Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Declaration of Dependence

It's been awhile since I posted.  Since Easter I've felt very busy, and for a long time it seemed like there was just one problem after another.  My children had their spring break from school this week, and I feel like I spent all of it putting out fires, rather than investing that time in quality moments. I argued with my mother, I argued with my husband, and I almost lost my son. I am emotionally exhausted, which makes it hard to write.

In the middle of all of this, E took his finals, and he is finished with his first year of nursing school.  His spring semester has been a nightmare for me, though I can't really understand why I have had such a negative reaction to his new career choice.  We had a long discussion about it last night.  I feel sorry for my husband.  I struggle so much in so many areas of my life, and he loves me, so he is caught in a position of feeling the need to help me all the time.  Just to maintain a loving friendship with me, he must act as my lover, best friend, counselor, advocate, co-parent, leader, follower.  Added to that, he voluntarily takes on the role of cook and food shopper in our home, cares for and/or cleans anything I don't wish to take care of, and never complains.  He also does at least as much parenting as I do.  Obviously we do not have anything remotely close to traditional roles in our home, and this is both a comfort and a concern for me.  I don't wish to change the balance we have, and I find our ability to communicate and care for each other soothing and beautiful.  We understand each other so well that a casual observer might think we engage in some kind of telepathy.  Sometimes I will think, I'm a little hungry, and immediately E will begin making me a sandwich. Sometimes a friend will say something that hurts a little, and E will take my hand.  I have told him many times that we've been doing this for so long that I can no longer tell where I stop and he begins.  If once he was red, and I was blue, we are now purple.

I've realized too that it would be healthy for both of us to develop separate friends, activities, and interests.  Without careful attention it would be so easy for us to nurture no relationships but our own.  Sometimes it feels like he and me against the world.  But life is hectic and difficult and broad, and we need to have other people to rely on.  E seems to want very much to be all I need, and many times he is, but over the years I can see the burden this is on him, though he bears it so willingly.  He has become more easily hurt by me, yet more careful about hiding it.  Sometimes when things have been stressful and painful for a long period of time, I can see him shut down and build a wall between us relationally, and I imagine that this is his only option.  He simply can't bear the weight that my emotional neediness puts on him, so he shuts me out in the gentlest of ways.  All of these are why I am really happy that he felt comfortable enough to come to me and tell me he wanted to make a drastic career change.  Now that he's begun nursing school I am finding that there are aspects of this that are challenging me, and it's unexpected.  The schedule changes, new responsibilities, and new views of the future have brought the the forefront my internal battle with dependence, independence, and interdependence.

Our society applauds independence.  We judge a person's value and ability based on their level of independence, or how much they can do without help.  We celebrate our children's successes when we see them master a skill without help.  We bundle this value of independence with the more modern American value of individuality, and we expect that a person should strive to function independently of help from others, so that ultimately any relationships he or she chooses to have are there by choice and not necessity.  In my lifetime of almost thirty years I have seen independence become the goal, with relationships being made by choice. In many cases we only maintain and nurture the relationships that encourage our independence.  Without looking up the statistics, I see more and more people in my culture choosing to keep all their relationships on a comparatively superficial level of intimacy.  Single children instead of big families.  Child-free living instead of families.  Co-habitation instead of marriage.  Single living instead of intimate relationships.  The people of my generation seem to be increasingly afraid of relational commitments.  We have been taught to be independent, and we are living that out.  Growing up, I remember a friend's mother, who was happily married, telling me that I should seek to be successful and build a lucrative career so that I would never have to stay with a man because I needed his income.  We are the children of modern feminism.

Twenty years later that is exactly the position I find myself in, and I'll be honest, it scares me.  I have been thinking of getting a part time job, not as the insurance policy my friend's mother implied that work should be, but because I feel like there is a need for independent, worldly success running through my blood.  I feel a need to know that I could make it on my own, without E.  I wonder about trying it.  I wonder about running away, changing my name, and building a career as if I could have a clean slate.  I wonder about taking the children and moving into a cheap apartment, getting a job and enrolling them in school and day care.  Or I wonder about getting a full time job right here, dropping the baby off at day care early in the morning and hopping on the Metro with my heels tucked in a tote bag.  I could do it.  It would take some rearranging for childcare and housework, but it could be done.  But why do I dream about this when I have so many friends who live that life, and wish they could be where I am?  And why would I want to do anything that upsets the balance I have with a husband who can sense me, read my mind, feel my feelings? For goodness sake, we're like Eliot and E.T.
Please don't try to speculate which of us is E.T.
As much as I love E and as much as I know I've been given a more wonderful husband than I could have dreamed of, he is not perfect.  It's hard to describe the problems we have to other people.  I think people tune me out if I say anything negative about him.  I understand why.  It's hard to get past the fact that I have a husband who does all the cooking and grocery shopping, more than his share of parenting, supports me in everything, listens to me, and looks the way E does in a pair of jeans.  I hate myself whenever I have a thought that even slightly resembles a complaint.  But E's willingness to jump at my every need is sometimes the problem.  I have no idea if I could live without E.  I imagine that if we were separated, and I had to function on my own, I would fail miserably in the practicalities of my life, and that emotionally I would wither and die, just like E.T.'s flowers.  I have never lived as an adult without E.  We met when I was only 17, became engaged shortly after I turned 18, and married when I was 20. I had my first child a few months after I turned 22.  I have never worked a full time job in my life.  I have no idea what it would be like to do so, and to have to do it.  It's a charmed life, and I have nothing but appreciation for my God who has put me here, and my husband who works hard so that I can focus on our children, our home, and our relationships.  But like my friend's mother expressed twenty years ago, being this dependent on another flawed human being is a risk.  If E left me, I would have nothing.  E won't leave me.  He's said so repeatedly.  As bad as things got last semester, and as many times as I told him that I wanted to leave and taste freedom and life without a caretaker, E never wavered.  He would have let me leave if it meant my happiness, but he would have never stopped waiting for me to come back.  Last week, when the semester was almost over, and my burning need for independence seemed to be climaxing, he said, "You will not remove this ring from my hand without cutting off my finger."

So how do I reconcile this?  I wish I could be a person who could simply choose to enjoy this, and never wonder how it could be different.  I would like to think that E and I live in a state of interdependence; that while our talents and abilities and strengths differ greatly, we have found a way to live that brings them all together in harmony, that allows each of us to gain from the abilities of the other, where neither of us takes advantage of the other, and both receive equal benefits.  But it's hard for me to imagine what E is getting from me.  At worst, I imagine that I am nothing more than free childcare and an organized home.  Even then, the definition of "free" is limited; E more than pays for my services with all that he does for me when he is here, and with all the hurt I put him through in my emotional and psychological struggles.  What is it that he sees in me?  Why is he so committed?  He doesn't express it in so many words. I ask constantly, and the best answer I get is that he is happy and feels loved.  He is loved, and I would love him forever, even if he stopped doing all these things for me.  It doesn't seem like something I can control; I love him even when I wish I didn't.  I need to love him the way I need to breathe.  In the end it has nothing to do with all the things he does for me.  I love him because he is the person I was designed to love.  He says the same.  Mutual dependence seems inevitable, and when I look at it this way, it seems so much more lovely than freedom.

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