An open letter to the woman who is exhausted from explaining herself and trying to fit perfectly into labeled boxes too small to contain everything about her…
Sometime during my last semester of grad school I realized I was only at the beginning of where I actually needed to be. Poetry led me to add creative writing as a second major in undergrad. Fiction writing led me to apply to a graduate program and a non-fiction workshop that allowed me to write about truths, creatively, revealed that I still hadn’t found my place. But it wasn’t even then that I recognized that my truth is far more important than any story I can create (and to think that my story is not even finished is the most exciting part!).
I didn’t always believe this, though. Only in hindsight can I say that I believe my story is one worth sharing. I can honestly say that I viewed my life as a boring playbook, full or rote memorization and stories no one could relate to. As a twenty-seven-year-old wife, mother, sister, daughter, and friend, I realized this feeling came from me living a life I asked permission to live. From being raised in two cultures (of which I am nothing short of proud) where children were expected and required to show respect, I learned to only do that which I was allowed. Yet somewhere I adopted that to an extreme until it crippled me, and I didn’t even know. In school we are taught to ask questions, and somehow, that’s where my questions stopped. I practiced (and still do—more on this to follow) a faith I was raised to believe in without having ever really asked why. I followed customs and traditions because that’s what everyone else did. Eventually I got to a point where I realized all I could eve say about myself was tied to someone else.
So when did my life begin? You know, the one I was supposed to be making for myself? Before I graduated from college and got married? After I graduated from grad school only to enroll in seminary a year later and feel like I was finally where I needed to be?
Or maybe it was when I saw my son crowning and I had no choice but to make decisions for myself without asking for permission?
I believe it was when the doctor called for the NICU team and a spirit of emergency entered my delivery room.
After being in labor for almost a full day, reaching a full term labor, there was no way I would or could believe that my baby would not make it out, living and breathing. I didn’t care how long or hard I had to push, I would not put my child in distress and he was going to come out breathing and healthy.
Until he wasn’t breathing and my world stopped. Suddenly I realized that nothing—not one thing—that I had ever done in life mattered until that moment. And though there were about 20 people in the room, I narrowed in on my son. Watching the doctors patting his back, turning his blue body over and pumping his chest to make him breath, I whispered, “Come on, baby. You can do this. God, let my baby breathe.” Then the cry that stills fills my heart today filled the room and I was instantly a new woman. See before my son, it was familiar for me to live my life for others. But his entrance in the world made me realize I have someone who needs me to live out the best me. To push past my comfort zone, to silence everything and everyone around me and direct my energy and efforts towards what I know, not what others want me to know or how they want me to be. Why? Because that’s how I would need to raise him and how can he learn it if I don’t live by the same example?
But as life would have it, I would fall back into the roles and labels and silence me in order to make it day by day.
But I’m tired. And I can’t do it anymore.
I am committing my life to one without permission slips because the only one that I ever needed signed was signed before creation. I’m unpacking all the bags that have made me feel so heavy and walking in freedom.
As women, we carry a multitude of responsibilities and expectations. We are never “just woman”. Race, education level, career choice, religion, and marital status—all that plays into our identities. It is rare that I FIND safe places for all aspects of my identity to be in balance without having to explain one or the other. For instance, being both black and female always raises the question, “but which are you first?” When it comes to a matter of crime or injustice performed by the hands of a black man to any woman, which side do you choose? Another area is that of my faith and education. Not many people who identify as “Black” leave college with the same understanding of faith and religion as they had before they began. In my case, this is true, but I grew a new and deeper love and appreciation for the faith that was taught to me in my younger years. Because of historical and even contemporary choices made by the Christian church, it is often questioned, “With so much knowledge, how can you practice such a faith?” One area that is often overlooked is marriage. I got married at the tender age of 24 (yes, I was just a baby) and while I was pursuing a Master’s degree and a full time career, I also pursued the life of a full time wife and mother and the responsibilities that come along with such tasks. And these are just what people can see.
Women face so many questions on a daily basis that often make us feel like we have to choose. Sometimes we can find blame in the male dominated society, their social norms and expectations. But we also quarrel among ourselves. As we grapple with both external and internal conflicts, we find ourselves in a place of exhaustion. I was recently told a story of how a very famous literary heroine of mine subscribed to a thought of a particular wave of feminism so strongly that she did not support her daughter’s decision to become a mother and the relationship between writer and daughter has been estranged ever since. Immediately my heart responded, “how can she let a thought that came from the world define her reality with her child?”, because I carry my own preconceptions about womanhood and motherhood. After hearing the explanation behind her thinking, I was able to find a place of understanding although I completely disagree with the concept.
And that’s where I believe most of us fail. We cannot accept differences. We cannot accept that not everyone will think and behave like us. Being a mother, in my opinion, is the hardest yet most joyous role this life has to offer ME. For a long time, I couldn’t understand women who didn’t want to have children. But I have grown to appreciate that though motherhood is a passion that fuels my existence, every woman was created for her own unique purpose and she must therefore fulfill HER purpose, not mine.
The comfort in all of this confusion is and has been, for me at least, that while women do experience difficulties in finding our rightful place, it is often the presence and support of other women that gives us the strength to keep fighting, keep moving forward, and keep defining for ourselves who we are and our place in this world. I was blessed to be born into a family with such strong women who hardly ever needed anyone to tell them who they were, what they should do or where they should go. As I grew into adulthood and began navigating life for myself, God blessed me, again, with a family I chose to encourage, uplift, motivate, and correct me through this phase of life.
I struggled with being enough of everything for everyone. I wore a yoke of perfection that constantly bore me down with feelings of inadequacies, failures, and discontentment. But I’m not there anymore. I openly receive the love from my Heavenly Father and the belief that He made me just the way He wanted me to be. I relish in the glory of all that I have and have yet to accomplish because my life-my story—doesn’t have to fit the narrative of the people I like and love and those that like and love me. My permission to live began when God formed me. Not when society defined how much percentage of African heritage made you Black. Or when the education system defined how much money one would make based on the letters behind their name. Or when cultures defined the depths of my woman-ness by my desire or lack thereof to bare children, how many, and if I would simultaneously pursue a thriving career.
I don’t know if you are struggling with the same things, or even something similar. But I wanted to encourage every woman who feels like all she is doing is not enough to know that it is. We will always have room for growth and improvement. Change is an inevitable part of life that we must learn to embrace. But when you feel the pressures of people forcing you to confine who you are, understand that your life was not created to be managed by other people.
You are free to be, to love, to live, to thrive, to fail, to try again. Throw away the permission slips and start living your best life.