The Trials and Tribulations of a “Strong Personality”

A strong personality is often admired in business, professional, personal and family relations. One is applauded for ‘keeping their head, when all others around are losing theirs”. There is no pride in being a wimpy child, a loose canon, or loose lips. Even as a parent, it is admirable to be strong for one’s child(ten) at all times to reassure them that “everything is gonna be alright”. Moreover, a mother is often expect to hold it down stronger than the father, as the key nurturer and builder of her children’s characters. So, we do not really have an ok to cry in front of our children (some psychologists might say otherwise), or go on a rant about our challenges and frustrations in marriage, parenting and relationships between co-parents. For the sake of our egos, even amidst torment and torture from life’s miseries or challenges, plenty of us often tend to keep a strong face to appear sane and happy. Thus the most common cliche, “I am fine, thank you” or “I am doing great, thanks”, even when one is dying inside. A strong personality is also a measure of good mental, psychological, emotional and personal health. What happens, then, when that “strong personality” is eating away at one’s heart, comfort, confidence and emotional stability?

strong personality

I am one of those [self-] identifying as having a strong personality, which I attribute to circumstances from my childhood that were not always beautiful and simplified. No! I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, even though I have tested food on ‘silver platters” many a times. I do not know if my strong personality has anything to do with the fact that I was the only child of my parents born outside my family home? Perhaps, maybe? But I know that as the second last child of my mother, I grew up observing the lifestyles and life choices of my older siblings, some of which I committed myself never to repeat. My family household was not all too beautiful, either, as do plenty of families I know with children from multiple maternal sources. Though I should add that, I grew up around family friends who got along so much easier than our family, without a glaring indication that they were from multiple mothers. I attribute this to their father, the source of the multiple mother, successfully ensuring that all children felt ‘equally’ loved and represented in the family.

Anyway, the other attribute that shaped my “strong personality” has to be growing up around children from very well-to-do or upper class families, while my family was pretty much “lower middle class”. The beauty about Uganda back then was that, one could afford to “rub shoulders with the rich and famous”, without coming from an upper class lifestyle. Children from peasant background made it to elite schools with children of the rich because of their good grades. Not exactly the same anymore, as money now dictates the kind of school one goes to, which are a strong determinant of one’s future life trajectories. Elite lifestyle is pretty much pre-determined for the rich, who can afford an ‘elite’ education from childhood, ultimately preparing their children for an elite higher education, and most certainly elite post-school employment.

Once again, the need for a “strong personality” seems more than necessary if anyone is to breakthrough the gutters to active belonging and participation in society. This implies that one has to withstand all sorts of humiliation, bullying, dirty talk and discrimination to become “a person”. To breakdown or cocoon under pressure and feeling of “a nobody” is not an option. In fact, it is a demand of “Survival for the fittest” in a cosmopolitizing global culture, as well as ‘successful’ parenting in mother-only households. A breakdown in front of one’s children is not a desirable option. In fact, sharing one’s frustration about an ‘absentee’ and disrespectful father with the children is scorned upon, lest they grow up damaged and not able to live normal lives in future. Even at job interviews and in personality tests, a strong personality is expected to reign supreme over any discomforts, trials and tribulations, which are considered ‘insignificant externalities’ in the pursuit of professional success. Moreover, it takes a strong personality to depart from ‘the established norm’, like women who revolutionized women’s dress code to include pants, and black people mainstreaming afro and natural hairstyles in white social and corporate culture. The introduction of non-white European cultural celebrations, foods, dresses, language, education, and languages in school systems of cosmopolitan settings  like New York, all demand a strong personality.

