Browse Tag: self care

Love and Afrofeminism: 5 Core Self-Care Principles Every Activist Should Live By

AfrofemLoveIn March, I shared my philosophy about using self care as a tool to creating sustainable movements in a piece I wrote following an appearance: Celebrating Audre Lorde with Jamaican Feminists: Media Activism, Self Care, and Virtual Sisterhood.

The responses I received–both at the event and around the post–were overwhelming positive. But the subsequent requests for practical day-to-day advice for caring for oneself while caring for community prompted me to reflect on what it means for activists to really practice self care… not just as some fluffy theoretical concept reserved for the privileged, but as an accessible set of principles, applied consistently towards a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.

Incidentally, it was around this time last year that I launched my popular Love and Afrofeminism (#afrofemlove) series, through which I explored gender, sexuality, and race issues through the lens of empathy, compassion, and self-love.

Hence, I couldn’t be happier to relaunch my #afrofemlove series with an offering of the principles that have guided me in my own journey thus far. The following principles can certainly be used by everyone, but I especially hope they resonate with my fellow activists, people whose work revolves around the practice of loving so many others that, too often, they forget to love themselves, and each others.

Here’s to no more of that.

5 Core Self-Care Principles Every Activists Should Live By

1) Self-Care Requires Planning 

Plan the pampering ahead of time. Okay, to be honest, it’s often not “pampering” I’m doing; I’m recovering, resting, slowing down. The truth is I’m a workaholic; if I don’t plan or schedule my self-care ahead of time, it’ll never happen; I’ll just keep going and going, until I crash. It’s a shame, but after years of teetering on the verge of burnout, I’ve learned to stop denying that I have a problem, and have learned to work around it. 

For instance, as a way of punctuating my non-stop work schedule with “rest stops,” my partner and I now plan at least one semi-sized vacation every 6 weeks or so, and about six months ahead of time. The rest stops could include anything from visiting family for a long weekend to traveling overseas. I apply the same planning effort to my weekly and monthly schedules as well: mid-week lunches with friends and lunchtime runs are my favorite. The best part? I usually that forget I’ve planned ahead.

Nothing beats getting a vacation calendar reminder (“France Vacation in 5 Days!”) right in the middle of a hell week, receiving a text from a friend confirming that we’re still on for cooking dinner together the following evening, or even taking a “Disney sing-a-long” break for 15 minutes on Youtube during my lunch break. Laugh all you want, it puts the biggest smile on my face and it costs me nothing, which brings me to my next point…

2) Self Care Doesn’t Have to Cost Money

Yoga retreats, spa days, and island getaways are awesome, yet, despite perceptions, they’re definitely not the only way to practice self-care, and they’re certainly not always accessible (or sustainable); such  luxurious activities require that you interrupt your regular schedule (and budget) to “recharge”, but not everyone can spend money on a last minute getaway.

As a child, I remember always being able to create fun in and out of any environment–my leftover food, bedroom walls, my mother’s lotions. Then, adulthood happened, and I went from being the child whose imagination could fill an entire afternoon to living as a young professional who only saw fun in five categories: shopping, clubbing, movies, dining out, and gyming. And whilst, I enjoyed those activities, when I left the steady paycheck for the life of a social entrepreneur, I experienced a serious decline in my mental health because I could no longer buy my way into feeling stronger or healthier.

The sudden change in income was probably the best thing that happened to me now that I think about it: after years of belonging to a gym, I learned to run outside; after years of late night takeout, I discovered the joy of cooking new recipes I found online; I got back into playing music (guitar); and most importantly, I got back into reading, writing, and in the case of no internet, singing entire segments of my iTunes library by choosing a random letter of the alphabet. (Don’t judge). The best part? All my favorite hobbies are free.

3) Self Care Doesn’t Have to Cost Time, Either

A few months ago, an important, provocative (albeit insensitive and condescending  article titled, “An End to Self-Care” sparked debate in activist circles about the elitism and individualism in self-care (vs community-care). I was pissed, yet, I must admit, the article forced me to reflect on the ways  in which I practice self-care as a lifestyle (vs. a quick fix when I’ve been “bad”); I practice integrating self-care into my everyday and approach it the way I do brushing my teeth, eating lunch, even using the bathroom–not as activities that ‘cost’ me time, but as necessary aspects of every day, healthy living.

