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Mixed Race woman holding cell phone and applying lipstick

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I liked being married, and then I didn’t, and at some point, I went from actually wanting to cook and clean and handle the laundry and manage the family schedule and do all the things supposedly good wives do, to waking up first thing in the morning and dreaming—dreaming about what it would be like to just… go. To be somewhere else, anywhere else, where I could just be something other than profoundly unhappy.
That’s the part that the married couples I both grew up and hung around kept to themselves, right? Like mama and the inlaws and the aintees and the “Black Love Goals” couples an’nem put on the strong face and played their roles and smiled pretty for their captive and doting audiences, but what actually goes on in marriages behind closed doors—how women have to wring themselves like rags, trying to squeeze out every ounce of their love and labor to make the thing work—proved elusive. The truth of the matter, of what it was really like to be the chef/chauffer/laundress/house cleaner/PTA mom/freak in the sheets/moral compass/planner of all the things, ultimately felt more like 12 Years a Slave than The Cosby Show everybody made it out to be.

And that’s the dangerous part, right there—being a slave to the union—because society was back then and still is today out here patting us on the back for being the “strong Black woman” able to take on all responsibilities in a single bound, while gaslighting us into thinking our high blood pressure and our heart problems and our otherwise trash physical, mental and emotional health is due to eating too much greasy food and not exercising enough and just being generally lazy, and not the stress of being every damn thing to every damn body but oneself.
This is not me tossing out excuses for why I went back on my “’til death do us part” promise; there’s growing amounts of research showing how stress unique to Black women is literally killing us. Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombé, Ph.D., R.N., even developed a framework, called “The Superwoman Schema,” that names the five characteristics Black women consistently employ, to the detriment of our health and well-being: a perceived obligation to present an image of strength; a perceived obligation to suppress emotions; a perceived obligation to resist help or to resist being vulnerable to others; a motivation to succeed despite limited resources; and prioritization of caregiving. In an interview with Medical News Today, Woods-Giscombé noted that Black women don’t just wake up and strap on our superwomen capes because we feel like it; there is historical, familial, social, racial and emotional context to why we try to do all the things, no matter how tired, annoyed, anxious or hard it is to get them done.
And this, cites a wellness toolkit I recently downloaded from The Black Women’s Health Imperative, can lead to everything from weight gain, to sleeplessness to “weathering,” when unchecked, chronic stress erodes our immune system, leading to serious health issues, like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, anxiety and obesity.
Now, I didn’t know all this when I was still hitched, but I felt it down to my bones. By the end of my marriage, I was just… tired. Exhausted, really. Didn’t want to wake up to piles of laundry that needed folding and the sound of someone else shitting and showering—didn’t want to think about what I’d have to cook for dinner and whether I could squeeze in more household and family chores and obligations between my frenetic writing schedule (the main source of our household income), and the volunteer work I’d signed up for (to keep an eye on what was going on with my daughters at school) and my intense struggle to hold on to the steadily deteriorating relationship with my ex and his family. It was a lot. Too much. And finally, after 22 years of marriage, I decided I needed to unlove him and all that it took for us to stay together so that I could get down to the business of loving me.
Now, it’s not that I didn’t love myself. It’s just that I wasn’t necessarily in love with me. How could I have been when I woke up every morning and consistently and deliberately chose to put myself dead last? To hold a knife to my own neck? I had to make the conscious decision to fight hard against every… single… indicator… that… I… should… hate… myself, and instead I looked in the mirror—really looked in the mirror—and took stock of every inch of myself. I had to kiss the palms of my hands and touch them to my crown and my neck and my shoulders and my breasts and my belly and my thighs and hips and butt, all the way down to my toes and say, “I love me. I. Love. Me. Finally, I do. And I am not ashamed. I choose me.”
And then I got down to the business of doing so. I work hard—I’m an author and I run my own children’s book imprint at a Top 5 publishing house—but I also make a point of pursuing joy where there once was sadness. Where there was weariness, I have sought rest. My house is serial killer-neat because, outside of when my daughters come home from college and to visit, it’s just me up in here, living like an adult and not some savage waiting for my mate to step up and do his part. I cackle in group chats with my homegirls and, when I feel safe and convinced that Omarion won’t be pop-locking all up in my face, we occasionally meet up for dinner or a walk and talk about everything under the sun. I entertain when I feel like it and sit here by my damn self when I feel like it, too, reading and binge-watching TV and filling the air with the scent of Harlem Candles’ “Brownstone,” and talking back to my fav podcasters and trying out new recipes off the New York Times’ cooking app with ingredients I source from the farmer’s market.
I work out hard three days a week and dance in my bedroom every single day for 15 minutes to get my heartrate going but also because I love dancing wild and free without a care about who’s watching and judging the fact that my moves are Mary J. Blige awkward. I sip bourbon from my well-stocked bar in my well-appointed house that I bought with my hard-earned money and decorated exactly like how I wanted to, without having to care, for the first time in damn near a quarter century, about what someone else wanted it to look like, and sometimes I sit outside on my deck and sip champagne, watching rainbows and blowing kisses at the moon and just being… still. Present in this moment, so that I can hear spirit’s whispers and listen for direction and express my gratitude for my new life—the life I’d been dreaming about for years before I finally made the move and chose Denene.
I live a good life.
Like everyone else, I have tough days, too. If I’m being completely honest, I still struggle with speaking up for myself instead of shutting down, though I’m practicing this and getting better by the day. I’m a recovering people pleaser, and so I still have to poke my own self in the forehead to get through my thick skull that not everybody deserves my time and attention and “no” is a complete sentence that can bring immense peace when I use it to prioritize my needs first, over everyone else’s. And these boundaries I got are heavy AF, but I’m seeing firsthand how much said peace increases when I give the flat hand to things that do not serve me.
And absolutely, there are days when it’s quiet and still and I’m here by myself, feeling more loneliness than peace and watching everyone around me live their lives and be in love and raise their families and move as a unit and laugh and cry and hold each other tight when it’s sad and dark while I’m sitting here asking myself, “Were you the weak one? Is this feeling you’re feeling punishment for leaving instead of working it out?”
Then I let loose my grip on that emotion and that craving for the familiarity that nearly killed me and open wide my arms to the possibility. What’d I’d been dreaming for years before I got free. And I make more room for myself and take stock of what a wonderful world I’ve created for my daughters and me and I sip a lil’ Basil Hayden’s and cackle. “No. NO. You’re not the weak one, Denene. Leaving absolutely was the right thing. Choosing Denene was the only way.”
The only way.
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