This past week we heard about the untimely passing of two university presidents within a week of one another, Joanne A. Epps of Temple University and Dr. Orinthia T. Montague of Volunteer State Community College. Two black women.
Additionally, scrolling through Instagram last week, I saw that Nelson Mandela’s 43-year-old daughter had died. A black woman.
Sometime around 2013, I became a member of a supportive group of energetic, dynamic, and engaging black women. We were a group of nine. Over the course of five years three members or 30% of the group passed away. Three black women.
My husband often comes home with stories of men that he meets during his workday who are widowers. Their wives, black women.
I do understand that none of us are here to stay. We all hope for a long, healthy, and fulfilling life; long and healthy being the operative words.
I find myself asking, what is happening to black women? What is contributing to our mortality? I know there are no simple answers. We know about the inequities in healthcare and the importance of women of color advocating for themselves with their healthcare providers. It’s a real thing and I’m sure any woman of color reading this can relate as well. But again, why are we experiencing with such frequency the higher mortality of black women in particular?
Recently, a Black female leader shared with me her experience as a breast cancer survivor. We were talking about her tendency to put others first, often ignoring her own needs. She told me that her doctor indicated that the type of cancer she had was environmental, not genetic. That, she said, was a wake-up call. She noted her habit of putting others first had probably not served her well. She concluded that she owed it to herself to set boundaries and prescribe to the motto that “No.” is a complete sentence.
But this is about more than that. It’s about the stressors in our lives and how we deal with them. I believe that we all have internal levers sitting in the “off” position. Over time, those levers can switch to “on” as a result of hereditary or environmental factors. How do we as black women respond to the stress of challenging situations (an environmental factor)? Many of us simply push through.
“ I’ll rest when it’s over.” “I am driven by challenge.” “Tell me I can’t, and I’ll show you I can.”
Not only have I heard this a lot in my work, but I’m guilty of sharing these sentiments as well.
Being driven by these mantras is costing us our lives.
We all have the potential for certain diseases – like cancer, and other health occurrences like heart attacks and strokes, but how we live can influence their occurrence. This may not be true 100% of the time, but it is true a lot of the time.
There are other environmental factors as well. The experiences of black women aren’t always the most positive in terms of inequities in the workplace, microaggressions, and unbalanced expectations.
We are motivated for a wide spectrum of reasons to “rise to the occasion;” “show them what we are made of; “demonstrate we have what it takes;” and “never let them see us sweat.” But at what cost?
This past Saturday, in an effort to get my mother out of the house, I drove her to the park close to our home. We walked a bit and sat in the pavilion to people-watch and talk. When it was time to leave, Mom said she was unable to walk back to the car. I suggested she sit in the walker and use her feet to roll forward as I gently pushed her from behind. What had been a ten-minute walk at best getting to the pavilion (because of our pace not the distance) became an almost hour-long effort to get her back to the car. During that time, a man asked if he could help us. I politely declined, and we continued to move at a snail’s pace. About twenty minutes later, a woman asked if we needed help. I said, “No thank you” and my mother said “Yes,” almost simultaneously. This was surprising because my mother never asked for help, but I guess at 89, she has learned a few things. So, I acquiesced. While we were trying to figure out the best way for the woman to help us, another woman joined our efforts. Even with the three of us, it took another fifteen minutes to get mom 30 feet at best from where we were to the car.
I share this story for two reasons. First, we have got to be willing to ask for help when we need it and accept it when it is offered. The “S” on our chests can sometimes stand for stubborn and senseless. The acceptance of help is not an indicator of our capabilities or competence. It is a sign of our humanness.
The second reason this story is relevant is because since then, I’ve had this heavy feeling in my chest. The feeling is my stress indicator. I took Sunday off to attend an event and carried the feeling with me. I’m meditating and doing deep breathing, which is helping but it’s taking time for the feeling to subside. All because I didn’t want to accept the help of others.
Our choices impact our health and well-being.
Community is important and it comes in different forms. On Saturday, my community was a small group of strangers willing to take the time to help me and mom. Community is our nuclear and extended family. Its our friend circles, and sometimes our co-workers. When we take time to commune and become active members in our communities, we are engaging in activity that contributes to our own well-being and that of others. We must take time to be in community; use it as a sounding board, thought partner and even a shoulder to lean on when needed.
I’m getting there, but clearly, I have a ways to go.
No job, no cause, and no person should come before our health and wellness. Our strength lies in our ability to be vulnerable and to set boundaries. We can’t think of ourselves as superhuman and then become upset when others see us that way as they pile unreasonable expectations upon us. We must get comfortable with the admission that we are not superhuman. We are not capable of doing it all. We must come to terms with sometimes “it just won’t get done, at least not today.” No matter how long we live, looking back it will feel like life is short. Make better choices. Take care of yourself. Please live healthier and longer lives. Start today.
Something to consider…
I’d like to offer one option for community building for you to consider. On October 19th I will be conducting a free Masterclass on the value of community. This experience is for women of color who are in vice president and c-suite positions as well as founder|CEOs with at least $700K in annual revenue, leading teams of 8 or more in multiple work locations. We’ll take an hour to explore the value of having your own personal cabinet, a ready and willing community of thought partners and sounding boards; a safe space to be heard, affirmed, and to share perspective and insights. Reserve your seat now for the conversation. It will be worth it.