That said, as a business owner who works *all the time* (’cause when I stop working, I stop getting paid–most startup entrepreneurs don’t get paid time off), coming up with accessible, every day self-care practices that I can seamlessly incorporate into my day has been critical. Sure, there are days on which I can afford the time,  and thus choose working out, taking leisurely walks, playing video games, watching films on Netflix etc. But I have many more “hell days” when I’m up  at 6 am and can’t stop working till 9 or 10 at night. How to sustain myself then?

Several simple ways, actually. For one, I make sure that I enjoy my workspace. As this is a room in my home, I need to make sure it’s tidy, organized, and flowing with clean, fresh energy, since this boosts my productivity. I build in a reward system into my workplan (e.g. “Once I turn in this article, I will make myself some yummy honey-ginger tea!”); this may seem silly, but it keeps my work outlook positive, and based on successes (rather than failures), which reduces the risk of stress.

4) Self-Care Doesn’t Come in a One-Size Fits All

Quite often, when I mention that I’m feeling overworked or managing stress, people will tell me to do yoga. “Yoga is awesome. You should really try it. There’s nothing better. Om Om Om. Namaste.” I love asking other people what they do to recharge, how they integrate self-care into their routines, and what new home remedies I can try out for myself, precisely for the reason that not every “revolutionary self-care practice” will work for me.

Take yoga for example: one cannot deny the benefits, but I’m not disciplined enough to practice yoga on my own and attending group sessions filled with white women dressed in fancy yoga garb (and who repeatedly give you weird, othering looks) only reminds me of my work as an activist–fighting racism and classism everywhere, even in a damn yoga class. This is not my idea of relaxing. But, when I voice this to others, I’m often told, “You haven’t tried it long enough… Find another class… Trust me, it really will do wonders for your mental health.”

But the truth is this: I tried yoga for ten years. I prefer a good, sweaty run outside to sitting still and breathing any day. On cold, rainy days, dancing in my living room to Afropop music for 30 minutes works just as well. For nurturing mindfulness, I write in my journal while listening to epic movie scores, such as my favorite from Lady in the Water, “The Healing.” And for a sense of “inner peace,” I sit on my porch next to my favorite tree, Sanchez, and daydream. Sometimes, I draw my daydreams–stick figures mostly; I trace out scenes from my life as it is and call forth the future I want using colored pencils and magazine clippings. See, what works for others, won’t always work for me, and that’s okay; caring for yourself means taking the time to learn what your self needs.

5) Self-Care and Community Care are Interconnected

There’s been quite a bit of debate between proponents of self-care and community care, but they needn’t be oppositional forces. In fact, I’ve found but personally and professionally that both are critical for sustainability and survival.

The fact is this: If group spaces practiced mindfulness more intentionally, I wouldn’t have to retreat into ‘self-care defense mode’ as often I as do. If all my bosses respected vacation days, if meeting facilitators integrated more 5 minute breaks, if activist leaders extended their principles of self-care to the management of their teams and partners, if companies — hell, I’m on a roll here — reimbursed gyms alongside all the fancy dinners and booze, we’d all be better off; we’d all feel better supported in our own efforts to take better care of ourselves. 

So that’s it folks–my work in progress: 5 self-care principles to help guide (y)our practice, and help ensure that we’re living and sharing self-care and community care tips, advice, and tools that are accessible to as many people as possible. I hope you find them useful. 

What other core principles would you add to this list? 

Celebrating Audre Lorde with Jamaican Feminists: Activism, Self Care, and Virtual Sisterhood

Caribbean Jamaican Feminists“What specific things do you do for self-care? What does your routine look like?”

I was asked this question today while participating as a virtual guest at an Audre Lorde appreciation event just outside of Kingston, Jamaica. The event was hosted by SO(UL) HQ, a collective which creates alternative community spaces for discussion and exploration of the arts, culture, spirituality, and social justice.

