Self-Definition and the Slaying of Superwoman

“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.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Jo Nubian
is a freelance writer whose writing focuses on human rights, especially issues of race and gender. She is currently based in Houston, Texas where she is completing her masters of arts in literature and writing for various journals, magazines, and other publications. Her thesis work discusses the theme of womanism in the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston.

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