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The Collapse Of Ambition And The Wish To Be Saved

Colette Dowling

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I am lying alone on the third floor of our house with a bad bout of the flu, trying to keep my illness from the others. The room feels large and cold, and as the hours pass, strangely inhospitable. I begin to remember myself as a little girl, small, vulnerable, helpless. By the time night falls I am utterly miserable, not so sick with flu as with anxiety. “What am I doing here, so solitary, so unattached, so. . . . floating?" I ask myself. How strange to be so disturbed, cut off from family, from my busy, demanding life. . . disconnected. . . A break occurs in this stream of thought, and I recognize: I am ALWAYS alone. Here, without warning, is the truth I spend so much energy avoiding. I hate being alone. I'd like to live, marsupialized, within the skin of another. More than air and energy and life itself, what I want is to be safe, warm, taken care of. This, I'm startled to find, is nothing new. It has been there, a part of me, for a long time.

Since that day spent in bed I've learned that there are other women like me, thousands upon thousands of us who grew up in a certain way and who have not been able to face up to the adult reality that we, alone, are responsible for ourselves. We may pay lip service to this idea, but inside, we do not accept it. Everything about the way were raised told us we would be part of someone else-that we would be protected, supported, buoyed up by wedded happiness until the day we died.

One by one, of course, we discovered-each in our own way- the lie in the promise. After the Seventies, and the beginning of the women's movement, different things began to be expected of us. Now we were being told that our old girlhood dreams were weak and ignoble, and that there were better things to want: money, power, and that most elusive of conditions, freedom. Freedom is better than security, we were told; security cripples.

But freedom, we soon found out, frightens. It presents us with possibilities we may not feel equipped to deal with: promotions, responsibility, the chance to travel by ourselves, without men to lead the way. All kinds of opportunities opened up to women very fast, but with that freedom came new demands: that we grow up and stop hiding behind the patronage of someone we choose to think of as “stronger"; that we begin making decisions based on our own values-not our husbands', or parents', or some teacher's. Freedom demands that we become authentic, true to ourselves. And this is where it gets suddenly difficult, when we can no longer get by as a “good wife", or a “good daughter, " or a “good student".

Likely as not, when we begin the process of separating from our authority figures to stand on our own two feet, we discover that the values we thought were our own are not. They belong to others-vivid persons from a vivid, all-encompassing past. Eventually a moment of truth arrives: “I don't really HAVE any convictions. I don't really know what I believe. " This can be a frightening time. Everything we once felt so sure of seems to crumble like the soft loam of a landslide, leaving us unsure of everything-and terrified.

This dizzying loss of old and outmoded support structures-beliefs we don't even belive anymore-can mark the beginning of true freedom. But the fact that it's frightening can send us scurrying into retreat-back to where it's safe, familiar, known. Why, when we have the chance to move ahead, do we tend to retreat?

Women are not used to confronting fear and going beyond it. We've been encouraged to avoid what scares us, taught from the time we were very young to do only those things that allow us to feel comfortable and secure. In fact we were not trained for freedom at all, but for its categorical opposite-dependency. Up to a point, dependency needs are quite normal, for men as well as for women. But women have been encouraged since they were children to be dependent to an unhealthy degree.

Any woman who looks within knows that she was never trained to feel comfortable with the idea of taking care of herself, standing up for herself, asserting herself. At best she may have played the game of independence, inwardly envying the boys (and later the men) because they seemed so naturally self-sufficient. But it is not nature that bestows this self-sufficiency on men; it's training.

Males are educated for independence from the day they're born. Just as systematically, females are taught that they have an out-that someday, in some way, they are going to be saved. That is the fairy tale, the life-message we have introjected as if with mother's milk. We may venture out on our own for a while. We may go away to school, work, travel; we may even make good money, but underneath it all there is a finite quality to our feelings about independence. Only hang on long enough, the childhood story goes, and someday someone will come along to rescue you from the anxiety of authentic living. (The only saviour the boy learns about is himself. )

My introduction to the subject of women's dependency came though personal experience. For a long time, in my 20s and early 30s, I'd fooled myself and everyone else with a sophisticated brand of pseudo independence-a facade I'd built to hide my own, frightening wish to be taken care of. The disguise was so convincing I might have gone on believing in it indefinitely if something hadn't happened that produced a disturbing crack in the veneer of my self-sufficiency.

The Collapse of Ambition

When I was 35 I left New York and what had been a solitary, four-year struggle to make ends meet, after my husband and I had separated. With my three children I came to live in a small rural village in the Hudson Valley, ninety miles north of Manhattan. I'd met a man who seemed a perfect companion: stable, intelligent, and marvelously funny. We'd found ourselves a big, inviting house to rent, with land and gardens and fruit trees. I'd been writing, at that point, for about ten years. It was how I'd supported myself and the children. In my new euphoria I believed that writing for a living would be no more difficult in the hamlet of Rhinebeck than it had been in the metropolis of Manhattan. What I hadn't anticipated-what I'd had no way of foreseeing-was the startling collapse of ambition that would occur as soon as I began sharing my home with a man again.

