My husband used to sigh a lot. He’d do it even when nothing was wrong. Sighs punctuated his sentences. He’d plop down with them, rise from his seat with them. He never noticed himself doing it, but I did. It became a point of contention in our house. Each time he sighed was like nails on the chalkboard of my soul — I felt a visceral need to get to the source of it.
“What’s wrong?” I’d always ask, immediately stressed.
I would try to get him to assign the sigh a cause and he would assert that it was meaningless and to ignore it. I could never let it go though. Because his sighs felt like soft accusations, made worse by the fact that I could not resolve an unspecified slight. His sighs signaled discontent, and I have been groomed by society to believe that his discontent is unwaveringly my responsibility. And so somewhere buried beyond my ability to transcend, every sigh felt like a declaration that I was disappointing him. And for many women, an accusation of being disappointing, no matter how soft, always feels like a threat of disposability.
My husband is not the only male in my life that I am afraid to disappoint. When I am out running errands, I will go blocks out of my way to avoid walking past a park in order to circumnavigate my son’s wailing disappointment at not getting to play. When I am overstimulated and exhausted and don’t want to be touched, I let him force his way into my lap so he won’t feel spurned. When my 10-month-old screams and squirms out of my husband’s arms demanding that I be the one to console him, I oblige his cries for me despite wanting to split the nurturing role. On some level, I am afraid that even my sons will dispose of me if I disappoint them. I am afraid that my boys will grow into men who won’t forgive me for my needs.
These fears are not irrational. There are very real implications in disappointing those privileged over oneself, and for Black women doubly so. Black women who disappoint societal standards are swiftly condemned, and often face severe repercussions. Black wives who prioritize personal needs are blamed for their husband’s transgressions. Black mothers who prioritize personal needs are seen as failing at the role. Black women who deviate from or reject the route of marriage and/or children are blamed for everything perceived to be wrong with “the Black community.” To be an LGBTQ Black woman is to be always in danger for not being what cishet men expect of them. And disappointed white women’s requests for the manager have cost many Black women their livelihood.
Women, in general, are conditioned to hinge our value and self-worth in how well we can please others, what we can provide for them, how well we take care of them — because our safety, our social status, our success in the world depends on it. We are even inundated with the message that our ability to please translates to some kind of power. Our culture says that women can control the world by wielding pleasure like a weapon. Songs and films and novels all uphold the archetype of the temptress using feminine wiles to manipulate men into fulfilling her wants and needs. But what happens when that woman can’t please anymore? What happens when her needs clash with her ability to perform? And how powerful are you if your power is stripped when you become undesirable, unliked?
How many unlikable men maintain their power? How many women?
And so when men express displeasure, many of us compensate. We remain on high alert for potential problems. We become so good at deterring disappointment, we anticipate needs before they have to be vocalized. We tidy messes before the messes are even made. Even this fixation is a disappointment to many men. Women are deemed neurotic, anxious, and uptight by men who only get to consider themselves easygoing because they’ve never reconciled their nature with the ways women shield them from discomfort. There are men kept so warm within the worlds women create that they forget that it’s winter, forget that generating warmth requires energy.
The other day after a very long day with my kids, I mustered the energy to clean. On my hands and knees, I picked up tiny pieces of hot pink play-dough, dozens of scattered toys. My son came behind me and undid it all within minutes. Something shifted in me.
“You saw that Mommy went through all that effort to keep the house clean, right?”
“Yes, Mommy, Mickey Mouse,” he said, his eyes on the TV. He wasn’t listening.
I got up and turned it off, and told him to pick up his toys. He threw himself to the ground in a tantrum, and I let him lay there until he was done. I decided his disappointment was his own problem to resolve.
The way to prevent raising sons who would dispose of me for disappointing them is not to never disappoint them. It’s to teach them to be comfortable with their own disappointment. To allow myself some humanity and make them responsible for navigating their feelings. I am doing myself, them, and other women a disservice in not doing so. In a world where men feel entitled to women’s bodies, time, and labor — it’s imperative to teach them otherwise. That requires a little disappointment on their end.
It is necessary to walk my son by the park and say “not now,” once in a while. It is necessary to stop apologizing to male strangers for having to endure my expression of disinterest. I have to stop obsessing when my husband sighs, when my sons tantrum, when I can’t perform.
If I want to make myself comfortable in my own life, I have to decide to not be deterred by the disappointment of others. Not doing so means being chronically disappointed in myself. I am teaching myself to let people down for my own sake, no matter their power. Because power over myself is the only power not contingent on others. Power over myself can’t be taken away, only relinquished.
An so be it if an unwillingness to relinquish that power renders me unlikable. Black women are almost always disliked when they put themselves first. If that’s who I have to be to move through the world like I own the right to exist, then it’s who I will be. I’ll be proud to leave disappointed legions in my wake.