June 10, 2013

The Self-Sufficiency Dilemma


Whirlygig Burano Italy

My first recollection of being alone is when I was about 5. I wasn’t really “alone” because my brother was with me. We were at home and had been giving explicit instructions not to open the door to anyone except my grandparents or my uncle and not to answer the phone. I remember being afraid, but not for the reasons most people would. I wasn’t afraid of someone breaking into the house or listening to the phone ring for hours. I was more afraid of my brother getting mad at me and hitting me. Oh the life of a 5 year old!

My mom was a working single mom. No work = no money, no home. I learned that early on. My mom worked because she had to. At about 7 years old I was well aware of child protective services and what a bunch of horrible people they were. I remember having to go live with my grandparents because I couldn’t live with my mom if she was going to leave my brother and I home. Going to work with her wasn’t always an option, but sometimes we did. That’s where I learned to sit quietly and read and color and write and draw and do whatever I could to not be seen or heard.

It didn’t last long though, and I went to live with my grandparents. There I could see my mom when she wasn’t working but my grandparents would make sure I got to school and had my meals. But CPS didn’t really seem to care that a 2nd grader was walking a mile home from school to an empty house and would be alone for 3 or so hours. It was probably good CPS didn’t care or who knows where they’d make me move.

Living with my grandparents was bittersweet. I loved my grandparents but I really missed my mom. Also, they were my grandparents and had already raised their kids. I wasn’t part of their “life after 40” plans, but they did what they had to do. My grandfather’s military past made him both a disciplinarian but also a very good teacher. My grandmother was actually more the disciplinarian.

When you live with your grandparents, it’s not the “give them candy and ice cream for dinner” people you’re living with. They’re trying to balance that grandparent mode with that of actually having to parent again. As an adult, I found out from my grandpa that it was actually quite the challenge for them.

I learned self-sufficiency early on. Many would say I was a 30-year old in a kid’s body. I couldn’t really argue with that because I felt it was my job to do all the “figure it out” stuff. Homework? I did it myself before my grandparents came home. Set the table? I got books from the library to learn how to do it so I could have the table ready for dinner without being asked. Laundry? My grandma received all the 70s & 80s standards – Lady’s Home Journal, McCalls, Better Homes & Gardens. There was little time to watch TV because I was reading those to learn how to fold sheets, wash whites separate from colors, and how to clean the toilets so they sparkled. My grandpa taught me how to make my bed, which I did every morning (and have since I was about 7).

Being self-sufficient is pretty great. It means you don’t get yelled at or punished for not doing what others think you should do. It means people around you are often happier because they don’t have to do things because you’re doing them. That is until you take that self-sufficiency mode out into the “real world” and start to realize that there are people who want to be part of what you’re doing.

That self-sufficient kid found it difficult, at times, to be part of the different communities that start to exist during your teens. It’s where I needed to relearn a few things.

1. Letting others help isn’t a sign of weakness. I still have a very difficult time with this. Through high school, college, and graduate school group projects were the source of most of my anxiety. But I knew in the real world I would need to work with people so I worked very hard to learn how to be a good leader as well as listener and doer.

2. Play may indeed be four letters long, but it’s not a “four-letter word”. Again, play isn’t something I fully understand. This has been one of my biggest parenting challenges. Sure, I was allowed to play outside and I played board games and such. But the idea of play, that downtime of just doing something because it’s fun, is still very foreign to me.

3. It’s not my job to make other people happy. As a kid I just wanted my mom to be happy. I equated not worrying with happiness. My mom didn’t. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens when I learned that my mom was happy. And had been most of her life. No, things weren’t easy and there were plenty of challenges and difficult spots but those weren’t the things that made her unhappy. Whether I did my chores or got straight A’s didn’t change her inner sense of happiness. She may have been proud or disappointed, but her happiness wasn’t tied to my achievements. How she was so wise, I’ll never know. It’s one of the many things about my mom that I miss.

4. Being capable of doing something doesn’t mean I’m the one who has to do it. Again, something else I have trouble working through. This often makes me an enabler, as well as becomes a source of my own frustration. It’s the fixer/doer mentality I grew up with that causes me to volunteer, say “yes”, or just jump in instead of letting others figure it out. As a parent, the first years are full of having to do everything for someone else. But you quickly realize how tiring it becomes and what a disservice you’re really doing by not allowing other people to get involved.

I know I’m not alone in this dilemma of being self-sufficient. It’s great to be able to take care of things yourself. It’s a good feeling to know you have the confidence to work through any number of situations. At the same time, I have people tell me I’m intimidating because I can do so many things, that I don’t need other people to help, or that I am able to solve problems quickly.

Being self-sufficient is a good feeling. Most of the time. But teaching it to your children and striking the right balance is a challenge.



Christi @ Love From The Oven June 10, 2013 at 3:05 pm

We are the same person. Nothing else I can say sums it up better. Which probably explains the two peas in the pod of ours.

Sara June 10, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Thank you, Christi, for reading and commenting. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in feeling that being self-sufficient isn’t always as cool as it sounds.

Jeannine Bender June 11, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Being a single mom for 16 years, made me quite self-sufficient to say the least. Being totally Independant was a way of life and it worked really well for myself and my daughter for years. Now I’ve found myself in the position of (very happily) becoming a wife again. My hubby and I have had to have discussions on how he can help me and how I should let him. It is very difficult for me to accept help and I’ve fallen in to each “issue” you mention. I never thought of myself as being intimidating, but I can see how that can happen and now I can definitely try to avoid it. 🙂 Anyway, once again, it’s nice to know I’m not alone. Take care and have a great day! 🙂

Kate @ Songs Kate Sang June 11, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Why is it so hard to let people help… one day we will learn to accept with grace and let others have their opportunity to help.

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