Without any conscious decision, or even recognition of what was happening, my life chagned dramatically. I used to spend several hours a day writing. In Rhinebeck, my time seemed to be taken up with homemaking-blissful homemaking. After years of throwing together frozen dinners because I'd been too busy to do more, I started cooking again. Within six months I'd gained ten pounds. “Healthy, " I told myself. “I've always been too thin. " I took to wearing plaid shirts and rather large overalls. I was always lingering a bit-tending a flower pot, building a fire, looking out a window. Time seemed to melt into non-existence, one golden day flowing into the next. It was fall, the most glorious fall I'd ever known. The days slipped into winter and I wore boots and a down jacket and chopped wood. At night I slept dreamlessly, though I often found it hard to get up inthe morning. There was nothing compelling me to rise.

My new retreat into housewifery should have been more disconcerting than it was-a sign. After all, I was capable of supporting myself, had done so for four years. Ah, but it had been four years of peril; four years of feeling I was pitted against challenge, day after day. I had been scared most of the time-scared of the inexplicably rising costs, scared of the landlord, scared that I would not be ble to hang in there and keep us all afloat month after month, year after year. The fact that I profoundly doubted my own competence seemed neither strange nor unusual to me. Didn't most single mothers feel this way?

So the move to the country, that glorious, winesap fall, had felt like a tremendous reprieve from what I'd come to think of, rather vaguely, as “my struggle". Fortune had brought me back to another kind of place, an inner space not unlike the one I'd inhabited as a child-a world of cherry pies and bed quilts and freshly ironed summer dresses. Now I had land and flowers, a big house with plenty of rooms, small, comfy window seats, nooks and crannies. Feeling safe for the first time in years, I set about concocting the tranquil domicile that lingers as a kind of “cover memory" of the most positive aspects of one's childhood. I made a nest, insulating it with the softet bits of fluff and cotton I could find.

And then I hid in it.

At night I prepared big meals and spread them proudly on the groaning board of a real dining room. During the days, I laundered, raked, and mulched. At night, playing helpmate, I would type Lowell's manuscripts for him. Oddly, though I'd been writing professionally for ten years, it felt as if typing for someone else was what I ought to be doing. It felt. . . right (by which I meant comfortable and secure). For months it went like that. Lowell would be writing and making phone calls and conducting business at his big desk in front of the fire in the living room. I would be filling my time stapling decorator bedsheets to the walls of my daughter's room. Every so often I'd go to my desk and try my hand at some work, riffling through papers, thinking in a distracted, preoccupied way. Frustrated, occasionally, because I seemed to have lost my touch for getting writing assignments, I thought, “My luck will change. "

It was not a question of luck at all. Without my being aware of it on a conscious level, my idea of myself had shifted drastically. So had my expectations of Lowell. In my mind he'd become the provider. Me? I was resting up from those years of having struggled, half against my will, to be responsible for myself.

What liberated woman would ever have imagined this? The moment the opportunity to lean on someone presented itself I stopped moving forward-came, in fact, to a dead halt. I no longer made decisions, never went anywhere, didn't even see friends. In six months I had not met one deadline, or gone through the friction involved in working out a contract with a publisher. Without so much as a fare-thee-well I had slipped back into woman's traditional role of helper. Putterer. Amanuensis. Typist of someone else's dreams.

As Simone de Beauvoir observed, over half a century ago, women accept the submissive role “to avoid the strain involved in undertaking an authentic existence. " This flight-from-stress had become my hidden goal. I had slipped back-lounged back, really, as into a large tub of tepid water-because it was easier. Because tending flower beds and organizing the grocery shopping and being a good-and provided for-"partner" is less anxiety provoking than being out there in the adult world fending for oneself.

New York therapist Colette Dowling wrote The Cinderella Complex after discovering women's deep seated conflicts with independence. That was in the 80s and the book caused a shockwave of recognition across the country. Soon it became a best seller and was eventually translated into 23 languages.

Since becoming a therapist herself, following Nine Eleven, Ms. Dowling has found, in the stories of her many women patients, that The Cinderella Complex lives on.

Ms. Dowling received her MSW from The Smith College School for Social Work and went on to receive advanced training in psychotherapy at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. She can be reached at , or by calling 718-594-0201. For her website on unique aspects of women's mental health see:

Ms. Dowling is a therapist with a private practice in Manhattan. She can be reached at , or at 718-594-0201.


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