Dear Robin Norwood
Women Who Love Too Much, a self-help book, “It seemed ridiculous”, I thought when I read the title. It was a book for women who had destructive romantic relationships. I recognized the title, ironically. It was a book that my mother had given to my paternal grandmother, something I sort of understood in my childhood perception of both women. I didn’t think it applied to me. When my Guatemalan coworker showed me the text she had been reading on her phone, I responded tepidly. I had resigned from my job with the literacy nonprofit for roughly two weeks when I saw the book on the shelf in Spanish in my local library. I thought it made sense to check that book out it would be a way to keep my Spanish alive and I could talk to Graciela about something other than work. Still, it would not apply to me.
As I read the first chapters, I kept the book cover hidden, the title turned down, embarrassed to have such a book in my possession. I did this until I saw it, the need to be needed and how it had dominated and defined my life and decisions up until this point, how it kept me determined even when it was obvious to everyone else what I was doing wasn’t working. It was the source of my sacrifice, my pain, and my reactions to interaction with staff, coworkers and students, in both my professional and personal projects, both involving development work. You could say I am not legitimately a “woman who loves too much” of the kind the book details, and yet, I was so far down a path in which both love as suffering was dominated by decisions that reflected an unsustainable need to be needed. It was almost as if since I had never been “his”, I bet on being “theirs” instead.
I sped through the book, admittedly skimming some of the more dramatic relationship vignettes. I wrote quotes and allowed myself to acknowledge feelings like equating my level of suffering with an increased probability to be loved. I did not come from the kinds of homes and pasts as the women in the text. Still, nothing was or has ever been good enough for me, and somehow sustainable development became the constant boyfriend I allowed to walk all over me while still seeking the approval of these communities and accepting the blame. Are we looking for a love story that will last, no matter how the narrative is constructed? Or is it only our part in the story that we wish to last? As an individual or institution, this need to write ourselves into the tale, and to be present in its happy ending, while not wanting the story to end, no matter how rocky it is, becomes a twisted interpretation of sustainability that left me seeking any kind of “love”, appreciation, recognition or otherwise, and too much. I do not wish to make less of the experiences described in the book. Still, the book seemed like it was written for me to give voice and power to the choice I made to resign from my position in an international nonprofit, to restrict efforts related to my own personally motivated development work and to go home.
In her first chapter Norwood references a variety of service professions who may be outlets for women to attempt to fill a void inside themselves. Essentially the professions I have selected thus far are as follows: bilingual classroom teacher, Peace Corps volunteer (really any kind of volunteering since high school) NGOs. The incredible irony is that sustainability or independence in the learning or use of content is the goal, not being needed. However, the majority of the work hinges upon the individual’s ability to convince the audience that he or she is definitely needed. The conflict seems obvious, and requires a schizophrenic personality, in terms of both what the individual desires/needs and accepts/requires. This tension quickly became a kind of suffering, a lack of clear justification for the decisions I made, objectives I valued, or effort I encouraged. All include suffering as normal, which makes sense in savioristic professions.
I believe this is universal because even as you may nod along with me about development work in faraway lands, more of you I think could relate to local experiences. Perhaps you have even had one, like the one my father related to me concerning his church and its program to help homeless men receive food and shelter during the winter months. At his monthly missions meeting the opening prayer asked for patience related to the lack of care of the church facilities shown by participants in the program, dirty towels on the floor, garbage not picked up, etc. I ask myself, what is it about the woman praying that caused her to internalize the extra work or responsibility of picking up after someone else? Why did she pray to God instead of organizing a response built into the program so that the men were responsible for their things? Is it because she did not believe they inherently followed the same rules she did, a respect for a kind of cultural practice? Or is it because part of her participation, its worth more than anything, is defined by being needed?
She accepted instead of adjusting. She sacrificed because that is what her role is, that is why her role and its actions are “good”. The men have less so she should be required to give more into the seemingly bottomless pit of the universe that we are taught to spend each day filling. The woman praying in my father’s story felt pressure because she felt responsible for a successful program that fulfilled the mission of the church without damaging the resources the congregation offered. She loves too much to ask for anything, and I did too.