The question is who helps the helpers? Who helps the strong personalities when they need a little tender love, reassurance that everything is gonna be alright? When they have to put up with plenty of other beings who depend on their effort to remain strong? I was talking to a Muslim American woman the other day, who shared her discomfort that her husband was in the process of taking on another wife. Of course, she accepts that as part of her religious practices, and was well aware at marriage that time will tell. Though, acceptance of a norm is not agreeing to nor comfort with the practice. I could tell, she wished she did not have to welcome a “sister-wife” aka “Co-wife” into her marriage, but it is too late. She was born into this religion, and practices all its tenets sacrilegiously, including staying in a polygamous relationship. She has to put on her strong personality for the sake of her sanity, her family and her children. Yet, it is her strong personality that eats up her heart. Plus, she is a product of a double culture (may be more than a double); she is muslim and she is America. The latter preaches individual consent to a monogamous marriage, while the former involves family and religion in blessing the potentially polygamous marriage. I guess that same is true with African women who subscribe to polygamous family relations, not because they are happy ever after, but perhaps for the greater good. I have one such friend, and I have always thought I would be comfortable under such circumstances. Now I wonder! Perhaps it is not so easy and simple in practice. Perhaps my strong personality would fail me. For now, I believe that is pretty much all we got to hang onto and cherish for the sake of survival, acceptance and interaction within our social living. Over and above, a strong personality is what we need to get our next shelter, next meal and next paycheck; it is what is required of “belonging to society”.

Of course! You can be a Single Mom and Career Woman!

Photo on 3-23-14 at 10.33 #3I have heard the kind of talk that “you cannot be a single mom and a career woman”. To which I say, such are short of big dreams….! After all, a typical woman, married or not, typically raises child(ren) as a single mom while balancing more than one career. For clarity, I define a “single mom” herein as a mother predominantly in-charge of the major task of child rearing – carrying a fetus to full-term to delivery, caring for the newborn by nursing, clothing, feeding, bathing, aiding in growth milestones, and responding to all her child[ren]’s emotions and attachment, until the child[ren] is of age to be called an adult. I am still insist that unless one is devoid of own parents, siblings, daycare, nannies and babysitters, friends and school community, the notion of “single mom” is an oxymoron. But that is a battle for another time.

 
First off, motherhood is a career on its own; moreover the hardest job in the world! So, hats off to any woman who agrees to lose a part of self to spare time and effort toward this very worthy cause. As mothers, we should give credit to that career, by embracing and applauding out loud, rather than ‘conveniently forgetting’ to remind the world that we are working full-time, even when we are not in an ‘brick and mortar’ office outside our households. The challenge is that the main public face of a “career mother” is the feminist-mentality that most often equates “career” with holding  9-5hrs job, in a ‘brick and mortal’ outside the family house, and earning a monetary reward.
 
I recently read a statement from a female academic scholar who claimed that, “good mothering”, … when mothers stay at home to hug their children, cook for them, wash their clothes, works well only in households where there is another adult who works for an income outside the household. Otherwise, single female-run households daring to be “good mothers” are doomed into poverty and death. I immediately thought of how absurd and dangerous such a statement is! Especially coming from an academic, often given much credibility  as “über intelligent” by the public, that regards them as possessing higher levels of reasoning and capacity to supersede ordinary and extraordinary achievement. Moreover, women in academia typically overcome too many obstacles regarding family and societal expectations and labeling, the classroom environment, and support systems [or lack thereof] to achieve the highest honors and credentials of a PhD. By implication, impossible is nothing! Yet such pessimistic statements go against that thinking. 
 
Let me just say that, while I do not hold a PhD yet, I can fully attest that it is possible to be a single mothers or single-headed household and not wallow in poverty and death, as Ms. Academic lady says. Moreover, you can still be a career woman, and hug your kids at home, cook for them, give them a bath and tuck him into bed. As I have said, being a mother is already a career, and plenty of women around the world are already multitasking as “single-mothers-career-woman” married or not. 
 
Most women who get pregnant do not sit down and cease all active lifestyles. Instead, they carry the growing fetus while managing homes, working in the shambaas, growing food for the family, washing clothes, cooking food and carrying their load, and working in “brick and mortar” offices. We have encountered pregnant women carrying firewood and food on their heads, and those with little ones carrying children on their backs. Or mothers harvesting cotton, while carrying children on their backs. Mothers of multiple children cook, prepare meals and weed the gardens with children in their back. Even in academia, women walk back and forth classrooms as students, writing papers and conducting research, or teachers preparing lectures, grading exams, supervising dissertations, while attending to their children at home or carrying another pregnancy. The same applies to women working in the corporate sector, pregnant or with small children also catered for in the 24 hours each day.
 
