Studies have shown that happiness has been linked to a person’s independence. Great, I think. But what defines independence? Is it the ability to spend money in whatever way you want to? Is it freedom and control over how you spend your time? Is it when you don’t need help for doing what you need to do? When you are not dependent on anyone to make things happen in your life?
The context I was reading about this correlation was about a recently divorced woman who was learning how to make her own decisions. She was paying bills for the first time in her life, buying cars, signing mortgages. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have no idea how it feels to do any of those things. A long time ago women were told they were lucky to not have to worry about such burdensome matters. All I know is that there is a certain power and strength in knowing that no matter what happens, a person can know they are capable of taking care of themselves.
I remember the first time I ran a half marathon distance. That day I learned that all I needed was a pair of running shoes to get me to the nearest gas station, grocery store, telephone, friend’s house – no matter where I was. Really and truly no matter where I was, if my car was the break down I could get somewhere I needed to on my own steam, with my own two feet. This is a very empowering feeling. I have covered these kinds of miles on major highways, logging roads, seaside trails, small villages, large European cities, around lakes, over mountains, across sand. I have taught myself that no obstacle is too great (although the list of potential dangers – wierdos and creeps, transport trucks, grizzly bears and cougars, thunderstorms, stray dogs - were vastly different, my own engine was never the limitation).
There is something inside of me that has come back to life since I have returned to work. I realize now that during those childbearing years, I wasn’t really showing up at work. I was physically there but mentally at home. I was often mentally nowhere no matter where I showed up.
What I have only now just realized is that having others depend on you does not make you independent. Let me say that again. Meeting the needs of everyone and everything around you does not make you independent. It does not automatically mean that you are meeting your own needs. It does not mean you are free and in control and doing what you want to do.
Further, taking time to ‘do things for yourself’ does not necessarily mean you are independent. I have practiced going through the motions of ‘things for myself’ without reaping the feeling of being in control of my own life, my own power. Taking a moment to breath was always more a survival mechanism instead of an opportunity to grow or build trust in my abilities.
All of this independence I speak of is separate from whether or not you are earning a wage or being ‘supported’ by someone else. None of this is about financial independence although that can lead to other kinds of freedom and control. What I am referring to is the feeling that you could do whatever you had to, wanted to, needed to in a pinch. The feeling that if your car broke down you could cover the distance you had to even if you couldn’t get any help.
You see, what I failed to notice is that helping others all of the time is not the same as NOT NEEDING help. I’ll say it again (for me, more than for you). Just because you can care for the planet, the neighbours, your kids, your husband, your dogs, your unicorns and your laundry pile does not mean you do not need support. It may be financial. But it is likely far more complicated than that.
Likely you need an ear to listen once in a while. You need time to think. To sleep. To move your body. To breathe and digest. To use your brain. To apply your ambitions. You need to hear your own laughter, often. To build dreams. To give them form. To paint pictures. To write those words down. Maybe you need a new pair of pants that fit better. Perhaps you need to make a doctor’s appointment to deal with that nagging issue. You need a haircut or maybe just a hair wash. You need things. Surprise Mama. You need things.
Independence. The ability to feel like you can take care of yourself when you need to. The knowledge that you could be there for yourself when asked. The certainty of where you stand – where you begin and end – not in relation to the needs of another person. I’m not saying you should leave a hungry baby without food to get in a run. But becoming a mother for me required a re-learning post extreme-dependence stages of what it means to take care of myself. It took time for me to remember what it really meant to meet my own needs.
I feel I have arrived there again. The place where I have a pair of running shoes in my trunk. Both literally and figuratively, I know I could do whatever was needed of me.
Independence is not about whether you depend on someone else or not. And not about whether you have others depending on you.
It is about whether you trust that you can depend on yourself.