| Words Unspoken |

Dear Friend

Often, at the end of a long, hard day, I’m honestly sick and tired of listening

Dear Friend,

I don’t remember exactly when our friendship shifted.

Maybe it began when I first told you that we’re moving because my husband had gotten a position as rav in an out-of-town community. You joked about my promotion, that now you’d have to stand when I walked into a room and call me “Rebbetzin.” It was all in jest; you and I laughed about how suddenly a 30-year-old is expected to advise women twice her age.

It wasn’t as though I’d taken a course, I quipped, I didn’t get any certificate to prove my capabilities. But maybe for you, that conversation wasn’t all jokes, and perhaps it was then that insidious feeling of inferiority crept into our friendship.

Or maybe it only shifted a few months into the job, when my relational skills were honed. When I was constantly asked to counsel, to lead a community of seekers, I naturally grew self-conscious. The role became my shadow, spreading its distancing effect when I went to the supermarket, when at the park with my children. I was never “one of the women,” but separate, placed on a pedestal I was only too anxious to descend. I became aware of every individual’s minuscule seismic shifts, only discernible on my personal Richter scale: the slightest hunched shoulders, the hurried hand through a messy pony, the shifting eyes.

And then I’d get on the phone with you late at night, to vent about my new responsibilities and my old responsibilities — the children still needed discipline, there were plenty of adjustments being made, I was researching speech therapists. And, of course, there was the loneliness.

But you had to vent too. And, as the rebbetzin, it felt natural to listen. So you’d tell me about the latest crisis (there always seems to be one roiling in your life): the children’s strep throat, your husband’s crazy work schedule, your exhaustion, your feelings of overwhelm, your stresses. I’d offer sounds of empathy: a tongue cluck, a gentle hmm, a groan over your struggles. Lots of validation, empathy, encouragement.

At the end, you were always gracious with your gratitude and praise. “Thanks,” you’d gush. “You’re such a great listener. The women in your community are so lucky to have you. I hope they realize what a gem you are!” And always, an afterthought: “Hey, why do we always talk about me? What’s new in your life?”

Then inevitably, a baby would cry or a laundry cycle would end, and one of us would have to go.

Only after I hung up the phone would a disconcerting feeling settle.

And then I realized: Maybe it’s always been this way between us. Maybe it’s always been this way with all of my friends. Maybe that’s what made it seem so natural to act as the rebbetzin. Because I don’t think I turned into a listening ear, a confidante, overnight; rather, because I played that part for so long, the rebbetzin was just another role that slipped on like a second skin.

What’s different now is that I’ve developed a stark awareness: After consciously, forcibly, being in that role all day, I want someone to listen to me. And I realized I’ve stopped calling you, been avoiding your calls. Because often, at the end of a long, hard day, I’m honestly sick and tired of listening.

I’m scared to share these things with you. I’m scared to speak up for my own emotional needs because it seems that you, too, have bought into the mirage of my “rebbetzin-hood,” of my infallibility, of my perfection. The one or two times I’ve shared hurt over something you said, or expressed a question regarding hashkafah or bitachon, the response was similar: shocked silence. You’ve even occasionally stammered out, “But you’re a rebbetzin!” or “You’re supposed to have all the answers!” or, “But you’re supposed to be bigger than that!” I suppose you’re flattering me, and perhaps, like everyone else, you think I’m greater than I actually am.

So here’s a reminder: I’m also a person, I also have struggles, I also have bad days and worse days and don’t-even-want-to-get-out-of-bed days. I’m asking you, please: Don’t have higher expectations of me than you have of yourself, of your friends, of any average person on earth.

I, too, need empathy, validation, support, friendship.

Please take me off that pedestal you’ve placed me on. Enough people have already put me so high up that the atmospheric pressure is making it hard to breathe.

As my friend, provide me with that oxygen I so desperately need.

Next time we speak, before going into your own litany of woes, simply ask: “How are you?”

And listen.


The Rebbetzin

Your Friend

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 718)

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