I am not saying that any of these women are having it easy, nor can I claim with certainty that they are not. I do not know their circumstances. If I step into their shoes, I would imagine they deal with life on a day-to-day basis, while striving to fulfill their goals -short or long term. Perhaps they put off some dreams, and sacrifices personal wishes. That is what I do as a single mother with a child, trying to pursue a professional monetary rewarding career. Of course, I have had moments of shared motherhood for my son, with my mother, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, friends, my son’s teachers and a once upon a time baby sitter. When I made the choice  to have some “me time” -taking care of my professional, social or fitness and wellness life. 
 
Reading a piece by Kathy Caprino about Why It Is So Damaging To Tell Women They Can’t Have It All (And Why I am So Tired of Hearing It) in Forbes Online, July 4, 2014I love this piece! Particularly because, like Caprino, I hear so often from women of status, of privilege, of class, in a position of mentoring younger women or budding female leaders with the mantra that “trying to have it all comes at great pain and sacrifices.  It saddens me that this the “new breed of feminism”, highly likely to influence young female minds with the rhetoric that you have to choose either or, instead of letting people embrace the limitlessness of the sky…Life is not about 9-5, ‘corporate suit’ or ‘academic gown’ or ‘sitting in a brick and mortar’ outside the household establishment! It is about “lemons into lemonade”

 
I agree with Caprino that, “… to frame the entire discussion  –  and the way you view your life and your world – in this negative, limiting and pessimistic way sets us up to believe, “I can’t have everything I want in my life when I want it, and I’m doomed to fail.  So why try?” It also makes us think that there is some objective standard of “all” that we have to live up to.”
 
Life is about the choices you make and how you balance your choices. On my part, I have had to work around my son’s schedule, and traveled with him whenever I went. When he turned one, we went to another country and my day-time schedule allowed me to drop him off to day school and pick him up at the end of the day. The same happened until his fifth birthday. I refused to take on a nanny or baby sitter, preferring instead to put my son in pre-school, where he would interact with other kids of his age while at the same time learning. Yes, I was earning a living, and had a thriving professional and personal life. Those I engaged with professional knew that I had a young child came first in my life because I had sole responsibility for his welfare. They agreed to with my time schedule, and I made sure that I gave them a worthy return on the time they invested in me. I picked my son up from school, made him dinner, gave him a bath, read to him and tucked him into bed, woke him up in the morning for school, bathed him, fed him breakfast and drove him to school. I did not feel any pain or regret for doing any of that nor a loss of wages or career success. I also learned to trust my family to help out with my son when I was unavailable, especially during the long school holidays or when I was off with my running group when I shared motherhood with them. 
 
So, it is not so much that female-headed households cannot balance professional career and family welfare, it is about the kind of choices we take on. There are plenty of women whose careers involve working from home as virtual teachers, online and tele-communication women or run own businesses.  There are plenty of ways women can recreate themselves, even as single mothers/female-headed households, to afford a paying career and the luxury (yes it is so much now) or tucking their kids into bed, if that is something they would really love to do.  

Job Interviewing Taboos –

We have all been to a job interview. By the time you get there, you have done a little bit of research about the institution you are interviewing with. At the very basic, you know a lot about the job profile and requirements, whether it requires travel, and have an idea about its clientele. You are told it is taboo to ask about ‘compensation’, until the prospective employer brings up the topic. Even then, it is safer to bounce the question back to the employer, and let them tell to you how much worth they think of you. Another ‘silent taboo’ is talking about family life at a job interview. Perhaps, if you are a man, indicating  you are a family man during a job interview could present you fairly, as a good family man, who wants a career to afford a good life for his family.  More than likely, if you are a man, you are not expected to spend most of your life as CEO of Home Affairs. Even in ‘liberal’, women are the primarily child rearers and homemakers/ home managers. But how about if you are a woman and a mother?

