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The Revelation: You Don't Get to Say or How Elizabeth Edwards Inspired Me, Again

copyright 2008 Julie Pippert

Last fall, on the campaign trail with her husband John---then still in the race, pre-scandal, post-what she knew---Elizabeth Edwards was criticized for her choice to take the children and go on the road with her husband. After two harsh and critical articles about her decision, Edwards wrote,
"I want to be entirely clear. You don't get to say I am a terrible mother because you think you wouldn't make my choices in my situation. You don't get to say that my children don't want to be with us when you don't know them and when, parenthetically, you know that happy children can be periodically disagreeable. You don't get to judge me because you think you know exactly what you would do if you had my disease. I want to be really clear: you don't know. And if the sun always shines on you -- and I pray it does -- you will never know."
Back then, I was very inspired by her gracious yet firm rejection of the criticism. I wrote about it, and included my own thoughts (as well as links to the original criticism, and snippets from discussions).

After her husband's affair and scandal was revealed recently, Edwards wrote briefly and requested that the harmful voyeurism be set aside and that the public allow her family to deal with this in private. As difficult as it must have been to not reply and not feed, and most of all, not defend, after their initial statements, the principals in the situation---that is to say, the ones with the actual vested interest---remained privately quiet.

I thought a lot about that. I understood and respected it. But with the new flurry of criticism that it's all her fault, I wondered why she didn't defend herself as the wife, and her choice as the wife, the way she did as a mother. Where was this sort of thing from Elizabeth, the woman and wife:
You don't get to say I am a terrible person because you think you wouldn't make my choices in my situation. You don't get to blame me, question or criticize my choice, not even just because I am a public figure. Not even because I supported my husband in his bid for president. Not even because I kept private business I considered private and irrelevant to his ability to do the job I believed he was eminently qualified to do, and, within which, he could do so much good. You don't get to judge me because you think you know exactly what you would do if you had my situation. I want to be really clear: you don't know. And if the sun always shines on you -- and I pray it does -- you will never know.
I don't know, but the lack of it doesn't mean I can draw any conclusions. Except, of course, I have. I have concluded that were Elizabeth Edwards to speak again about this, she would say this, because I need to believe she would believe it. But, no unfair expectation or pressure. You know.

I need to hear it, and so I imagine that I do because right now I am working out, in my own mind, what you don't get to say. (General you, including myself.) I've been working on this for a while, and it really began some time ago, with another woman's story of an unfaithful husband.

In my almost late 20s---married a couple of years---at my job I shared an office with a nice lady about a decade older than me. She had two children, who she used to stay home with full time. It never occurred to me to wonder why she came back to work, but one day she explained. Her husband, you see, was a serial cheater who had driven their family six figures into debt paying for and paying to hide his repeated affairs. I was speechless. Luckily. Speechless he did this and speechless she stayed with him. She explained that too.

It seems, you see, that each of us prioritizes things differently. To her, family, and a secure family for her children, was the top priority. So when her husband's duplicity and cheating came to light, she asked him if he could commit to fixing this. He said yes, she said yes, and so the two of them broke down everything in their lives, except their marriage. Then they rebuilt.

I have no idea if they are still together, but the point is they were together then, and her point of view made me reconsider what marriage meant, really. As the child of divorced parents who grew up in the disposable age, I had formed some odd, if not unusual, ideas of marriage. These ideas were contrary to who I am as a person: when I care deeply, I invest in a person, and I keep some facsimile of that. "Let it go" and "get over it" and "move on" gave me the impression that because I remained invested, I was wrong. "You deserve to be happy" and "You are entitled to..." and "If you aren't happy then..." gave me the impression that I deserved to be happy and satisfied always, and anything lesser was unworthy. But that wasn't how I felt. The key was the investment.

My coworkers husband was lucky that she had really invested in him and their family, lucky that when he was finally ready to really invest in the family, she was invested enough to give him the chance. It doesn't always work that way, and it doesn't always need to.

However, listening to my coworker, I realized that sometimes, it does and it can and it should. I realized that sometimes a person is worth investing in, and sometimes it's worth keeping that investment even if it is a challenge.

