Self Care Individualist

Love and Afrofeminism: Is the Self Care Movement Individualist or Revolutionary?

My first two posts focused on Love for Others (i.e., relationships), so this week, I wanted to focus on Love for Self. Here we go…

Hi, My name is Spectra, and I’m a recovering first daughter of an African family. Many of you may not know what this means, but if there are any Africans (or better yet, Nigerians) reading this: You are not alone. For the rest of you, let me explain.

My first name, Adaora, in Igbo (a Nigerian language) means “Daughter of the People.” The root, “Ada”(pronounced, “Ah-Dah”) always refers to the first daughter of the family. So, when one meets other Adas (Adaobi, Adaeze, Adaaku, etc.), you instantly know they, too, are the first daughters in their families, and therefore share your plight.

Being the first daughter of an African family comes with many rewards: constant praise just for being the first girl, early leadership training due to your parents believing (for the mere fact that you were born first) that you can handle anything, doting Aunties, Grandmothers, and community members the instant they hear your name, and first dibs at every aspect of family life, including the stew pot, Christmas presents, and parenting mistakes.

Now that you know this, you’re ready for the good part. My name is particularly interesting; the second root word, “Ora” (pronounced “Ore-Rah”), translates to “community.” Thus, Adaora (my full name, pronounced Ah-dore-rah) suggests a permanent relationship between the daughter of a Nigerian family and her community. Adaora is the pride and joy of her people, the girl who will always lead by good example. Adaora is the child that will shoulder the responsibility of her siblings’ welfare (because she is the oldest) and her community’s livelihood (because she is a leader). Adaora’s roles, responsibilities, and indeed, obligations to her family (to run the house), her community (to lead it and make it proud), and to herself (to be perfect, and never think of self), were decided for her at birth.

Most Adas will wear this ribbon proudly, never questioning their parents’ casual, yet persistent dictations of their careers, paths, and romantic lives. The mother of an Ada looks forward to the day when her daughter will finally marry, make her the proudest mother in the city/village/planet, bear children (an Ada of her own), and never once question if any of this is what Ada wants.

Sound familiar? You don’t have to be Nigerian to recognize the challenge of traditional gender roles—and women being pigeon-holed into caregiving. Some of us have these roles upheld through political systems or religious faiths. However, in my case, the gendered role (of caring for everyone else and sacrificing my needs, constantly, for the betterment of my family and community) happens to be dictated by my culture. Still, my Nigerian/African heritage is a very central part of my identity; our family values, community-centric approach to everything, and the strong sense of duty that comes with both of those things have guided me for as long as I can remember. Thus, even with the heightened awareness that perhaps an unusual amount of self-sacrifice came with my name, I was reluctant to deviate from this for a very long time.

For instance, as the first daughter of my family, it was my unspoken responsibility to take care of my siblings when they first arrived in the US for school. I was just a freshman in college myself, but there was absolutely no question that I would find a way to pay for things they needed, host them during holidays (in my single coffin-sized bedroom, even against school policy that prohibited long-term guests), and play the role of surrogate parent until my parents could get back on their feet. That never happened. And so, while my friends could go afford to go shopping, party on weeknights, and get their hair done whenever they were having an unpretty day, every single decision I made about money or time revolved around my responsibility to care for my siblings (who, by the way, resented me for playing mother all the time, and thus rebelled constantly). I had become so accustomed to ignoring my own needs that I sank further and further into depression.

It became too much. I eventually exhausted my capacity to continue shouldering the burden of being “the first daughter” and, one night, could no longer stay shackled to being a role model of duty and self-sacrifice. I attempted to take my own life.

I have since then adopted self-love and self-care as a framework, and a lifestyle. And though I really want to tell you that it was the love for self that moved me to take better care of myself and tend to my needs, it happened to also be out of “duty” that I decided to get better. The thought of my siblings (especially my sister, who was undocumented and living with me in my dorm room at the time) being forced to fend for themselves in such a xenophobic country post-9/11 made the decision to take care of myself easier; after all, it was for them.

Before I go any further, I have to mention how uncomfortable I am with this notion of considering “duty” to others even in the face of severe depression. As a survivor who often speaks about suicide and mental health, I can’t tell you how infuriating it is to hear people talk about people who died by suicide as “selfish,” as this places blame on the person, and not on the system/environment that pushed them to the act in the first place. Yet, I also cannot deny the reality of my own experience, and that there is something very compelling (perhaps, due to my cultural values) about assessing either the benefit or liability of one’s actions on the community(ies) to which one belongs. In my case, assessing the impact of my own mental health on my siblings’ lives motivated me to better take care of myself, but this obviously isn’t always the case, and won’t work for everyone.

