Self Definition and the Slaying of Superwoman

In Uncategorized on May 14, 2010 at 6:42 pm

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” ~ Audre Lorde

T and I have been the best of friends since sixth grade.  She used to sneak her mother’s fashion fair makeup to school and give me fushia lips and golden shimmery eyes.  I love her.  I got to rub her belly a few days ago. It’s big and full; she’s seven months into a pregnancy that she’s waited a long time for.  T will be an excellent mother. My own mother commented that she has “raised enough of other folks babies” to make that a reality.  She’s beautiful, and strong, and depressed.  We talked about the difficult relationship that she has had with her yet born son’s father.  She feels like a failure because she has given him so many chances, and he continues to disappoint her, but she can’t seem to let him go.  T is afraid, as she should be, of raising a child alone.  She also feels less than excited about the baby’s arrival, and feels guilt about that too.  I’ve been at that point, where the construct of Black womanhood comes crashing down, and one sits in the rubble of a lifetime of teachings wondering if any of those teachings hold truth.

My day came after the premature birth of my daughter and her lengthy hospital stay.  I wanted to be this perfect mother and wife, and so I somehow managed to do everything with little help and little regard for myself.  I had finally begun my graduate studies, bought a home, cooked, cleaned, diapered, worked full time, and performed my “wifely duties”.  I had become my mother, the super woman, and I wanted to die.  Since dying wasn’t an option, I settled for therapy.  I chose a therapist that was an older Black woman, because I needed to speak freely to a woman who had probably been where I was, and who wouldn’t tell me how what I was experiencing was life- so I shouldn’t complain (as this is what I was constantly being fed by my mother, aunties, cousins, and some friends).  I wrote a list of things I wanted to discuss with her.  I was prepared for it all, except when during my first session I relented that I felt like a slave.  The tears came, a heap of them, and I couldn’t look my therapist in the face.  I was ashamed.  Ashamed that I had come from such a wonderful stock of women, who had survived slavery and share cropping and all the atrocities that existed within those systems, and I could barely pull myself out of bed. They were midwives, church mothers, community organizers, womanists before womanism was defined…superwomen, and here I was complaining because I had no time to read and write.

I spoke of my grandmother, who bore eleven children, hauled meals to the fields, tended her personal gardens and livestock, made beds and cakes for church bake sales- probably all while pregnant.  I once asked my mother, who was somewhere in the middle of all those babies, how she knew when my grandmother was pregnant.  She told me, well sometimes she would lay across her bed with a cold towel on her forehead.  I don’t think I spoke for two whole days after that conversation.  I just didn’t have the words to explain my feelings as a woman in that moment, and I felt sad for her and for me.  My mother had traveled in my grandmothers footsteps, somewhat.  She only had three children, but scraped and struggled nonetheless.  I assumed it was my turn to be superwoman, but I didn’t want to be, and it made me want to hide.  My therapist told me that she was proud of me as she handed me more tissue.  She said that what we often don’t realize about our matriarchs as we construct these superhero stereotypes is that many of them were depressed, even suicidal.  They felt those same feelings of hopelessness that I was feeling.  She said that I felt like a slave, because, well, I was allowing myself to be treated as one, and that I deserved and needed to 1) define my own womanhood, 2) make time in my life to do the things that bring me joy and peace, and 3) thrive.  Those words connected me with my ancestral mothers and gave me power.  Peace to that woman and all women who allow a sacred space for full humanity- absent of the myth and lore that destroys us.