That made me start thinking about myself in the same way, and I started believing, just a little bit, that maybe, despite my challenges, I was worth investing in, that I was worthy even though I might be imperfect or not who someone thought I should be. Believing this helped me see that a long-term investment in a person---past or present, in your life now or not---was not necessarily wrong.

Prior to her story it seemed some rules were absolute, such as for cheating: she/he cheats, you leave. It's over. Broken, beyond repair. Or, also such as: we're no longer in one another's lives so we no longer care. But most importantly: if you are not who I think you should be, you are not worth my investment.

Prior to her story, it seemed so absolute. It was the lesson I had learned, it was the example around me: you disappointed me, we are through. But maybe, sometimes, that wasn't the thing you had to do. Maybe, sometimes, the hurt, the pride, the betrayal, the complex and difficult emotions, the heartbreak---maybe sometimes for some people something else was bigger and more important.

And that day, my coworker made me see that. It got me thinking, her story, and I've carried and repeated it for years. Her story added a shade of gray to my perception, and it has come to exemplify different things through the years.

Right now, for the situation with John and Elizabeth Edwards, it is rather literal: sometimes, staying might be the right choice. It's not standing by your man (or woman) necessarily. That is a patronizing oversimplification of a complex situation. It's not being a dupe. It's not about being afraid, being alone, sticking in a rut, or enabling. It's about what matters to that person---about what that person chooses, because of what he or she finds right or best for his or her life.

But also, for me right now, it is, as I said a few paragraphs ago: a lesson in value and worth, a lesson in investment.

Elizabeth Edwards' situation reminded me of this story and what it means to me. This story, combined with Edwards' message about boundaries, once again inspired and reminded me that we don't get to say, we don't get to judge, we don't get to determine right, and most of all, we don't get to know---whether it is about marriage, fidelity, childrearing, or something else---someone else's life and choices as if it was our own, as if it was ours to decide about .

(Note: My mind is anticipating a counterpoint here, one about "but what if I care?" and "what about how it affects me?" and "sometimes it's my business" and so forth. I'm not saying disassociate or disengage. I'm not invalidating these possibilities or that some things are generally agreed to be wrong. What I am saying is that what someone else chooses to do about it is their choice, just as what you do is your choice---by which I'm simply saying we should respect boundaries, even if it is to do with you, and understand sometimes one person makes a choice another might not make---but that doesn't equal wrong.)

This point is especially essential to me right now. I've finally come to understand that although I have a strong sense of my own ideas of what I ought to do, I am too frequently governed by supposed rules, by what others think---what they think of me, what they will think of me---and I measure my decision by making sure it would garner the most approval. This doesn't mean I always do what I think others think I should---or tell me I should, but it does mean on some level I feel defensive or anxious about it.

Also, it means I let those voices, the ones that tell me what to do, in my head. Further, it means I spend an unproductive amount of time worrying about what I should do. How I ought to be. Putting pressure on myself to meet that expectations, and putting guilt on myself when I do not---wondering which thing is the thing that will so ultimately disappoint that I will no longer be worthy. I cannot bend my oak self into a willow, no matter how much I think I should or how hard I try. Thus, lately, I've been thinking it through, working on the concept of being me and finding the balance of being me, expecting others to accept me as I am, and then, knowing, wisely, when the moment has come to fulfill their hope or expectation of me, even if only in my own way.

I've frequently compared this stage of life to the teen years. I'm not new to this. Mid-life crisis, people you'd never expect attending reunions, old contacts popping up. It's all typical. It's also the maturing and growth, plus the physical changes, too. My body is changing, and so is my mind. In my teens, I belligerently and defiantly lived by: You don't get to say! Here, once again, I am saying the same, albeit more gently, much less defiantly. I am saying it measuredly: hmm, I'll take that under consideration, but in the end, it must be my decision.

I am also asking, as I did as a youth, please respect that, and trust my judgment.

But now, as then, I realize I have to earn that, too. There are quite a few areas in which I have earned that and these are the areas I am working most diligently on making mine.

