About fifteen years ago, two women had befriended me. One of them had a child the same age as my oldest daughter. At the time, she’d given birth to another, by a man, whom she was no longer with. During our friendship, she’d started dating and married another person altogether. The other had five children by one man, to whom she was divorced. Having remarried, she and the last one of her children lived with her new husband, who she’d eventually divorce.
We would usually convene over one of their houses, sip alcoholic drinks, and discuss women things: sex, periods, men.
On one occasion, we sat around a dining room table, red cups in hand. They both complained about their relationships. I don’t recall the details, but I do remember chiming in with whatever was bothering me about my husband.
“You don’t get to say nothing,” friend two interjected, “not when you’re married to Mr. f*ckin’ Rogers.”
They both howled with laughter. I gulped what was left of my drink and sat speechless for the remainder of the night.
Long before I’d met these women, my grandmother had taught me to sit in silence, to ignore how I felt about my experiences. Nothing I said was important enough to add to any grown-folks’ conversation. And because I was always surrounded by adults, I’d discovered that nothing I had to say about living life was ever of value, even if it was my own.
That one moment exemplified why I was rarely vulnerable with specific people. When I was twelve, there was one best friend with whom I stifled feelings about my parents. Her mother had moved thousands of miles away from her ghetto Chicago neighborhood to be a hairstylist for celebrities in California. My friend was left to be raised by her grandmother. To her, the image of my life was perfect. What could I have to complain about with two loving parents, adopted or not?
Years later, after we’d both had children of our own, that same friend confessed, “We’ve known each other for a long time, but I don’t feel like I really know you at all.”
It’s no wonder. I’d become a master at masking my true emotions about a thing, while hurt festered in the fiber of my being and manifested as inappropriate adult behavior.
This is what can happen when we devalue the voices of those around us. This is what can occur when we lack the ability to empathize. Those we claim to care about and to love may learn to either shrink their existence to make way for the largest voice in the room, or they may seek to be seen and heard in unhealthy ways.
I’d learned to do both, depending on the situation.
Today, however, I function in healthier ways with people whom I choose to interact.
With my children, I give them the space to give words to their emotions. If you talk to either one of them, you’ll notice they begin with the phrase “I feel like…” quite a bit. I believe it’s because I’ve always encouraged them to reflect and feel, whether I want to hear it or not.
With my friends and family, I listen to what people have to say. I never compare pain. If you’re upset by something I don’t understand or that isn’t of value to me, then okay. I’m not the emotion police. All feelings are important and have the right to be heard, no matter their size or subject.
With myself, I refuse to be silenced simply because my life is different than those around me. I know that different doesn’t mean less important. I don’t allow friends or family to guilt me for having things they do not. For example, just because you cannot find a happy healthy relationship, doesn’t mean I cannot discuss how being married has affected me.
Finally, I’m more discerning about the people with whom I’m aligned. This act alone has helped to create relationships that are more satisfying and symbiotic. In this way, I know that I’m participating in partnerships that are both valuable and valued, and by extension, so am I and what I have to say.