A few weeks ago, I had a very interesting conversation with two female friends about what being independent means for us women (one of the upsides of having smart women as friends is that they are always brimming with good ideas and open to discuss relevant topics!)
Our chat proved that this subject is far from being as simple or as trivial as it could seem. We talked about economic self-sufficiency, described as your ability to earn a living and fulfill all your needs, interests etc. yourself, without having to resort to others. We talked about the lack of independence of mothers with little kids, who live in a constant struggle to find just a few minutes for themselves every day. We reflected about how, a few decades ago, those women who fought hard for progress and equality, those who valued their independence most, often were afraid to see themselves reduced to traditional gender roles as soon as they would get married, or because they wanted to have children. Maybe today it is more evident for everyone that women do not have to (and must not) lose their independence if they want to live in a couple or start a family. Back then, however, this was a very understandable concern: society and its expectations over women have evolved since. And they must keep evolving a lot more.
After our conversation, it was clear that independence, just as the vast majority of complex concepts in life, does not have a single interpretation or definition. The lack of time mothers suffer, and the challenges that motherhood brings in terms of autonomy (for instance, needing someone else to take care of your children if you want to have dinner out, or having a very limited amount of time and money left for your own needs and hobbies) are not exactly lack of independence to me. Of course, I am not suggesting that these difficulties are not real or important and they certainly make you depend on someone else’s help, often on an almost regular basis. What I mean is that my own definition of independence, the one I bear in mind when I try to decide how independent I am, is not based on these considerations.
To me, independence does not have that much to do with living alone, having children or being able to pay for everything you want or need yourself. Independence is an attitude. I have met mothers who literally do not have a second to dedicate to themselves and I consider them deeply independent women. I have also met childless women who live on their own and have jobs that allow them to be self- sufficient, but they are extremely dependent of others (their partner, parents, friends, siblings…). I believe that true independence stems from a certain way to confront life’s challenges, from making your own decisions and accept responsibility for them, from having a nice amount of self-confidence, from a certain measure of courage.
When I started to live in a couple I did not experience the necessary adjustment to cohabitation as a threat to my independence. Rather than that, to me it was a natural negotiation of time slots, shared and private spaces, making room for our different needs, reaching agreements with the purpose of making our habits compatible… To me, this is not lack of independence. It is neither an imposed gender role nor an aspect of women’s fight for equality: it simply is the process that takes place when two or more people (not even necessarily heterosexual couples, but also friends or flat mates) start to live together. Is considering another person’s opinion or needs, giving up some things… is all this being less independent, or is it just setting the foundations for a healthy cohabitation and relationship? For me, it is clearly the latter. In truth, even if we feel that this negotiation inherent to cohabitation limits our independence, isn’t the price of being just a little less independent worth paying if that teaches us how to live with others better?
If we push this line of reasoning to the extreme, we will soon find out that any limit to our behavior (because other people have rights too, because civic rules do exist, and another handful of reasons) is also restricting our freedom and our independence.
Thus, let’s be independent. More: let’s be, and feel, deeply independent, self- confident, let’s own our destiny, be brave enough, say what we think, pursue what we want. There is no way we are going to accept being the victims, or mere supporting characters of our own stories. But let’s also learn to do all this without turning every detail into a battle we need to win. Let’s fight for our dreams and against everything we deem unfair, but let’s also be sensible, and flexible; let’s be smart enough to accept what is just normal, let’s stay open to the natural processes of life.
And let’s also stay away from independence understood as the wrong side of pride. Attitudes such as not asking for help or advice; insisting in paying everything ourselves even if we are struggling financially and there is someone able and willing to help; being reluctant to lean on others or trust them with our fears… all this isolates us, stiffens us, makes us miss many chances for wonderful human encounters. Even worse: it denies our vulnerability which (in my opinion) is one of our greatest, most appealing features: nobody feels close to someone who never shows the slightest weakness, the smallest crack in their façade. Our vulnerability brings us closer to our fellow humans.
Here is the paradox: it is not until you truly are self-confident (one of the imperative traits of independent people) that you dare to show your weaknesses or troubles and depend on others when you need so.
Because, in the end, we all exist in a relationship with others, and if this makes us a little less independent, I believe it also makes us a little more human.