You can't save others if you're drowning - Michelle Obama
My father was mindful to drill in me the significance and harsh reality of what being Black in America meant. Since before I could remember, we would read Black literature and discuss the experiences of Black people in America. We never really talked about being a woman. But one of the few things I remember my father telling me was "Leeja, you as a Black woman, will have to be three times as good as any white person to make it." That stayed with me.
My parents were divorced, and my mother worked a lot to care for three children. She and I did not have many mother-daughter talks until I was much older (about mid-20's). It was also around this time I began to recognize that I had not explored my womanhood. I knew what it meant to be Black, but not a woman. Interestingly, there were a series of events that occurred around the age of 25 or 26 that began to force me to pay attention to my womanhood and explore this aspect of my identity more intimately.
One 'event' was a moment between my mother and I after I separated from my ex. I was still assuming a portion of his finances, and in feeling used, I found myself on my mother's couch crying because I was broke and embarrassed. I was also frustrated and felt taken for granted, expecting my ex to naturally assume his financial responsibilities without me having to say or request he do so.
I was the definition of broke. I could barely afford ramen noodles. As we sat in her "Woman Cave" I poured my disappointments, frustrations, anger, and confusion into each tear. She listened patiently wearing her usual oversized tatty blue robe, black bonnet, and cupping with all fingers her freshly made evening cup of hot tea. She listened and then in the most loving voice said, "Leeja, you need to woman up."
At first, I was confused because I didn't know 'how' and so the declaration seemed, at first, baseless. I was living the classic Strong Black Woman (SBW) tale and finding myself facing some of the negative consequences. For so long I felt it was good to do for others even if that meant I went without financially, emotionally, and spiritually. Surely being ‘strong’ isn't a bad thing. But what does this mean? There are objective ways to measure physical strength but what about psychological, spiritual, and emotional strength; especially those steeped in social and cultural standards for Black womanhood and femininity. While being ‘strong’ allows women to embody a form of blackness and womanhood that connects to and preserves our cultural roots, family, and community this ideal doesn't provide a healthy model for holistic health. Some negative consequences include women enduring stress and trauma rather than developing healthy coping strategies for stress, masking feelings of depression and anxiety, and setting aside self-care needs.
After processing, I realized my mother was telling me that I have to put myself first if I want to be happy. Her loving and patient silence also spoke to one aspect of the strong black woman stereotype that is also damaging: crying. My relationship with tears is a conversation for another day, but she allowed me to cry, vent, and be completely vulnerable. She didn't shame me for the situation I was in, nor did she label it a mistake. This was all growth. At that moment I recognized that I could cry and be vulnerable, but I have to pull forward. Also, I became shook. I was shooketh. For two reasons: first, because this (and the days, moments, and decisions that were to follow) was going to be true adulting. I was going to have to be firm in setting financial boundaries with my ex and not assuming a role of caring for him because of guilt or pity. Second, this gave me a clear glimpse into who my mother was and wasn't. Clearly, she's “womaned up” many a time and she was providing the guidance that came from her growth. I realized that my mother for real has made some tough, complicated, and seemingly no-win decisions handling them with grace and courage because I never knew she was presented with these challenges.
At that moment it wasn't about love, loss, or whatever else popped in my head, it was about me as a young Black woman learning to handle my business and make tough decisions. It wasn't about hurting my ex, although I was stuck in the gray area of that, it was about my emotional, as well as financial health and well-being.
Whenever I think about that moment I smile because she didn't say "man up" she said, "woman up." She didn't shut down my tears or feelings but identified the significant role my gender and race had in the situation and how my decisions were not working to help me. This was my issue to clean up, and I had much more control than I thought, however, I had to take ownership of my life: the messy, the potential, the good, and the now.