African culture prioritizes the welfare of the whole over the individual—perhaps too much so. But on the flipside, the individualism I’ve experienced in the US isn’t much better. For instance, LGBT people of color and members of the faith community are often judged by coming-out-obsessed mainstream “Gay, Inc.” for not being “strong” or “selfless” enough, essentially devaluing how strength is defined within their own contexts, perhaps as self-sacrifice. As such, people who literally “choose life” by prioritizing their self-care and general livelihood over family expectations are celebrated (whereas they’d be judged harshly in other contexts).

The tension between self-care and community care (or individualism and martyrdom, as I prefer to label them in extremes) are evident in the media: The ongoing debate about whether celebrities should be forced to come out (e.g., Queen Latifah’s ongoing battle with the media trying to out her), the way praise is delivered à la remarks of self-sacrifice when they do (e.g., Frank Ocean’s recent coming out in the face of a homophobic hip hop industry), and the incessant policing of how survivors deal with their trauma (e.g., Rihanna as a controversial role model for domestic violence survivors) are just a few examples.

But it’s not just celebrity that is plagued by the question of whether taking time out to care for oneself is individualist or truly a revolutionary act in a system that restricts women to caregiving; unhealthy nonprofit martydom culture, too, often celebrates the poor, harried, unappreciated activist while admonishing those who prioritize their financial stability over world peace.

Despite this tension, however, self-care is undoubtedly becoming increasingly popular, to the point that some debate has already been sparked about its tendency towards individualism, and lack of accountability. I certainly am not for a culture of shirking responsibilities under the guise of “self-care” and self-absorption—disregarding the impact of one’s actions on our community/environment/others is no better. Yet, as more and more people adopt self-care as a way of life, I potentially see irresponsibility charading as self-care as a trend.

Ultimately, here’s what I believe: We need balance. I believe that by taking care of ourselves, we’re in a better position to care for community. Whenever my mother was strained, I preferred she disappeared for a few hours into her room then came out in a better mood then stay nagging and snapping at us the entire day. As an activist, I find that I’m no different. I’m much more efficient, tempered, and capable of supporting others when I feel nourished and spiritually centered.

Historians often hail Mother Theresa as the icon of selflessness; a woman of meager economic means, she dedicated her life to serving others who were less fortunate. Yet, even she—the most popular saint in the entire world—preached the importance of self-love and self-care. Her quote, “Love begins at home,” is a constant reminder that our communities are only as strong as we are; caring for ourselves must be our top priority if we desire the capacity to continually care for others. So, despite the messages that tell us we’re selfish for caring for ourselves, we must remain steadfast in the belief that when we’re kinder to ourselves, we’re better to each other and stronger for our communities.

What do you think? How have messages around servitude impacted you? Do you feel guilty when you take care of yourself? How do you manage it? What factors determine your decision to ultimately care for yourself and act for the benefit of your community?

Previously: Queer Bois and the Gendered Politics of Partner Dancing, Gender Roles and First Dates, Who Pays?, Love and Afrofeminism: My New Blog Series, #AfroFemLove

  • Mitch

    Hi. I think you are right about the importance of balance between love for self and one’s responsibility towards his or her community or family.

    i come from the Philippines and here as with most (if not all) Asian cultures, collectivism is valued over individuality. Most people my age (I’m 25) are, should I say, saddled with the responsibility of taking care of their entire family. We call it in Filipino “utang na loob” or a metaphorical debt that can never be repaid (debt because their parents took care of them, something I find rather silly as I believe that it is the parents’ responsibility to take care of their kids in the first place). These folks I’m talking about literally build their lives and careers and priorities over taking care of their family. For instance, many of them go abroad for the sole purpose of making money, again, for the family. I have always wanted to go abroad but not just to make money, in fact not to make money, but to see the world. Some people have told me that I have the luxury to think in these terms because I do not have a family to support. Maybe so, but I am in no better place myself because I am basically an orphan raised by my grandmother. But that’s a different story. By the way, my father’s Nigerian too.
    Let me share the story of a gay friend. Now he is a very responsible son despite his father being a douche (no better way to describe him). This friend of mine, he feels utterly responsible for the welfare of his family and that includes his extended relations. Problem is he has accumulated a huge debt trying to take care of their financial needs. I have told him time and again that he should learn to say “No.” Besides, his aunts and cousins shouldn’t be his burden anyway. One day I asked him if he would be pathologically family-oriented if he was straight. He said no. He would have had a family by now.
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
    By the way, more power to your site.

