I’ve taken off for a better life, twice. Sort of.
The first time, I escaped from my home when I was three years old, skedaddling down our city sidewalk as fast as my short stubby legs would go and making it only as far as the two-story brownstone, a few doors down, before my father caught up with me and scooped me up in his arms. I don’t remember why I left. I only remember half-crying and half-laughing as I led Dad on the chase, and only resisting half-heartedly when he caught me, which of course was what I’d secretly wanted all along.
The second time was about fifteen years ago. I was an exhausted mother of three boys and the wife of a hard-working businessman. We were living in the East Bay (San Francisco area) where I had no close family and only a few friends. Our boys were what the experts call spirited, and the household chaos had become too much for me. (I think of myself as a peace-seeking missile, which isn’t compatible with a house full of energetic boys, which is why I’ve always insisted that all our pets be female.) On that particular evening, the kids were wildly running around the house, throwing balls and diapers and who knows what else everywhere, and making banshee sounds that plucked at my fraying nerves, and completely ignoring my requests and commands to calm down. When my husband came home from a long day at work, I said that’s it.
“I’m leaving. I can’t take it anymore.”
I picked up a duffle bag with a few personal belongings and took off.
If it’s so easy, why don’t more women run away?
We can’t leave our little darlings
Whether or not we buy into stereotyped gender roles, there are biological and psychological reasons that drive most women (and females of other species) to love and care for their families and stay with them to provide for and protect them.
Some of the reasons are hormonal, especially post-partum. But the bonding extends well beyond those nursing months or years.
“We want to read that bedtime story. We think we’re the only ones who can pack the right school lunch. And we long to be the ones greeting the school bus in the afternoon if we can arrange our work schedules to do so,” wrote author Holly Robinson.
Abandoning our children would go against the very grain of our souls and our innate natures. Which is why, when we hear about other mothers leaving their children, we judge them far more harshly “than fathers who do the same.”
We don’t believe in ourselves
For millennia we have been taught we are the weaker sex, the lesser sex. Or just that we are less, period. On an intellectual basis we don’t believe this. On an intellectual basis we tell ourselves not to be so self-critical. But we still judge ourselves by how much money we make or our job titles, often comparing ourselves against men. We still judge ourselves by how we look or how clean our homes are, comparing ourselves to other women. We judge ourselves by the birthday parties we throw for our children or our husbands or our elderly parents. And by just about any other judgment markers we can come up with.
Our behaviors, and our beliefs, contradict our intellectual thoughts because of long-term evolution. These beliefs are hard-wired into our brains.
“It turns out there’s an area of your brain that’s assigned the task of negative thinking,” says Louann Brizendine, MD, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of The Female Brain. “It’s judgmental. It says ‘I’m too fat’ or ‘I’m too old.’ It’s a barometer of every social interaction you have. It goes on red alert when the feedback you’re getting from other people isn’t going well.”
Which means we’re too fat or too stupid or too old or whatever to run away successfully.
We have needs that need to be met
Running away often means losing our identities, almost like going into witness protection. And remember Maslow? The guy who said we have five levels of needs: physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization? If we uproot ourselves, disturbing whatever self-esteem we have as well as any sense of belongingness, by leaving behind partners, parents, siblings, and friends, we’ll slip way down the pyramid of needs to the most basic levels. Who wants that? It’s like Chutes and Ladders; nobody wants to slide back to the bottom by pulling up roots and starting over.
We stay because it’s safer. Thomas Fuller may have said, “some have been thought brave because they were afraid to run away,” I think he had it all wrong. I think running away involves far more courage than staying.
We’ve gotta eat
Speaking of needs…
Stay-at-home moms might be more educated and employable nowadays when we first make a decision to forgo our careers, but the longer we stay at home, the less employable we become. Even in this so-called enlightened time, there is a stigma attached to women who have taken time off to raise a family. “It is deeply and firmly entrenched, and it’s got to go away,” said Kuae Kelch Mattox, a former NBC News producer who experienced the stigma first hand.
And being able to pay her own bills, if she were to suddenly become single, isn’t a slam dunk for working women, either. Income parity is still a real issue. Catalyst, a nonprofit organization with a mission to expand opportunities for women and business, reports that “women have come a long way but are still not at parity. Women will need to work more than 70 additional days each year to catch up to men.”
Obviously there are plenty of single women out there who are making ends meet (or better) and my hat goes off to them. But for those who have been in a relationship and are now contemplating a break, the financial consideration can be a huge obstacle.
We’ve also gotta watch our backs
While the emotional duo of guilt and shame are plenty powerful, there’s nothing like fear to convince a woman to stay put. It’s a crazy world out there. While Cheryl Strayed survived (parts of) the Pacific Crest Trail on her own, the idea of leaving the safety of home and venturing out alone can be frightening financially and otherwise.
“When I started to, you know, wriggle out from his control, that’s a very, very dangerous time and that’s when domestic violence is about power and control and when you start to change that dynamic, you know you can really, really raise a lot of problems,” wrote author Kay Schubach, whose partner tried to kill her. “So you have to be very, very careful.”
We believe we are the saviors
We aren’t just nurturers. We are saviors. We are the ones who can, or should, fix problems for other people, right? We are the ones who listen when others are hurting. We are the ones who loan money when others are broke. We are the ones who stay up late making lasagna for those who are grieving and go to bat for those who have been wronged.
Giving unto others becomes the true calling for many of us. It becomes a key part of our identity. It makes us feel good; it feeds our souls. Even when think we need to fix the very problems that make us want to run away in the first place.
Memoirist Leslie Morgan Steiner couldn’t leave her abusive husband because, as his wife, she knew it was up to her to “help him overcome the years of abuse and neglect and pain. [She] could help Conor better than any woman on earth [and] make him whole.”
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There are probably as many reasons we don’t run away as there are women who dream about leaving, and I became so fascinated with the idea of why women run away–or why they don’t–that I began to write about it. Several years back, I pitched a novel to a male agent about a woman who took a two-week sabbatical from her difficult family (and no, this wasn’t intended to be autobiographical). During that sabbatical, she began to question whether or not she wanted to return home. The agent looked at me when I’d finished my pitch like I’d lost my mind.
“No woman would ever do that,” he said.
“So the premise of your novel is faulty from the start.”
I wasn’t sure whether to laugh in his face or cry from his ignorant arrogance. I guess he never read Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years. Or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which shows what can tragically happen when a woman doesn’t leave, even when she should.
Of course, the agent was right when it came to my own situation. On that night I left my family, I drove for about an hour, heading east toward Lake Tahoe, until my cell phone rang. It was my husband calling.
“We’d like you to come home.”
The truth was: I didn’t really want to leave my darlings. I didn’t want to start over. I didn’t want to deal with the terminal guilt, shame, and regret that would invariably haunt me if I kept on going. And I certainly had no confidence I could just start over and survive. The truth was: I just wanted a break. And while an hour or two wasn’t quite enough, it was long enough to diffuse my internal bomb, for that night anyway. I turned the car around at the next exit, and I’m still here, nearly fifteen years later.
I never ran away again. But I do write about it. I imagine the fantastic, the liberating, and/or even the tragic possibilities that could happen to other women who do, or who don’t, run away.
Next up: Running Away Part 2: How to Run Away Without Leaving Home