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COMMITMENTS : Women Need to Know Independence Doesn't Just Happen

November 13, 1995|JOYCE GABRIEL | THE STAMFORD ADVOCATE

Just what should we teach our sisters and daughters about self-reliance?

Enough so they will survive and thrive.

That may sound simple and straightforward, but it's not as self-evident as one would think.

I was talking to a woman recently who devotes herself to women's issues, and she told me how appalled she is that when she speaks to groups of women about equal pay for equal work, child support and divorce issues, many of the women don't see the relevance of these topics to themselves.

And, yet, she said, when trouble hits, when the divorce comes or the support payments don't, these same women call her to ask for help.

One should not go through life expecting the worst to happen, but one needs the awareness that bad things can happen. And women need to have a game plan for independence throughout their lives, including financial independence.

It's not enough to merely counsel our sisters and daughters to get a good education and acquire marketable skills. So many women find themselves in midlife, well educated but able to get only a low-paying job because they've been out of the work force for 10 or 20 years, raising kids. Suddenly, when her husband loses his job or when their marriage ends, she discovers she can't earn enough to support herself or her family.

I don't have any sisters or daughters, but I do counsel girls and women that they should have a strategy for themselves, and it should include maintaining their skills and professional competence so that their earning power is enough to ensure not just survival but some comfort.

Along with taking care of themselves financially, women need to equip themselves with emotional independence that makes them feel validated within themselves, so that they can go through life alone. And so they don't count on anyone else to support them forever.

Life has a way of changing when you least expect it. People leave, people die, people break their promises. Women have to be prepared to take charge of their own lives and not expect someone else to have a greater responsibility for their well-being and happiness than they do.

This message needn't fly in the face of wanting love, romance, marriage and a family. Quite the opposite, actually. It is the truly independent people who have the best chance of coming together and achieving success together.

The cultural messages to women often stress compliance and dependence, even now. We need to counter those messages with reality-based thinking that can help women save their own lives.

So many women define themselves only as somebody's daughter, somebody's wife, somebody's mother. We need to teach the next generation of women to define themselves as individuals first, answerable only to themselves, eager to explore their own interests, talents, potential and limits before adjusting any of these around the lives of others.

Once women are so defined, it will be easier to stay competitive professionally and to maintain their independence, emotionally and financially.

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