I sometimes wonder what the popular birth narratives mean to black women. My brain started moving along these lines one day when, yet again, the meme ‘It’s not that birth is painful, but that women are strong’ appeared on my social media feeds. I have no issue with the meme, but the cogs started whirring.
Strong black women. It is a loaded phrase. There are many who do not allow us, or want us to be weak. Sometimes we need support, but we can’t ask because there’s an assumption we don’t really need it. Small wonder that the rates of mental health problems are high amongst the black community.
Are we strong? Sometimes.
I remember talking to a guy whose sister in law had just bought yet another buggy as hers kept breaking. As I had a pretty decent buggy, I suggested a couple of buggies that were good quality and not too expensive. He looked at me and said ‘She’s not an Amazon like you.’ Well, I have to say that my 5’5 self was more than a little astonished to be described as amazonian. Of course, it didn’t surprise me. I’m a black woman and she was a white woman who was just a couple of inches shorter than me.
When my marriage was breaking down and I went to ground to deal with it privately, I got a letter from a ‘friend’. She explained in great detail, in red biro, why I needed to go to her to explain how I was feeling and that taking time to process, the way that I wanted to, was wrong. She explained why she felt that she couldn’t support me through my marriage breakdown because I wasn’t going to her and she wouldn’t come to me. I was accused of ‘being too strong’.
And then there was a guy who told me that the reason that I was single was because I was too strong. I wasn’t needy enough. I seemed to have my life together. I do wonder where these thoughts come from. Oh let’s face it, I don’t really. I already know.
There’s a fabulous phrase (well I think it is) that was coined in America, weathering. The constant micro aggressions that black women feel, chipping away at them, like waves against a cliff. People ask all the time if I will help educate them so that they can become less racist. They ask me for book suggestions, blog suggestions, courses etc. They thank me for the work that I do. I share black experiences widely and I will continue to do so, but you know what? It’s bloody exhausting sometimes and sometimes I just wish that people would recognise that this is daily, every day life for black people and sometimes, just sometimes, I don’t want to be strong in the face of hate. I want someone else to do it.
So what has all of this to do with a perfectly positive birth meme? Well what if, as a black woman, I need to be vulnerable in birth? What if to be strong, I need to share my fears and you won’t hear me because black women are so strong? Can I be beautiful in birth and not feel strong until I look back and say ‘Yes. I was strong in birth.’
Do I think that we should stop sharing the meme? No. I don’t actually because I hear and understand what it says. I would just love for us all to be aware what the words ‘strong woman’ might mean to someone else.