The other way Toni Morrison makes me feel bad
Image by cotton_man via Flickr/Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Image by cotton_man via Flickr/Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

I started writing this on a Saturday night after making a to-do list for Sunday that had me wondering, “Why do I have a Sunday to-do list?”


I’m in a constant state of overwhelmed, and I know why: usually there’s too much to do in too little time, and when there’s not, I take breaks. I sleep. I watch the NCAA tournament. I get my hair done. I do laundry and cook real food and—oh, wait. I’m getting things confused again. The hair is actually a time-saver, not an indulgence, when I consider it takes me about five hours to do my hair myself and my stylist one-and-a-half hours at the most, and the laundry and cooking are part of the to-do list (when they’re not part of the not done list). These aren’t the things I do when I take a break. These are contributions to my constant overwhelmed feeling. Even writing and blogging lie in the “too much for Mariam to do” category these days.


Toni Morrison made me feel bad about feeling this way. Usually she just makes me feel like I’m a bad writer, but this time, her words have confirmed I’m a bad woman, or more specifically, a dysfunctional black woman. We just finished reading Morrison’s 1981 novel Tar Baby in my African American literature class, and in my research for a presentation I did on the book, I came across a collection of interviews with Morrison that included one she did in 1981 for Essence magazine. She told an audience of black women that expecting a black woman to get an education and/or have a career that takes her into or beyond the middle class and work inside her home to hold her family together isn’t “asking for Superwoman.” It’s asking her to continue her normal functions as a “complete human being,” to hold on to the “nurturing abilities” and “ancient properties” African American women are supposed to have.


“We have a special insight that can find harmony in what is normally, in this country, perceived as conflict.”—Toni Morrison


“We,” meaning black women. Based on that and other interviews, I’m not sure if Morrison believes that “special insight” is innate, an evolutionary survival tactic, or an innate but dormant ability that enslavement, share cropping, and second-class citizenship forced out of African-born and African American women. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I don’t have it, and I wonder if black women who do have it should continue to use it the way women in previous generations did.


I don’t have kids or a husband, but I have to balance my day job with pursuing my writing goals, attempting to have fun or date (yes, my attempts usually fail), cooking, keeping my apartment respectably clean and neat, and all those other boring things adults have to do almost every day. I have to do these things, but I fail at doing them all the time. The day I submitted the Fulbright application, I paid someone to clean my apartment. My apartment. Who can’t make time to regularly clean an apartment, right? But I hadn’t, and I felt like I had failed as a human being because on multiple occasions, I had chosen to read for class or go to the gym instead of mopping, dusting, or washing dishes immediately after cooking a meal that required two pans, one skillet, a colander, a cutting board, a food processor, a baking dish, one spatula, two serving spoons, a knife, a fork, and a plate.


I told my dad about this feeling of failure, and he said I shouldn’t feel that way at all. “You saw the housework was something you couldn’t handle, and you did something about it before it got further out of control. That was a smart thing to do. I don’t know why more young professionals don’t do it.”


You have to understand, my dad lives with the basics. He rents a room instead of an apartment. He does without the creature comforts I’ve convinced myself are essential. He’s been the housekeeper that young professionals called when they didn’t have time. If he thinks I made a smart decision, I did.


Talking to my dad got me thinking, “Why should we do things the way we’ve always done them?” I don’t want to reduce the ancient properties and nurturing abilities Morrison talked about to cooking and cleaning. Having read Tar Baby, I know she’s referring to taking care of family, understanding their needs, honoring your elders and not accepting all the sacrifices they made for you and saying, “Thanks and bye-bye.” But for most women, I think so much of family care lies in daily domestic duties that it’s sensible to look at that and question the extent to which holding work and home life together makes sense for black women who don’t have to do it that way anymore—especially when there’s also a legion of stories about how taking care of everyone else makes us fall apart individually.


In January, my grandmother’s main caregiver had to decrease the amount of care she could give for about a month. When one of my cousins asked everyone in our family to step up their care of my grandmother until the main caregiver could return, I told her I wouldn’t be able to do much, and she was livid. She pointed out that some of my other cousins–working, single moms–were taking a day or an afternoon to help. She said I was no busier than anyone else. I don’t live as close to my grandmother as everyone else, and I probably never would’ve been there during her normal waking hours, but that wasn’t the point. Our grandmother took care of us; we should take care of her.


Instead, throughout January and February, I went to work and class and the gym. I think I hung out with a friend three times. I went on two dates. I submitted four regular columns and two additional freelance stories to another publication. I completed two in-person and five phone interviews to finish the story. I completed a Fulbright application. I went to the grocery and cooked and ate well, mostly. I did a couple of Black History Month events that weren’t snowed out. On several nights I fell asleep at my computer or on my sofa and awoke berating myself over potential cavities and pimples because I hadn’t brushed my teeth or washed my face. And I hired a housekeeper for a day.


My decisions are about self-care and self-fulfillment. My priorities reflect that I want more than what I have right now, that I desire to do something other than, or perhaps in addition to, raise a family in the city I grew up in. If I ever have babies, I seriously doubt I’ll skip a feeding so I can lift weights or let them sit in a stinky diaper all day because I would rather write than change them. (I’m not sure what I’ll do when my parents need constant care, but I won’t neglect them.) But while I am single and childless and my parents are well, I want to do more smart things and less overwhelming things, and when I have a partner, I expect us to help each other not be so overwhelmed. I like to think that doesn’t make me less complete, less African (hey, Chimamanda Adichie said there’s no cooking gene, and she’s Nigerian), or more white. And I like to think that in the long run, that’s going to make me healthier and happier than black women who decide to be superwoman ever give themselves the chance to be.

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