Each month, SO(UL) HQ invites community members to an informal social activity in physical and/or virtual spaces called HQs–e.g. for film viewings, discussions, creative workshops, etc–then the organizers facilitate a cross-movement conversation with contributions from international guests, who can participate virtually via Skype.

In celebration of Audre Lorde, black lesbian activist, writer, poet and historical icon, who wrote about writing and self-care (including one of my favorite poems, “A Litany for Survival”), I’d been invited–along with Kim Katrin Crosby (activist and co-founder of the People Project)–to speak about my work as a writer and media activist, as well as elaborate on my ideas about using Love and Afrofeminism as a framework for social justice.

From Attempted Suicide Survivor to Media Activist

For my opening remarks, I shared the story about my struggle to come to terms with my sexuality as a Nigerian woman on a very white, American campus. I spoke of the severe depression I experienced as I continually failed at locating any support systems, individuals or information to accept my wholly, as an African women who loved other women. I spoke of the hopelessness I felt when I couldn’t find a single book, or movie, with queer characters or stories that could convince me (and my family) that I wasn’t the “abomination” all the Nigerian/African online forums made me out to be. I spoke of the simple, yet deeply-rooted desire to see myself reflected as a part of society–to feel that I was, in fact, normal, and how that seeming impossibility prompted me to attempt to take my own life, for relief. 

Despite the pain of having to recount that memory often, I celebrate my survival and bold critique of the systems that still put the lives of young queer African girls in jeopardy. My attempted suicide may have been the event that sparked my journey towards becoming a media activist, but it’s done so much more; it’s the reason why mental health and self-care are prominent themes in my work, and my writing, and the reason I choose Love (for self, for others, for community) as my framework for social justice

Sustainable Activism: Self Care and Virtual Sisterhood

Your Silence Will Not Protect You During the event, this disclosure prompted more questions (and conversation) about what it means to build sustainable movements. After all, so many of us have  been spurred to action by painful and, at times, traumatic experiences: how do we continue to drawn from such turbulent beginnings without letting them weigh us down emotionally?

How do we find spaces to affirm that kind of pain–and its overcoming–as victory? How do we hold in our hearts, the stories of others, some similar, some way worse, and maintain principled temperance in our advocacy? And, since the work of an activist is social (especially for the many of us who work outside formal structures, and thus, don’t get to ‘shut down’ at the end of the day), how do we create a support network for ourselves, and for each other that we can access when we need to? 

After participating at SO(UL) HQ’s event today, I’m inspired to create more virtual social spaces for sharing and healing, for myself. I’d been fighting a winter slump for weeks–low energy, writers block, feeling moody and isolated from seasonal depression–thus I hadn’t expected that the experience of participating in a virtual event would end up feeling as rejuventing, as uplifting, and as warm as it did. But it did, and I’m much better for it.

The setup was simple enough: the event took place at a casual community space, where the group watched a short documentary about Audre Lorde, before Skype-ing in the guests. The room radiated the kind of intimacy associated with a sleepover, not a formal event; a few women sat cross-legged on the floor, while others sat in chairs (one with a really cute baby). 

African Caribbean Feminists

It’s no wonder I felt completely at ease chatting about my life and work; I could have been right there with my Caribbean sisters, sitting cross-legged on the floor, or lying stomach-down, propped up by my elbows. Thirty minutes later, I ended my session with the women at SO(UL) HQ feeling so nourished, so joyful, and so inspired that I’ve since been reflecting on the plethora of ways activists can use video conferencing and other tools to more intentionally create on-going support networks for themselves.

As a media activist, I often write about how social media can be used to amplify the voices of marginalized people, combat lack of diversity in media, and offer a means through which people with shared experiences and values can connect. For sure, regularly connecting with others with who we share affinity and can lean on for support (as part of our self-care practice) is included in this, but chances are that if even I–Ms. Self Care Evangelist–forgot, perhaps we all need more regular reminders.

