain. They don’t need to be okay in order to make us feel okay. They can acknowledge the pain they’ve experienced and not feel like they have to live in denial or fantasy. We don’t want them to stuff that pain down and then be self-medicating.

As the mother of kids who have experienced trauma (and also if you are the wife, daughter or friend of someone who has experienced childhood trauma), we have to realize that we may wish we could be “enough” for our loved one, but maybe we aren’t supposed to be. Maybe they have to come to a place of self-acceptance (with our full love and support) in order to realize the world may truly never be enough. And that’s okay. They may have to make peace with their pain and work through it to find healing. This can be a painful process to watch, but we need to battle our own desires to make everything happy for them, when the truth is they may need to face the sad.

While I watched my kids have their own beautiful moment of enjoying this movie, I had my tears watching Charity dance by herself in an empty house, singing about her desire to risk it all for the life and family she’s chosen. This is the struggle of the Trauma Mama (and trauma wife, daughter or friend). We can love our kids and want the best for them. We can risk it all for their good, but we can’t ultimately choose for them to love us and pursuing healing. So we learn to make peace with our ability to not be enough, to accept help and support, and to continue to love even when the stakes are high.

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