Thus, in lieu of Elizabeth Edwards saying it about her own life now, I will say it---calmly yet determinedly, kindly and respectfully yet firmly---about my own and maybe this time it will really get through to me and to the unsolicited voices in my head and around me that is is right and true and reasonable:
You don't get to say I am a terrible person because you think you wouldn't make my choices in my situation. You don't get to blame me or criticize my choice, not even if you think you have some right or say. You don't get to judge me because you think you know exactly what you would do if you had my situation. I want to be really clear: you don't know. In the end, it is my choice and it must be my decision. So you don't get to say, not what I should do or who I should be. And you don't get to tell me I am not worthy because I do not fit your ideas and expectations.
It's here that I'll cut off and say the magic words: Hump Day Hmm.

Note: My husband made the good point that by bringing up two infidelity stories readers might infer I have an infidelity situation on my hands. Good point. I do not. I just want to make that clear. I am, however, struggling with a transition point in life. I have, lately, been getting a lot of "you've let me down" and "you haven't met my expectations" feedback (literally said). This is a button of mine. For example, I have been moving into more working and less SAHMing and this has meant cutting back on some volunteering and different activities, things I once would have said yes to and now must say no. As a result of the change and the feedback, I've been upping expectation of myself to an unrealistic point and driving myself crazy. The Edwards' situation came up, I thought about it, it reminded me of the other story and from there, I found perspective. It just so happens both ar eabout infidelity. If you ask me why I take such lessons from infidelity, hmm. That's a hard one. At a try: Infidelity is considered the worst betrayal in a marriage, it's like the beacon issue, and is often surely a reason a person is depicted as terrible and the mitigating factor in a split. If I set aside the specifics---marriage, sex, and faithfulness---and boil it down to the general issues---relationship, trust, betrayal, expectations and let down---the fact that one can recover from this and remain invested in one another speaks to me about investment, forgiveness, recovery, unconditional, worth, and so forth. I hope that makes sense.

Next week...several people asked that the topic be related to my last post, about 1984. It doesn't have to be political, it doesn't have to be 1984 (keeping in mind that not everyone was born or much aware at that point). But choose a time that was an awakening for you, select a year or an event that year, that you invested in, although you might now have been quite old enough to understand it fully, and that affected you down the line. Or write about 1984, the election or your life then.

The following on the idea in this post, and the concept of awakening. What shift in thinking have you experienced that caused you to view others differently, and created a new way of thinking in yourself?

Copyright 2008 Julie Pippert. Do not reprint or reproduce without permission.
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thailandchani said…
Reminds me of the old Fritz Perls quote from the late 60s. "I do my thing and you do yours. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, then it is beautiful. If not, it can't be helped.”

Unknown said…
Actually this reminds me of the current birth scene at the moment. Advocates of natural birth have started out with a nice idea (healthy choices for women) and turned it upside down into a way of judging women who wouldn't choose the same thing they did (be that home birth, water birth, breastfeeding or no epidural...the list is a long one.) This is the very thing that is making me totally crazy about me fellow co-workers in the field of birth. People see choices they disagree with and assume it means something that is doesn't (that the person isn't as educated/committed/as a good a parent, etc). They cannot release themselves from their own box and support a woman who would make a choice different than their own. Mmm, good bloggity topic julie!
Unknown said…
I think something that is really important here is how strong you have to be with your choices to accept that people are going to judge--whether they should or not. You make your choices, hopefully using all your best decision making skills, intuition, etc., and then the world be damned.

It isn't that I don't think other people are important, I do. In fact, I believe that being in community is vital to any person's well being. There are some decisions, though, which--even if they have a perceived negative impact on your community--are still personal, individual ones to make. Some people will support you and some won't. Those who won't will ALWAYS make sure you know how they feel.

