Superwoman: She’s not waving, she’s drowning
It’s very hard. But you’re not allowed to complain nor talk about it. After all, you’re not the first to do this and there is nothing special about you. Multitudes of women are out there working, running homes and raising children, so just suck it up and you’ll be fine. This is a woman’s journey.
Furthermore, the conversation has shifted from snapping back into a pre-baby body – that’s a given. There is a new race to prove who can get back to pre-baby life the fastest, so let’s add being a bubbly social butterfly to the woman’s to-do list as well.
I have always been passionate about women-centric issues, but marriage and motherhood have definitely sent me into radicalism about feminism. My background is liberal – my mother enjoyed a flourishing career with Barclay’s Bank and then with UNICEF, before choosing to be a housewife while my dad went into diplomatic service. I often feel those stay-at-home years challenged her identity so much that it drove them to a divorce a few years later, and shortly after it was finalised, she was straight back to being at the top of her game as a government Minister. I am a firsthand witness of what happens to women who shun tradition and make a choice to define themselves by their own standards – women like my mother who are said to run with the wolves. Initially, I was intrigued by it, but as I grow each day, I gain a deeper understanding of the cost of rejecting that conventional box of expectation that society wants women to fit into. Society has chosen what happiness looks like for a woman, with no regard for what it feels like.
While I was pregnant, I watched The Handmaid's Tale. I sobbed through every single episode. This was more than hormones. This show that depicts a world where a woman’s only worth is to birth children and runs home without a shred of agency over any of her life choices presented a stripped-down reality of the world we live in. If you want to be liked, if you want to be palatable, if you want to be accepted and celebrated, then you are expected to only colour within lines and stick to the script. If you do more, you will be brought down to size; if you do less, you will be taunted for your alleged inadequacy.
So that’s exactly what women continue to do. Wake up early for work after a night interrupted by night feeds, squeeze into a power dress, smash goals to shame the naysayers in the workplace who would treat you with contempt if they so much as caught a whiff of your struggles as a woman. At the end of a day punctuated by painful shoes and restricting pencil skirts, you must get home and float around the house like the sunshine butterfly because no one likes a woman who complains. Just as you finally exhale out of your bra, your household who have been waiting for you to get home then ask: what’s for dinner? We’re still stuck in 1972 with The Stepford Wives, with the only edit being that the world has now sanitised their consciences by giving us a few seats at the table and calling it empowerment.
She’s amazing – she’s like a superwoman! She gets it all done, what’s your excuse? After all, we all have the same 24 hours in the day as Beyoncé. Do we really all have the same 24 hours? Women are tired. I don’t mean fed up. I mean physically and emotionally exhausted. What has been normalised being beyond unrealistic. The alternative is the nightmare that is being treated as a black sheep, and being virtually excommunicated from circles for refusing to dance to a rhythm that is costing you both your mental and physical health. Submitting to a hard life driven by people-pleasing is glorified.
After I gave birth, I had to fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg alone with my six-week-old daughter. I remember getting to my seat flustered, and these two women scrambled to help me settle in. They could tell I was an absolute novice. One of the ladies said, “Don’t worry, we’re here for you”. The other lady later said, “We had it hard so that your generation wouldn’t have to go through the same struggles, it has to be easier for you”. Then and there, as these ladies taught me how to nurse a baby for takeoff and landing. I burst into tears. This was one of my very few encounters with soft, older women.
Winnie Mandela said: “The overwhelming majority of women accept patriarchy unquestioningly and even protect it, working out the resultant frustrations not against men but against themselves in their competition for men as sons, lovers and husbands.” A suffered generation continues to be the first to put out the flame of a dazzling star. In many instances, women who have lived through life as a furnace are happy to trauma bond over how hard it is, but seldom use those experiences to create environments of ease. So what remains? Thousands of women across the globe do whatever it takes to have it all, and win society’s affirmation. Next time a woman makes a long list of the details that describe what it takes to be her – consider this; she may not be waving at you, she may in fact be drowning and hoping you notice that she is doing everything possible to keep her head above water. Is “superwoman” really the status quo that should still define a woman’s existence in 2022?
It’s time to break the bias towards women who choose to create their own kind of happiness and beauty as human beings because after all, superheroes are fictional.
Mutinhiri-Ekpenyong is a Pan-African TV host.