Superwoman no more: its not easy to be me

Wish that I could cry
Fall upon my knees
Find a way to lie
About a home I’ll never see

It may sound absurd, but don’t be naive
Even heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed, but won’t you concede
Even heroes have the right to dream
And it’s not easy to be me

Five for Fighting “Superman”
After writing a number of choice words both here and on Twitter about my take on Fantasia Barrino, I’ve gotten a few choice words back from the internet ether (and the real people behind it) on the whole “Black Superwoman” phenomenon.  Some of you continue to think of yourselves as superheroes, able to leap everyday problems in a single bound.  To you I say, “cool”  and “press on”.  I agree that it is very empowering to see oneself in such flattering terms, to believe that you can do anything, and I’m never going to refute the value of high self-esteem in getting a person through the rough times.  Yet, it occurs to me that I probably shouldn’t use lyrics by  Alicia Keys, or Karyn White, or Fantasia to refute the Black Superwoman myth.  I should probably be more explicit about why I believe the “superwoman” myth is so dangerous, particularly for Black women.

All of us know women who seem to possess limitless energy.  I used to work with a woman who is a single mom, holds down a demanding day-job, a side consultant gig, and a real estate hustle, a very active social life, and has a body so hard you could bounce a bank off it.  She was my boss.  I worked with another woman who has no kids but she wakes up at 3:30AM, exercises before arriving at work by 7AM, works non-stop until about 8PM and does it again the next day.  She was also my boss.  Then there was by Granny, who picked cotton and washed clothes for white women, bore 13 children, raised 9, and put a few of them through college as the wife of a sharecropper. They all certainly sound impressive, and equally so when you know them personally.  But not everyone can operate from can’t see in the morning until can’t see at night.  Not everyone can burn the candle at both ends.  And it’s not low self-esteem and lack of motivation that makes me say that I’m one of those women.  It’s a reality for me that running myself into the ground will do nothing but run me straight to the psych ward.  And since I’ve been there twice, it’s pretty much a non-issue for me to believe that there are no limits to what I can do.  But I also learned about limitations very early in life, from the only woman in the world that I really think was Wonder Woman.  My mom.

My mother was not a Superwoman either.  Don’t get me wrong, the woman was AMAZING.  I’ve written about her in other blog posts, and just this week I cried myself to sleep for missing her so much.  But as much as I might even idealize her in death, I know for sure that she could never have held down the kind of over-worked and under-paid existence that Americans seem to think is a badge of honor.  When my Mom was a young woman, maybe in her 20s, she had a bowel obstruction, some surgery, some time in the hospital, and a recovery.  After that, maybe in her 30s, she had bad kidneys.  Imagine multiple operations, tubes in her side, morphine hallucinations.  Very Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias, but without the endearing southern accent and rich attorney husband.  Mommy almost didn’t live through her kidney troubles, and the two of us barely survived childbirth.  Combine Mom’s early hospitalizations with the heart attack she had when I was 12, and you should understand that my Mom was often sick when I was growing up.  She may have wanted to be a stewardess, but for a while she couldn’t hold a job, and I don’t think she was ever really sure that she could work full-time because of physical frailty.  Some people’s bodies just aren’t built for the long haul, and Mommy knew that.  She would give her sisters her last dime, or the clothes off her back, or the last money in her checking account and her sisters never knew what she sacrificed.  But I lived with her every day and knew when she had to lay down, or stay in bed all day, or have someone else pick me up from school because she was ill.   Strong of will, but weak of body, Mommy knew her limitations.

What if someone told my mother that she was a bad mom because she couldn’t work?  Or made her feel guilty for getting sick in the middle of a family vacation?  What if the popular vernacular taught my mom that no matter how much pain she was in, she should always take care of me and never ask for assistance, even from her husband?  Or if that husband, my Dad, told her in so many words that she was “less than” because she couldn’t physically have more kids or, at times, couldn’t take care of the one she did have?  You’re probably thinking, “but she was sick, she was in a hospital, having surgery, whatever…who wouldn’t understand that?”