There are many more comments that come up for me when I read this post. I will leave it at the above for now or this will turn into the comment that ate the post and they are only tangentially related.
painted maypole said…
very interesting, and the "you don't get to say" was a great jumping off point.

good luck with all the changes in your life, and the people who don't want you to change. be sure, as you probably already are, to ask WHY they don't want you to change. It's probably not at all about what is best for you, but what is best for THEM
Anonymous said…
Julie - I think you have hit on a key aspect of my own personal value system, as well as a major issue I have with the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam.) The fact that *I* might (or would) respond a certain way in a given situation does not give me the right to require that YOU do so. Which is, btw, the basis for my conservative (leaning toward Libertarian) beliefs. This is certainly something I will want to explore, in blogging, further.

Now, it is off to the in-laws, so I can meet *their* expectations :sigh:

Magpie said…
It boils down to: I am me, and you are you. Respect my decision(s) and I'll respect yours.

Nice post, J.
Florinda said…
I am so glad you've asked us to use this post, and the previous one, as jumping-off points for Hump Day Hmm posts of our own, because that both have been real thought-provokers for me and I'd rather have the larger space to respond.

But I will say that I have been where your former co-worker was - and for me, it wasn't anywhere close to being a "he cheats/you leave" situation. In a long-term marriage, especially when there are children, I think it can rarely be that cut-and-dried - although for some couples, it MIGHT be, and that's part of why "no one gets to say" what another person's response should be.
Kyla said…
I think next week, I'm going to post a really adorable infant photo of myself. From 1984.

I bet you didn't have to put those little caveats before I started reading. LOL.
Gwen said…
Per your label: growing up *is* hard to do. But ultimately, it's pretty worth it.

Someone told me recently that the best time of her life was from the years of 40 to 60 because she finally had what you're talking about here figured out. She was confident enough in her own decisions and life that she didn't need to worry what others thought. That's probably more possible, though, when the disapproving people are not your family members.
Bon said…
i grew up like you, believing that if one wasn't happy, it was best to move on. i believed that through my marriage...and divorce. now, however, with someone with whom i've invested in a way i never had before, and from whom i receive investment in a way i never had before...i see things slightly differently. i get Elizabeth Edwards' position better than i ever would have before, though it still saddens me that she/they have to live through this in the public eye, particularly.
Donna said…
Thank you for articulating this so beautifully, Julie. Of course, no one ever knows the inner lives of everyone else, and judging their choices is unfair -- especially when you are doing it as a game or a diversion, which is what I think a lot of our gossipy, celebrity-driven pop culture does.

Good luck with finding the balance you need in your life. Whatever you choose to do, I will not criticize :)
Anonymous said…
(Forgive me if I am posting this twice, I think I lost my first try.)

I was actually thinking about this post when I fell asleep last night. What a great topic you bring up.

You know, when I first met my husband and we were newly married, the answer was easy. I was fresh from attending and working at a women's college, full of feminist vigor, no one could cross me. And if he had pulled a "John Edwards", well, he'd be outa there. My friends would have my back, I would revel in my own strength and push onward.

But now, 8 years later, my husband is truly my family. I don't see those friends as much, but I am with him everyday living the intamacy of bills, home-buying, baby-making and even hurricanes (like right now)! We have 2 boys, they adore us both together - and even cheer when we hug.

And so now, if he pulled a John Edwards? Don't tell my friends but it would NOT be so cut and dry. And, most importantly, I don't think thats a reflection of how weak or strong I am either. (Granted, the trust factor would be in the can and we'd have endless therapy to plod through but...) Would an affair deserve the weight of breaking up our entire family? Our home? Our lives?

We often say the other would have to really REALLY REEEEALLY screw up to drive the other one away. Not that it gives the other a green light to do as they may - uh uh, no way.

So my heart breaks in a million pieces for a woman in Elizabeth Edwards' position. She had to make that "damned if you do, damned if you don't" decision. I can't imagine the torment she went through. She didn't have the affair but the responsibility of her family staying together was on her shoulders.

Shoot, no judgement from me. Much respect for Elizabeth. She amazes me.

Awesome post Julie.
Anonymous said…
WHOA! Sorry that post was so long! :)
Anonymous said…
Relationship worth is up to the people within the confines and no one else.

