I answered a question incorrectly. Actually, it’s happened twice now. I’ve been interviewed on two different radio stations about my book, Swedish Lessons, and in both instances I was asked the same question: “Why didn’t you just leave?”
It’s a question I anticipated, as the full answer is the theme of the entire book. In the moment, during these interviews, however, I tiptoed around the weight of the question, instead listing some of the practical and logistical reasons that why, when things started really going off the rails during my time living in Sweden, I stuck it out, even as the situation got worse and worse. Those things are true, but they shouldn’t have been my answer.
The real answer is that I didn’t leave for the same reason so many other women don’t leave things: bad relationships, bad jobs, bad living situations – because we believe there’s value in being strong for strength’s sake. And there’s not. We’re wrong.
Eleanor Roosevelt, whom I admire so deeply it’s borderline problematic, gave us the valuable and beautiful expression, “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.” And how true that is. But while being strong during times of strife is indeed laudable, as women (and this certainly applies to all sorts of humans, but I find it’s particularly true among women), we tend to so glorify strength and determination that we stick with things that are difficult and damaging and have absolutely no benefit to ourselves or society.
We should be strong. Life provides us with plenty of hot water. But we shouldn’t waste our time being strong for people and situations that are not worth it. I didn’t know that then, and so I stayed in Sweden, as well as stuck with other things that were even more harmful to me, for way longer than I should have. I thought sticking with something tough made me a stronger, better woman, but it turns out, all the real strength I value in myself as a woman today comes from the times I’ve decided to walk away from things.
So that is the real answer. Because teabags, Eleanor Roosevelt, women, stupidity and strength. I’ll try to remember that for next time I’m asked.