I recently read an article, “US Foreign Policy Gender Gap” by Sarah Kendzior writing in Al Jazeera, that perception and money affect the number of women in senior level foreign affairs positions. According to Kendzior, perception is related to the assumption that women are particularly diplomatic, or empathetic, or kind, while money dictates that one should be able to afford their way around, especially when competing for an internship in the nation’s major international affairs hubs like New York or Washington. As well, one should afford to fly to interview with The Economist in London or take up an unpaid internship with the United Nations involving temporary relocation to expensive global cities.

What we learn is that while money affects male or female alike, very few ambitious and talented young professionals or students from poor backgrounds can afford these opportunities, even worse mothers with small children. Already, Anne-Marie Slaughter, writing for The Atlantic in summer 2012 told us “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, not because they are not super-ambitious but due to a lack of structural support to juggle family and work life.

But something these two writers did not mention was the “deafening silence” to the “Don’t Talk about family life when job interviewing Taboo”. Sure, we can liberally give the prospective employer our physical address, indicate that we are an email or phone call away to “further explore our job interests with the recruiter”, and are “available to start work immediately ”. But we are not exactly at liberty to talk about our family situation, although I have encountered men who ‘comfortably sneaked” in their family life during a job interview. My assumption is they do it because, it projects “a responsible family man”, who prioritizes his family obligations as central to his career success. But for a mother seeking paid employment, it is quite taboo talking about “family life” in a job interview.

Picture this, you are a single mother, with a toddler and would like to be in his life, while equally working a 9-5 job, the standard full-time work hours. I have no doubt that plenty of single parents have had to ask themselves these questions, and many have excelled at work. But I doubt any or many ever brought up their marital status and family life in their job interview, maybe until after the job was offered.

I have been living abroad for the last four years in three different countries, working excellently at my job, with a balanced family, work and “me” life, thanks to the flexibility of my scholarly research career. While living abroad, I scooped plenty of interviews, and job offers, even when I brought out my family status at the first interview. At one job interview, I stated upfront that I am was a single parent, and wished to balance “family, work and me life”, and asked for a flexible work schedule that would allow me drop off my son at school, and pick-up him up at the end of the school day, before the typical end of work day, and also take a personal day off each week. I got the job on my terms, with my son at the center, and with me as a single mother.

Now that I am back in the United States with a richer career experience, I am having trouble articulating “my three-tier life” to any prospective employer. In typical consultancy or NGO employment, plenty of work is done offsite of the employing office – we carry office work on our mobile phones, at home, on the plane and in coffee shops. And while we sign up for a 9-5, we usually put in more hours than we are paid. For one of my employers abroad, I had agreed to a 10:00a to 3:00p from Monday to Thursday work schedule. Yet, I arrived two hours earlier every work day, and also worked on some Fridays, my weekly day off. Whenever I went out to conduct field research and training of village communities away from my office and home base, I spent three days away from my son, without compensation for the nights-out for work.

So, why is it a taboo to ask a prospective employer to factor in the life of a single parent, trying to balance work-family-and-me life? I am aware that having an international career and a degree from a US university might have reflected favorably to my employers abroad, most of whom were in the international affairs realm. But I would like to be accorded similar consideration from employers in international affairs back here in the United States. Most probably though, employers in the US have in the back of their mind concern for, “who will take care of her child while she is at work”, especially when she has to travel to sites away from home? Similar concerns exist whether one is applying for international affairs positions, as a waitress at the local Red Lobster Restaurant, or as a Sales Associate at Walmart.

But all is not lost for single “family-centralist” mothers. As Sarah Kendzior says, for women, [and for single mothers [or single fathers] one has to recreate their professional ambitions, by perhaps becoming a writer or blogger. I know plenty of [single] mothers who have quit lavishly paying and professionally rewarding careers to go on their own and have afforded the ability to put their children’s central. Handy and artistic work is another option that single mothers could pursue. If you are into academia, there are possibilities of teaching, student counseling, or organizing summer camps and student internships abroad, with a flexible schedule. However, getting your footstep in the door is the first mighty step to take. Still, that might not come easily, by telling the prospective employer that – “I am a single mother and I have a five-year old”. That is still a Taboo to Job Interviewing! Image