My time with T and my reflections on my own life somehow made me think of Lauryn Hill.  I remember when her MTV Unplugged album and video were released. It seemed that everyone hated it.  There sat Lauryn, acoustic guitar, baseball cap, raspy voice, broken heart.  She was so transparent and full of truth and beauty, as she literally sang her heart out.  I cried with her, I understood.  Many people didn’t understand, they refused to. How could a woman who had been the pinnacle of young Black womanhood sit there so broken, so confused, so different than the image that had been constructed for her?  I saw Lauryn in that moment, and even today, as brave and Nzinga warrior-like.  It takes courage to be bare. More courage to sit naked and  challenge the system that erroneously creates a standard that you will never measure up to.  People’s discomfort with her was not at all about Lauryn, but more about what they themselves were hiding from- what they refused to admit about themselves and their fellow hu(e)mans.  Hill’s I Get Out became my anthem.  On most days it says everything I want to but am not audacious enough to say.

I won’t support your lie no more
I won’t even try no more
If I have to die, oh Lord
That’s how I choose to live
I won’t be compromised no more
I can’t be victimised no more
I just don’t sympathize no more
Cuz now I understand

Black women are taught and expected to be strong, regardless.  There is no space for T’s heartbreak and doubt. There is no space for me to be a mother and a wife who wants her life to be more than those things.  There is no space for Lauryn to leave a successful music career to raise her babies and define her own ideas of success.  There are no spaces for regular Black women without an attached guilt- just spaces for superwomen- whomever they are.  I told T to take her time, that she could love her man for as long as her heart told her to- without judgment from me, much in the same way that my therapist told me that I could write this post instead of folding this waiting laundry- guilt free.  I also told her that it was okay to be afraid, and to even feel unsure and sad about her baby’s birth.  The best advice we can give each other as human beings on this earth is to say that we can be whatever and whomever we need to be in our weakest and strongest moments.  Black women in particular need to carve out spaces where simply being is enough, for our selves and for our sisters.  Somehow these musings are my contribution to Mental Health Awareness Month.  Our lack of the ability to define ourselves leads to the shadowy places where mental illnesses like depression sit, waiting.  Also, this Alice Walker quote , I have certainly been reading a lot of her lately, seems to fit, “Yes, Mother. I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me.”  Let us actively choose who we are and who we will become with freedom and acceptance.  It may not end world wars, but it may end some internal ones. Ase.

  1. Thankyou! for saying what I feel often. I keep going on, no matter what, and the thing is, you begin to resent the ones you love for this construct, that you have been trying to live up too. Great piece. Excellent writing as usual!

  2. Thank you for this post. Thank you for this post. Thank you for this post. Words simply can not express the relief and appreciation I felt as I read each line of this entry. Mental illness is real and nothing to be ashamed of. The problem comes when we deny reality for this “superdom” that in actuality does not exist. We are superwomen because we accept and acknowledge that we are human and we are flawed….that in itself, is the ultimate goal.

    *Thank you for being you and for being free to write this*

  3. This was one of the most moving pieces I’ve read in a long time. At 25 I am un-married. I have no children and am in no rush to do either. I’ve dated but I haven’t had one “real” relationship. I find myself apologizing ever so often because I have so many goals I’d like to reach before I find myself “settling” down. The advice from your counselor and your subsequent words have resonated with me. Thank You.

  4. Truth wrapped in layers of love… YOU know how much I appreciate your having written this most of all!

  5. Love. Josephine. Love.

    There is so much going on here.
    1. The willingness to be honest about Black women.
    2. The willingness to be honest about our families, the expectations and when those expectations are not met.
    3.The willingness to be Vulnerable and you KNOW that is tied to your/our ability to be Free. #ummhmm.
    4.The willingness to let your Sister/friend know that you will LOVE her regardless. Ummp.

    You write and I can hear you. And that is a gift. Can’t be bought. Can’t be sold. Its yours. #ummhmm.

  6. Thank you for this incredible post Jo. You touched on many things I have been thinking about a lot lately, primarily Black depression and suicide. I have suffered from depression for a good portion of my life, as many have, and have tried multiple forms of treatment and pills etc. Of course these things aren’t widely accepted in our community and all to often we are told, “well just go pray about it..” Although I strongly believe in the power of prayer, I imagine how our lives might be different if more of us took the time like you did with your friend to say, “I am here to listen. You are safe here and I will never judge you.”

