When you ask someone what they love about a Black woman in their life, their response often involves labor or sacrifice.
“She puts everyone’s needs before her own.”
“She always gets it done.”
“I can always count on her.”
And the fact is, it’s true. Black women work hard to be everything to everybody...expect when it comes to ourselves.
Society tells us that we are not good enough. It demonstrates over and over again that we are neither valued nor protected. Yet still, everyone expects total access to our labor, our nurturing, and our being. We are rewarded with more work and empty sentiments, like being told we are “SO strong.” And because that is all we are offered, it has become enough.
We aren’t saying it out loud, but we are led to believe that if we work hard enough, if we achieve enough, if we give enough of ourselves, then maybe we will be worthy of the appreciation and love that we don’t know we deserve.
My mother taught me how to work hard. She led by example and from a young age instilled in me the value of hard work. I saw her sacrifice to provide for us and to give us new opportunities and experiences. I learned to be the best and that dedication to pushing myself would lead to success.
So that’s what I did, and for a while it was enough. I went into every situation with the goal of being the best. As a high-achieving rule follower, it was easy to do. As a student, as an employee, as a girlfriend and as a daughter, the rules for a Black girl who wanted to be valued were made clear: you must work harder than everyone else.
And I felt good about myself because I could always deliver. If I was met with criticism, no big deal—I could always work harder.
I probably would have gone on like this forever, happily working hard to be the best in whatever role I took on. But then I started my family and the rules became less clear.
I moved away from my hometown to start a life with my soon-to-be husband and son in Atlanta. Since we planned to have a child right after getting married, I decided to stay at home. I struggled with the transition.
I never imagined that staying at home would be an option for me. I was not prepared for the complex feelings that came with this change. The security and confidence I thought I had was jolted.
I was raised to never rely on anyone! I was raised to take care of everything myself! I was raised to work. Yet here I was doing the exact opposite of what I was raised to do and it tore me up inside.
As you can imagine, it didn’t help to hear things like “oh, that couldn’t be me” and “I would still work” from my family and friends.
I have to admit, the opinions of others and self inflicted pressure to return to work weighed down on me. The idea of who I thought I should be was flipped on its head. I was no longer working in the way I was used to. My husband didn’t expect anything from me like the other relationships in my life. I no longer had a way to prove my value.
I tried, though. I tried to work myself as hard as possible taking care of the domestic labor. I refused to outsource any of the responsibilities. One day I even spent hours on all fours scrubbing the bathroom floor by hand! This seems so ridiculous to me now, but I remember thinking, “I NEED this floor to shine.”
The more tired I was, the more accomplished I felt, and the more I felt like what I was doing was important—the more I felt that I was important. I wore myself down, and now that I can reflect honestly, I’m certain the way I was working myself contributed to the pregnancy complications I experienced when I had our daughter.
I started to realize I had attached my worth to what I could offer to everyone else.
This was a dangerous place to be, because it meant in order for me to feel deserving I had to exhaust and deplete every aspect of myself. It also created an unhealthy foundation for relationships because this kind of sacrifice only gives life to resentment and causes one to seek security through attempts to control.
Up until this point in my life, I was able to hide from the fact that I didn’t know my worth because there was a clear path laid out on how I could demonstrate my value by working to produce outcomes for others. But if I wanted to be happy, I knew I had to make a change.
I recognized how external validation had impacted me and I asked myself “who are you without it? Who are you when you are not serving others?”
I spent a lot of time getting to know myself. I really got at the core of who I was and what I needed. I discovered I was pretty damn dope.
I gradually let go of using labor as a way to be seen! I saw myself! When I did, I knew I was worthy of more. I started to pour into myself the way I tried to pour into that bathroom floor, but I DID start to shine!
The way I had relationships changed too. I could set boundaries with family to protect my peace. I could build meaningful friendships with people I admired because my sense of self was no longer threatened. I could give my husband and children love from a place that was truly unconditional because I did not need to use them as my source of validation.
When I turned to myself to see my value, I learned that just being me was the greatest contribution I could make to this world.