Have it all? I’ll have none of that
Photo by rhoadeecha
“…our choice-rich lives have the potential to breed their own brand of trouble. … The problem, simply put, is that we cannot choose everything simultaneously. So we live in danger of becoming paralyzed by indecision, terrified that every choice might be the wrong choice. Equally disquieting are the times when we do make a choice, only to later feel as though we have murdered some other aspect of our being by settling on one single concrete decision.” –Elizabeth Gilbert, author, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage
“The message ‘you can have it all’ can create a ton of pressure. When do you commit to one path & leave others behind?” –Shannon Kelley (@undecidedbook), answering Chanelle Schneider’s (@WriterChanelle) Question 8 in #GenYChat on June 22, 2011
So I’m really not the only one who feels this way. Who knew? I thought as I came across the above tweet. It was in response to a question in the weekly #GenYChat, a Twitter virtual meetup and exchange of ideas about topics related to people who were born somewhere between the late 1970s and the first few years of the 21st Century. Chanelle Schneider, GenYChat host, had asked, “How does teaching a child that they can have it all affect their decision-making as an adult?”
It was eerie seeing this discussion two days after reading the above passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book. When I read her words I thought, “That’s almost exactly what I wrote a while back.”
I’m not writing this to accuse Gilbert of copyright infringement. I accept that there’s a collective unconscious and that each 30-something-year-old woman’s experience of growing up in the United States is not entirely unique. But until this week, I had never, ever heard anyone else in my life express this sentiment of being trapped by choice. That’s probably because, well, you’ll see.
I dug out an old jump drive that contains documents from my old laptop, which has crashed many times over since I emptied its contents onto a new PC. I searched my archives and pulled out the following piece, last updated July 14, 2005:
Born Into Freedom, Living in Indecision
During the week of commencement activities, the black seniors attending my university held their own graduation ceremony. An intimate setting including the 300 or so black students, family members, faculty, and guest speakers that the venue could hold, we used the time to bring special recognition to our accomplishments, inspire one another with speeches about our future and friendship, and laugh at one another’s baby pictures. When the faculty emcee called our names and we walked across the imported stage to receive a blinding of flashes, a hug from our parents, and a Kente Cloth drape for our robes, we had a moment in the spotlight to share our post-graduation plans.
Among the plans to “take a year off before enrolling in the best law schools, med schools, PhD programs, and schools of social work in the country, to which we have all already been accepted,” or “to dive head-first into a real job as an engineer,” my plans were unique. “I plan to go home and make decisions.” Three years after graduating from a high-ranked, private, expensive institution of higher learning, I’m still thinking about what I want to do next.
It’s unbelievable, the number of opportunities we have right now. The cover of the 35th anniversary issue of Essence even proclaims it: “The Best Time Ever to Be a Black Woman!” And it is. Though psychologically we as a people are still recuperating, the physical and legal bonds of slavery and Jim Crow have (not so long) vanished. Though we don’t always turn out in high numbers for an election, women and blacks have the right to vote. The feminist movement showed the world that no job belongs solely to a man. Bring home that bacon, fry it up in a pan, give your man great sex, get pregnant, take your maternity leave, and go back to working your butt off for that high-ranking, money-making position you always wanted. A black woman born after 1968 has no excuse; she was born into freedom. She can have it all.
But what does she want?
I don’t want to waste my time, talent, mind, money, or formal education. I want to make my mark on this world, but with so many options on how to make it, I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I think I should get married and make my mark in my house, on the children I’m able to rear without leaving them in someone else’s care. But given how intelligent, pretty, talented, and creative I am, will that be enough? Will being a stay-at-home mom satisfy me? Or will the ghosts of those whose dreams died under a concrete ceiling of racism and sexism haunt me, call me in my dreams to be the next Oprah Winfrey, Susan L. Taylor, Terri McMillan, Halle Berry, Maxine Waters, Judith Jameson, Iman, or Kimberly Williams-Crenshaw?
To whom much is given, much is required, but I’m still unsure of what is required of me. The world, its riches, glory, fame, and power, is my Siren Song. I am beckoned to freedom and adventure and subsequently trapped by all that tantalizes. Anything I might want to do – from run a Fortune 500 Company to win an Academy Award – is an option for me. I am cursed to be living at a time when a black woman to whom the Master gave five talents to invest has nothing to legally hold her back. Cursed because now, I have to do something great. What would those who hoped for, prayed for, fought for, and died for my freedom think of me if I did nothing with all that I’ve been given? What would those who achieved greatness despite dangers and impossible odds stacked against them say to me? What do I, with my college degree, think when I see young black women who have somehow messed up their lives to a point they believe is irreparable?
I say nothing, but I hold the same look of disappointment and confusion I often saw on the faces of family and church members when I returned home from college to “make decisions.” I hated looking into their expectant eyes and saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Had I known the truth then, I would’ve hated saying it even more. “My fear of disappointing you, making the wrong decision, wasting my gifts, and not living up to my own expectations is paralyzing me.”
If I were a one-talent servant, I would glady give my Master his due return. How blessed are they that have either one passion or no choice. Life is hard when you have options. I lack the “stay strong and do what you have to do” spirit, because I don’t have to do anything. I can do all things.
Deciding what, out of everything, I want is the hardship.
That’s how I felt as I neared my 25th birthday. Now that I’m going on 31… you’ll have to read my next post to find out if anything has changed.