I have experienced critical eyes upon me as I have navigate life in the last 6 years. I cannot at all claim that I am not hurt by those who judge me openly or by their silence, but they haven't earned the right to do so - they just take it upon themselves. Nothing can be done about it.

1976 via 1974 would be the year for me.
Anonymous said…
Have you ever considered that your posts are sometimes too long? Have you ever thought of adding "Be succinct" to your New Year's resolutions?

A good writer knows how to edit. Sometimes I avoid reading all of your posts because they just go on and on: Every. Single. One. Or so it seems.
Julie Pippert said…
Dear Anonymous,

First, it's pretty hard to take such a comment---snarky and anonymous---at all seriously. I say have the courage to put your name and reputation to your words.

As for how I write? I write as I write. Not every writer will appeal to every reader.

If my style isn't a fit for you, there are millions of other blogs that are.

Happy reading elsewhere.
Julie Pippert said…
Annie, well put. You're right, of course. And I look forward to your 1976.

Caroline, length doesn't bother me. I enjoy the completeness of your thoughts. I think you made a great point about how our idea of what we would do evolves.

Donna, game or diversion---that seems so obvious, but you know, it just didn't really quite occur to me that clearly or consciously. Very true. And thanks.

Bon, absolutely. I can't think of a better way to say this but it strikes me as very true that the more gray we feel in our lives, the more gray we understand in others.

Gwen, I'm believing that your friend is right.

Kyla, LOL, I'd love a cute you-as-baby photo.

Florinda, yes, I agree. And I'm excited about what you'll write.

Magpie: yes, that's it! It's respect, it's manners.

Ed: hope the inlaws were fine. :) You've put it square on the head of another nail, here. How often we impose our standards on others---and how out of line that can be too often.

PM, what a great point---WHY. In some cases, that's relevant. In other cases, the people are too far removed, but it is a great question.

ML, you covered beautifully an area I didn't articulate very well. When I combine your comment (great, thanks) with Annie's it is about confidence and balance. My big goal. :)

Karen, oh my gosh what a great example, and that's an aspect, kind of like Ed was mentioning, where you take something positive, like an idea or ideal and turn it into a hammer you hit people over the head with.

Chani, I don't know if I've heard that quote. It's perfect. Thank you.
Ally said…
Fabulous post as always, Julie, and it's given me a lot to think about.
Fabulous post Julie. I read the whole thing and I get it. At least I think I get it.

I'm going through a similar work more less SAHM identity shift and last year I learned an invaluable lesson - how to say NO. To church ladies and soccer teams and PTA. For now.

Realized my "choice" to SAHM was a reaction to lot of social and familial pressure and not really an authentic choice. To that familial pressure "good moms stay home" I'm trying to learn to say, "You don't get to . . ." as you are doing.

Lead the way!
Anonymous said…
There but for the grace of god (the god of your choice) go any of us. I don't get to decide, but I can send her all good wishes and strength. That woman is a fighter.
Yolanda said…
{blogger was not liking me yesterday...I'm re-trying my comment}

I realize I'm a few days late to the conversation, but I had to comment on this one. As a person who decided to marry a guy she'd known only a few months, the same year her parents divorced after 27 years of marriage--and who is still married to that guy 11 1/2 years later, which is six years after my divorced parents remarried each other--I have an intimate and intense belief that NO ONE outside of a marriage can fully understand the dynamics of that marriage.

Elizabeth and John Edwards are the only people who can view the affair within the context of that marriage. They are the only ones who can determine if it has caused irreversible harm; and, in the end, they are the ones who have to live with and work through all all of the ramifications. If it's not your spouse (the collective your), you don't have a say.

You said it more eloquently than that, but it's true. In addition, I think the fact that she felt comfortable (felt the need to?) defending her choices as a mother, is definitely worthy of reflection. Not because of what it says about her, but what it suggests about the perceived strength or constraint placed on a woman's voice, depending on her role (wife versus mother).

As for the broader message of your piece, I identify with it, deeply. I have very little clarity on it, personally, because I've yet to find that place inside where I accept that what I want, or what would make me happy, could even possibly be okay if it meant someone else would be disappointed in me. I admire you for trudging through.

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