Denise inspired this post with her very kind comments on my last.
I've been mining an incident that's kind of related to "I don't do that anymore". It's a surprise that I'd be able to find so much in what amounted to a simple awkward conversation. I suppose there are all kinds of ways someone can give up themSelves in order to accommodate somebody else.
"I don't do that anymore" came back to haunt me in a different guise.
The incident was this: bookreading group night. Sitting in conversation with Marybeth who asks how things are going with the separation, the switching off of house to apartment, and the job. It's brief filler talk, meant to last until dinner is served. Marybeth wanted to know if I'd set the boys up with chores for helping out.
For me this is kind of like being asked if I breast or bottle-feed my baby. Or if I let them play videogames, or how many hours they play. There's already a right answer, and often I'm on the wrong side of it.
This question had the feel of that. I could feel the air around me bend into the gravity of a world where children should have chores, where any answer but yes carries some kind of whiff of apology. The world becomes tipped that way and anything said feels like justification of a deficiency.
I took a deep breath and said, "Well, no. I just ask them for help when I feel like I need it, and it seems to work out."
The truth is that I've made half-hearted attempts to get job charts and codify chore assignment. And the fact is that my heart hasn't been in it. I don't have a problem with the status quo, where 'help' is fluid and ad hoc. I don't feel over-burdened.
But Marybeth went on: "When I lived in India the women were fascinated with the freedom of American women. And they'd bemoan the lack of freedom in their lives. And I'd say, 'The place to start is your sons. Raise your sons so they'll assume equal responsibility.' Indian women spoil their sons", she went on. "And spoiled sons grow up with a sense of entitlement that perpetuates the problem on to the next generation."
Who the hell can argue with that?
So I was in turmoil. She's just said something that in principle I agree with, yet I'm not really practicing in my home. Furthermore, the vibe I'm getting from her feels as if she's attempting to persuade me. I'm feeling something that says she wants agreement. At least it feels like something is expected of me. And I don't feel honest with a specific endorsement and I can't bring myself to even nod. It was a mini-dilemma, with a woman I don't see but once a month, but consider a friend. I split the difference and in essence crossed my fingers behind my back. I gave her the agreement she was looking for to discharge the unease, but in my mind I was agreeing only with the principle: "women shouldn't spoil their sons".
But I'm feeling a thickening in the air between us. The hallmarks of a meaningful conversation are missing. I absolutely can't think of anything to say. I'm a deer in headlights. I sense it, and I wonder if she's sensing it too. After all, if the animation that makes a conversation a conversation drains, isn't that noticeable? Could she sense that I wasn't in entire agreement? Because she pressed her point a little further.
Then we were called to dinner.
That's it. I've been thinking about it ever since when I have some time to muse. Each time I think about it I see another facet.
At first I focused on the sense I'd had that agreement was sought, and disagreement carried a penalty--of a hint of shame, of apology. As I considered it, it occurred to me that if I felt like there wasn't a conversation, in a way it was because there wasn't. She had her own agenda, which was to convince me that the boys should have chores. She was presenting reasons why I should be doing it, and in a sense was trespassing. I'd sensed a power struggle and I handled it by letting her think she'd 'won'. Yet I felt strange and awkward after that.
So, I reasoned, some of what was going on was I was feeling trespassed upon and didn't assert my boundaries. And I was feeling unauthentic in that I was having these feelings and not telling her. In other words, I was representing myself as other than what I am.
But the conversation didn't seem to leave room for anything but a kind of shame-facedness in disagreeing, because again, who can argue with what she was saying? And, while it might be possible to have a conversation that included my quasi-diagreement without having to wear a cone of shame, it would take some time to get there, which we didn't have.
So in a sense I was putting "blame" on Marybeth with a narrative that she wasn't seeing me at all in the conversation, but was seeking something.
That's certainly plausible. That's what's in common, I think, with many unsolicited advice givers. An implication of a kind of superiority: I'm doing something that you're not and you should be like me. This superiority requires agreement to be maintained in the giver's psyche--it depends on validation.
When I talked about it with my counselor, she suggested that Marybeth could have just been operating under the assumption that I was in total agreement already, vs trying to convince me of something.
Which opened up another can of worms. A very old one, which is probably what kept me in a bad marriage. If I'm feeling something from someone that's negative, since it's being processed by me and filtered through me, how do I know it's not merely a projection? (And if I'm 'projecting', what is it I'm projecting? Am I projecting self-disapproval onto them directed toward me? Am I really kicking myself for not having the boys do regular chores, but making the Other the vehicle?) And if I can't know that it's not a projection, then how can I trust myself at all? I've spent a lifetime exploring this very question. It kept me from being able to objectively evaluate the nature of many of the conflicts I had with Gary. Sharon had spent nearly 5 years helping me lean into listening to this voice, and now I've got to question it again?
Looking again at what was present in that moment: A sense of being 'accused' of spoiling my kids and contributing to gender inequity in the world. I think there was a realization that while I agree with the principle of raising boys to be responsible men, the way I'm doing it probably doesn't clear the bar she seemed to be setting. And that was a conflict, because to get to anywhere except acknowledging my 'lack' and getting more evangelization would take a while and we didn't have it. But here I am with this circle that's begging to be closed with my agreement. And my brain was blank when it came to other areas of engagement that might circumvent this dilemma. I think another thing present was that I like Marybeth. And I sense that she gives me a kind of credit for intimacy and closeness of friendship that hasn't yet been backed up with a bulk of intimate conversations and shared experience. I sensed that she was offering me an opportunity for connection to back up that credit, and I was going to have to let it go by. And just today I realized that a hidden element that was also present in that moment was that I sensed I was accusing her. I was accusing her of giving unsolicited advice, for misreading me as a person who 'needs' help, of having an agenda that she was pressing at the expense of seeing me in the conversation. I was accusing a well-meaning friend of encroachment.
As someone who has felt accused much of her life, it takes a lot to get me to accuse others. I'm allergic to it and would rather accuse myself by default than accuse someone else. Especially a friend.
No wonder I was a deer in headlights.
I guess the takeaway is that I became good at sensing what people want from me. And implicit was a condition that this "something" was required to satisfy their own self-esteem needs. To withhold was to hurt. Case in point: another conversation about the boys doing chores. A kitchen table of a friend. After a long list of things I should do to which I responded with silence, one of the women asked. I replied that while their good intentions are appreciated, I'm someone who needs to find my own way, organically, from inside of me. And anything I've said about various difficulties in my life at that time should not be construed as a call for help. I said it in a factual tone with no intent of anger behind it. She actually began to cry.
So there are many faces to the conditions where one can lose herself. The pernicious ones are more obvious. The well-meaning ones, well, those are more deeply rooted.