I have always prided myself on my independence; not just my ability to do things myself, but also my resourcefulness. I’ve always had a scrappy, “I can do it” attitude and a knack for putting whatever tools – actual tools, as well as metaphysical and psychological tools – are at my disposal to good use to achieve my goal.
This independence and resourcefulness is a skill most likely born to satisfy my own impatient nature (why wait to do something I would like done now?) and from my childhood environment. My mother was also a very independent woman and she raised me to believe that I’m capable of taking care of my own needs; I don’t need a man to do everything for me. Whatever the genesis, it’s a skill that has served me exceedingly well.
Lately, however, I’ve begun to experience a few consequences of being so fiercely independent, some of which were illuminated during a recent gardening project.
Several years ago, my husband and I embarked on a significant home addition and remodel. By the time we moved back into the house and were ready to landscape the backyard, we were so tired of writing checks and still had so many expenses ahead of us, I happily volunteered to take on the responsibility of designing a landscape scheme for the backyard.
I knew absolutely nothing about gardening at the time, but I began researching the merits of various plants that might work in our garden. I studied my copy of The Sunset Magazine Western Garden Book, talked to several seasoned gardeners and nursery employees, and ultimately selected about 100 plants to be planted in our yard.
Empowered by my blossoming skills in the garden (no pun intended), I decided to plant the five large containers we’d purchased for our patio myself. The patio walls are white and the overall patio is very stark, so we had an ironworker build and install some sturdy trellises over the patio doors that could support vines planted in our pots that would soften the hard edges of the space and provide some much-needed color.
I set to work, planting three beautiful jasmine plants near the trellises and a pretty variety of tall and medium-height plants, as well as some gorgeous ground cover that spilled over the sides of the pot and pooled on the ground, in the two other planters flanking our outdoor sofa. It was a fun project with immediate results. Miss Independent was happy.
About ten months later, however, the plants near the sofa began to yellow (too much water) or whither or die, and the jasmine hadn’t grown an inch. With each month that passed, my once-lovely looking patio containers began to look more and more sad. My vision of trimming back the prolific, lush jasmine so as not to impede our views through the windows never materialized.
My husband and I are hosting an event at our house this week, so last week I decided the time had finally come to uproot my withering vines and molding plants and start fresh. Once again, I studied and read and solicited advice from experts and selected the plants I thought might work best: Three fast-growing white Mandevilla vines for the trellises and two pygmy date palms for either side of the sofa. They are low-maintenance plants with fairly minimal watering requirements and hold the promise of great beauty in their roots. (Only time will tell!)
After picking up the plants from the nursery in the morning, I arranged play dates for the kids so that they could be entertained while I dove head first into what I thought would be about a three hour project.
Unfortunately, I had grossly underestimated how difficult it would be to empty the existing containers. Removing their plants and the no-longer ripe soil from the pots was backbreaking, sweaty, filthy work. Five hours later, I looked like Pig-Pen and felt like a woman twice my age, covered head-to-toe in dirt and sweat, aching all over. And I still hadn’t planted a single one of my new plants.
Eventually, I finished the job and got the long, hot, soapy shower I needed so desperately. But the job took me nearly three times longer than I’d expected and my back and hips ached for two days. Since the trash can I’d filled with all the old plants and soil was too heavy for me to wheel out to the street for pick-up, I had to work my way around it as I planted and swept up pile after pile of dirt, until my husband got home and carted the obstacle away.
Regular gardeners would likely have spotted my error immediately, knowing the physical strength and stamina required to haul old, heavy plants and dirt from 32” high pots. They would have known it was a two day job – three, even – for one person to handle and, if not too big a job for me, too unpleasant a job with obvious consequences for my back and hands. But even if someone had told me that, I would have waved them off. “This person is looking at my size and my gender and is underestimating me,” I would have said to myself. “I am stronger, more determined, and more independent than this person realizes. This person is wrong: I can do this by myself.”
And I did do it by myself! But almost from the very beginning, I was butting up against my own limitations, fighting to finish a job alone that would have been twice as fun and taken half the time to complete with a second set of hands. Rather than acknowledge my limitations and ask for help, I grunted and pushed my way through, slugging away at every obstacle and falling down, exhausted, sore, and utterly spent when it was through.
The experience got me thinking: Why is it so hard for me to ask for help and what other areas of my life am I making more difficult by managing them alone?
The “why” may be complicated and casts some shadows worth exploring; I’m prideful, for sure, and probably arrogant, too. But the fact of the matter is, it has been incredibly useful and rewarding for me to be able to work independently, without help.
In my former careers in sales and as a fund raiser, my independence was a major asset. I was incredibly efficient with my time, often completing tasks by noon that might take others several days. Although I’m not afraid to ask for input from people I trust and respect, I am decisive and action-oriented once I think I know the best course of action. (Nothing kills progress and efficiency like a committee! Can I get an “amen”?)
In my personal life and social lives, my independence has been an asset, as well. I carry my own weight, chip in, and make myself useful wherever I can. I don’t wait around for someone else to handle a job I know I’m perfectly capable of handling myself. I love showing my kids that a woman can work as hard or as long or as well as a man, even if she isn’t as physically strong, and I think it sets a great example for them.
Being financially independent has also been incredibly valuable to me. Having the ability to make and manage my own money, as a woman, is profoundly empowering and a critical life skill. A woman who is completely dependent upon a man and unable to generate her own income – even if it is barely enough to live on – is never truly free. I may choose not to work and make money for a time, but knowing I’m capable of making money is essential to my self-worth and identity.
But there are downsides to being Miss Independent, too, I’m learning. When it comes to housekeeping, for instance, there are times when I just need help with the responsibilities of running a household full time. Instead of asking for help or delegating more tasks to my kids or my husband – or even just putting it off for a day or two – I tend to forge ahead and do the job myself, sometimes angrily and resentfully, other times complaining bitterly or even taking my resentment out on the people I love most.
Parenting, too, is a place I’m often bumping up against my own limitations, but not asking for help. Just yesterday I caught myself feeling angry towards one of my kids. I suspected that the real problem was me – not him – and that my anger was unjustified, but I was struggling to see things from a less emotional, more objective point of view. My instinct in times like these is to bottle up my anger or lash out at my child, rather than call a friend or my husband to say, “help me get some perspective on this situation and the feelings I’m having. Help me calm down and determine the right way to behave.” In this particular circumstance, I did do that – I texted my husband – and it was very helpful, but most of the time I don’t reach out for help.
Assuming I can do it all and do it without help is a modus operandi that has often mislead me to believe I am more capable than I might actually be. If housework is exhausting me or parenthood is making me feel resentful, it’s probably a sign that I’m doing it wrong. That’s not to say being a responsible adult and parent should always be fun and never burdensome. As Carol Channing used to say in her skit, Housework, on my favorite childhood record, Free to Be You and Me, “Your mommy hates housework. Your daddy hates housework. I hate housework, too. And when you grow up, so will you!” But just like my patio planting project, by doing it alone, I’m making some jobs far harder, more painful, and less enjoyable than they need to be.
The good news is, I have a ton of resources at my disposal: Friends, family members, babysitters, and the means to hire professional help when truly necessary. If I’m willing to be patient and let go of my need to do something right now, lots and lots of assistance is a mere phone call away.
I know I can do a lot of things on my own without help and I like that about myself. I think it’s a great quality and I hope I never lose it. But sometimes it comes at too high a cost. I’m beginning to learn and appreciate the merits of shouldering a yoke with another ox, so to speak. I am strong and determined and capable, but I am also human and I am not alone. That is a gift worth exploiting once in a while.