Imagine, though, the my mom’s scar tissue wasn’t just blocking her intestines (the wound that eventually caused her death), but it was blocking something intangible in her mind.  What if, instead of the external markers of intensive care, her life had been bolstered by the internal supports of antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs.  Would her sickness have been less justified?  Would her absence in my life any less tolerated?  In a word, yes.

I wish I had the deep pits in my side that my mother had after kidney surgery, something to show people when I reveal to them that there are certain things that I can’t do.  I can’t work 12 hour days any more because my brain doesn’t really focus for that long.  Yes, I’ve managed to get a few big degrees with this lack of focus.  And after 2 months at a new job, I’ve completely astounded my coworkers with the sharpness of my insights and thorough understanding of our industry.  But if I combine my daily grind with some after-hours hustle, or extend it into a 14-hour day and make me believe that I’m useless if I’m not working myself to the bone, I will once again be in somebody’s mental ward, hyperventilating,  talking about “just make it stop”.    Remember for a moment that I used to work for two women who worked harder and longer (if not smarter) than me, had less sleep and more obligations than me, and thought their lives were status quo.  So when I was stressed out (and depressed) enough to have a mini-breakdown and panic attack in the office, they thought I couldn’t do my job because I wasn’t strong enough.  True story.   The fact is that I’m plenty strong, I just can’t handle the kind of 24-hour stress and insurmountable visible obstacles required of the modern-day Superwoman.  My side hustle isn’t another job, it’s the job of keeping myself calm enough not to trigger an anxiety attack, or of making sure I always have enough meds, or the right meds, or the best set of circumstances to keep me sane and productive.  And I’m just not in the business of living up to some standard of professional or personal productivity just so someone out there will look at me and say, “that sister’s really holding it DOWN.”

I’d much rather know in my heart that I’m doing the best I can and surround myself with people who understand that I don’t need to take on another struggle, thank you very much, because I’ve already got one.  The women who follow @PepsiWeInspire might not be enthused with my difficulties, or with my pointing out that the “working like a slave” standard Black women have for ourselves is passe at best, damaging at worst.  Still, I’m going to stick with the idea that we should all be our best – whatever best looks like – and stop comparing ourselves and each other to the hardest possible life, just so we can feel like we did something.

I would, however, like to wear a red cape and maybe get Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth.  Superheroes do have fly gear.

#Alicia Keys#Black Superwoman#Fantasia Barrino#femimism#life in moderation#Mental Health#mental illness#self-esteem#self-image#unrealistic expectations#working women


  1. BlackLizLemon - August 16, 2010 @ 12:03 am

    Once again: THANK YOU.

  2. blancastella - August 18, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    I’ve been a single mom since my son was 2, worked as a realtor..burnt myself out in the market crash(no longer doing) but I always took time to smell the flowers because my main focus was raising and loving my son. It was the best focus and gift I could give myself. Sure I could have made more money at certain points in my life..but I wouldn’t have had the time to enjoy my most precious gift – my son. Now he is almost an it was worth it, more than millions. I don’t really care about being superwoman. I just want peace.

  3. Ross Gay - September 24, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

    It was good to read your post. I've been struggling with depression, inattentive add and anxiety. I've been fired from 13 jobs for the same reason (not on time), and I'm pretty sure it's because that's the easiest way to get rid of me. I'm a likable person, not to be self-promoting or anything, but I know my last boss didn't like firing me. My sensitivity, depression, and lack of focus makes it nearly impossible to work for anyone else. So, after I got fired, I started my own business. I'm doing a lot better now, but I've yet to make any money. It's not for lack of working though, and I think things are just about to pick up. I'm a guy, but I get exactly where you're coming from. I have friends who work their asses off, and get paid "a lot of money" and I think it's bull$hit. I want to control my own destiny, my own income, and I'm tired of having a boss that always fires me for being late. I'll never fire myself, as long as I keep doing well. Thanks for your post, it's an inspiration to me. Now I think I'll go refinish some furniture :-).

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