On independence

04 January 2016

I spent the first day of 2016 putting together a new dresser. Please do not interpret this as any assertion that I possess even the most nominal of carpentry or construction skills—this project was a pre-fabricated piece of furniture, a solid step up from IKEA, but requiring assembly all the same. It had been delivered some two weeks earlier, and had sat obligingly patient in its boxes while I got around to feeling up to the task of giving it its intended and proper form.

I’m actually quite good at putting together pre-fabricated furniture. It’s a proficiency you pick up quickly when you’re a lone adult in the world, especially when you’re without family and with a child at the same time. But that doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes challenging. In this new dresser, I eventually met some kind of single woman household Waterloo. I managed, after an hour or so of construction and the inevitable misplacement and subsequent replacement of one side, to put all the most necessary pieces together. All the remained was to slide the drawers into place—and I, for the life of me, couldn’t do it. Balancing the wide, heavy drawer while still making sure each side lined up precisely how it needed to go proved to be more than one slight woman could do. I took a break, tried again, took another break, tried again. I tried another day. No luck. I finally stacked the drawers out of the way and had a moment of feeling frustrated at how difficult it was sometimes to do things entirely on my own.

I have these moments far less often than I used to, but I haven’t yet outgrown the smothered shame of them. They usually result from situations seemingly ridiculous—an unassembled bedroom dresser is not the type of thing that should inspire despair. But it’s not ever really about the failed task at hand. It’s about everything else, the sheer amount of work that goes into making a life on your own, the constant stream of other tasks that you’re responsible for alone. All the things you do just to keep your head above water and how no one thinks it’s difficult because, after all, your head is above water. It might surprise many people to realize how fast others are dog paddling under the surface, just to keep up with their steady, easy pace. How being the only one to assemble furniture, do the grocery shopping, take out trash, make lunches, and dinners, and breakfasts, wash laundry, arrange violin lessons, iron the badges on the Girl Scouts sash, pay the bills, make smart career decisions, work full-time and, oh, just raise a kid, can sometimes wear you down. All it takes is one missed checkmark to bring down the whole house of cards, and there’s no one to put it back together but you.

There’s a heavy cost to true independence, one we don’t often acknowledge. For a people fixated on freedom and independence, you’d think we’d have more understanding and respect for the responsibility and discipline that it demands. Instead, our demonstrated concept of independence is really more similar to privilege. It’s having the power to declare yourself free of what you don’t want to do. Oddly enough, this power usually comes from some sort of underlying structure that someone else has constructed. If you’re not blessed with it, you’ll still have to do all the work on your own, with the added rule that you’re not allowed to complain about it or ask for help. Obviously, you did or chose something wrong along the way and, therefore, this is your lot. There is no respect in this kind of independence. Only shame and drudgery.

Which is why another definition of independence becomes so vital. If no one will respect our work, well, then we’ll learn how to respect it ourselves. Why not? We do everything else on our own, anyway. We’ll hammer through the daily tasks, we’ll make our own priorities, we’ll find our own solutions and we’ll allow ourselves the moments of breakdown, followed by taking a deep breath and getting back to work. And we’ll pat ourselves on the back, and be proud of ourselves for making our way through our lives the best we can, and be glad that at least we know our lives are our own.

If this is you, then this is for you. Real independence is really hard. Sometimes we get to choose how much of it we want or can handle. Sometimes we don’t. Those dresser drawers of mine are still stacked next to the dresser they refuse to slide into. But I’m over the frustration. I let it go, and found a handyman who will finish the job, an added expense that I accept is just part of the overall cost of doing things the way I do them. Soon, I’ll have a complete, new dresser—not a particularly interesting or high quality piece of furniture, but one that I most definitely I earned the hard way, and, somehow, that might end up being the most useful function it could ever fulfill.

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