Sharing is Caring: Nurturing Intentional Community–Online or Offline–is Self Care 

I’m grateful for having such a positive experience connecting virtually with Caribbean feminists today–so grateful that I’m newly inspired to rehash my goals for facilitating regular discussions about self-care in my online spaces. I don’t have all the answers, not by a stretch. Still, after today, I’m relishing the comfort of knowing that I’m connected to a number of inspiring activists–online and offline–who are just as committed to practicing self care and sustainable activism as I am. 

This blog, my Facebook Page, and Twitter @spectraspeaks, are part of my virtual self-care support network. A place where I do feel relatively safe sharing my story, my struggle, and my successes. Your readership is a part of that, so thank you for continually encouraging my efforts to foster more dialogue around mental health in our communities. 

Stay tuned for my next post, “7 Everyday Self-Care Principles All Activists Should Follow”, in which I’ll be sharing lessons I’ve learned from my own personal journey. We may not all be in physical space together, but–as my Jamaican feminist sisters at SO(UL) HQ reminded me today–we don’t need to be in order to reach out and support each other.

Do you have a strong support network? Is it offline, virtual, or both? What tips would you give others seeking supportive community online? Have you experienced virtual sisterhood? In what ways does it compare to sister-friend circles offline? 

 

Response to “An End to Self Care”: How About “An End to the Activist Martyr Complex?”

An articled called, An End to Self Carewas recently published on Organizing Upgrade, in which an activist proposed bringing an end to the individualism behind “self-care” and, instead, called for community care.

The author, B. Loewe, made his point about not privileging the self over the group (part of which I agree with to some degree), he even cited women of color such as Audre Lorde (who said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”).

Yet, despite several points that resonated, a few of which a friend of his outlined here, B. Loewe’s response, along with the many thumbs up he got for writing that piece, also reminded me why I’ve made it a point to stay away from activist spaces; why the spaces in which I once found affinity ended up becoming one of the biggest threats to my mental health.

After a day of being repeatedly triggered and pissed off by the callous debate surrounding B. Loewe’s article, I needed to get this off my chest. So, here’s my emotionally drained, sleepy, and over it response. Forgive the free-form. I originally posted this as a semi-rant on Tumblr.

The Martyr Complex Driving Self Care Critics (and Response to The Article, “An End to Self Care“) 

I have a hunch that tells me: the degree of individualism put into one’s self care practice may correspond to the degree with which they are responsible for others (and how many).

I’m an activist and community organizer, a small scale public figure if we must. My work, life, nearly everything is about giving to others, uplifting others, nourishing others. Because of this, I’ve been forced to build self care into my daily routine, my natural rhythm (which is actually a good thing — everyone should), otherwise I’ll run out of battery.

Self care, for me, isn’t a trip to the beach, or an expensive yoga retreat; it’s getting 7 vs. 5 hours of sleep on a good day; it’s eating at least 2 meals a day, when I can afford the time (and expense); it’s time spent with an inner circle of close friends and confidants who don’t know me as “Spectra who writes”, but the introverted lightweight. Self care, for me, isn’t a luxury by any means; it is a basic need, a necessary part of my being.

Yet, despite these realities, the question people have been asking for the past few days is this: Is Self Care Individualist Or Revolutionary?

On the rare occasion that I need a day off, and can actually afford to take one (note: I work for myself, I don’t get a steady paycheck that makes me forget that I have the privilege of prioritizing my job –er, I mean–community care– over my mental health), I should be able to take a day off. But I often cannot.

An hour nap turns into an hour obsessing over what things I “really” need to do for others, because activist spaces have made it okay to model their “transformational spaces” after a non-sustainable, unhealthy system of “accountability” that not only guilt trips people into feeling bad about having to tend to their recovery, or their lower capacity due to disability, but literally whips them back to work under the falsehood of promised rejuvenation “if done right.” No. This is not okay.

I feel no different when I read posts like these than I did when I was working as a consultant in corporate america and the boss would send me emails on my “sick days” asking if I’d gotten a chance to review those documents, because, you know, above all, we gotta make sure we think of the company…. Last I checked, activists in the non-profit industry were accusing corporations of being greed, exploitative, blood-sucking a**holes who didn’t care about “people”, just “money.” I’m ashamed to say that after years of working with people in the non-profit industry, there’s not that much difference; just replace money with “self-righteous political agendas.”

