On Martyrdom in the Female Tradition

Today, I am wearing ladylike flats with pearls and an a-line dress in honor of all the women who came before me. For my grandmother, who married for family name and societal rank, but divorced for her own safety and the safety of her children. For my mother, who spent more than half her life trying to make herself smaller–both physically and emotionally–so that she would not be seen as a threat to the men in her life. For my sisters and friends, the ones I grew up idolizing for their bright confidence and sassy style, only to watch them marry below what they deserved and grow dimmer with each passing year.

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve watched these women drop off the radar for months or even years at a time, only to resurface with emotional scars and a sad story to tell. Where was I when they were freshly wounded and hurting, I often wondered. Why didn’t they call me when they needed me the most?

But then someone reminded me of all the times I’ve gone MIA–whether intentionally or out of habit–because things weren’t going well and I didn’t want anyone to share in my pain. Like a jealously guarded secret, my problems were hoarded until AFTER I dealt with them, and only then did I share what I had been through, like it was a badge of triumph, but always slightly underplayed. At the time, I would tell myself I was protecting the ones I loved from the havoc of being me; the messy parts that no one really wanted to see or know about in the first place.

But later, when I would get angry at one of my friends or family members for doing the same, I called them selfish. “How dare you tell me this now,” I found myself saying with an accusatory tone. “You thought you might not make it through this situation alive, but you never told me until it was over. That’s not fair. What if it hadn’t been okay?” But really, it was me I was mad at. I felt guilt, because now it was too late to help. They’d already been through the part where they needed hand holding or a shoulder to cry on, so now I was rendered useless. And wasn’t that just another side of the same selfish coin?

That was when I really started to wonder, what is it about women and our need to feel like we’re being USEFUL in some way? If we’re not tiptoeing around, trying not to be a BOTHER to anyone–even though we might literally be dying, god forbid someone is put out–or we’re feeling guilty for things that are OVER, that can’t be helped or changed? God knows men don’t lose as much sleep over things they can’t control. So what is it that makes us this way? Is it a blessing, a biological oddity? A curse?

And what can we do to live with the symptoms?

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