Relationships don’t start out this way. You enjoy discovery and difference in humanity and its diversity. You start out working to define who you are together. I thought I was adding space for interpretation of my options, for local analysis. I thought I was empowering communities to understand choice. Helping is not controlling, or so I thought. I did what Ms. Norwood warned not to do. I complemented, even when promises had not been held, when responsibilities had not been fulfilled. Why? Because I wanted to “succeed”, to be “loved”, to find happily ever after. I never understood, not with any local participants, that each time I took responsibility, I was taking on future blame as well. I did what Ms. Norwood warned not to do, I valued their existence over my own. I made excuses for them, and tried as hard as I could to change who I was to resemble what made sense to them. I changed myself, held myself in to “be” with “him” the NGO, the recipients of the programs.
It always felt like it was slipping away. Each future that I envisioned. Like the woman who tosses and turns but doesn’t sleep because her love hasn’t come home or smells beer or perfume on his clothes. It was slipping away even when each of the events that had to happen hadn’t happened yet. This was a project I began because it made me happy to help and then it became about surviving. This manifested itself in all the little ways, the unimportant decisions, the small expenditures. That’s exactly what they are, unimportant and small, but when you are controlling instead of helping, they become the biggest of all. They say you can only stay friends if you were friends to begin with. I worry now maybe we never were.
We are beholden to the rules we practice, whether or not we recognize their presence, and even when we don’t understand them. We restrict our actions, or really our “selves” when we are with people with different rules in mind to make ourselves legitimate to our audience. Every relationship is human, equal or unequal distribution of resources aside. But, in any relationship you should at the core be valued as who you are if it has the hope of forever. I could no longer “fix” institutions. I would no longer “fix” people in the institution. When you know you decided not to do everything, it can make anything seem unimportant. In the end, I internalized it all, feeling deep failure, inadequacy, and I think in the final days in my apartment, a kind of depression.
“I” spanned ten years of personal and professional relationships related to education in Guatemala. In the end, it wasn’t goodbye to a job, not really to the place either. It was an acceptance of transition, a growing of self-value and self confidence that caused me to no longer seek my own value for myself, outside of myself. I recognized the damage done by defining myself by being for others what I believed, or was conditioned to believe, “they” are not for themselves. I found the courage to consider despite the recruitment rhetoric that what “they” are not is not an absence of something, but a choice of something else. I have no value, except that which I value for myself. Women Who Love Too Much changed how I intend to make my decisions, a recognition of choice not inherently good or bad. It was important for me to say the following to myself, “I don’t need you to need me. I only need me. ” When I look at the career guide texts that cover my coffee table, I realize I have come backwards to with what many professionals begin their careers, the importance of “I” in who I am and what I do. It is important, not dominant but important, and its absence was why “loving too much” is something I intend to leave behind. While I did not recently break up with a boyfriend that was emotionally abusive, I am currently experiencing a great catharsis and freedom by way of the realization that all going far away does is help you to see things nearby, up close.
Even if I accept that I didn’t know and still don’t know what they really wanted, I know it isn’t me. I refuse to be kept down by a love that in the end didn’t want me. It’s okay to say “it’s over.” I confront something that feels like failure but I think is really a chance for my own rebirth and to own my decisions, and not pardon unconditionally, man, community or institution, for their actions. I didn’t stop because I thought my actions as inherently bad. But, I did stop because I considered the intent behind my actions as not inherently good for me. It’s the realization that you don’t want to save anyone, you don’t want to change anyone, and you don’t want to be with someone who wants just anyone, but with someone who wants just you.
Norwood, Robin. (1985). Women who Love Too Much. New York: ZETA.
In fact with further research, I believe I could make the case that NGOs themselves are very similar to “women who love too much”.
Ironically, in her chapter named ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (ironic because I am a big fan of fairy tales as a means to reflect on a less black and white world), Norwood discusses further the need to analyze why one decides to help. She raises the point that this decision to help very well might not be altruistic. In fact, I will go one step further and say that the willingness to suffer is a positive trait, and really, a prerequisite for identifying success in the job, teaching perhaps most of all. If you’re not suffering, you’re really not doing it right, or well for that matter.