To be completely honest, when I think about the times when I’ve been at my lowest and most strained, it’s been due to other activist guilt-tripping me into over-extending myself for some agenda I don’t even remember signing up for.

I’m lucky that I’ve been able to find others like myself, who believe just as much in caring for their communities as they do taking care of themselves, not necessarily as interdependent ideologies, but because — dare I say it — it’s possible to want to improve the world and have other interests that are not necessarily connected, including your own dreams, ambitions, peace of mind. God forbid the word “self” ever finds its way into the mouth of an activist. God forbid we actually practice the “self-love” slogans we slap on so many protest signs.

I could go on and on about this, but, for me, the bottom line is this: People should be able to take a day off without having to justify to themselves or anyone else for that matter, why they’re doing it.

Yes, there are self-absorbed, privileged people in the world that have commercialized real survival tactics (eg. self-care practices like mine just so I can be at level ZERO) and throw the term around just to get out of responsibilities, or because it’s so indie and “cool” to “take a day.” But selfcare for me, and so many others, comes from a real legitimate need. And I won’t submit to the idea that I should only ever advocate for self-care using the “acceptable martyr” complex prevalent in so many self-righteous activist spaces  i.e. “it’s not just for me, but for the community.” Bullshit.

I’ve lived with depression my entire life; I know for a fact that my default “level” is not as high as someone who doesn’t have to worry about their hormonal imbalances; I need to be militant about taking care of myself or I simply will not be able to function as a human being, period; not just as an activist. So anyone calling for an end to self-care, especially if it’s accompanied with an “unless it’s for the community” clause, clearly doesn’t give a rip about me, or anyone else that doesn’t fit into their superhero archetype.

But martyrdom, and disabilities aside; I’m an activist that has paid her dues. I’ve sweat and toiled over the communities I love for years, for nothing in return, simply because, I have love for my people. But I have love for me, too. So the idea that I don’t get to give myself a day when I need to, for none other than, I want to, quite honestly pisses me off.

If I need a day to regroup so that I don’t burn out, collapse, or get to a point where I’m no longer functional as a partner to my spouse, to my siblings, my parents, to my dog, or as the arbiter of my own dreams and aspirations,  then I need a day, period. I make no bloody apologies for wanting to survive through my militant compassion for the world.

Black Lesbian Self-Love Now Comes in a Bottle: HONEY & GOLD Elixir

Early this morning, I received a message from Jasmine Burems, a Black lesbian organic herbalist, who specializes in women’s wellness.

She congratulated me on the success of my Africans for Africa campaign, and was hoping I’d lend support to her own project on IndieGoGo. Honestly, I receive so many requests like this, and can’t always respond to them all. But there was something that intrigued me about Jasmine’s message.

After Jasmine introduced herself as a lesbian entrepreneur (win!), she proceeded to let me know about her mission to bottle and mass produce the first EVER organic women’s wellness beverage:

HONEY & GOLD Signature Elixir, a ready-to-drink, organic, gluten free, GMO-free women’s wellness, pleasure and beauty tonic.

Let me repeat: HONEY & GOLD Signature Elixir, Pleasure and Beauty Tonic. 

I don’t know about you all, but  I want to drink whatever claims to be a Pleasure and Beauty tonic! Lots of it! Check out the titillating description below:

HONEY & GOLD Signature Elixir is made from a unique combination of sustainably grown herbs, rich raw honey and shimmering edible gold. Signature Elixir is a sincere prayer for deep nourishment, a nutritious and luxurious women-specific health-drink providing lots of nutrients.

Some of my favorite women-specific benefits of the Elixir include:

  • Tones muscles of the pelvic region including the uterus (I imagine this would contribute to ease of childbirth…)
  • Supports healthy, relaxed, pleasurable flow of energy (As an activist, self-care and relaxation need to be intentional or they simply won’t happen)
  • Supports maintenance of balanced vaginal flora (I have no idea what this means but it makes me feel like one of the ‘soaring-in-slow-motion’ women in those tampon commercials)
  • Synergistic formula for womb, heart and third eye. (Mmmm, deeper intuition, community connection. YES please!)