    • Spectra Speaks

      Thank you! Wow, your last comment made me stop and reflect like whoa. This part, “One day I asked him if he would be pathologically family-oriented if he was straight. He said no. He would have had a family by now.” Too real. Interesting point about LGBT people being more likely to be single/ or at least single for longer and thus more likely to be shouldered with that “duty” of caring for everyone else since they don’t have families of their own. I’ve seen this play out with relatives in my family, who are not yet married, so it’s just assumed they’ll take care of others. I mean, it kind of makes sense when we think about how our communities are structured. Everyone pitch in who has capacity. I wonder if it’s the individualism that comes with this modern/digital/millenial that is causing us to push back. So much to think about. Thanks for commenting, and for your kind words about my blog :)

  • Lesley

    More than a name ‘Ada’ is a title and as you pointed out a role, full of ritual and meaning. I am also an ‘Ada’, it took me a long time to break free of the overwhelming expectations of the position. From the moment I entered the job market at 22 I was working for the entire family (my father, step mother and their 5 children) and I was a single mother of two children. They were merciless and relentless and I was trying so hard to please my over bearing father.

    In Igbo-Nigeria the self Sacrificing Mother is the ideal, depicted as the nurturing earth goddess Ani. Self care is associated with the river goddess Ezenwanyi and she is depicted as evil and selfish. She preens in the mirror, is vain and self centred. She is manipulative, cunning and promiscuous but wealthy. At least that’s how the stories I heard as a child in the village sounded and that’s what I associated self care with. These messages were reinforced by the pervasive Catholicism of the late 70’s and early 80’s. A woman is either Madonna or Whore. And a whore is a terrible thing to be, I’ve heard all my life.

    My father called me ‘Nene’, his mother reincarnate and he expected self sacrificing devotion from me even ahead of my children. I was the Self Sacrificing Mother. Till one day I realized that I didn’t have a life. I didn’t have a career; I had jobs that paid the bills. I didn’t have a relationship, I had a string of affairs. I didn’t have assets or networth, I had bills and debts. I was committing slow suicide with my high risk ‘work hard play hard’ lifestyle. But I was hailed as successful. I took care of my family, nuclear and extended. I was a woman. I was Ada. I was mother. My father drummed the expectations of my role into my head literally from the day I was born.

    I reviewed the boundaries of my role as Ada and my attitude to self care when I realized that 1. my health was at risk and 2. that my ‘support & care’ was creating an unhealthy dependency but old habits die hard they say. I went into the social/humanitarian field working with female victims of violence where I was again tending to everyone but me. I heard it was selfish to work for self or care for self when you are so privileged and millions are dying of hunger. It was noble to help others. I dropped one role for another. The Humanitarian Worker.

    While now I was more conscious of the need for self care, I didn’t prioritize it. I did enough for the machine to function and I wasn’t too kind to the machine I must admit. The body machine that is. I had my moments of intense obsession but they would pass, overtaken by numerous things more in need of care than myself. So I went from caring for the family as Ada to caring for the community as a humanitarian/social worker of sorts. Still ambivalent about self care and self love but learning more each day and climbing out from under a mountain of gendered socialization. Still trying to negotiate a path between the two primary archetypes of Igbo femininity that dominate my psyche and my world view.

    I’m not sure I can or want to slay this demon of self sacrifice but I can now raise the angel of self love and self care to banish it for awhile. There will come a time when self sacrifice may be needed, our prayer should be we don’t sacrifice ourselves too cheaply. Feminism is a daily effort, to be more, to be me. My self love means it has to be for Me and not for the community. I know that if I can be kind to myself I will be kind to my community. I am kind. Its not an either/or. I will still care for others and for my community but I will prioritize I. For I.

    Self care is a revolution. Its a revolution against the oppressive and dominant archetype of the self sacrificing (African) woman who exists for everyone and everything but for herself, like we seem to think the Earth does too.

    Thank you for raising another thought provoking and insightful post.

    • Spectra Speaks

      I could read anything you write for hours, Lesley. Really. I just love the way you describe your experiences, the messy gray, the glorious, the ugly. Sorry, this is not really responding to your comment (geeky writer moment!). But yes, everything you said. Ultimately, my identity is also informed by my Igbo background — I watched my mother sacrifice as you did, and now, I sometimes thinks she resents me for daring to break that cycle, because it was never an option for her (she thought) — and I can’t ‘slay that dragon’ either. I won’t. The truth is, I’m honored by my role as a caretaker. And I only ever resent it when I don’t take care of myself. So, it’s not either/or as you mention; I take care of myself so that I can continue caring for my family and my community. I’m okay with that being my end goal; caring for others is a huge part of who I am, and I trust that I can love myself just as hard. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Sis.

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