Paradox of the Strong Woman

Our expectations could be endangering them

It took years for me to realize that since I became a mother, I have been held to superhuman standards. Those who knew me as an employee in a multi-national company and part time radio broadcaster believed I was great at everything else I did. Or I perhaps I should be. For those who were close enough to visit my home, all they saw was my well-kept living room and everything looking spic and span.

After having four children I still fit in a size 6 and I spend quite some time in the kitchen most evenings to make my family a fresh meal for dinner. I ran an NGO that focused on women and girls but was expected to be nice and happy to help every Tom, Dick and Harry that needed help… and I was to wear a smile always. This has been the paradox of my life as an acclaimed strong woman.

My husband called me strong woman, fellow women that aspired to achieve what I had did too. Even the strongest woman I have ever personally known called me strong girl! My Mom. She had to be right. Generations of patrilineal demands upon the African woman makes women like me strive to meet society’s expectations as a working woman who does not compromise her traditional roles in their pursuit of career in a contemporary world.

Being acknowledged as a strong woman becomes an indicator that a woman has succeeded in finding this balance. It is kind of badge of honor that encourages women to bend over backwards to give much more than they can sometimes physically or psychologically afford. For many women, it validates them. Men are proud when neighbors make passing comments about the aroma from their wife’s cooking that fills the neighborhood or the beauty of their garden tended by a career-focused wife. There seems to be a sense of pride that domestic accomplishments of a working woman gives her man that is different from her career achievements.

When a woman’s multi-tasking skills saves the family the bills of hiring a nanny or driver as it is common with middle-class families in Africa, some men see it as part of the duties of the woman that needs no special commendation. Smarter men consider it a privilege and leverage on it to make savings on monthly expenditure by rewarding the woman. They pay her compliments like good woman, strong woman or virtuous woman for those of Christian faith. Whether the compliment is deeply heart-felt or has a patronizing under-tone, it usually has the same effect on the woman. She feels appreciated and validated.

I started becoming uncomfortable with being called a strong woman when I realized that there were many other things about a woman that impressed my husband besides my resourcefulness and efforts towards work-life balance. No matter how much strength I demonstrated in our marriage, those typical masculine likeness for femininity would never leave. My conservative devotion to the traditional African wife roles did not make him less attracted to femininity. The more feminine women were more dependent on their men and paid attention to pleasing them. Their well-manicured and polished nails, straightened weaves or ever-shiny braids were maintained with as many hours of salon time as time spent scrubbing pots and keeping my home clean.

A typical African man would encourage his wife to breast feed their baby in the first months of life. It becomes a challenge for nursing mothers like me whose priority was their nursing duties to appear flawlessly feminine with a baby whose hunger pangs gives you no time to gain freedom from that tight-fitting dress your man loves you wearing, in order to give them a feed.

When my second child was barely three months old, my son was one year, six months old. I resumed work after maternity leave to experience motherhood in a different dimension because my toddler was still very clingy and demanding. Even though I had a young live-in domestic assistant, there was a lot that only I could do to satisfy them and their father of course. Family was my priority and I believed I was capable of meeting all their demands because I was a strong woman. I juggled things more than I prioritized.

Rather than strike things off a to-do list I had used since pre-child bearing years, I devised ways to squeeze them all into my schedule. They were all my priorities as long as I was a strong woman. “Strong women don’t quit, they push” I said to myself.

Wearing make-up was also not an instinctive part of my fashion but when I met my husband, I made an effort to use loose powder on my face, gloss my lips and use an eye pencil. It only took seconds to get that basic make-up on but to my bewilderment, I couldn’t even find those free seconds with a toddler, a baby, a full time job and my domestic to-do-list. I would hop into the car with my make-up purse in hand for a rushed facial touch-up every morning on our drive to work in the morning. My husband understood I was doing my best to make the children comfortable and keep the home as a dutiful wife should. He didn’t complain that I was paying less attention to the feminine things he valued as much as my being a dutiful wife. He couldn’t have complained because it was difficult to see that the feminine woman he hoped for was mutually exclusive to the super-human wife he was proud of.

This can be dangerous.

Conformity to the strong woman image has its consequences. Women find it difficult to admit they are stressed and seek help when they believe they are super human and can fix problems by themselves. Many strong women do not express their frustrations because we are generally nice people, suffering inwardly and smiling outwardly. The greatest danger of keeping up the appearance is that the strong woman continues to stretch herself until she goes beyond her elastic limit. This can lead to depression, disability and even suicide.

Those who cheer women to become these super human strong women will be disappointed to know that in reality, no matter how resilient and feminine, no woman will be able to meet their expectations. Keeping impeccable nails while also keeping impeccable housewares; making your favorite dish for dinner while supervising the children’s homework before 8pm; working overtime to earn that promotion while be a great fun gal pal all of your friend’s party, is only sustainable in fiction. Without knowing it we could be endangering the strong women in our lives by our expectations.

Make no mistake that I don’t believe in strong women. I just don’t believe they fit into a Daenerys Targaryen image because there are no women made of the blood of dragons.

In every woman, there are varying degrees of strength and femininity that cannot be expanded by our expectations. If women do not quit the relentless pursuit of perfectionism and embrace their idiosyncrasies as women, they could be deformed. As their pillars of support we can give support in ways that affirm them for who they are, not by what they do to become strong women.

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