    I think we spoke some time ago about the idea that depression is often rage turned inwards. We are mad at ourselves for being or not being something that we feel we should or should not be.. we feel powerless.. we feel voiceless. As you said, we need to actively carve out spaces where simply b e i n g is enough. It is this space in which we can ask each other, “how are you doing.. really?” I saw a play the other day where everyone was asked to stand up and say, “I Am Not A Super Strong Black Woman!”.. sometimes we can put so much pressure on ourselves to be one. I think the “Not” could be put in parenthesis though because at the same time, we are. Our simply b e i n g alive is an act of resistance. Our not giving up, our not giving in.. are acts of resistance. I find so much strength in that.

  7. Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

    Thank you.

    *As I sit here unguiltily wrapped in a blanket with my children while dishes are in the sink and laundry is in the basket*

  8. Thank you for an incredible piece that should be required reading for every black “Superwoman” and the villians in our lives that expect us to be that mythical character without failing. You have put into words everything I have ever felt but could never express in such a beautiful and artistic way. I’ve taken the liberty to RT and email to those friends of mine who are not on Twitter. Maybe if we take off that cape long enough and stop to listen, we just might be able to save ourselves before it’s too late. Much appreciation and respect.

  9. Wonderful post. I think many of us can can see much of ourselves scattered throughout this piece. I think it speaks to the reality of how many of us define ourselves and construct our entire existence on the ideal that we have super-human strength.

    I’ve spent my lifetime using strength as the primary characteristic that my entire self-construct is formed upon, for awhile convinced myself that strength was all I needed, that it was who I actually was. This is the version of myself that most people continue to hold on to which makes it even harder to break free. The problem with not making room for moments of weakness, disappointment, frustration, fear, heartache, etc. is that when you experience those emotions, it’s difficult to accept them because you’ve spent so much time convincing yourself and those around you that you can handle it all. We essentially put ourselves in a box that makes it difficult us to come to terms with the other fractions of ourselves. We set an expectation for ourselves, and for everyone around us, to just “suck it up” and forge ahead. What a wonderful thing to begin to break free from that. It’s an incredible feeling.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. Thank you. I GET OUT. This is one of the “miracles of love’s glory” that Stevie sings about. I GET OUT.

  11. Your words brought out emotions in me that I’ve tried to suppress for a long time. I’ve reluctantly lived the life of a “superwoman” for many years and to this day at 35yo I’m still trying to discover who I am. Thank you for writing the words that I could never find to help me acknowledge the guilt, identify the pain and recognize that my feelings and emotions are valid and okay.

  12. There is nothing more beautiful and healing than the truth! Thanks for writing this!

  13. Simply put: weight lifted. On the journey of self discovery, it has been a hard on my self path in trying to compare myself to my fore-mothers. They were super. No doubt. Did they choose to be “super” or was that the option of circumstance. But were they at peace and were they full of joy? That is more important to me. I want choose my own definition of success correlated directly with happiness and fulfillment and be guiltless.

  14. another great read…keep up the good work…

  15. I’ve been doing my blog on African-American mental illness feeling like no one else was talking about it. I have been hiding under a rock. Thank you. This was very inspirational!

  16. Jo, I believe we discount socialization as a people as it relates to roles men & women perform. Super-women reign supreme in a spiritual sense. In the physical you’d think it would show on the faces of our grand-mothers and mothers. Yet our genetics through all the evils have allowed them age gracefully. As you’ve always stated in your writing and in conversation~self awareness and defining who you are on your own, and not the worlds terms is a struggle. Another thought-provoking post!

  17. EX-MUFUCKIN-CATLY JO!!I Loved and felt every word of this post and i cant wait to share it!!

  18. I’m having a hard time today, feeling sorry for myself, not sure whether I’m allowed to feel sorry for myself, thinking about blogging about it, and I came across yours. You hit the nail on the head. So, thank you.

  19. Won Woman Army…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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