Updated: Aug 16
Due to misogynoir, Black women have a lengthy history of secretly carrying the burden of traumatic and harmful experiences from childhood to adulthood, and from generation to generation. That secrecy encourages a constant push for us to be resilient, and survive in silence. I feel that this even plays out in relationships with others, extending to ‘caretaker’ and ‘nurturer’ roles in our friendships, families, and romantic relationships.
For Black women, the roles of mother and nurturer expand beyond biological motherhood and nuclear families to extended families and communities. We are praised for being the ‘mother’ and ‘nurturer’ for others. I am even guilty of being complacent to this—being the nurturer and caretaker for my friends, family, even my husband, and leaving nothing for myself. When I became sick last year, I refused to let others help me, especially my husband. Here, the superwoman schema, as defined by Amani M. Allen and Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe, manifested as me not wanting to need or rely on anyone. This stems from the idea of the “Black superwoman.” For this idea, Allen and Woods-Giscombe explain the “superwoman schema” as encompassing five traits: presenting strength, emotion suppression, resisting vulnerability, motivation to succeed, and obligation to help others.
For as long as I can remember, I was conditioned to be a “Black superwoman.” It didn't help that I lived in a single-parent household as a child due to my father passing away. I learned to handle many things on my own. Still, I was somehow socialized to care for others and not complain about it. It was only when I finally let my husband help me with things that I felt relieved, like I could breathe.
Once I started therapy a few years back, I began questioning where this ‘caretaker’ role even came from. The superwoman schema states that strength, self-reliance, and high achievement orientation are necessary traits to achieve goals and sustain a meaningful quality of life in a society that often marginalizes Black women. But other facets of the schema—such as having an intense drive to succeed and feeling an obligation to help others—can be detrimental to a Black woman’s health. It has perpetuated this notion that Black women are “invincible,” that this schema is our armor in dealing with everyday life.
But I beg to differ; the superwoman schema can be a double-edged sword.
I consider Black women to be survivors, but we shouldn’t always have to be at war with society and ourselves to prove that we are unstoppable. This mindset makes it complicated for Black women to lower our defenses. Every day feels like a fight, and we must always be prepared. Now the question arises: who protects us?
This question made me realize that the “superwoman schema” exacerbates unequal relationships—from friendships to romantic relationships, even down to the relationship with your parents. Philip A. Rosario explains that the caretaker role that Black women exhibit is an “expression of familialism,” following traditions from religion and the idea of the “nuclear family.” Those traditions are somewhat rooted in misogynoir.
For myself, being the caretaker for others has even resulted in developing codependent relationships, particularly with significant others. According to Monica A. Coleman, marriage and childhood are typical areas of sacrifice for women in Black households. This can result in resentment toward not being able to make confident choices or follow your dreams. The codependency was an example of an unmet need to be loved, understood, and cared for. It didn’t help that I even sacrificed my dreams of being a journalist to help my husband achieve his dreams instead. Soon, my continual “sacrifice” created an unequal balance in my relationship. I spent all my time cleaning up all of my husband's ‘messes,’ which left nothing for me emotionally.
Thanks to therapy and unlearning generational trauma, I realized that home could be a ‘safe space’ for me as well. There can be an equal, dynamic partnership in my house. It wasn't until my husband and I started unpacking our trauma as a couple—as well as separately—that we were building blocks for a less codependent, transactional relationship than one rooted in misogynoir. But I always wonder: when is it our turn to live our dreams without ever having to be a caretaker to someone else in the first place? When is it time for us to be selfish?
And when can Black women take care of themselves without having to view it as “selfish” (the negative connotation, not the positive one)?
I believe the “time” is always in the present. But, to do that, society has to collectively unlearn misogynoir, even in our homes. And, importantly, Black women must practice self-care and stop extending themselves as caretakers. As I've stated before, we must take care of ourselves before we even walk into a world that doesn’t appear to love or appreciate us—at least, not yet.
Cheryl L. Woods- Giscombe, Ph.D. Superwoman Schema: African American Women's Views on Stress, Strength, and Health.
Daniel Lafave. Extended Families and Child Well-being.
Eliza Anyangwe. Misogynoir: Where Racism and Sexism Meet.
Kara Manke, Ph.D. How the “Strong Black Woman” Identity Both Helps and Hurts.
Monica A. Coleman. Sacrifice, Surrogacy, and Salvation: Womanist Reflections on Motherhood and Work.
Philip A. Rosario, Ph.D. Familism Beliefs and Psychological Distress Among African American Women Caregivers.