If you can’t tell, already. I’m sold on this Elixir. So, I’m hoping the LBTQ women’s community–everyone, in fact!–bands together to make this campaign a success, so Jasmine can design and brand this self-love potion in the best imaginable way; not just so that she can sell it, but so that she can help more women who are in desperate need of more intentional self-care.

Photo Credit: Latino Health Zone

Incidentally, over the past 3 months in South Africa, I’ve met and interviewed queer African women activists, artists, and scholars from all walks of life about their work and mental health.

Across the board, women feel the tension between sustaining their communities and sustaining themselves, but are finding it hard to make the connection that our self-love is absolutely necessary, not just for our us, but for our communities that we care so much about.

Jasmine’s observations about women and their constant battle with self-care have been similar to mine:

When I began doing healing work I realized that many women take care of everyone else before taking care of themselves. They feel there’s not enough time, or they don’t know exactly how…sometimes, we just aren’t inspired to take a small step to affect positive change.

This is spot on. It’s not that many women aren’t sold on the idea of self-care, it’s that they find it hard to make self-care a priority, and thus, struggle to justify investing the time (or money) necessary to care for themselves.

But here’s why I think Jasmine is brilliant. She’s found a way to sell self-care as a balance between priority, luxury, and convenience.

Photo Credit: Salon

If I saw a bright, shiny, HONEY & GOLD bottle with the words Elixir, Self-Love, and Potion on it, I’m pretty sure I’d be moved to take a number of steps: purchase a few bottles, a few unscented candles, then head home to a wonderful evening of relaxation on my couch with some indie soul music playing in the background and incense burning in the air. And even if I had to skip the evening on the couch, I could still drink it on-the-go.

That’s just me, though. Love is My Revolution, after all. But what about you?

Jasmine’s campaign has over 40 days to go. On my traveler activist budget, I won’t be able to contribute monetarily, but it would make my day if at least 10 people that read this post, checked out her page, and confirmed that it would be a great idea to contribute to her campaign. What do you say? Will you be one of the ten? :)

Backers of the campaign to mass produce HONEY & GOLD will be well-rewarded; Jasmine is offering very exciting “Thank You” goodies, including a bottle of the HONEY& GOLD Elixir (or an entire case!), a 30-day supply of herbal tea cones and other self-care rituals and recipes, and (oh, I’m so jealous of this) an opportunity to host a self-love workshop filled with herbal remedy and holistic health self-care lessons for a group of friends! (Someone please invite me if your contribution earns this perq!).

Photo Credit: My Self Love Life

In all honesty, after years of practicing self-care, I’ve realized that it’s quite common to meet so-called health coaches who love to claim it as a lifestyle, a cute “alternative” to put on a business card.

Let’s face it, in some circles, self-care has become an individualistic (opportunistic) indie fad. This is frustrating, because the fad-iness chips away at the credibility of real holistic health care practitioners, and nulls the idea that self-care is a viable path to better health, and better lives for everyone.

Nevertheless, if more women embraced self-care, really embraced it, and practiced it, as a way of healing and sustaining our minds, bodies, and spirits, every single day (at least as often as we brush our teeth), we’d all be so much happier. 

This is why when I meet someone whose commitment to the idea that love is revolutionary isn’t just evident in their words, but shines through in their work, and who’s willing to take huge risks (starting a social venture is no joke) just for the hope of sharing it— I tip my hat, and I do whatever i can to support them. And dear reader, I hope you will, too.

Jasmine is a practicing doula and herbalist. She teaches a range of workshops that integrate holistic health principles, ancient wisdom, organic and sustainable herbalism, meditation, movement, sacred sense therapies for women, and more. She’s an inspiring queer woman of color whose work is all about uplifting other women of color. Hence, I encourage you, this one time, read something, then do something. Make a contribution to her campaign. We’d all be better for it.

Check out her campaign video below:

Thank you, Jasmine, for the breath of fresh air your idea will bring to all our lives. I hope your campaign is a huge success. I can’t wait to purchase my first bottle!

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


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